From Cuba with Love

From Cuba with Love

REPORTER: David O’Shea

Workers’ Day is the most important holiday in Cuba.


After 47 years of constant threats from the US and a crippling trade embargo, Cubans don’t miss an opportunity to express their defiance. The world’s media have been allowed in, everyone assumes, because Fidel Castro will make an appearance. It’s been nearly a year since he fell ill and he hasn’t been seen in public since then.

SPEAKER, (Translation): A quick recovery and good health, dear Comrade Fidel.

But Castro doesn’t show. His brother, Raul, is the interim President and he’s the one that presides over the parade.

SPEAKER, (Translation): Long live Fidel! Long live Raul! Long live a free Cuba! Socialism or death!

Life in Cuba is very tightly controlled. I’m told that not showing up for this parade would attract attention from the informers that watch over every neighbourhood. But that doesn’t scare everyone.

It’s technically illegal for Cubans to talk to foreign reporters without official permission but Pocho has agreed to show me around. He’s lived in this tight-knit community just outside Havana all his life, and like millions of Cubans before him, he’s desperate to leave. Most Cubans go to the US but Pocho wants to join his Australian wife in Sydney.

POCHO, (Translation): I don’t know Australia. I have so many people to meet. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll like it, maybe not but I’ll try and be there with my wife for a while.

All the men in the village want to know what they can do to get an Australian bride too.

MAN, (Translation): Fix your clothes. That’s it! So they can see how good you look. There are so many sharks around, you need to look macho.

SHOPKEEPER, (Translation): Let’s see if an Australian girl wants to take me there.

POCHO, (Translation): I’m sure of it.

Pocho’s bedroom is a virtual shrine to his wife, Kelly.

POCHO, (Translation): This was the start of our relationship, my relationship with my wife. In old Havana.

REPORTER, (Translation): When was it?

POCHO, (Translation): That was early 2006. This is when Kelly was getting ready for the wedding. It was at the Sevilla Hotel in Havana. Her father was there. Here she’s learning to dance salsa with my father. But I don’t think she learned much then because he was very drunk. It is impossible to live with my wife here in my country but I never lose hope. I know I’ll soon be with her and we’ll be happy.

Pocho is not the only one disillusioned with life in Cuba.

JOHN BROTHERTON, FORMER HEAD OF LATIN AMERICAN STUDIES, UNSW: The socialist ideal made some sense in a socialist world. It was an alternative project. But to be socialist in a world without socialism seems almost preposterous.

John Brotherton knows Cuba very well. The former head of Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of NSW, he has been visiting Cuba for over 20 years.

JOHN BROTHERTON: This one shows the first work brigade we took there, this was in 1983, if memory serves me right. We took more than 60 Australians who paid $2,500 to go and work for the revolution. Those were the days when I found the revolution really inspiring, really, really inspiring.

But Sydney-based Brotherton says Cuba has changed for the worse. He says life was great in the 1980s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, which used to prop up the Cuban economy.

JOHN BROTHERTON: People were living quite well, you could go and buy a chicken if you wanted a chicken, you could buy a bottle of rum if you wanted a bottle of rum, alright? You could go to the movies, you could go dancing. It was really.. The revolution really delivered for the vast majority of people. I would often stop and say to myself, “John, compare this with Mexico, compare it with Bolivia, compare it with almost anywhere in Latin America, if you are an average person this is where you’d want to be.”

Pocho has spent months gathering the documents he needs to get to Australia. I catch up with him as he leaves the immigration office. He was hoping to get official permission to leave Cuba but it’s bad news.

POCHO, (Translation): I have all the important papers I’m meant to have – a letter of invitation, a visa in my passport – I also have my plane ticket, and I have all I need to be able to travel, but they say I have to wait for an answer from the military committee.

Because Pocho has never done his military service it will be another few weeks before the authorities decide whether or not to let him leave. He’s frustrated by this unexpected setback.

POCHO, (Translation): They treat tourists like kings. Cubans are shit! Where do I begin to tell you? Australians should come here to Cuba to learn what the reality is.

TAXI DRIVER, (Translation): You need “the card to freedom”.

POCHO, (Translation): The white card. Well put. “The card to freedom”!

OSCAR ESPINOSA CHEPE, ECONOMIST (Translation): We all dreamed of creating heaven here in Cuba, but we have only created hell. That’s the sad reality. It’s been a huge disappointment.

Oscar Espinosa Chepe is a Cuban dissident who has a real card to freedom. Sentenced to 20 years prison he was let out because of failing health – but there is a catch.

OSCAR ESPINOSA CHEPE, READS (Translation): “Until he gets his health back.” This means I can be returned to prison at any time. I worked in the government for many years as a diplomat. I was also a specialist on Cuban agricultural issues. As with the great majority of Cubans I supported the government for many years, and actively, even as a child.

Chepe, an economist, first became disillusioned with Cuba’s rigid, state-run system in the 1980s. In 2003, along with 74 other dissidents, he was charged with “activities against the integrity and sovereignty of the state”. But Chepe says it’s Fidel Castro who’s betrayed the revolution.

