By Sergio Martinez –mtltimes.ca
I admit having some misgivings about going on vacation to Varadero. I had been to Cuba a few times but never to that resort which I considered too “touristy” (“You’d find more Canadians than Cubans there,” a friend told me) but my wife loves a good beach so as a compromise I would take one day off in Havana, a charming city that I really love, and spend the rest of the time in the resort town. Things worked quite well though, Varadero proved to be a pleasant town, with a great beach and a surprisingly good gastronomy.
Things are changing in Cuba after the new economic policies announced some time ago by President Raul Castro: central planning is still in place with the aim of building a socialist society, a goal that was reiterated even after the historic announcement of the resumption of relations with the United States, however there is a noticeable presence of private economic activity as well, mainly in the restaurant business. Varadero and Havana have now plenty of new eateries owned by private entrepreneurs, most have evolved from the timid and humble beginnings as a neighbourhood’s “paladar,” the semi-legal improvised place located in a private home where tourists could taste some Cuban specialties cooked and served in a family setting. The move to legalize these establishments has been a good one: now these places can also be properly supervised for the quality and safety of their offerings, something that wasn’t possible when they operated in a kind of grey area.
While in Varadero I had the chance to try a good one, Pequeño Suarez (Little Suarez) on Calle 18 (18th St) between 2nd and 3rd Ave., but the state-owned restaurants still offer the best meals for the price you pay, my favourite ones were Lai Lai, an excellent Chinese restaurant on 1st Ave. and 18th St. and Bellamar, also on 1st Ave. by the beach and just in front of the Sunbeach Hotel and the Handcraft Fair. And certainly a sign of changing times, gay establishments are also making their appearance in a climate of increasing tolerance to sexual diversity, the privately-owned bar and restaurant La Vaca Rosada (The Pink Cow) on 20th St. near 1st Ave. is a testimony to that new attitude.
What effect this private commercial activity could have on the socialist consciousness of the Cuban people is—I suppose—a matter of debate among the island’s political leaders. I remember that when I first visited the island in 1981 hotels and restaurants were all managed as state enterprises, service was basic but still efficient, and tips to the staff were discouraged. Today practically every worker in the tourism business expects a tip and that of course has an effect on the kind of service you get. In Havana the restaurant business being even more competitive now features a typical element of capitalist cities: the ubiquitous guy who persistently tries to take tourists to a particular restaurant, even to the extreme of becoming obnoxious like the one who tried—unsuccessfully of course—to take me away from the traditional La Bodeguita del Medio to some new private restaurant he claimed it was better (it was like someone in Montreal trying to convince you to go for smoked meat to some upstart place instead of Schwartz’s).
Tourism has certainly been a mixed blessing for Cuba: on the one hand it has provided much needed hard currency to its finances seriously affected after the fall of the Soviet Union. On the other hand however, it has introduced some distortions to its economy particularly in terms of the relatively privileged position of tourism workers with respect to the rest of the population. It has also brought back social ills like prostitution, a practice in which even some well-educated people seem to engage (on that there was once the comment that Cuba had the best educated prostitutes in the whole world, unfortunately nobody hires a hooker to discuss Kant’s categorical imperative or the future findings in quantum mechanics, so still there is no much glory in that claim). Curiously enough though, I learned that tourism is not the main financial source for Cuba but its export of medical doctors and services to a variety of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, although sometimes that is made in exchange for goods as oil rather than actual currency. In the end then, the value of an investment in education over the glamour of tourism seems vindicated.
Now I’m back in what seems to be an endless winter but treasuring my memories of those days in Cuba and especially the recollections of a people who despite their daily difficulties mostly caused by the American embargo, are always ready to smile and sing. It is simply the joy of being Cuban.
Some actually showed apprehensions as whether once the embargo is lifted and Americans start coming in large numbers as tourists and probably as investors what their impact would be. However I am confident that that simple joy of being Cuban and the fact that Cubans also enjoy free education and health care won’t be changed for the “freedom” to eat the garbage that McDonald’s presents as food around the world and which Cuba has been fortunate to avoid so far.