25 02 2011


I got a glimpse this week of how the health service works here. My friend’s sister had developed a nasty and persistent cough. Yesterday she decided to go along to the local polyclinic to get it looked at. In less than an hour she had been seen by a doctor, had a chest x-ray, been diagnosed with bronchitis, prescribed antibiotics and cough medicine and advised to rest for a week. She collected the medication at the local pharmacy.

I would not receive such good treatment at home in England. When I recently sought an urgent appointment at my doctor’s surgery, I was advised that none was available for a couple of days. If I was to attend the accident and emergency department at my local hospital, I am not sure that they would see me for a persistent cough, or if they would refer me back to my doctor’s. If they did see me, I would wait much longer than one hour.

For a developing country that has had to suffer the US–imposed economic blockade for half a century, to maintain this level of healthcare is remarkable.

I am aware that not everything is wonderful in the Cuban healthcare system. When my friend’s elderly neighbour was admitted to hospital for a stroke last year, her family stayed by her side at all times, because they were not confident in the nursing care that would be provided. They also took sheets, towels and food for her. I know a foreign exchange student of psychology who visited a local psychiatric hospital here and was not impressed with the conditions there. I am also aware of the scandal in a Havana psychiatric hospital last year when several patients died during a cold spell. The media here has reported that the prosecution are seeking lengthy jail terms for the directors of the hospital. For their role in the patients’ neglect.

However, primary healthcare here seems to me to be excellent. The results can be seen in Cuba’s figures for life expectancy and infant mortality. Cuban doctors and nurses are also working and saving lives in developing countries in Africa and Latin America. Healthcare is truly one of the gains of the 1959 revolution that it is essential to preserve.



23 02 2011


At the weekend we went to Bayamo. I was able to take advantage of my student ID card and travel using the Astro bus network at a cost of 26 CUP (£0.84) for a journey of 129 kilometres. Normally foreigners need to use the Viazul network, which costs about seven times as much. The Astro journey took longer, as it stops at lots of small towns en route. The other difference (apart from the fact that I was the only non-Cuban on the bus) was that at these stops, people would be waiting to sell food, like I have seen in films of trains in India.

Bayamo occupies a very important place in Cuban history. It was the birthplace of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, known as the father of the fatherland. It was he who, in 1868, freed his slaves and launched the first War of Independence against the Spanish. When, at the beginning of 1869, the people of Bayamo sensed that the city was about to fall into the hands of the Spanish forces, they burned the city to the ground rather than allow the Spanish to occupy it.

It was these events that gave rise to the Cuban national anthem, La Bayamesa, which contains the stirring line: “Que morir por la patria es vivir” (to die for the fatherland is to live). This sentiment and the events that gave rise to them give a good insight into the Cuban national psyche, into which Fidel and his guerrilla army fighting in the Sierra Maestra fitted perfectly.

Fortunately, Bayamo is a lot more tranquil these days. In fact, it is the most tranquil Cuban city that I have visited, as well as the tidiest and best-maintained. This is interesting because, unlike Cienfuegos for example, it is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nor is it a major tourist destination. It is maintained for the benefit of the local people. The very popular First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party in Santiago, Lazaro Exposito, was formerly in charge here and is credited with much of the improvement to the town.

The main street, known as El Bulevar (The Boulevard), is pedestrianised and decorated with art installations along its route. It is also well-stocked with shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. Nearly all of the restaurants, cafes and bars are priced in the national currency (CUP) rather than the convertible currency issued to tourists when they exchange their foreign currency (CUC).

In addition, the shops are well-stocked. In the kitchen at my friend’s house are two lights with circular fluorescent bulbs. One of them needed replacing. For the last seven weeks we had searched every shop in Santiago – not just in the city centre but everywhere – and could not find one. In Bayamo they were everywhere. It is not clear to me why shops in a provincial city like Bayamo should stock such bulbs whilst the second city in the country has none, but such is the nature of bureaucratic planned economies.

El Bulevar, Bayamo

The restaurants were impressive. On the first night we ate in a very smart restaurant in El Bulevar named La Sevillana. We had two starters of chick peas with chorizo; two main courses of beef roasted in juice; two portions of rice with chorizo; two salads of beetroot and tomato; two beers (Cacique); and a soft drink. The bill came to a total of 113 CUP (£3.39).

