My wish for Cuba
The photo was taken last week in Old Havana, on the Paseo Marti at lunchtime. We had found a restaurant on the roof of the Asturias friendship association’s building: they have a barbecue up there. I had a whole grilled red snapper, my partner the largest pork brocheta I have ever seen. We felt very lucky to be away from the cold of Vancouver, in a beautiful old city. Then I looked across at the other side of the street.
There are many old buildings in Havana, which tourists love to photograph. They are highly picturesque and a few have been beautifully restored. Many more are in desperate need of repair. Look at the balcony of the window to the left of where this woman is standing. The old rusted rebar is still there, hanging loose. The concrete has fallen away. Yet there she stands – and where she is standing is going to go the same way one day.
Cuba has been subject to a lot of severe weather – many sites show the damage caused by hurricanes. These weather events are getting more severe and more frequent. Many countries are switching to renewable energy sources to try to limit the increase in the greenhouse gases that are the cause of the change in our climate. It is not just warming: it is sea level rise, storms and plagues.
In its recent history Cuba suffered as a result of the US embargo. It had an ally in the former Soviet Union but that source of aid has gone. It used to rely heavily on Venezuela for its fuel but that country is now facing its own challenges. A Canadian company, Sherritt, has been helping in recent years to exploit the newly found oil and gas resources not too far from Havana in Matanzas, near Varadero – which is also a major area for all inclusive resorts where we also spent some time last week. We saw the huge chimney of the thermal power plant that now supplies Havana’s electricity – and it’s long plume of particulates. These add to the smoke from the open burning of sugar cane residues in the field after harvest. And the tailpipe emissions from old cars that never had catalytic converters or any emission controls and have now been mostly converted to diesel. I got through four packs of nasal tissues every day while in Havana.
What we did not see – despite the sunshine and strong winds – were any photovoltaic panels or turbines. Someone told us they were in the plan for the future but were currently considered “too expensive”. She also said that Raul Castro has announced his intention to retire next year. There is much uncertainty over what may follow.
My wish is that the people of Cuba will benefit from the long overdue improvement in relations with the United States as a result of President Obama’s decision to end the embargo. The main immediate effect of which was to end the opportunity of travel for Cubans to the US as refugees. Increasing uncertainty is unfortunately a major plank in the policy of the current occupant of the White House.
Cuba is a poor country with many people who are underemployed: well educated but unable to find a way to utilise their knowledge, skills and willingness to work hard. Every embassy and consulate I saw in Havana is heavily fortified, not because Cuba is unsafe but to deter those who might climb their fences to secure sanctuary.
My wish is for a better future for Cubans that is not dependent on the individual generosity of tourists, or the investment of more Canadian money in exploiting fossil fuels. A future which offers dignity for all. And safety in their homes. Not a precarious perch in a crumbling ruin. I wish I knew of a way of getting this message out to more people. I wish we could persuade our governments that waiting for chaos to break out – or even provoking it – and then offering shelter to a tiny percentage of the resulting refugees is not a tenable foreign policy option. That foreign aid is not just an easy target for spending cuts to allow tax breaks for the wealthy. That countries like Cuba are not simply a useful place to conduct torture that would be illegal at home – and is anyway ineffective.
My wish is that countries like Canada and the United States will do something to tackle the gross inequalities that now characterize our world. Symbolized by the wealthy old white guy enjoying his expensive lunch while a young woman looks out from her window a few feet away and wonders what she will do next.
Much later in the same day I wrote this piece my partner found an article by Michael J Totten in World Affairs entitled “The Once Great City of Havana” 3 December 2013. It is a Long Read but very thought provoking.