A tourist view of Havana from the roof of the Saratoga hotel
Nice coincidence. I am posting my letter to Raul Castro the day the Royal Ballet begins dancing in Havana. UK media applauds ‘a new cultural exchange’ with Cuba while I finally get round to supporting the PEN campaign for a different cultural exchange.
English PEN asks us to urge Raul to release 22 writers, journalists and librarians detained since March 2003. That would be a fine gesture from the head of a revolutionary state inspired by the writings of an earlier poet, writer and philosopher. For goodness sake, the Royal Ballet will have landed at the Jose Marti airport – along with all the other tourists now flooding into Cuba.
I wonder if the dancers will get the chance to explore side streets as Ray and I did – mixing the official (and to me still inspiring) propaganda of the Museum of the Revolution with more complex messages from ordinary people in bars and market places. We found it disturbingly easy to move between smelly, vibrant streets and the air conditioned luxury of hotel rooms with bathrooms possibly bigger than the crumbling apartments housing whole families just a short walk away.
My letter to Raul quite honestly congratulates the Cuban government on their great achievements in health and education. Even the most disaffected person we met took pride in the fact that the government and army do their best to protect people during hurricanes – “not like Bush in New Orleans”.
Nothing is simple. I went longing to find Havana the way I imagined it from films and music: heroic old cars symbolising a romantic communist triumph over US capitalist oppression. We found some of our fantasy and feel sad that it will probably soon fade away. Yet within the first 24 hours of our short stay I could also see that change must come – people are longing for an end to poverty which restricts families to a subsistence ration of essential foods.
The economy is upside down. A musician or a waiter, through daily contact with tourists, can earn far more than a doctor or teacher: the convertible peso, tied to the US dollar, is worth 24 times as much as the Cuban peso.
And yet there is wonderful wealth in the vibrancy of the streets. And culture of all kinds. After decades of British consumerism, it feels liberating to be in a city where the flow of life is not dictated by shopping; people talk, dance and make music in the streets. Or perhaps there is nothing else for them to do. Salsa is a safety valve in a state where the government controls television, radio, newspapers and access to the internet.
Languishing in prison (as Rob reminded us) are people whose only crime is to criticise the government in the way I take for granted. With another cruel irony, the prisoners are often denied good medical care.
Denied medical care. In Cuba where the constitution says “Everyone has the right to health protection and care” and the heroic Che was a doctor! Dear Raul, this does not honour the Revolution in the year of the 50th anniversary. I have found a poem for you by Jose Marti.
I cultivate a white rose
In July as in January
For the sincere friend
Who gives me his hand frankly.
And for the cruel person who tears out
the heart with which I live,
I cultivate neither nettles nor thorns:
I cultivate a white rose.