It seems like the Salsa, the Rhumba, the Son or the Tango all have conspired to form the invigorating music that is soaked in by anyone visiting Havana. The price tag in CUC (the Cuban Convertible Peso) as an equivalent for the US$ is happily traded in by all visitors and shelled out at any joint pelting out the pulsating magic called Cuban music. But it is not only the music, it is also the human(e) Cuban with his or her mysteriously deep eyes, gyrating hips and supple shoulders that lends support to the forlorn as well as the inexperienced looking for some spice or tang in their otherwise frosty or frothy lives. Tourists and business visitors alike make a beeline to the many bars and restaurants in Old Havana looking for an evening or a night of heart throbbing experience.
And, they do happily pay for the music!
I was staying at the Melia Habana in the Miramar area. On one side is the beautiful blue sea with hardly a speck bobbing on it. On the other is the 5th Avenue, home to the diplomatic corps from countries who need to and choose to do business with Cuba. Strewn around are the clubs and stately houses where business is hosted by the Cuban officialdom and representative offices of companies who have been allowed to facilitate business with Cuba for the controlled benefit of the country. This is where the happening people of Havana go for a jog, stroll their dogs and taxi off in the jarring jalopies from the pre-revolution days down the Malecon to spend an evening in exotic Old Havana. This is where the CUC is generated, a currency 25 times more powerful than the normal Cuban Pesos (non-convertible), the currency in which the normal Cuban citizen is paid by the state run establishments. This is where you may be paid in CUCs or the normal Pesos, but you can buy anything only in CUC. The fiscal logic is very simple; you wish to buy what the CUC can buy, better earn it from those who can afford to pay for the music!
Old Havana may well become the Riviera of the Caribbean again despite most of the pre-revolution buildings in dire need of resuscitation. Cigars, Rum, Mojitos and Daiquiris sell like hotcakes while bars, restaurants, dance clubs and hotels churn out the lovely Cuban music, most served by live performers. The brightly coloured Chevrolets, Plymouths, Buicks and dourly Ladas chug along the neatly maintained touristic thoroughfares between Miramar and Old Havana, powered by retrofitted diesel engines and gear boxes from China or Korea while a bevy of yellow Kias, Hyundai or Geely taxis wait patiently offering modern air-conditioned comfort at higher rates.
The streets are big and clean barring some deterioration in the non-touristic areas. But, the city looks at peace with the way it works. The govt. is not visible but appears to be doing its daily tasks. Tourism happens happily facilitated by the tropical climate, the hospitable nature of the Cuban people and the exotic nature of everything you see or experience. The people you come across smile, talk, sing and dance apparently oblivious of the puffy pomades or coiffure of the capitalist society. It seems like communism has succeeded in providing for the basic needs of everyone, particularly education, employment and healthcare. Cuba has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world. Despite tobacco being the hallmark of the Cuban ecosystem, people look healthy and adequately provided for. Education for all is ensured and so is healthcare. That sounds like socioeconomic Xanadu to many like me who have to bite or get licked by the conundrum called democratic capitalist society. Che Guevara did believe that democracy in capitalism can only be a pipe dream. He tried all along to smoke that pipe away!
Yes, Cubans cannot travel to other countries on vacations; who needs that with their own beautiful beaches and wonderful music all around. They cannot send their children for education to the US; who needs that when education till high school is mandatory and University education is ensured. They cannot watch CNN; most in the democratic world don’t watch voluntarily. They exported guerilla forces to support revolutions in other countries; and continue to export doctors to poorer countries for the treatment of mass diseases. They do not have hi-speed internet for the common man; but they develop and export technologies for mass production of monoclonal antibodies. They did not send anybody to space or Mars – but most of the capitalist world is yet to!
Yet, they need das capital to restore the mansions from the colonial era. They have even decided to shift the Havana port 50 Kms west to Mariel in order to build up the seafront as a touristic boulevard with all that Havana was known for before the revolution. It was said, ‘there was nothing that money could not buy in Havana in those days’. They need more and more of all that afflicts the economically developed world. The youngsters want more and care less for what Fidel has been able to provide for the masses. Their parents know what they got – education, healthcare, self-respect for all, irrespective of colour or status. But their children want to have what others have; isn’t that natural? The parents saw the country get rid of a tyrannical despot nurtured by capitalism – their children want to taste the luxury of passion and fashion. Is’nt that just normal?
The metal face of Che and the statue of the father of Cuban revolution, Jose Marti adorn the Revolution Square where Fidel used to address thousands till some years back. Today, nobody is there to pick up the mike and mesmerize the crowds. Consumerism and Che were not twains that could ever meet. Probably he sensed the days of capitalism will return with the Spanish fly of consumerism to gnaw at the societal and cultural guts. He exiled himself from Cuba when he was at the peak of a political career. He was heading the National bank, the Army and was even the top diplomat that brought Cuba and Fidel to the world stage. Only a saint can detach himself from such pinnacles of power.
He left Cuba in 1965 to die as a revolutionary in 1967 at the hands of US trained Bolivian rangers. Che was a revolutionary and died as one. Fidel was a politician turned revolutionary. Later in life, he probably wanted to be a statesman. He always wanted to get his country rid of American colonialism and his politics stood steadfast against imperialism. Che was his biggest weapon, but of not much use when revolution was not any more required. But, Fidel was an intellectual purist who managed to not become just a politician. Wouldn’t we wish for such statesmen in our democracies that are more like a conglomerate of watered down Batistan empires?
The price that the Americano capitalists paid for the Cuban revolution could be nothing as compared to what the Cubans may have to pay when the likes of Castro breathe their last. That could be a heavy price but paid in instalments over years. Like the frog that does not jump out of a bowl of water that is slowly getting heated, we in the democracies keep paying the price of capitalism without being that conscious of it.
At the end, who pays for the music? Who knows? Depends upon what music you like in your tiny lifetime!