The following night we came across a new paladar opposite the main church, called the Bayamo Social Club, that had just opened it doors that week – on Valentine’s Day (which is a big event in Cuba). It was very smartly decorated, with old photos of Bayamo on the walls. The tables were candle-lit, with incense as well. There was a guitarist and a singer, playing boleros. The menu was described as a fusion of the four cultures that have created contemporary Cuban cuisine: Spanish, African, Taino Indian and Chinese.

The food was excellent. We had a chicken chop suey; pork chop suey; a salad; a dessert of milk flan with ice cream; two cocktails; two glasses of wine and a soft drink. The menu was priced in CUP but said that you could pay the equivalent in CUC. Our bill came to 360 CUP (£11.80). There were two European guys eating there, but everybody else was Cuban. The paladar had been opened in accordance with the new regulations, which now allow a maximum of twenty seats. If this is an indication of what the new regulations will mean for dining out in Cuba, then it is very good news both for Cuban people and foreign visitors.


17 02 2011

The document that will be discussed at the 6th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, being held this April, is entitled: “El Proyecto de la Politica Economica y Social del Partido y la Revolucion” (The Political, Economic and Social Project of the Party and the Revolution).

This document has been the subject of meetings that have been held throughout the island during the last six weeks. Every CDR (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution – which exist on every block, a bit like a cross between a Neighbourhood Watch Association and a local political organisation) has held meetings, as has each workplace and the mass organisations that play an important role in the political system here, such as the Women’s Federation, the Trade Unions, the Student Federation, the small farmers’ organisation etc.

I have observed a number of the CDR meetings when I have passed. They have been held on street corners, with the local residents assembled. I have observed five or six, always at about the same time, when I am on my way to my friend’s house for dinner. They all consisted of somebody – presumably the CDR President – reading from a prepared script. It may be that this was followed by a spirited discussion, I don’t know. I have spoken to a few people about the meetings in their workplaces. They said that there was not a lot of discussion there. Some expressed the sentiment that the meetings were pointless, as nobody would listen to what they had to say. Whether this is fair or not, I do not know, but the same would probably be said by many about any official consultation exercise in my country as well.

 The one item that has produced more discussion than any other, though, is Lineamento 162, which proposes the: “orderly elimination of the libreta de abstecimiento”. The libreta de abstecimiento is the ration book issued to every Cuban household, which provides an amount of highly subsidised food and other products each month. These include oil, bread, eggs, rice, sugar, meat, fish, salt and beans. This system was introduced early on in the revolutionary process, in order to ensure that the people were guaranteed a certain amount of food and to counteract against hoarding and speculation.

It has become a vital part of the household finances of most Cuban families. The argument for its elimination is that it is very costly for the state to provide and benefits many people who either do not need it, because they have sufficient income; or do not deserve it, because they do not work or contribute to society. This is undoubtedly true. However it is also true that without the libreta, many low income households, including pensioners, would find it impossible to survive. In order to avoid causing real hardship, the abolition of the libreta would need to be accompanied by a significant increase in pensions and the minimum wage.

A sign of what may be to come was an article on the back page this Saturday of Juventud Rebelde (one of the two national daily newspapers here), which announced that, from now on, the state-run chain of shops selling in moneda nacional entitled Mercados Ideales, would start selling rice at a price of 5 CUP (about £0.15) per pound; and sugar at 6 CUP for unrefined and 8 CUP for refined. Currently, each citizen receives five pounds per month of both rice and sugar, at a price of about a penny per pound, on the libreta. If they need more, they can buy it from the chopis (shops selling in CUC), or more likely, on the black market.

Could this be a sign that rice and sugar are about to eliminated from the libreta? Fifteen pence per pound for rice may sound cheap to me, but would represent an increase of something like 1500% and would be impossible for people on very low incomes to afford. Some items (such as peas and potatoes) have already been removed from the libreta in the last year or so, along with the two packets of cigarettes that each pensioner received monthly. Ceasing to subsidise cigarettes to pensioners may sound like a good idea on health grounds, but many did not smoke them, but sold them on at a profit to others, so their elimination meant a reduction in their disposable income. Since potatoes were removed from the libreta, they seem to have disappeared from sight, at least here in Santiago and in Havana.

It is very important that, if the libreta is to be eliminated, the interests of the poorest in society are protected properly.


11 02 2011

After four weeks of classes, I thought that I would write about my experiences thus far with studying Spanish at the Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba.

It started in January 2010, when I was on holiday here and visited the university to enquire about studying. My friend works there and introduced me to the guy who deals with foreign students. He explained the procedure to me and gave me a slip of paper with the information required (such as date of birth, occupation, dates of study), advising me to apply by e-mail about six weeks or two months before I wanted to start.

