Monday, 7 May 2012

Drunken Altruism

I love Cuba.

We’ve been there a lot.  We’ve done a lot of the “All-Inclusive” thing there.  I know I’ve slagged it as not being a truly cultural way to travel but it provides a reasonably priced way to get our feet on the ground and we’ve found many ways to enhance the experience.

Cuba is a really remarkable place.  It’s unbelievable to me that this little island country of 11 million has staved off that imperialist defender of democracy 90 miles to the north for over fifty years.  Regardless of your politics you’ve got to somehow admire this.  By no means do I extol the special little brand of Marxism that Fidel, Raoul and the boys have going on down there but I will always be a fan of the underdog and admire the tenacity of the little guy.

We were recently in Santa Lucia, Cuba.  Santa Lucia is on the Atlantic coast and is about 75 km from Camaguey, which is Cuba’s third largest city.

There’s something different about Santa Lucia.  It’s not like any of the typical resort areas in Cuba we’ve been to.  From an aesthetic perspective, other than the spectacular 20km of undeveloped beach, the rest of the area is flat, almost prairie-like scrub.  If Cuba were a capitalist nation, I would imagine the drive to be through miles of symmetrically ploughed and irrigated agri-business fields.  As it is Cuba, the landscape is occasionally dotted with a poor farm and the odd herd of emaciated cattle.

I think the thing is that this place provides great access to real Cuba.  There are a number of villages around the area that you can visit and meet Cuban’s that don’t live with the benefit of resort employment.  They are incredible humans with big hearts and smiles and every last one of them is in dire need.

We brought a truckload of stuff down with us to give away.  If you fly with Cubana Airlines (a Cuban run airline) remember they are very lax on weight restrictions when entering the country.  This will allow you to pack a suitcase or two (or even three or four) full of old clothes, shoes, over the counter medicine, tooth paste, toothbrushes, floss, soap, cosmetics, candy, baby products, toys, colouring books, crayons and just about anything else you can think of to distribute when you get down there.  That is of course assuming that the crazy Cuban flyboys can put the pressurized tin can on the ground in a single piece.

We stayed at a small resort, only one of four in the area.  It is really basic but the place has got an incredible vibe to it and it attracts people back, year after year. 

Talk about a paradox when you can eat and drink in paradise like it’s Spring Break in Lauderdale and balance off the excess by driving around the area giving stuff away like you’re Santa Claus.  I’m not sure if this is altruism or some perverse attempt at redeeming the guilt of being born into relative abundance.

What strange biological and physical tweak, had these people deposited here in the middle of paradise, politics and poverty and me in the coddled comfort of Eastern Ontario, Canada?

Maybe it’s a little contrived, this impersonation of Santa, but the warmth and emotion that the Cubans give in return for receiving is clear evidence of their overwhelming need for everything.  Many will not easily accept charity outright and quite often you will find some handicraft has been dropped off to you the next day.

So we decided to do some discovery work, to spend some time away from the resort to give away the majority of the goods we brought down.  You often hear that the resort staff is relatively affluent.  They do indeed have direct access to tourists and that can certainly act as a pipeline to material stuff, but we are a finite market and it’s extremely competitive getting to us, so they’re often left battling amongst themselves for goods.  We like to spread the meager wealth to as many people as we can.

Suzanne on a mission is a juggernaut.  She has a unique knack for finding what she’s looking for.  She’s an awesome resource for me.  I’m a relatively shy person but once the ice is broken, I can often overcome my social ambivalence, even occasionally appearing to be perfectly house broken.  Suzanne is totally the opposite.  She’s in a state of calm, ease and grace in any social situation and has little hesitation engaging people in real conversation.

So it was of little surprise when I came out of the bank after exchanging a few shekels early in our trip, that I would find her deep in conversation with a couple from Belleville, ON.  As it turns out these people come down to the area a number of times a year to help out on a project that their Pentecostal church has going.  Ah ha, I thought to myself, she’s done it again.  Who better to point us in the direction of humanitarian aid than the Christian zealot?

They recommended that we actually take one of the only day excursions in the area.  Back in the 1940’s some wealthy dude from California built a huge ranch in this area of Cuba.  Of course the ranch was assumed by the government after the revolution but has been kept operating.  This couple recommended that we tag along on the tour, as Vincente, the man who manages the ranch, also has access to a nearby village where we could distribute our stuff.

