The fact that Cuba is a communist dictatorship where people live in limited conditions is widely known. Many Cuban people emigrated to United Estates and many others to Europe – mainly Spain as we share the same language. Five different people are able to talk about the way they lived and their impressions of a great country for a few, and a very repressed for the majority.
Sanchez works at Buena Vista, the famous Cuban restaurant in Clapham, London. I interview him behind a massive Che Guevara flag. He dislikes Cuba, as it has disappointed him for life. Long before, he was an activist for Cuban rights. This 42 year old man shares his experiences about the situation Cuban people were living back at home and tells me with passion his fight against the system.
Proudly, he tells me: ‘when I was young we always talked about politics in my house. Then I grew up and I went to Florida for work. I started to make friends with other Cuban people who liked politics and they were not allowed to come back to Cuba. They were frustrated. So I asked myself what I could do for Cuba, or what I wanted to do with my life. The repression that we live in Cuba led me to the idea of fighting against the system from the outside as I was in a hurry to leave. I wanted to help reconstructing the country I was born in, but the only way was by coming back, so I did’.
One of the reasons he wanted to change things came from the time his parents started renting a flat to tourists, but they experienced some kind of totalitarianism: The couple were not allowed to make money out of their flat, and they got threatened. Someone came to their home and told them they would lose their flat and their license if they carried on renting it. The authorities were trying to cut down their extra income. Dictatorship and Totalitarianism are not the same, he explains, and when there is totalitarianism the government controls every aspect and element of your life. ‘They didn’t let us have our own income. We were seen as potential creators of a capitalist project that would defy the government’s ideology and would spread the word of a better lifestyle that had nothing to do with humble communism’.
The government analyses every single threat. To say that Cuban people are able to generate their own means in order to contribute to a change, as the government preaches is an utter lie, he explains with nostalgically.
As a tourist, the impression I got when I went there is very different. At the luxury hotel in Varadero I could see people smiling all the time, very friendly and so kind. But I guess nobody wants to speak about the life they are living, they seem scared to do so or to criticise the government.
Then I wonder what kinds of consequences exist for those people fighting against the regime, so I ask him. ‘Well, we’d been threatened many times’. He looks uncomfortable and I know I shouldn’t ask him anymore. I’m thirsty for more information so I go ahead. He briefly tells me an intruder got into his political group and he was very conflictive – he was sent from the government in order to have an excuse to shut them down. Some of his mates went to prison for a few days. I ask him about the personal threats again. But instead of a diverged answer I get the one I didn’t want: ‘I don’t talk about it, sorry’ so I apologise as well and I proceed to my next question: ‘Is there political parties in Cuba or are they all gone?’ He seems more comfortable with my question now so he answers in a more relaxed way.
Mr Sanchez tells me that there are political parties but they are hidden as they are not legally recognised or even allowed. It’s difficult to make politics when there isn’t a base to what you’re doing or who you are, he says. The regime is in charge of dissolving any kind of political association that goes against them. ‘It was very effective in my case. We just stopped and moved on’. Unable to fight for Cuban people’s rights, Sanchez moved to Spain where he lived until the economical crisis hit the country back in 2008.
But as Mr Sanchez said to me, not everyone wants to fight Castro’s dictatorship and some of them simply left to improve their lives when they felt oppressed. Vilma Castro, a shop assistant at Ladbrokes, tells me her experience: ‘I left Cuba after I finished my degree. The government forces you to work for them doing some placements for two years all over the country, wherever they need you, and during that time you have no freedom at all, so I felt overwhelmed and when I got a job offer I simply left’.
Vilma, a happy and kind-hearted woman has always belonged to the Communist affiliation. She was never against the government’s politics as her parents had good salaries when she was young. She didn’t feel the crisis. ‘I only left Cuba because I wanted to have a good job really’. Mrs Castro emigrated to Spain and a few years after she got the citizenship, which allows her to come back to Cuba at any time. Cuba is not in a good situation at the moment. There is no freedom or democracy, things any country need in order to prosper, she tells me. But she still wants to come back at some point. ‘My generation decided to leave as a way to protest against the lack of freedom’.
Until now, all the people I’ve interviewed agreed on one thing: The problem is Fidel Castro. Apparently everyone on the streets talk about it in Cuba. People know that the responsible for the situation Cuban people are living is that elite on the power that Castro allows who are accumulating luxuries. They all live very different lives from the normal Cuban citizen.