 In September 2010 I e-mailed with the information requested and received no reply. I asked my friend to investigate and she informed me that he had not received the e-mail. I re-sent it and again heard nothing. My friend printed off a copy and took it to him personally. She was sent to the section dealing with immigration requirements and made an application on my behalf for a student visa. She had to submit Cuban stamps to the value of 15 CUP (about £0.45). I don’t know how I could have done that from the UK, but fortunately she did it for me.

 I was advised that the visa would be sent to the Cuban embassy in London, who would contact me. After about six weeks, when I had heard nothing, it occurred to me that nowhere in the information that had been requested had there been my address or phone number. Therefore, there was no way that the embassy could contact me. Fortunately, I know somebody who had worked there and she told me who I should contact. I got through to him and he replied that he had received nothing. However, he took my phone number and rang back later that day to say that it had arrived. I went to the embassy to collect it, where I had to pay a fee of £40. The visa allowed me to enter Cuba at any time between mid December and mid January and gave me a period of 30 days there before I would need to extend it.

 During all of this time, I had heard nothing from the university about course times or joining instructions etc. However, I knew that the university returned from its festive break the first Monday in January. I arrived in Cuba on December 29th and went to the university on the morning of January 3rd. None of the people that we needed to see were available, so we returned in the afternoon. Again, none of the people that we needed to see were there, but we were told to return the next afternoon with my passport, four photographs and Cuban stamps to the value of 40 CUC (about £30).

I arrived at 2pm on Tuesday 4th and had to queue for two hours. Most of those waiting were university staff off to work abroad, mainly in Nicaragua. I finally got seen and completed my application. I would need to go through three stages: first, apply for and receive the student carnet (ID card); second, sign a contract detailing hours of study and costs etc.; finally, undertake a test in the language department to ascertain what level of tuition I would need. I was advised to meet the woman at the university the next day at the immigration office.

The next day I waited for two hours in the immigration office, where my fingerprints were taken and my application completed. Apparently, the carnets normally take ten days to arrive, but there were delays because the immigration office had no plastic for the cards. If, however, I purchased the plastic privately, this would circumvent the delay. I was advised of a private address where I could purchase the plastic. The following day (Thursday 6th) I purchased the plastic and took it to the university. I was told not to become anxious, as the classes did not start until January 18th and I should have my carnet by then.

At various stages in the next week and a half, I called at the university and was told that the carnet had not arrived. On January 17th, the day before classes started, I went there and was given the same answer. I asked how I could start classes the following day and was advised that I could not, because first I needed the contract, which could not be completed until they had the number of my carnet. Fortunately, my contacts at the university were able to assist and, after a bit of negotiating on my behalf, I was given a slip of paper advising the teachers that I could start without the necessary paperwork, because I was awaiting its arrival.

On Tuesday 18th, without contract and without carnet, but with a handwritten slip of paper, I went to the university and was given a test. Fortunately, my three years of self-study with books and CDs had produced some results, because I was placed in the intermediate level. I went along to the classroom, where there were two other students, both retired Italian men. Santiago is full of retired Italian men, particularly during the winter months. They come here to escape the Italian winter and to enjoy the company of young Cuban girls, often young enough to be their granddaughters. Some have worked out that becoming a student allows them to prolong their stay on the island.

The teacher was excellent, very patient and very enthusiastic. We had an air-conditioned classroom, with a modern computer, that did not work. The teacher had one course book, of which she was a co-author, but no other copies for the students. There was a whiteboard, but the pens barely worked and it was almost impossible to read anything that was written there. This continued for the next two weeks, during which we were joined by two other students, a young guy from the Czech Republic and a young woman from Germany, who is studying psychology as part of an exchange programme. We were then advised that our teacher (the only good thing about the course) was leaving us to go and work in Venezuela for a year.

After 27 days (on Jan 30th) my carnet finally arrived and I was able to complete my contract. Another young Czech guy, who was at the immigration office on the same day as me, is still awaiting his. We now have a new teacher, new classrooms (we don’t have a regular one, but have to meet outside the office each morning to be advised where we are studying), a new course to follow (but still only one copy of the book) and have been joined by two new students, young Canadian women who are studying here on an exchange programme. The new teacher is equally as good as the last and the good news is that the new classrooms have blackboards instead of whiteboards and the teacher has some chalk.

