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“Cuba is far away, Cuba is near…”(From a Soviet song).
Cuban Diary of a Soviet exile.

By Irina Malenko

Part 1
Till the cock crows thrice in Havana

… Western travel guides about Cuba  (including those on the Internet) just can’t get enough stressing that it is  “a poor country”, where people are “happy to get an old dollar bill”. Even such pleasant for a tourist aspect of staying there as the virtual absence of crime (those of us who come from a socialist country,
remember all too well that it was in the nature of our society!) is being portrayed as “it is nice, but don’t you forget that it’s just because of the totalitarian Castro regime and the enormous number of police on the streets”. I’ll come back to this statement later on.

If one is to believe Western propaganda, university professors including, then, for example, Soviet women were working exclusively because “their husbands could not afford to feed them”. It is virtually impossible to argue with those who are brought up with such a primitive vision of life and, of course, are judging
everybody else by his or her own standard.  I am not even attempting to do that: those who are born to crawl, as we say, are unable to fly…

And yet, when I was flying to Cuba for the very first time in my life, I was worrying: what would I see in this almost the only country in the world today that by some kind of miracle has managed to keep those norms, moral and spiritual values that I was brought up with? Not only to keep but also to defend these values  and proudly uphold them in today’s world with its rapidly growing madness…

In some ways my doubts could have been explained by my feeling of guilt for the betrayal of the Island of Freedom, as we used to call Cuba, by my own country .  Or, more precisely,  Cuba was betrayed by that what has been left from my country. And, to be even more precise, not by my country as such, but by that gang of compradors  who usurped power over 10 years ago.

Let me quote for you the words of my new friend living in Cuba – the Irish journalist Bernie. “Do you know what’s the difference between the Cuban government and other governments of the world, including ours? The difference is that the Cubans have ethics, even in our times!”

Thinking of the recent steps of the Russian government – including sacrificing the "newly independent" (not for long, as we see today!) Central Asian states to the Uncle Sam and practically stabbing revolutionary Cuba into her back by its Lourdes decision, - I couldn’t help deeply blushing with shame. It was impossible to disagree with Bernie on this one. Modern “democratic” politicians around the world do not even smell like ethics or any sort of principles, as we say in Russia!

Fidel Castro today looks like a brave and noble Don Quixote fighting with an enormous number of the ugliest and the most disgusting “windmills” in human history. You don’t have to idealize him to acknowledge this fact.  It does not matter what you think or how you feel about his economic policy and the Cuban social/ economic system: it is simply impossible not to admire the man who, unlike cowardly, selfish and sold-out modern “leaders", continues courageously to tell the truth about Cuba's giant predatory neighbor… telling the truth straight into this predator's face;  who bravely lives on by his own laws right under the jaws of those who have bombed Yugoslavia, Iraq and other countries “for not obeying (their) rules” …

Not for nothing I gave Cuba as an example to my Irish friends when they started to justify their one-sided act of disarmament by “objective conditions in the world after 11/09”…

Fidel Castro has shown to us by his personal example that there is an alternative to the common practice of  “being a sheep under American shepherd. “ As if following Lenin’s words “ we'll chose a different way!”, Castro has openly condemned both individual and state terrorism, including the neo-colonial American-British war in Afghanistan.

Fidel wasn’t scared by “objective conditions”.

… From the plane Cuba looks surprisingly much like Russia: while it was still high in the sky above Jose Marti Airport, you couldn’t see the tall palms and the banana plantations. What you could see, were long concrete walls and numerous high-rise apartment blocks. But then the plane goes lower, lands… and we are coming outside, into the sticky steamy heat.. 

The first impression is that people are very friendly, but a little shier and quieter than other islanders of the region (I used to live in Curacao). The immigration officer shyly smiles at me, checking my passport. Russians still do not need a visa to visit Cuba. I don’t speak Spanish and am trying to communicate
with  Cubans in a mixture of Papiamento (Creole language of Curacao), English and Russian. You can’t say that many people are fluent in Russian (why would they be, if they don’t need it daily?), but many can understand me and say something nice back.   A slightly older generation cheers me with the stories about how wonderful it was  to study in USSR. Even though it wasn’t always easy… 

They call me “Sovietica” – and it really warms my heart. Because that is what I really am, that is my real identity. I am not purely ethnically Russian, and my norms and values are Soviet values and norms. 

