Cuba Libre

In a nation where people barely eke out an existence, the pandemic has dealt a devastating blow. Things have become so desperate, that something unusual and extraordinary happened in July. People across Cuba poured in to the streets to protest. Their living conditions had become untenable.

In a country known for repressive crackdowns on dissent, the rallies were widely viewed as astonishing. It was the first time that so many people had openly protested against the communist regime since the so-called Maleconazo uprising, which exploded in the summer of 1994 into a huge wave of Cubans leaving the country by sea, headed for Miami.

La Habana was home to me for two weeks in the summer of 2018.

In 2019, Cuba celebrated 60 years since Fidel Castro Ruz along with Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos overthrew the corrupt US supported Fulgencio Batista government in an armed revolution whose lore has defined everything in Cuba.

Everywhere I traveled across this land, banners, stencils on walls and murals reminded you of that “glorious” day.

The communist regime that was setup after Fidel Castro assumed power, is still intact and in control. Though the Castro family does not directly hold power anymore, the person they left in charge promises to uphold the revolution and all that it stands for.

Cuba’s defiance of America, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the continuing economic embargo and the numerous plots to overthrow the regime are celebrated as the greatest accomplishment of the revolution.

There is a whole museum in Havana dedicated to the revolution called the Museo De La Revolucion. It tells the story of the struggle in massive displays of faded photographs and artifacts.

It spins a narrative of how the CIA plotted to subjugate its people by poisoning their livestock, infecting their tobacco fields, murdering Che, downing one of their airplanes in 1976 and plotting to assassinate Fidel Castro 600 times.

There is no doubt that successive American governments since Castro took power have tried to dislodge him and failed time and again. Therefore the Cuban people do feel a sense of pride in standing tall, even though deep down many know, that the reason for their misery is not America alone.

As you would expect, the museum conveniently omits that which does not serve the myth that bolsters the regime.

It is quite otherworldly to imagine that a three-hour flight from New York can land you in a place so suspended.

Florida is just 103 miles of the coast of Cuba, but the only thing American here are some TV shows and the cars from the 1950s, which have become emblematic of this city and country. They are the Gondolas of Havana and are used as taxis for the public and pleasure rides for the tourists.

Cubans get daily free rations from government run depots. A display on a wall announces what’s available for the day. I saw very basic necessities like eggs, rice, lentils, cooking oil being distributed to people showing up with government issued ration cards. The store was as sparse as can be.

The pharmacies which hand out free medications and other items are barely stocked.

For a poor country, Cuba’s free national health system is something to emulate and the development of their own Covid vaccine is remarkable.

While Cubans have resigned to a meager existence with grace, humility and a smile, there is a beaten down sadness you cannot touch but can see from a distance. With a determination on their face and music in their soul, Cubans go about their business of living with little protest.

Waiting for hours at bus stops, getting in line early morning outside banks, going to a public park to access internet, shopping at scarce markets, unreliable cellphone networks and trying to find cover from the afternoon sun and thundershowers when umbrellas are a thing of luxury, are just a few discomforts Cubans contend with everyday. The pandemic exacerbated the daily grind beyond the pale.

People are free spirited here no doubt. They smile, dance and play drums like nowhere else in the world; their culture is an exquisite amalgamation of European and African influences and their history is older than that of North America.

At the nightclubs people party late into the night, but Cubans are not free to speak their mind. Politics is something they are not allowed to engage in. There are government spies they constantly need to be weary of.

Dissidents are jailed and there are limits to what you can and cannot say. There is no free press. The state controls every aspect of one’s life. While some private ownership has been allowed in recent years, the regime’s hold on everything is as firm as ever.

The Internet is regulated by the state by allowing access an hour at a time via scratch cards that allow Wifi access only at hotspots in public parks, upscale hotels and some houses. The eight channels of commercial free TV, only show what the regime wants you to see. As to be expected, the extreme state control has spawned a black market for everything.

So when the protesters came out on to the streets, as expected the response from the regime was brutal and immediate.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba’s economy went into free fall, as it was completely reliant on Russia for aid. Fidel Castro declared that Cuba was entering a “Special period in the time of peace” or known as Periodo Especial.

Drastic austerity measures were put into place. It is said people lost a third of their body weight during this time, which lasted four years during which many Cubans deserted their country. Not since then has the situation been as dire and desperate as is it is today.

A real glimpse into what Cuban life for the ordinary people is like, was given to me by my gracious companion and driver Julio. He used to be a radiologist at a government hospital, but decided he could make a better living driving a taxi for tourists.

When I asked Julio what people make of the daily dose of nationalist propaganda on TV and elsewhere, especially the younger generation, he replied, “No one cares. Everyone just survives here. We live under the boot of the regime. They decide when to press hard or when to release”. When I asked what his young adult boys felt, he responded, “Given a chance they would leave Cuba.” He followed that sentiment by saying, “but things are going to change very soon. They have to. And the young people will have many opportunities, if only they could see it coming, rather than give up.”

As a tourist most places seem more romantic than they are. As the struggle of daily life is not your concern, you only focus on that which is quaint and beautiful. Meeting people, you barely scratch the surface of the daily grind. But you do get a sense of the possibilities and an understanding of that which is alive and that which has been lost.

Much like his many friends Julio probably had a chance to leave Cuba, but decided to stay. I could not tell if he regretted that decision, but he never expressed any deep resentment, just a resignation that is all too familiar here.

I wonder what he might be thinking today.

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Anand Kamalakar

Anand Kamalakar

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Anand Kamalakar is a Brooklyn based documentary film director, producer and editor. His latest film SALAM can now be seen on Netflix.