 Would I recommend it to anybody else? If your primary objective is learning Spanish and you want a well-run and well-resourced course, I would suggest that you try somewhere else, such as Spain. However, if you want to spend a long period in Cuba and learn more about the country and its people, whilst improving your Spanish, you would enjoy it, providing that you can cope with the bureaucracy and lack of resources. At times it has felt like an obstacle course and I do not think that I could have managed without my contacts at the university. The teachers, however, are a pleasure; and the Cuban students at the university are serious, industrious and courteous. I have very much enjoyed and am continuing to enjoy the experience.


7 02 2011

The latest edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook says of Santiago de Cuba’s restaurants: “For a city of such fine cultural traditions, Santiago’s restaurant scene is surprisingly lean.” This is fair comment, as far as restaurants for visiting tourists are concerned. There are only a couple of restaurants that cater predominantly for tourists which are worth visiting, in my opinion (El Barracon and La Zun Zun).

 I have had some terrible restaurant experiences in Santiago in the past, including one billed as an Italian restaurant, that had no pizza or pasta available; and another where after leaving us with the menu for 10 minutes or so, the waiter returned to inform us that not a single item from the menu was available; only something else costing more than twice as much as anything that was listed.

 At the time the guidebook was written there were only two paladares (private restaurants) in the city. This is now starting to change, with the recent relaxation on the establishment of private businesses. I have seen two new ones in the last few weeks and suspect that there will be at least several more in the weeks and months to come.

 However, one of the major changes in recent years that has pleased the people of Santiago is the opening of several new restaurants that are priced in moneda nacional (MN), the currency in which most Cuban people receive their salaries and pensions. This means that eating out to celebrate special occasions is no longer beyond the reach of local families. The quality of these restaurants ranges from below average to good. I have tried three MN restaurants here in the last few weeks. The first was La Fortaleza, situated in the poshest district in Santiago, Vista Alegre. La Fortaleza is built in the traditional ranchon style, open-sided buildings with wooden pillars and roofs made from palm fronds. It has a band playing at nights. The service was good; the ambience was very good; and the food was excellent. I had leg of pork roasted in juice, which was very tender. This cost the princely sum of 20 MN (about £0.60). My partner had the restaurant’s signature dish, a huge platter of steak, which also was tender and nicely cooked. This was more expensive (75 MN, about £2.25), but was easily enough for two.

 The next that I tried was the restaurant on the 17th floor of a tower block near the city centre (below the ice cream parlour). This has a separate bar, which is a very atmospheric cocktail bar, with barmen in suits and ties, where the excellent daiquiri frappe cost 5MN (about £0.15), the same as the sangria. Unfortunately, the restaurant is not as good as its bar. The wait for the food was the longest that I have experienced in my life and the food was very poor. The only good thing about it was the night-time view of the city.

The final one was the recently re-opened 1900, in the city centre. This is a beautiful old colonial house, with a range of dining rooms with high ceilings and huge chandeliers; plus a very smart outdoor patio. The service here was excellent; the food was average. The bill for food for four people came to 168 MN (about £5). The drinks bill for four mojitos, a sangria, one beer and two bottles of sparkling water came to roughly the same amount. Although the food was nothing exceptional, it is worth visiting again for its wonderful ambience and its central location.

The eating out scene has changed and is changing here, for the better, I am glad to say, although the quality of the eating establishments varies widely.


2 02 2011

Mosquito inspectors waiting for their daily briefing and inspection

As anybody from Europe or North America who has ever been on holiday to the Caribbean will know, mosquitoes are a problem in the region. On my first holiday to Barbados, despite spraying myself with protection, staying in a house with mesh on all of the windows and doors and sleeping in a four-poster bed that was covered in netting, I still managed to be bitten something like fifty or sixty times.

Most tourists there have their lower legs covered in painful looking red lumps. In fact, there are hustlers who make a living patrolling the beaches and offering to rub aloe vera onto your bites to ease the itching and swelling.

However, mosquito bites are not just an unsightly irritant. Mosquitoes can also spread the virus that causes dengue fever, a disease that can be fatal and is common in tropical climates. Somebody from England that I know was infected whilst on holiday in Jamaica and, whilst it was not fatal, she became seriously ill.

