I have spent about a year of my life in Cuba, so have seen a great deal of its ‘authentic’ side. Aside from the police repression and intellectual wasteland (there is one newspaper and state television brooks no dissent) the Cuba I have experienced is one of dirt, scarcity and rampant prostitution.
It is the last of these which is the most galling. Cuba’s command economy is unable to provide a basic standard of living for its people, so in order to survive, most Cubans must find an income source to top up their state salary. For those fortunate enough to have relatives in the United States or Europe, help comes in the form of dollar remittances. For those less fortunate, the only way to make some extra cash or eat a decent meal can often be to sell their body to a – usually much older – European or Canadian tourist.
This reality hits you as soon as you step inside a restaurant or hotel in Havana. In every direction are girls who look no more than 16 accompanied by sagging and pale tourists approaching pension age....
Arthur Koestler once referred to pro-Soviet communists in the rich world as voyeurs, peeping through a hole in the wall at history while not having to experience it themselves. The Stalin Society is a lot smaller today (though you can still find the Cuba Solidarity stall at Labour party conference) but the mindset persists: Cubans are the unwilling participants in a communist experiment, there mainly for affluent westerners to gawk at and, when the ‘chemistry’ is right (i.e. when you’ve paid for everything) to take back to the hotel room.
Of course, the resorts in Varadero that most tourists visit are about as ‘authentically’ Cuban as a Soho restaurant’s ‘authentically Chinese’ sweet-and-sour chicken. Step outside of the official tourist route and one soon sees the real Cuba. It is here, amidst the prostitutes and the elderly people rummaging through bins in central Havana, that one starts to understand why many Cubans might like a few branches of McDonalds in their country. Cheap plastic food is, after all, a good deal better than no food at all.
These visitors are of the same ilk as those who see a little African child poking at the dirt with a stick--his only toy--and pointing out that he is happier than American children who don't value their many possessions.