Microbusinesses also get restrictions at the frontier, so businesses are very limited. Also, many Cuban people have a better life because they get family in the United Estates sending them medicines or money. They also get new technology that otherwise would be very difficult to get, as a normal shipment can take months to arrive and pass all the controls to the island.
Luis Manuel Álvarez is only visiting London for Christmas holidays. This tourist lives in Santiago de Cuba and has a very different opinion. He tells me Cuba is a very safe country and there is not much crime or homeless people, which I agree with. Cuba is the only country in the world where there is not child malnutrition. There are social services and everyone has a house where to live. Many people are satisfied with the National Health Service as it’s free and we have very prepared and competent doctors. ‘Our doctors are pioneers in investigation, the government invests a lot of money in health, we have one of the best medical systems in the world, but not many people know that. It’s not all misery, but the USA and Europe portraits it like that as they are scared of communism so they are constantly making bad publicity against my country’.
Álvarez tells me his big fear of becoming like Mexico, where the mafia controls the estate. From his point of view, around his circle in they feel they are under risk of becoming an authoritarian country supported by the rest of Latin America. ‘What I wouldn’t like is to evolve into a system in which the government in charge leaves their power to allies or family and we end up with an authoritarian capitalism regime for the next 30 years. The final result would be ending up like Mexico, and mafias would be created, organised crime would take over control, there would be drug traffic, human traffic… Actually human traffic already exists through the cartel group Los Zetas, which take people from Cuba to the Mexican coast to cross the frontier’.
When I share my experience as a tourist in Cuba back in 2013, Yoel Perez shares his thoughts. He’s a Cuban musician currently living in London and playing a few times a week at a Cuban restaurant in Camden Town. Between cocktails and laughs he tells me how everyone talks about politics but not many people will open themselves to tell what it really is to live there. People in Cuba compare their lives to TV shows from the USA and Europe and feel embarrassed because of the conditions. Compared to western countries, where they get their references from, their lives seem so much limited and simple.
‘People won’t tell you that they don’t have Internet at home, or that is really slow and you only get to use it a couple of times a week at universities, but mainly because the are used to it and for them is not a shocking thing, is just different cultures’.
In Cuba everything is under control, the government works really hard to make sure what you’re looking online is safe as well. He believes police work blindly for the government and if there were a revolution they wouldn’t doubt to go against people. Police are a mechanism of control. They won’t inspire safety, he says. Many people in Cuba are afraid of a change because they know what the government is like, they don’t like it but they are used to it. ‘What many people seem to think is that if we change we are going to get a right wing dictatorship which would be even worse, or that’s what they think anyway’.
In order to leave the country you have to apply to a permission to leave that you might get or you might not. Some people are denied it and cannot leave the country if the authorities think the person wants to emigrate or might go against them. With that excuse a wide percentage of people get their visa denied. For short holidays it is really difficult to get one, although if you are visiting family that leave abroad you are entitled to leave the country up to 6 months. If you do not return before the deadline you lose your right to come back, as the authorities see this as civil disobedience and you become a ‘risky person’.
Sagrario López is a Spanish woman who married a Cuban man and the inspiration of this article. She told me long ago how her family in law managed to get out of Cuba and emigrate to Florida. Around twenty years ago, fourteen people crossed the 94 miles of sea that separate United Estates and Miami by using a raft. Many other Cuban dissidents before them have tried, but many others have lost their lives at the sea.
This family faced a storm as they were approaching Miami’s coasts. It ended up with the lives of three of them. On the raft, there was a baby that miraculously survived the storm. It was dragged to the coast and appeared a few hours after on a beach. The survivors managed to swim to the nearest land. They had lost the raft and the baby on it. They still today cannot explain how the baby was dragged to the beach alive, but fishers in the area said they saw dolphins dragging a rough raft onto the beach.
The desperation that many Cuban people must have felt to risk their lives like that is enormous, and although some people live a good life in Cuba, the impression I get is that the lack of freedom and frustration they have to cope with is sometimes insufferable. The majority of the people interviewed for this article are opponents to Castro’s politics, and only people who are allowed to have money do actually enjoy the regime, as they are not affected by the cuts on basic means, but the percentage of this people is minimal. When I went to Cuba I only got one person, a taxi driver in Havana who wanted to talk about the real situation they were having there, and he told me how low on means they are, as in to hitch-hike to work every day because buses don’t run that often. Sadly, and as surprising as this seems, it is actually a very common practice in Havana and other big cities. We will have to wait and see what happens after Castro; hopefully this beautiful country will experience an enormous social and political change that leads into freedom and equality for its good people.