Aussies in Cuba, a Long Way from Home

Tourist tales

Vincente Morin Aguado

HAVANA TIMES – I have always had a soft spot for Australians who come here to visit us. Maybe it’s because they come from a highly developed country and like anywhere else in the world, live on their salaries.

And then there’s the fact that Australia is at the other end of the globe and its one long haul to get here, crossing the half planet to reach our little island.

Childhood memories still bind me to this great island continent, seventy times the size of ours.

When I was young we had a little library-room in our house and I’d gaze at the big map of Australia my father got from the National Geographic Magazine. He used to sell them when he was working in a Shell station. That was down in Guanabo, just about at the end, of that lovely line of beaches that runs along the coast of East Havana.

As a boy I’d day-dream about a little town. Alice Springs it was called, located right in the center somewhere of the immense Australia. Apparently it has a mere 25,000 inhabitants and some pretty nice tourist sites.

Imagine my surprise on meeting an elderly couple from the place. I started by answering questions but ended up asking the Australians about all sorts of things: the aborigines, the desert, the diamond mines, and all sorts of other exotica, the sort of thing you read about in the press.

It was much to my surprise when they started asking me questions about Cuba I realized Cuba was an equally weird place in their eyes.

The difference, however, was that our peculiarities had no relationship with tropical nature as they do in Australia. The Tropic of Capricorn cuts across it, that says enough. All of the doubts and questions they had were about the social-political scene here.

What will happen when El Commandante dies?. Do you feel comfortable with Socialism or do you prefer Capitalism? Do Americans come to visit? Why do you have two currencies? How much do you get paid? And where is Cuba headed?

The answers, I told them, would vary from person to person; and although there are marked tendencies there is no unanimous agreement. Apart of course, from straight forward requests for information.

With that said, we spent an afternoon in the park of the Plaza de Armas, surrounded by second hand books and rare prints, carefully collected by astute Cuban vendors to captivate the interest of their foreign customers.

Given their advanced age and the climate, hot and humid, the Australians didn’t walk much, making my job all the easier. I wanted to be courteous and offer them a nice snack but that desire was thwarted by what the street vendors had to offer.

The Australians weren’t interested in soft drinks in cans and they didn’t drink alcohol. But they were especially disappointed by the lack of the natural juices the highly reputed “Lonely Planet.” said are available to all and sundry on this “Tropical Island”.

After so many questions they finally got round to “The Cuban Five” a complex issue when it comes to English culture. I gave them a long explanation. Maybe it wasn’t so comprehensible or something because although they understood the issue of subversion against communism, supported from Miami, they thought that the “The Five” had been captured as spies in foreign territory, in a country technically at war with them.

It was impossible to avoid the subject so I was obliged to fill them in on the history of Cuba and its relations with the United States, especially the Cuban exiles’ use of violent means in breach of U.S. law, the use of terrorism in other words, to combat a system they didn’t agree with.

As visitors, the Australians ultimately appreciated the dangers of the terrorist attacks that had been carried out in various tourist centers in Cuba.

Not unexpectedly we parted on good terms. English culture, after all, is framed in a liberal tradition that allowed men like Karl Marx and José Martí to live most of their life in England or the United States, despite in both cases being keen critics of the socio-economic and political reality of those two countries.

My friends from the island-continent then went off on a visit to the interior, returning days later. I bumped into them quite by chance. It was at a stop of the tourist bus that tours the city all day long. I was in a long queue waiting to get into the post office, the Correos de Cuba, where most Cubans regularly go to check their emails.

Regarding their first query, logical at the time, I gave them a straight answer: no, we don’t have total access to the Internet, but can exchange emails, using the home page but without the option of sending or downloading files, nor are we allowed to surf the web. Payment is in convertible currency at the rate of CUC 1.50 an hour, equivalent to $ 1.65 U.S. dollars.

Put out by something so seemingly unnatural in the modern world, they wanted to depart with a joke to ease the sense of unease aroused by the exchange.

“By the way friend, in Cienfuegos we found the public baths were closed off. Why was that? …”

Fortunately the bus appeared with its two big windshields at the front, and I quickly said goodbye, alleging I could lose my turn after spending so much time in the queue. They went upstairs on the double-decker guagua as we call the bus here, and enjoying the fresh air, they waved goodbye as cameras captured the moment.
Vincente Morin Aguado: [email protected]

10 thoughts on “Aussies in Cuba, a Long Way from Home

  • it is easy to be wise in retrospect. playa giron proved that the the cuban government wasn’t vulnerable and that was 1961. i know as well as anyone that the cuban government over many years made many economic mistakes but now is the time to move on. there have been embargoes since the punic wars and none were very successful.