The Cuban Government takes the threat of dengue fever very seriously. It has a national campaign (la Campana y Lucha Antivectorial) to combat the strain of mosquitoes that spread the disease (Aedes aegypti) and issues advice to the population on how to prevent the mosquitoes breeding, such as covering water sources and not leaving rubbish laying around. This includes a weekly TV bulletin at 9pm on a Monday evening, on the main TV channel. To back this up, there are teams of grey-uniformed inspectors in every town and city, who inspect every building (including houses and apartments) every week and fumigate them. Streets are also fumigated, by lorries, which leave a foul smelling cloud which takes 30 seconds or so to disperse.

Near to my apartment is the local depot for the inspectors. Each morning at 8 am, the inspectors line up in front of the depot, with the contents of their inspection kits laid out in front of them, ready for inspection, like we were supposed to do when I was a London firefighter.

The inspectors are not universally popular, with their power to enter premises and to levy fines if they find mosquito eggs or uncovered water. However, the campaign is very effective in preventing the presence of mosquitoes. I have been in Cuba for five weeks now and have not used protection once, yet have had just two bites in that time.

It is, unfortunately, a different story in the countryside, where it would not be feasible to adopt such measures. When I have been out into the countryside here in the past, once dusk falls, the mosquitoes come out and bite. It’s not just something that affects foreigners such as myself, either. City dwellers suffer similarly and are generally not keen to head out to the countryside for that reason.

The Cuban Government is very effective at mounting health campaigns such as this and in dealing with natural disasters such as hurricanes. Its work in such areas should be a model for other governments in the region to follow, in my opinion.


1 02 2011

La pelota (the ball) is what Cubans call baseball, their national sport, about which they are every bit as fanatical as the English are about football. I have been learning about the game in my Spanish classes at the university and have now been to two games here in Santiago. I had never been to a game before, or watched one on TV, so had no idea about the rules or objectives of the game

. A friend accompanied me to the first game and gave me a running commentary, so I now have a rough idea of what is going on. The first game that I went to was Santiago v Granma. When we were queuing for our tickets, a woman called us over and said that we had to go into a special section for foreigners, even though my friend is Cuban. The price for the foreigners’ section was 3 CUC each (about £2.16), compared to 1 CUP (£0.03) in the main section. The foreigners’ section was at pitch level, so the view was not very good and the players not on the pitch were practising in front of us, obscuring our view. The seats were not very comfortable and when I put my foot on the wall in front of me, to make myself more comfortable, I was told by a policeman to take it down. There was no atmosphere at all where we were and we were a long way from the main section, where the crowd were making a lot of noise. There was nowhere in our section to buy refreshments, so in order to buy some drinks I had to leave the stadium and enter the main section, then return with them. All in all, it was not a very enjoyable afternoon.

 This weekend, Santiago were playing the biggest team in the country, Los Industriales, from Havana, the current champions. I thought that I would try again, but this time went alone. When I went to queue for my ticket, again a woman called me over and told me there was a section for tourists. I said that I was not a tourist. She asked if I had residency and I replied yes, temporary residency, as a student. She said that the tourist section was more comfortable, but I replied that I did not like it because there was no atmosphere and you could not buy food or drink. She seemed impressed with my temporary residency and allowed me to pay 1 CUP admission and go into the main section.

The seating in the main section is mostly on the concrete steps, but is more comfortable than the seats, because the steps are wider. People also had their feet on the wall in front, without being reprimanded. I would estimate that the crowd (based on my many years’ experience of English lower league football) was about 3000, which surprised me, because I had expected a bigger crowd for such a big game. There were people passing through the crowd throughout the game selling peanuts, sandwiches, chocolate, sweets, cakes and chewing gum. There was a small group of Industriales supporters, who made much noise and spent their time teasing and taunting the local fans. However, they were not segregated and, unlike in English football, where this would have led to fights, the local fans responded with good humour and there was a friendly, non-aggressive atmosphere.

 Another contrast with English football was the complete absence of commercialism – no team sponsors’ logos emblazoned on the team’s shirts, no advertisements (just signs calling for the release of the five Cuban heroes in US jails) and no special seats reserved for commercial organisations. It was quite refreshing and reminded me of the English football of my childhood.

 Unfortunately, despite playing well, Santiago lost, as they had on each of the previous two days (there are three games against each team, played on consecutive days). The conduct of the team will be widely discussed throughout the city over the coming days, because most Santiaguerros (like the Habaneros and the people of every other city) consider themselves experts and will offer their analysis of where the team went wrong. The real excitement comes at the end of the season, where the top four teams from the east, along with the top four from the west, compete in the play-offs for the season’s championship.