OSCAR ESPINOSA CHEPE, (Translation): It’s about preserving absolute power and creating a totalitarian state, that has absolutely nothing to do with socialist ideals. Here there’s no social property. What we have is a state capitalism run by a group that controls everything.

Chepe’s wife, Miriam, is a founding member of a support group for the dissidents, who are known as the Group of 75. Calling themselves Las Damas de Blanco, or the Ladies in White, they gather at the Santa Rita church in Havana and call on the government to release the prisoners.

MIRIAM LEIVA, DISSIDENT, (Translation): Saint Rita, pray for all of us, pray for all prisoners, and for the people of Cuba.

MIRIAM LEIVA: They know we are going to keep doing this but we are very peaceful. We are not a political movement, we are together because we are demanding our rights to have our relatives released, free. And what we demand is something very human, it is their liberty and also for them to be treated correctly.

The Ladies in White have come here every Sunday since the arrests four years ago. Watched by spies who peer out from behind nearby trees, they march silently up and down the street. It may not look like much but dissent in Cuba is seldom tolerated and these women could be arrested at any time.

REPORTER: The very act of convening every week to make this point is a political act, surely?

MIRIAM LEIVA: Well, OK, it can be seen as a political act and in fact in Cuba it had never happened before.

WOMEN, (Translation): Freedom, freedom.

REPORTER: On one hand, you are telling me that nobody can talk, can be critical but you are doing all of that very openly with me, knowing full well that the government will see this.

MIRIAM LEIVA: Well, because in 1992 I was a senior official at the ministry of foreign affairs and I lost my job because they considered that I was married to a counter-revolutionary. And it was not true, my husband was trying to improve and help the country. This is the only thing we can do, express ourselves, defend our right of expression and our human rights in general. And if they come and take us to prison, well, we have no other choice.

Last year at the United Nations, the Australian Government raised concerns about the lack of democracy and freedom in Cuba.

LOIPA SANCHEZ LORENZO, MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS, (Translation): It’s really unfortunate that the Australian people, who have high values and whom the Cuban people regard highly, and who are an honest people, know that their government is so eager to support the US Government.

REPORTER, (Translation): There must be human rights abuses here, they’ve said it for a reason.

LOIPA SANCHEZ LORENZO, (Translation): I invite anyone who says there are human rights abuses to come to Cuba and see for themselves.

Unfortunately this is difficult. Amnesty International has not been allowed to visit Cuba for almost 20 years. The Cuban Government dismisses the dissidents as nothing more than paid American stooges.

LOIPA SANCHEZ LORENZO, (Translation): We all know it. There’s one in my neighbourhood. I’ve known her since I was a child. She gets US$100 a month from the US Embassy. And with that she buys…

REPORTER, (Translation): How do you know?

LOIPA SANCHEZ LORENZO, (Translation): Everyone knows!

MIRIAM LEIVA: They should be very much ashamed of saying that we are bought for $100.

OSCAR ESPINOSA CHEPE: The government use this, this lie to defend them because they know they lost all their ideology, they don’t have nothing now.

According to long-time Cuba-watcher John Brotherton, the dissidents and Las Damas de Blanco are brave but ineffectual.

JOHN BROTHERTON: They are seen almost as a sort of sect, I think, that’s how they are portrayed, right – as a sort of little group of troublemakers, right, who are opposed to Fidel. And of course that is the great crime in Cuba, being opposed to Fidel. And the price for joining them or supporting them is very, very high and it’s a higher price, I think, than the vast majority of Cubans are prepared to pay.

Not all young Cubans are disaffected and desperate to leave. These are some of the 40,000-strong trabajadores sociales or social workers – that Castro has enlisted to ensure the future of the revolution. Today they are handing out long-lasting light bulbs and replacing old energy-inefficient household appliances.

GIRL, SOCIAL WORKER, (Translation): These are the fridges we call ‘artefacts’ because they use too much electricity. They’re ruining the country because of the expenditure in fuel.

Castro’s “Green Army” has already handed out 9.4 million fluorescent light bulbs, now they want people to change their old fridges. They have to pay but it can be paid off on a plan over many years.

IRACLES SALAZAR GUERRA, (Translation): It’s a new revolution, an energy revolution. It’s basically implementing concrete and practical actions that follow the reflections of our commander-in-chief in his latest articles.

GIRL, (Translation): No-one’s forced to change their fridge. You change it if you want to. It’s just that everybody has revolutionary blood in their veins and do what the revolution needs, and now the revolution calls for saving energy.

JOHN BROTHERTON: When faced with a foreign journalist Cubans know what the right answers are. A lot of Cubans are revolutionary but when you look at them in their day-to-day life, right, particularly the people who are sort of, I suppose, economically marginalised, which is a huge amount of people, they are discontent.