  • When the embargo was orinally imposed, the Cuban dictatorship was in its nacent stages and presumed vulnerable. The US government, ill-advised by the Cuban exile community, underestimated the level of cruelty that Fidel was willing to impose upon the Cuban people to sustain his power. Miami Cubans also failed to realize that those Cubans most fiercely opposed to the regime and therefore most likely to rise up in opposition were the very same Cubans who left with them. The Cubans that remained largely accepted the sacrifices asked of them or felt powerless to do anything about them. Even when the embargo was tightened in the 1990’s, it was due to the belief that the recent absence of Soviet support would make the Cubans again more likely to revolt. Wrong again! Fidel, tyrannical but not stupid, used the embargo to unify the Cuban people and distract them from his many failed blockhead schemes. The pressure applied by the embargo will hopefully lead the surviving Cuban leadership (post-Fidel) to make a ‘soveriegn decision’ to democratize as well. We can only hope….

  • Do you know what the word “shyster” really means and how its use came to be? I am responding to your inane comments only because in my response here, I hope to reflect of how most Americans feel about the embargo and US-Cuba relations in general. It appears you have your head so far up Castros rearend that you have failed to consider that others well-intentioned may simply think differently than you. My disagreeing with your views does not make me or others like me sinister. Yes, I did support the embargo. At first blush, anything anti-communist seemed like a good idea to me. But after living in Cuba and living under the few conditions directly caused by the embargo, I realized that while the embargo affects the average Cuban, the ruling elite and the black marketers still have access (hence sidestep genious) to imported foods and designer clothes and last-generation electronics and all such other creature comforts that help to ease the daily struggle of life we all face. Once, a year ago, in front of me in line at the grocery store in Miramar (72nd and 3rd), the daughter-in-law of the Minister of Basic Industries signed for a case of French wine any oenophile worth his salt would have died for. She simply signed for it! The wine was not even on the shelf to be purchased by the general public. Not that they could have afforded it anyway. They went to the back of the store to retrieve the box for her. So much for the cruel embargo there, right?. The continued application of the embargo only hurts the Cuban in the street who has little ability to do anything about how the idiots who run the country. However, lifting the embargo unilaterally without condition would also not serve the Cuban in the street. Why? Because even though Cuban could then import freely and have access to international credit and so on, the failed economic policies of the regime would not put more money in the pockets of the Cuban in the street to take advantage of the lifted embargo. The only difference would be the Cuban elite who, today, simply sign for their “perks” would not be limited to one case of wine, they would then have their fill. The defunct Soviet system reflected this dilemna. There was no embargo against the Soviets, yet the average Soviet did not enjoy the quality of life of their counterpart in the West. Most Americans, when they have come to the understanding of the real impact of the embargo against Cuba, come to the same conclusions. Yes, the embargo should end, but only if it brings additional freedoms for the Cuban people along with it.

  • i am uncertain as to what moses is trying to say. cuba is a dictatorship. the embargo was to bring down the dictatorship. because cuba is a dictatorship the embargo didn’t work. moses wants to see a free media and mulit-party elections. in china, vietnam or cuba?. china and vietnam made a sovereign decision. what’s a free media? in my experience, most free media don’t say anything too bad or criminal about any major party politician but at the same time they suppress information that would be embarrassing to commerce and industry. i mean, crimes against humanity by extraction industries, gross pollution, collusion by major companies on prices etc. griffin has never heard of australians who don’t drink. maybe it’s a backlash but australia is becoming a nanny state trying to control drug use of every kind including plain cigarette packaging which i expect the major tobacco companies to fight in the courts.

  • ‘Moses’ writes he originally supported the embargo, but has flip-flopped because ” the desired effect of the embargo has been less than optimal”. Translation: it didn’t succeed in bringing down Cuba’s government.

    He writes, “It has certainly inflicted suffering on the Cuban people as planned.” As planned??? – inflicting suffering on the Cuban people???

    But, he writes, “this suffering has been largely sidestepped by the Castros and the ruling elite.” Translation: Cubans have suffered and its government has survived. How did the government “sidestep”? How could it? Sidestepping presumably means avoiding walking straight into the hands of the American imperialists.

    It failed in “inspiring” the Cuban people to do what the US wanted – for Cubans to overthrow its government. For some reason, that ‘Moses’ and his ilk fail to understand – or want to understand – Cubans, in common with everyone else, want to do what they decide to do, not what the Americans have decided they should do.

    An aside – the mendacity on display here is mind-boggling. Stripped of the propaganda, the naked arrogance on display astounds even me. But there’s more…

    ‘Moses’ supports “lifting the embargo but only…” The ‘but onlys include “open and direct (hoping you won’t be aware of what the US Electoral College represents – hardly ‘direct’) and democratic elections that “permit Cuban citizens who live abroad to vote”.

