here, there, everywhere

Cuba

In Caribbean, Cuba on March 12, 2005 at 4:25 pm

Kids hanging out after school. Holguin

Somewhere off the main drag in the dusty Cuban town of Holguin, there is a factory where hundreds of Cubans work round the clock, rolling, cutting, sorting, and packing hand-made cigars.  In the first room of a giant warehouse, workers who are not allowed to wear any perfume or lotion and must take a shower before starting their shift, dry and sort the leaves that will make up the cigars.  Once ready for stuffing and rolling, the leaves flop in your hand like perfect pieces of brown silk, just as soft and just as airy.  The leaves make their way into the next room to be rolled and pressed by women and men who talk and laugh together as they each fill their daily quotas of 120 regular cigars or 108 fat ones.  And so the production continues down the line of sorters, quality controllers, wrappers, packers and stampers.  The only machines performing these tasks are human hands, so one would think that $10US for five Romeo and Juliet’s is quite reasonable.

The tobacco factory on our tour.

Outside the tobacco factory, a car seen through the chain link fence.

After witnessing my first-ever sweatshop, I jump back on my air-conditioned bus for the ride back to my all-inclusive resort.  The beach is perfect – soft, white sand, the deepest turquoise water, and an ever present breeze that keeps the hot temperature bearable.  Hundreds of bright red Canadians, Italians, Germans, British, and French walk around in as little clothing as possible.  Once upon a time the Americans were here as well, but their stylish summer homes are now inhabited by Cubans who were handed the dwellings after the Americans were expelled.

I’ve been to other impoverished countries before, but this is the first time I’ve felt dirty for being a tourist.  It’s not the kind of dirt that’s scrubbed away in the shower.  My blue wristband entitles me to an all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink buffet.  Cubans live on government regulated rations they can barely afford.  I’ve always made decent money at all of my jobs.  Working Cubans make $12-15US per month no matter what the job.  The ones that work at the resorts fare better since they can make that much in a day with tips.  But just last week, the Cuban government announced that all tips would have to be turned over to management.  This is a socialist country after all – it would defeat the purpose if anyone was allowed to prosper.

Cuban money, by the way, does not have Castro’s picture on it.  There are no representations of him anywhere, no statues, no photos, no posters.  Lots of Che on t-shirts, monuments, and postcards, but no Fidel.  My tour guide says it’s probably out of respect to the dictator, oops, The Man. He says maybe people would want The Man dead if his picture was around.  I’m not so sure they don’t already feel that way although all of them will tell you differently.

There was one picture of Castro. I guess it’s ok to show him when he’s surrounded by other communists.

After seven days, it’s time to head home and we’re loaded up once again into our well-sprung, air conditioned bus.  We drive through the twilight on the main road to the airport, sharing the space with ’56 Chevys and old motorcycles with sidecars.  We pass the dilapidated shanty towns where Cubans live, the light in the houses coming from single overhead fluorescent bulbs, old men sitting on the front steps smoking their cigars.  Our plane waits for us on the same tarmac where American MiG fighter jets are shielded from view by the evening’s shadows.

I give the rest of my Cuban money away to locals asking for “just one dollar, one dollar,” and pass through customs.  I get to leave this place and one more time, I feel dirty.

(Originally published in The Ryersonian, March 2005)

Random street. Holguin

Boys on a front step. Holguin

Laundry blows in the wind. Holguin

Another monument somewhere outside Holguin.

Old car. Holguin

Revolutionary Square. Santiago de Cuba

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