Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

What would Che say?

Whether you consider Che Guevara to be a revolutionary freedom fighter hero or a terrorist villain, I think most would have to accept that he genuinely believed in the communist ideals that he fought - and in the end died - for.

So what would he think of Cuba now?

In his day, communism had a couple of mighty super states, but Russia and China have long ago embraced the unevenly distributed wealth of capitalism, and there now are few places that can genuinely claim to be communist. Can Cuba?
Well it is still a very state led country, and there are certainly still a lot of elements of communism that are going strong. Many people live in homes owned and provided by the state. Of course lots are in a terrible state of repair. A recent documentary that we saw suggested that people can wait over fifteen years for repairs to be done. And it is difficult to do your own maintenance or improvements because the materials and services are controlled by the government so not only are the items expensive to get privately, but if you are caught having made improvements that you can't show were approved and how you paid for them, then the work can be demolished.
The Government issues ration books which you can take to a State run store for free food staples such as bread, sugar, oil, and matches. These stores also sell other foods cheaply, but they are not the best quality goods and choice is very limited. People who can afford to, supplement their shopping elsewhere where prices are a little higher but there is more available.
As for work, you will be given a job to do for the State with an average wage of around £15 month. The doctors here may be well trained, but they still don't get paid much.
Internet access is highly constrained and there have been significant blocks on trading with capitalist countries, which severely limits the flow of consumer goods into Cuba, hence the abundance of worn out old Cadillacs and the old fashioned or handmade furnishings. And as a matter of principal, Castro has never cashed any of the cheques that the US pay for their lease on the Guantanamo Bay area
So that all sounds very communist so far. Even down to them having high levels of incompetence and corruption amongst their public workers - because after all, if you have a guaranteed job, and you all earn the same, where is the incentive to be efficient? Sadly, the communist ideal of fairness and equality sounds good, but in reality most people only strive when they can achieve something beneficial to them, which communism just doesn't give you.
And no country can sustain inefficiency. In the heydays of communism, Cuba's big communist brother the Soviet Union used to help out by buying entire crops of sugar at inflated prices. But when newly capitalist Russia stopped doing that, Cuba's economy hit trouble.
So Cuba embraced tourism; let a lot of wealthy people from capitalist countries come and spend their money in government owned and run hotels, restaurants and tour companies. Give them their own currency and keep them apart from the locals, partly so they don't know how much more they pay for the same things, and partly to stop the locals getting capitalist ideas.
Alongside the export of rum and cigars, the influx of tourism meant that capitalism was helping keep communist Cuba afloat.
But more was needed, so gradually Castro started allowing people to apply for licenses to work independently on a list of approved work areas. So people were starting to work for themselves, paying taxes to the State but still making more than people around them. The documentary we saw showed a man who was a fully trained doctor earning more money in the street from buying and selling sinks, piping and whatever else he could lay his hands on.
Many of the new self employed work in the tourist areas. They run the Casas Particulares, have small restaurants, drive taxis and bici-taxis, or sell souvenirs. These people not only don't have the wage restrictions of state workers, but they also have regular contact with we tourists. They can charge us more, get tips from us, and get access to the more valuable tourist currency. So they are making much more than those working for the state.
In a population of just over eleven million, there are already over 400,000 people licensed to work privately. Doubtless many more are doing things like driving a 'taxi' in their spare time to earn extra. And the people who are on their £15 a month resent this. They see these newly richer people with their newer cars, nicer housing, and electrical goods, and they want it too.
Does this sound like communism - or does it ring bells for those of us from capitalist countries? We certainly felt that Cuba had gone too far down the path of capitalism to turn back, not that it could afford to anyway, and now it is only a matter of time before communist Cuba is a thing of the past.
So Che could be forgiven if, were he alive, he were feeling a bit aggrieved.
But if this rise of capitalist style wealth for some was not bad enough, then look at the blatant commercialism of his own name in Santa Clara. If you read the Santa Clara blogposts then you know the link already, but everywhere you go people are trying to make money from the connection.
Che t-shirts, Che books, Che postcards, Che hats, Che lighters, Che light shades, Che jewellery, Che sweets, Che just about anything you could ask for!  In the streets people are selling coins and banknotes that had a picture of Che, or his signature from when he was the treasurer after the revolution.  And even if people aren't selling Che, they are using the tourism that he generates to beg for money or soaps.
Surely Che must be turning in his beautiful mausoleum.

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