The time capsule: Reflections from Cuba

CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Officer reflects on the island where things are supposed to changing politically, but in many ways stay the same.

Visitor numbers are soaring, with over 2 million tourists arriving in Cuba each year.  And why wouldn’t they be? Historic Havana, churches, cigar factories, vintage cars, live music, art galleries and museums, UNESCO heritage sites, beautiful beaches and the warm climate all make for the perfect holiday destination.

Cuba, a land where you can experience the past, in the present. When people think of Cuba, isn’t this what comes to mind?

But much of the world remains unaware that travelling off the  beaten path leaves a bittersweet taste in the mouth. In a country with some of the most hospitable and generous people you will ever meet, you will also find that many live on less than $2 a day – and for a number of reasons, the exact figure of those living in poverty is hard to ascertain.

Outside the capital most people cannot afford the comfortable luxury of a Chevrolet and many get around by horse and carriage or ‘cogiendo botella’; in other words, they hitch a ride with whoever is passing by. And whilst a horse and carriage may make for a true Cuban experience and a good photo opportunity, it is also symbolic of a time warp that isn’t so positive for its citizens.

What is apparent is that whilst the tourist sector may have boomed, the only place benefiting from this boom is Havana, the national capital of the communist island and the government’s trust fund.

And this is only part of the story.

In a land that is green and fertile, it’s hard to know exactly what becomes of the wealth generated by tourism. Visitors are often unaware that the meagre ration book (Libreta de Abastecimiento) the government gives to the people is not even enough to last one week, let alone one month.

According to the Economist, Hurricane Irma, which struck the island in 2017, killing at least ten people, and led to an estimated $13 billion of damage, also delivered a heavy knock to an economy that was “already in terrible shape.”

Like Cuba’s iconic colourful colonial buildings, the one thing that tourists won’t fail to notice, the government’s insistence on denying such problems is ‘tiene mucha fachada’ – all show and no substance. Those who live in tourist areas, on main streets, are given paint to decorate the fronts of their houses – a luxury for the majority of the population –  in order to disguise the cracks in the buildings. These ‘fachadas’ represent the façade that the Cuban government has portrayed to the world.

Cuban officials will liberally declare the full right to freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression, exist in the country. However, although Cuba has signed both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), neither has been ratified.

Instead, through the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), which is mean to regulate religious affairs in the country, the government continues to oppress religious and belief groups across the island. According to CSW’s research, the majority of FoRB violations are perpetrated by the ORA, which is a branch of the Communist Party rather than an official government department. Its decisions are not subject to oversight and cannot be challenged through official channels or in a court of law.

Property rights is one issue affecting a wide variety of religious groups in the country. The government continues to target church buildings affiliated with both registered and unregistered religious groups. Churches are required to register their buildings in order for them to gain legal status, but church leaders have told CSW that when they make these requests, they are either denied or receive no answer.

Many churches have been waiting for around 25 years for legal permission to exist, which means that many churches are forced to meet illegally, making them vulnerable to confiscation or demolition. In addition, religious leaders regularly report harassment which appears to be aimed at intimidating them and interfering with church activities.

The use of temporary arbitrary detention, harassment of church leaders, and attacks on property rights has occurred for a number of years. However, in 2017, CSW noted that the government is now also diversifying its tactics by threatening activists and religious leaders with trumped up criminal charges, arbitrarily preventing them from traveling out of the country and targeting their children.

This is Cuba. With Fidel’s death, many hoped for change, but politically, with Díaz-Canel in power, Castro propaganda and metal cut-outs of Fidel still dominate the countryside in this one-party regime. Meanwhile, the economy is collapsing and the infrastructure is crumbling.

Mobile phones, which were restricted to those working for foreign companies and government officials, were legalised in 2008. But in many ways, this just enables state security to monitor more conversations, a reality that is already assumed by every Cuban.

Keeping wild birds in cages is a Cuban tradition, although, ironically, Cuba’s national bird, the Cuban trogon (Priotelus temnurus), cannot live in a cage because it dies of sadness in captivity.

The reality for many in Cuba is that the government’s tight control of education, broadcasting, newspapers, magazines and churches, and its use of political propaganda, leaves them feeling trapped.

By CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Officer.