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To Cienfuegos

Next Stop on the Cuban Tour, Cienfuegos, 26 February 1998
We travel by tourist bus to Cienfeugos, learn a bit about Cuban agriculture, about Castro’s vision for being on the receiving end of aid, about prisons, and about school lessons. Also we watch a synchronised swimming display over a beer.
Down next morning to our self-service breakfast. Today we are going to Cienfuegos. Self-service seems to be the thing in Cuban hotels, and it works; the bishop can have his eggs and bacon and we can eat cold meats and cheese. Dinner, too, is self-service.
But what do the Cubans eat? Our guide tells us they like pork best, and fried banana or plantain. During the time of Soviet influence it seems that Cuba became a great Russian sugar plantation, a cash-crop society. Food is rationed in Cuba, everyone has a ration card. Currently eggs and milk are in short supply because with the collapse in trade with Russia there is no grain to feed the chickens and no proper feed for the cattle. We saw a number of battery-hen sheds, open to the outside, but with no chickens in. No shortage of eggs or milk for the tourists of course.
In Havana yesterday we wandered through a fruit, veg and meat market, rather African in style, with each stall selling a good range of real-looking vegetables. This was one of the new ‘free markets’ where people buy things off-ration. people were buying, very carefully, squeezing every tomato, turning over every piece of meat. Presumably it is quite expensive. We are quoted a price in dollars for something but who knows how comparable this was? Now, we are told, Cuba is growing all its own garlic, tomatoes, onions etc. Did they not grow them before, or did they just not get any? We don’t know. Our guide is not free with his information, except what he wants to tell us.
Our bus drives out of Havana, past the unused stadium again, we are first on our way to Hemingway’s house
As with all things, along with the dull, something interesting may be found if you look hard enough. In the house/museum’s bookshop I find a book in English on Castro’s view of the economy and ecology of developing nations and, what do you know, he believes that the developing countries are being prevented from acquiring the technology they need to make a sustainable, ecologically-sound economy by the proprietorial interests of a capitalist few in the developed countries. The developed nations should share their technology, by which it seems he means machinery rather than expertise, with the underdeveloped ones. Sounds just like Africa, viz our Malawi trip. Did Castro invent this line? The book was written in 1992.
Back into the bus, at the allotted time, but earlier than the guide wants to go, so we wait.
Along the Cuban motorway with the old American cars, presumably acquired from the rich at the time of the revolution. Polluting Russian trucks, just about struggling along, and Ladas and Moskvitches, plus a few Citroëns and Toyotas, fairly new. Along the road, people flag down vehicles for a lift. At certain points policemen in special yellow uniforms ensure that cars stop and lifts are given t’s the law that people with space in their cars give others a lift. Every bus, every truck, every car except the military ones, is full of people. Our air-conditioned bus travels along with most of its seats empty, while we gaze out of the window.
Fields of sugar cane, some cattle. A very flat land. No real poverty to be seen, everyone is equally not very well off, living in a simple house, with electricity it seems, but no evidence of squalor.
We come to the orange-trees area, the area where they grow lots of oranges. Miles and miles of neatly-tended orange and grapefruit trees. Where do they export all this fruit to? We hear that the citrus fruits are a relatively new diversification for the country. Certainly there are plenty of oranges in the hotels and restaurants. And plenty on the ground below the trees. Are all these oranges eaten or exported? In 2002, a publication with the rather evocative name of the ‘Frozen Food Digest’ (eek!) was reported in All Business (‘a D&B company’ – Dung and Badfeet?) as saying: ‘fresh and processed citrus contribute about 8% of Cuba’s agricultural export earnings. Cuba is the world’s third largest grapefruit producer, after the U.S. and Israel . . . Over half the oranges and about 90% of the grapefruit are processed (primarily for juice) . . . Shipments currently go to the former USSR and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COME-CON or CMEA) Eastern European countries, although some shipments have recently moved into Western Europe and Japan. Much of this latter trade has been in processed citrus products. In European markets, Cuba faces tough competition from Israel and Spain on both quality and transportation cost grounds, particularly for fresh oranges.’ So now we know. Sort of.
We turn off the road towards a sugar mill called Australia, where Castro had a headquarters of some kind at some time, and into a tourist shop. The steam trains of the sugar plantation are whistling and sending clouds of black smoke into the air, though we cannot see the trains themselves. The guide says he sometimes escorts parties of Britsh rail enthusiasts who photograph every train and note down its precise time of appearing and disappearing again. He is rather incredulous at this.
It seems we are expected to have lunch here. Our guide takes the orders: pork, chicken, or a ham and cheese sandwich. We start with pina coladas in the bar. Whisked coconut milk with pineapple juice, some rum, poured over a drop of grenadine. Two spoonfuls of sugar in the coconut milk.