… Havana still bears the traces of the recent hurricane Michelle – the heaviest hurricane on the island in  the last 50 years. On many houses, especially high-rise buildings, the windows are still criss-crossed with a brown cello tape; some windows are broken. Many houses badly need painting. But almost out of every window there, as a sign that life goes on, fresh-washed clothes are hanging out for drying…

The evacuation of civilians during the storm was so well organized that even the Western media, who is always eager to find a speck in Cuba's eye, couldn’t say a bad word about it.  The number of human casualties would have been much higher if it wasn’t for that very “totalitarian” Castro’s socialism. This is, of course, something that the imperialist press does not want to admit…

… People on the streets stroll unhurriedly; many “hitch-hiking” on the roads. Where the Western media see an  economic crisis forcing problems on the public transport system, I notice something else. I see people who are not afraid of each other, even very young school girls and boys hitch-hike!).  It would be considered too dangerous to travel this way nowadays either in Russia or in most Western and developing countries. I also observe that these people are not filled through and through with greed – for  nobody pays for getting a lift: something which is simply impossible to imagine in the world where I live now!

In other words, I see HUMAN BEINGS in the full sense of this word, caring and helping each other – not  some two-legged creatures that are trying to survive in the daily reality of  such a  primitive, despite all its technical advantages, capitalist jungle…

Many cars on the roads are Soviet: “ Ladas,  Moskvichs, ZILs and KAMAZs … That  does not make me feel in any way “superior”, the way some Americans feel when they notice that a restaurant menu was printed in Microsoft’s Power Point; that just makes me feel like at home. It also makes me admire the inventiveness of the Cuban people: they manage to make drivable even such cars  that nobody else could. 

The most important expressions on a Cuban bus, just as on a Russian one, would be:  ”Who is the last?” (in the queue) and “Are you getting off?”( in order to get closer to the door when you are leaving). My special admiration is for the buses called Camello (“Camel”) : a self-made bus cabin put on a powerful truck! I was even jealous that we don’t have anything like that, especially since the public transport in the area where I live, is far from perfect and terribly expensive. Western media, again, prefer not to say how little (even for a Cuban) a bus ride here costs… 

Havana streets- broad, gorgeously beautiful, decorated with tall fancy palms. You can well imagine how wonderfully they looked at the height of the economic socialist booming, before 1991. But even today one can only ask himself how is it possible to survive and to keep its human face for a country of quite 
limited resources, under inhumane economic blockade that is suffocating Cuba for so many years, and after betrayal (let’s call it what it really is!) from the part of its former main ally and helper. 

Our Russian readers may have noticed how Russian capitalist media was gloating in their anticipation for Michelle to hit Havana and – I dare to say - nearly hoping for civilian casualties in Cuba . And how quickly did they put behind this news when it turned out that, thanks to the socialist system of organization and mutual help, Cuba was able to avoid  many of those sad things they’d be so glad to report about? 

I think such pathological attitude can be explained only by the fact that Russians ARE FEELING GUILTY AND ASHAMED of their betrayal – and the louder they scream and are trying to make fun of Cuba, the more obvious this shame becomes… 

There are many shared apartments  in the old Havana – something similar to what we call “kommunalka” in Russia. Before the Revolution they were villas  for the rich only, these old white-stoned beautiful buildings of  Spanish colonial style, with verandahs and large balconies – now each of them is housing several families. I think it is a fair solution to the problem of housing shortage.  All over the city, despite current economic difficulties, there is a great number of new construction sites… Not just tourist hotels! 

Nobody here looks poor. There are virtually no homeless people on the streets, everybody is well dressed, nobody looks staring, and there are no homeless children .

For comparison: in the “flourishing” (term widely used in the Western media)  Moscow where the authorities finally decided to do something about this shameful situation, 8000 homeless children were detained on a single night! Of course, they will let them on the streets  again  soon after this “cleaning operation” – because our “free and democratic” state  has no time and no money to care for them!
In the whole Russia there are estimated 3 to 5 MILLIONS of homeless kids. Something we have NEVER had in my 22 years of life in USSR. 

There are some beggars in the touristy areas of Old Havana or Trinidad – but they seem to be people who are doing it not out of a dire need, but as a kind of  “hobby" or  ”easy extra income”.  Some of them wouldn’t accept Cuban pesos from you – even though pesos could buy them good quality fast food. I think this tells it all… 

There are no hooligans, no dumb “tough guys”, hanging around every private restaurant for “protection”, like in Russia and other Eastern European countries.

Instead,  I see a lot of cheerful (despite all their daily problems), kind, hospitable, very cultured and well educated people. And I also see something long forgotten in Russia– a lot of theaters, museums, clubs (not in the Western sense of word!), cinemas (with real quality movies that make you think – not sick teenagers fantasies from Hollywood), cultural centers, concert halls, and you can visit them for a very small (even for Cubans) price.