So a day or two later, we hopped on the bus to Rancho King.  The itinerary indicated that the ranch cowboys would entertain us.  First we would see a small rodeo demonstration, then a tour of some of the grounds, then the village and finally back to the ranch for lunch before boarding the bus back to Santa Lucia.  It sounded like a perfectly campy excursion.

It’s amazing what you find out about yourself when you’re least expecting it.  I think I had been to a rodeo or two at some point in my life but it had been a long time.  I felt fine as we walked up the stairs and sat in the small grandstand.  That was until the second the chute opened and a little calf ran out for its life with a cowboy on a horse bearing down on him.  As soon as the lariat went around his throat and the rope jerked his neck tight, I realized I don’t like the rodeo show anymore.  I stuck it out for one more calf but when I found myself loudly rooting for the calf, thought it best to just walk away.

I got up and wandered around.  Unfortunately I had the misfortune of bumping into a cowboy prepping the first bull for the bull riding competition.  You know when you see something happening and you’re unwittingly curious about what’s going on and you continue to watch until you’ve seen way more than you wanted?  Well…

I didn’t notice it until later but the cowboy had just finishing tying a rope taught around the bulls’ testicles.  When I looked over he was lashing the back and then the face of the bull with another rope.  It was then that I realized what was actually going on and I high-tailed it in another direction.  Later I happen to catch him poking the bull with a big stick just for good measure.

When we first sat down in the arena, Vincente gave us an introductory talk about the cowboys and what they would be doing.  He mentioned that the animals are well treated and that nothing is done to them that wouldn’t be at rodeos in Canada.  This may indeed be so, but I felt like asking Vincente how he would feel if I tied a rope around his nuts, whipped him in the face and poked him with a big stick.

As I had a bag full of goodies with me anyway, this gave me an opportunity to start playing Santa Claus early.  I walked around giving stuff away to the ranch workers while the rest continued to watch the animal torture show.

Mercifully the animal anguish was over before too long.  We then had a quick walk through their garden of medicinal plants.  It’s interesting that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government promoted the idea of individuals growing these plants to offset the subsequent lack of medication. Finally from there we moved onto the segment of the day that we had come for, the village.

It really feels good to be able to provide something to these people but in essence it’s really a sad thing.  These people gather at their gates in the hope that one of us will see fit to provide them with anything.  In fact there was a tug-of-war with one of my old t-shirts between a woman and an old man.   He lost and when I went to give him a consolation ball cap she nearly ripped it out of my hands.

We eventually gathered in the backyard of a woman’s house.  She grows a lot of her basic necessities.  She had banana, coffee, guava, orange, mango, sugarcane, pigs, and chickens, even a little tobacco to twist up some roll-your-owns.  We had some cane juice and coffee and then settled down while Vincente gave an impassioned talk.

He spoke of his dislike of the word poor when describing the Cuban people.  He preferred we use the word humble when describing their plight.  He said that although they lacked the material goods that we so easily take for granted, they never went to bed without something in their belly and with a full heart.  He spoke of the revolution and the ensuing blockade, clearly making the distinction for us that this is indeed a blockade and not an embargo.  He spoke about what his government provides and what it does not.  He said that they, like our government, are not perfect but that they continue to do their best given the circumstance.

Thankfully we had coffee and juice at the ready in an effort to keep our pie-holes shut.  Suzanne leaned over to me and questioned whether the political prisoners being held here would think that Fidel, Raoul and the merry pranksters, were doing the best they could for them.  Regardless of how romantic I tend to get, you can never really lose sight of the fact that communism is as obsolete and broken as any other socio-experiment presently underway.  An oligarchical system run without a competing voice is left way too wide open to corruption, and regardless of Vincente’s sugar coating, there is nothing humble about poverty.

Even the concept of free university education is deceiving.  Sure the education is free but without the time to work how do most students afford to eat or house themselves?

Call me a wide-eyed idealist but I’m pretty sure that the most basic of all human tenets is to be allowed to believe in whatever the hell you want.  There is something inherently wrong in incarcerating anyone strictly due to his or her opinion.  Our democracy may be run by a bunch of abhorrent fascist-monkeys and is well on its way to morphing into a two-class morass of capitalistic perversity but at least we can still go around calling our government fascist-monkeys.  Well…so far at least.

A number of the Cubans that we have spoken with are extremely blunt about their situation, their level of need and what they feel is their incarceration on the island.  Who knows what will ultimately happen politically in Cuba over the next few years but I’m guessing it will be a long time before anything gets sorted out that will improve the lives of the average Cuban. 

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