MIRIAM LEIVA: Everything depends on what you say or what you do. For instance, the only employer in Cuba is the government, the state so if you want to have a job, you have to work by their rules. If you want your son to go to a university, they say the universities are for revolutionaries, so they won’t get a place there at the university, and so on. So in Cuba repression is personalised.

This family was given its energy-efficient pressure cooker, fans and light bulbs when the program was first started, and now they are getting their fridge.

GIRL, (Translation): This is the fridge’s user manual. It also comes with an ice cube tray for the freezer.

Meanwhile Pocho is at a neighbour’s house waiting for Kelly to call so he can explain that his departure has been delayed. He doesn’t have a phone and can’t afford to make a call himself.

POCHO, (Translation): Come on, Kelly, come on, Kelly, call me please. I need to talk with you. This makes me desperate, you know.

When she calls, it’s clear this is not the news she wanted to hear.

POCHO, (Translation): Don’t be sad. You are crying. I can feel you are crying. Why are you crying? I love you. I miss you too. Ciao. I don’t want to hear you sad any more. We’ll talk tomorrow. Kiss. I love you always. ‘Bye.

Pocho now has time to kill. To take his mind off the frustration of dealing with Cuba’s bureaucracy, Pocho, a singer – plays a song he’s written especially for Kelly.

POCHO, (Translation): I’ve had a very bad day today. All this time I’ve been getting my papers together so that I can be close to my wife. But you know how it is here, you know how life is in Cuba, you know how hard it is. They don’t care if you’re married, or if you’re suffering, or how you feel. Today I feel a bit tired and sad. I have to sing to relax a bit and feel a little better.

If you don’t have the right communist pedigree, it can be hard to make ends meet here. Once, with Soviet support, Cuba was the land of plenty, but these days it’s struggling to feed its people.

POCHO, (Translation): He’s selling these shoes for 25 pesos. What for? To have a party?

MAN, (Translation): No, to eat! Everything’s sold so I can eat. Look, children’s socks..

POCHO, (Translation): This is the reality in Cuba. They’re good, they’re hard.

Although small-scale business is often tolerated, under Cuba’s state-controlled economy the people selling these items are essentially breaking the law.

POCHO, (Translation): How much for a lemon?

BOY, (Translation): 1 peso.

POCHO, (Translation): I’ll take 20.

OSCAR ESPINOSA CHEPE, (Translation): Everything’s prohibited. There are no incentives. There are no chances for people to make their own decisions. In practice, Cubans cannot have businesses. Foreigners can run businesses, but not us. We can’t stay in hotels, they’re only for foreigners. Not even with hard currency. We aren’t allowed access to the Internet. Only some government clients and intellectuals have access, otherwise it’s prohibited.

Universal healthcare and education are the undeniable success stories of the Cuban revolution. There are few countries in the developing world which can offer free schooling and medical treatment to all. For the very young it’s small classes and good teachers.

TEACHER, (Translation): There are 19 students in this classroom.

But as the students get older it seems the indoctrination kicks in.

SCHOOLGIRL, READS POEM IN CLASS, (Translation): Be calm, my commander. We have a brave people here. They may want to destroy us, but haven’t managed before. Be calm and have no concerns that the people are alert in the face of aggression. You are recovering from a major operation. Be calm, my commander. The Cuban people are protecting the revolution. We admire your bravery and solidarity. For your love of your people we send you kisses on your 80th birthday. We are all at school following our syllabuses. A speedy recovery is our wish, from your people who love you. Be calm, my commander, be calm.

Perhaps her poem worked because Castro’s health did improve, after almost a year out of the public eye, last month he appeared on state TV looking much stronger. Miriam Leiva says when he first got sick people whispered their hopes to her.

MIRIAM LEIVA: They would tell you, you know, “Soon the transportation will be better, soon we will have better wages.” Since months have passed and what you only see is that sometimes they speak that Fidel Castro is coming back, that his health is improving but nobody sees him. And what he talks about is nothing that has to do with the real situation of the country. People are losing, you know, their hopes.

POCHO, (Translation): Kelly says that in Australia you have these huge prawns. I can’t wait to get there to try them. The first dish I’m going to eat in Australia will be Australian prawns. At least I’ll be able to buy them. Here you work but you can’t buy anything. You can work for one month but if you want to get a plate of prawns you can’t afford it. You can’t eat it!

JOHN BROTHERTON: If I didn’t know Cuba so intimately, well, it would be really nice for me to still believe, to believe in the dream. And I sort of regret, I have to say, I am saddened by what I know because I sort of rather would not know it. It would be easier for me to still be a true believer, right, and to think things were wondrous in the garden but they just aren’t and it’s sad that they aren’t because the project was a wonderful project.

The tragedy for Cuba is that years of repression and economic stagnation mean that many of its youth want to be elsewhere. And for Kelly’s husband, Pocho, the dream has finally come true.

KELLY, (Translation): You know I haven’t slept since you left Cuba. Only eight hours.

POCHO, (Translation): The problem is it’s such a long way. And there was a kid next to me crying the whole way but no problem because you do everything for love. I am here and we are together.