The streets are full of loud and happy looking schoolchildren in mustard-coloured uniforms and real pioneers’ ties. They are being brought to and from schools in special buses. For free. Despite economic difficulties, every child under 7 years of age gets 1 liter of milk per day. And so do the old people.

What really strikes me here is that Cuba has probably more universities, institutes, scientific centers and also various specialized clinics than in every other country I've been to (including USSR).

Well, let’s take a look at who is really poor?

Those who have a guaranteed minimum of everything what is needed for living – and have the opportunity to study and to get high quality medical care for free, to choose their profession and to become whoever they want in life ( not to become “voluntarily-obligatory” street salesmen pushing  some foreign-made garbage to their compatriots who were kicked out of the domestic factories, which used to produce the very same things, and of better quality, before they were shut down!)?

Those who have at their disposal free of charge sporting facilities and all the cultural treasures of their nation and of many other nations of the world, have genuine freedom to choose among real art in their theaters, museums, libraries, cinemas?

Or poor are those who have to buy cars because they have no good public transportation; those who eat Chinese and McDonald’s junk every day till they feel sick in their stomach – and then spend big money
desperately  trying to fight “women’s biggest enemy – cellulite”?  (I always thought that women’s biggest enemy is sexual discrimination at work and in the society in general?).  Those who are watching dumb movies and reading brainwashing nonsense of glossy magazines –either because they know nothing better, or because it is so much more comfortable not to think? Those who are doing all these things,
simply BECAUSE THEY HAVE ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ELSE TO FILL THEIR LIVES WITH, except for their natural biological functions?

These people do not even understand that they are missing something. They do not see that, in fact, it is THEM, who think of themselves as “being well-off or at least “better off” than Cubans, who are TRULY POOR. 

Why? Because they are deprived of true choices. They think that they have no censorship, but why are they  reading all same magazines in all their respective different countries, magazines that from one month into another  write on the very same “deeply interesting" ( for those with one brain cell) subject of “how to reach many orgasms in one night”.. They are watching the same predictable thrillers in all their different countries.  These films kill their very capacity to think.  They usually end with a final big fight between The Good Guy and The Bad Guy (there isn’t much difference between the two, character wise!) somewhere in the old abandoned factory where the rusted conveyer belts “suddenly” start moving… How brainwashed one must be to be willing to watch this over and over again – and yet believing that one is “free”!

In these "free" countries these "free" people sit like zombies in front of their new icons  - TV sets, watching every evening the very same dumb soaps and games like "Big Brother" and "Who Wants  To Be A Millionaire…" produced by "free" media firms.

The "free" people seem to be not sick and tired yet of this modern psycho disorder: “word exhibitionism” of the participants of those endless talk shows who are for some reason so sure that we must be terribly  interested in the color of their underwear or their fist-fights with their parents-in-law…

These “free” people do not even realize that what  their “free” media feeds them has been selected  by those “money bags” who own it. And as before they obediently believe that that what  they are not supposed to know, simply does not exist…

These "free" people appear totally lacking our socialist skill  to “read between the lines.”  Yet this skill is much more needed in the “free” world ...

In reality, all their “freedom” consists in one simple choice: to turn the TV on or not to turn it on at all.  Yes, to turn, or not to turn...

I was thinking about all of this, while falling asleep my first night on the Island of Freedom, in an apartment of a simple Cuban woman, a single working mother. It was a nice large  apartment, simply, but tastefully decorated, with 2 bedrooms, a giant size bath and sun shades on the windows.

There was no poverty here at all – there was just no hot water, but we Russians can well live with that…

I remembered  that in the Netherlands only the rich have a bath (the rest have only a shower), and that my Dutch friend, the wife of  the school teacher with a good salary, is using her washing machine only at nights – because it’s cheaper, - and looks at you angrily if you spend in her shower longer than 20 minutes (because the bill will be too high)…. Our Russian media prefers not to mention these “charming” details of  a daily life in a “rich” country… (Just as the Western media prefers not to mention that, for example, in USSR children’s clothes and shoes were subsidized by the “dictatorial” state and were costing virtually
nothing, while in their “free” world everything the child needs cost just as much, if not more, than adult items….). 

Cuba is not a poor country. It is richer than any of the self-proclaimed “civilized” ones. And when in the early morning I was awaken by Havana dogs and the crowing of the loud Cuban cocks (Russians believe that all evil ghosts disappear when the cock crows for the third time in the morning), I had the  feeling, which I haven’t had for many years, since the Soviet days of my life. It was a feeling of joyful peace and expectation of a long-long sunny day… 

(will continue)

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