MY GRANDAD would have loved Castro’s Cuba, if only for the horses.
We are on a longed-for trip to the socialist state of sugar liberated in 1959 by Che and Fidel and beloved of the novelist Ernest Hemingway, evidence of whose reciprocated love for the Caribbean island is everywhere.
The Great Man – Hemingway, not Castro – is venerated everywhere: his house is an un-enterable shrine (we peek and snap through open windows), drink mojitos in his favourite bar (one in every village, two in most towns) and spend the evenings trying to equal or better his celebrated drinking feats.And failing.
Our fellow tourists, a dozen-and-a-half or so, mainly couples, mostly our age and quite probably of similar political inclination, all shared our common goal: to see socialism in the sun “before the Americans screw it up!”
The dis-United States of America – Trumpeters in the dirt-poor southern states and fundamentalist centre versus Democrat Disdainers to right and left of the country – has for a century or more endured (and possibly enjoyed?) a reputation for cultural invasion which smothered smaller nations beneath a blanket of glitzy crassness.
And there can be little doubt that the former slave and sugar cane colony we are currently exploring, whose last half-century of has been one of extreme hardship, faces exactly that fate now the Land of the Free has so graciously drawn back the Ironic Curtain which forbade travel to and from the Land of the Freed.
Do not be deceived by the gracious reception effusively available at grand hotels housed in what were the pre-revolutionary mansion homes of the fabulously wealthy; this is a nation whose peasant farmers plough with oxen, harvest by hand and transport produce and people in trailers hauled by ill-grazed horses with corrugated flanks.
Which is exactly the reason my long-dead Scots grandfather, old Dod Renton, would have so enjoyed the triumph of his prophesy sixty-something years ago.
“Aye,” this toddler remembers him telling my late-teenage uncle who had recently been entrusted by their employer with care of the farm’s first tractor, a wee, grey Ferguson, “but they awfie, smelly things will never replace the auld horse!”
Grandad Renton was one of the last ‘horse men’ in north Northumberland. Horsemen in the sense not of gents who road for sport or leisure, but of men who cared for, ploughed, harvested and harrowed with the magnificent, elephant-high shire horses that had held sway on Britain’s farms since the seventeenth century enclosures.
THE OLD MAN AND THE KNEE (apologies to Hemingway)
I am a grandfather now, a gammy knee requiring a walking stick, hobbling on and off the state-owned tourist bus assisted by tour guide Annabel and a dozen willing hands.
Half a century on, Pepe is my grandfather’s direct agricultural descendant, a farmer who scratches a living from the land around Vinales, a tourist town where I scratch maddeningly at the five bites an hour inflicted by flying fleas. We are introduced reluctantly by tour guide Annabel, who warns that Pepe might want money. He does not.
“She does not like me, that woman,” says the farmer as my guide drifts towards pleasanter company. “I know her mother. Now she IS a communist, has been all her life. But the girl. . .pah!” Pepe spits softly in the dust, “She says she likes Castro but she’s not a proper Communist.”
“And she dislikes you? Por que?”
The old man smiles. “Money,” he says. “And communism. She thinks four years at university and a job talking to you foreigners all day means the government should pay her more than me! I told her once it was because El Commandante values the food I produce more than the corn SHE feeds her tourists! She didn’t like that.
“No respect, these youngsters.”
It comes as a shock to many of us to learn that while we in the UK speak piously of paying manual workers a realistic percentage of their manager’s salary or rewarding teachers, cleaners and nurses in a manner more commensurate with their worth to society than the obscene bonuses paid to money market manipulators and media moguls, Cuba actually DOES just that.
It is doubtful that Grandad Renton would have gone along with any of that, nor even see the sense of it. His work men’s boots were firmly rooted in the feudal past that persisted (and in some cases persists) in parts of the British Isles.
Thanks to the secret ballot, his chance to strike at the heart of the British class system came only once every few years when, in exchange for a dram, a barnyard lecture from the farm manager about “doing the right thing and voting for Oor Laird” and a lift to the polling station in the landowner’s chauffeur-driven, half-timbered estate car, he and his fellow workers would disappear into the polling booth and reappear triumphant, having voted Labour.
In modern Cuba, Pepe ploughs with oxen but most other towing and tilling jobs are still accomplished using horses. On the roads far beyond beautiful, ‘anciently’ modern Havana with its highly-publicised fleet of gas-guzzling American classics cars, animal transport is more commonly seen than automobiles. Buses are rare in the boondocks: horse-drawn taxis and big steel-sided bullock carts pulled by horses and seating a score or more uncomfortable passengers, are the norm.
But away from the farm which Pepe rents from the government (the state owns all of the land) modern Cuba is at an American crossroads: Obama has removed the embargo on travel and trade between the US and its communist neighbour but whither Trump? Wall or welcome?
Annabel the tour guide agonises, as ever. “US dollars would be good for us; tourism would require a change in our government’s attitude which we Cubans cannot.” The internet is, for instance, is currently available at a charge only to visitors at tourist hotels with wifi hotspots and even then many websites fall foul of the Cuban censor: one can log onto the BBC, for example, while Voice of the North is unobtainable. Something of a compliment, perhaps?
And foreign travel for Cubans, while not forbidden, is strictly controlled, not least by foreign embassies like Britain’s which refuses visitor visas to Cubans who do not possess a history of foreign travel (Catch 22?) that indicates an intention to return.
A FAREWELL TO ALMS (homage to Hemingway)
The last half-century since the revolution led by the brothers Castro, Fidel and Raul, and Che Guevara has been hard for Cubans, says Annabel. Her mother – “a true communist” says Annabel proudly, in a way that suggests she herself might not be – told her the 1990s were the worst.
“I was just a child, but food was so scarce we sometimes had only boiled banana skins to eat,” she recalls. “Our regular supplies of meat and processed foods from the Soviet bloc just stopped. It was a very bad time.”
“You must have known what was coming when the Soviet Union collapsed?” I asked. “How did you feel in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down and we in the West were celebrating?”
Her reply took my breath away. “My mother says we didn’t know about it until 1993,” she said, shyly. “Fidel made one of his famous five-hour speeches in the late Eighties and told everyone we must be strong and look to a challenging future but he never mentioned the Wall.
“My mother also remembers him addressing a communist women’s congress where he complimented the women on their appearance, their dresses, but then said they must take care of such clothing because we must tighten our belts for difficult years ahead. Even then, no one suspected.”
In our surreptitious coach trip conversations Annabel cannot be pressed too hard on the subject of Cuba’s regime. Does she, for example, admire the heroic revolutionary Che Guevara, and the Castro brothers: El Commandante himself (Fidel) and current president Raul?
“Che, for sure,” enthuses the admitted romantic. “FIdel. . ? I’m not sure. Have we really been liberated? Nearly sixty years on it feels like we are . . .”
“In a kind of prison?” I suggest.
“Your words,” she replies, then, unwittingly echoing the theme tune to Britain’s Blair years: “Things can only get better.”
Not for my grandad, they couldn’t. He would just have been happy to see the horses.