We ask the guide what happens when Castro dies. I dunno, he says, nobody knows. Everyone knows, really, the place reverts to a Batista colony, with casinos, hotels, mucho dollars, and presumably the big American fruit companies moving in to take over the plantations.
The system currently is that every worker, including our guide, is required to spend fifteen days each year working on the land. That has surely got to go as the fruit companies will not want to subsidise what in effect must be a holiday for everyone who isn’t an agricultural worker. It’s a noble idea but must be an enormously expensive system.
We drink our pina coladas and eat our lunch of pork fillet or chicken leg with ‘Moorish and Christians’ as our guide calls it, and some potato. (The moorish may be a Freudian slip by the guide, less so for us).
We talk to two of our fellow travellers, Londoners of Polish extraction, a jolly solicitor from Sidcup and his wife.
Then back in the bus, down the motorway through the sugar plantations, then turn right onto a smaller road. Three towns on this road our guide tells us as we overtake smoking trucks laden with people, or with timber that seems to be not fastened on too well so that the truck loses bits along the road.
We come across a machine that is cutting sugar cane. The driver stops the bus and we are entreated to get out and watch. It’s an old machine and rather clanky, but the guide is obviously rather proud of it, or perhaps more likely he wanted to stop for a smoke (he doesn’t smoke in the bus, mercifully, probably understanding that to do so would severly restrict the size of his tip at the end). We dutifully watch the workers on the farm, they do not seem to mind this at all.
Back in the bus, along the road past ranchero type chaps on horses, and dressed in ranchero hats.
We pass a town next to which a river has been dammed. This is now a rice growing area. Since Castro decided that being a sugar field for the Soviet Union was a tactical mistake, he seems to have decreed that Cuba should grow everything and that’s about what it is doing. Cubans here up to their ankles in mud, planting rice.
The next town has three prisons. A first offenders, a high-security, and a women’s prison. Our guide tells us that people in prison are given education and rehabilitation, without being too specific about what that means, however he does suggest that the aim is to get them back into society as reformed characters. He tells us that Cuba has the death penalty by firing squad for high treason and murder where the case is a high-profile one. The irony of this does not seem to occur to him but then in a state where the press is essentially a government propaganda outlet it follows that a high-profile case will be the most severely punished, as the profile will in effect be a preliminary to the punishment, so justifying it on behalf of the authorities. Most of the prisoners, we are told, are inside for forgery. This sounds a possibility in a land of ration cards.
Then into Cienfuegos. Factory chimneys pouring black smoke into the air. Cuba has an oil problem, though currently gets a fair amount from Iraq, but the fires have to burn anything to hand, including sugar cane waste.
We pull up in the main square, where the buildings are all painted up and looking smart, the facades at least. Our guide tells us that this has something to do with Cienfuegos being the location of Cuba’s paint factory, but we notice a Vatican flag flying on one of the buildings so perhaps the Pope came here. Our guide says the check-in time at the hotel is 4pm and it’s now ten past, so we should spend a little time here before we go to the hotel.
We stand in the square and watch some children in mustard yellow uniforms; middle school, being given military style drill by an instructor, though somewhat chaotically. They are being watched by the primary school children, standing around in straggly groups in their red uniforms.
On some park benches, a book lesson starts, though doesn’t seem to last long. Only the teacher has a book and the yellow shirts find it hard to concentrate with the red shirts looking over their shoulder.
We take a walk down the pedestrianised shopping street, and we look in windows where they are selling Pope-meets-Fidel-Castro T-shirts. Some of the dark, grimy, haberdashery shops, plus some more westernised ones with their prices in dollars.
Back in the bus and down the peninsula to our hotel where. our guide inform us, we should get into dinner early as the place is full of French people and they eat everything in sight. This doesn’t sound like the French, but we find that it is true, the hotel is used as a package destination for poorer French families; our Caribbean holiday at low cost. The hotel lobbies are like a Jacques Tati film.
We go down to the bar before dinner and meet the bishop and his friends. All very jolly, we join two tables together and eat our dinner as a sevensome; sette personas, getting in before the French.
Not a very good dinner, self-service; rice, potatoes, chicken, pork, fish and a kind of beef stew. With beers all round we’re still chatting when the synchronised swimming display begins in the pool, so we move over with more beers to watch it. All a bit amateur, with dancing on the poolside and swimming with lifting-up-the-girls acrobatics. Quite a few people drift away but we stay until then end, when the girls come to the audience to dance with any men who would participate, and the boys too with any women would would agree. It seems that dancing with the audience is the done thing in Cuba.
The final act involved a girl wearing a hat, the purpose of which now becomes clear as she brings it round for dollars.
The story continues with Of Horse Buses and Paladars.


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