    That’s an interesting issue that needs to be looked at. Today, for example, at Toronto’s biggest Saturday market, I was accosted by a person asking if I was American. She was carrying an Obama sign and was hoping to sign up American expats living in Toronto to vote for her candidate.

    Presumably this is what ‘Moses’ is about – canvassing for his people – Cuban émigrés. If a former Cuban citizen lives in the US for 53 years, should they be able to have a credible vote on Cuban affairs? My personal opinion is a statute of limitations should apply for when you are no longer qualified to cast an informed vote as a former citizen of any country. My rule of thumb is a five-year limit.

    As a condition of lifting the embargo, ‘Moses’ would also demand “a multi-party system and a non-state-controlled media”. These are his terms for ending his support for “inflicted suffering on the Cuban people”. Until then, he writes, the “embargo should remain in effect.”

    Am I the only one who finds this revolting?

    Astoundingly, ‘Moses’ claims, “I don’t care if Cuba is socialist, capitalist, or something like China and Vietnam”, yet his conditions for lifting the blockade that he admits is causing suffering for the Cuban people” belies the claim.

    Previously ‘Moses’ has told us he opposes the blockade. Now he tells us about his ‘small print’ qualifications, typically found at the bottom of capitalist contracts that we living in the land of ‘Slippery Sams’ have learned to look out for. Cubans may not be aware of the shyster practices that are prevalent here.

    Cubans, please be aware.

  • “Lawrence W” frequently comments about my lack of effort to lift the embargo. He’s right. While I agree with the original purpose of the embargo, it is clear that because Cuba is controlled by a dictatorship, the desired effect of the embargo has been less than optimal. It has certainly inflicted suffering on the Cuban people as planned but this suffering has been largely sidestepped by the Castros and the ruling elite. Moreover, rather than inspiring the Cuban people to rise up against their despotic leaders, the embargo has been used as the all-purpose excuse given for everything wrong with Cuba allowing the failed leadership to avoid accepting full accountability for knucklehead mistakes. I do support lifting the embargo but only under a bilateral agreement between the US and Cuba. I would like to see open and direct democratic elections in Cuba, which permit Cuban citizens who live abroad to vote. I would like to see a multi-party system and a non-state-controlled media. Finally, I would like to see the end of Cuban exit visas which restrict travel for Cubans. Should Cuba implement these changes, minor by international standards, I would be first-in-line asking to lift the embargo. I don’t care if Cuba is socialist, capitalist, or something like China and Vietnam, that is clearly a soveriegn decision. Until these changes are in place, a largely ineffectual, misapplied and much maligned embargo should remain in effect. Do I hope the embargo is lifted soon? Yes. Do I think that as long as a Castro is in charge, these democratic reforms will take place? Fat chance.

  • Australians who don’t drink alcohol? I never before heard of such a thing!

    A well written and charming tale. Mucho gracias, Vincente.

  • Vicente,

    Thanks for relating your experience with the Aussies. I’ve spent a bit of time with them and have been in their country. I don’t know why it made ‘Moses’ sad but he seems to be sad a lot lately. It migh have something to do with the sad state of his country’s economy.

    For the record, the northern hemisphere’s equivalent of the Tropic of Capricorn is the Tropic of Cancer which runs right through the northern end of Cuba so Cuba is almost entirely in the tropics whereas only the northern half of Australia is.

    I certainly had no problems finding fresh juices when I was in Cuba. The local street vendors were ubiquitous but then I spent most of my time outside of tourist areas. The vendors sold mostly to local people, not tourists.

    There also was no problem sending or downloading files or surfing the web but I was using Etecsa facilities that were all over but at a higher cost. Unfortunately, as in the capitalist world, it’s a question of ‘no pay, no play’. If the US ended its pernicious blockade the problem won’t entirely go away but it would help with the finances

    What would help more would be if the US gave up on its policies of trying to bring down Cuba’s government that is promoting a siege mentality. Americans like ‘Moses’ say the blockade is not causing problems. I say, then take it away and let’s see but for some reason he’s doing nothing to help while claiming he’s against it.. All talk and no actionit seems. I’ve seen that before.

  • How wonderful that you were able to communicate. Sadly we are monolingual in Australia, so to learn to speak Spanish can be quite difficult. I know that the tourists from Alice Springs would have been delighted to meet someone in Cuba who had the time and interest to ask questions and answer questions. I do hope you get to meet more of us in the future, and that more of us get to understand what Cuba has accomplished in the past fifty years – and what remains to be accomplished.

    Australia is such a long way from Cuba as you say – it takes me a day and a half to get there, and four flights!

  • Thank you for such a sadly honest revelation.

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