“ What are the three great triumphs of the Revolution? Education, healthcare and sport. What are the three failings?
Breakfast, lunch and dinner. “
Benita works for the state. Nearly everyone works for the state in Cuba. Every truck, bus, most modern cars, industries, land and hotels are state-owned. We travelled extensively but I didn’t see a single commercial billboard. There’s a tiny private sector., mostly Casas, Cuban B&Bs. The free market is not in the DNA.
Benita is a small cheerful, resilient women in her early seventies with an infectious smile and a quick wit. She’s down to earth and very good at her job. She makes less than US$ 300 (£250) a year but she and her extended family are reasonably well-off by Cuban standards. Her children and grandchildren work as nurses, drivers, state-owned industries and the government. They're tight.
Cuba is a clunky, cheerful, friendly, inefficient monopoly, a totalitarian, socialist experiment on a grand scale which has (barely) survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and decades of punitive US sanctions. Like a workshop fixing old cars, Cuba somehow rubs along with ingenuity, making do on very little.
Cuba is one of the least connected and most censored countries in the world. This makes it very introverted. Ideas don't flow in and most that do are sat on. Mobile phones are ubiquitous but Wifi hotspots are government-approved and controlled. Skype and Facetime are blocked although Facebook is now permitted.
Nobody starves and violent crime is rare. But is It is the only country in the Americas whose government denies its citizens freedom of expression and assembly. Travelling abroad - allowed for the first time in 51 years in 2011 - is prohibitively expensive.
There’s lots Benita would like to change about life in Cuba. The absence of incentives encourages inefficiency, corruption and an iron rice bowl mentality. " Kids these days are lazy. They've forgotten where we've come from. How much we've sacrificed to get here".
But Benita is comfortable with “el systema”. She says so are most Cubans and I’m inclined to believe her. Salsa Socialism has created a (very basic) level playing field and it doesn’t look changing anytime soon.
Even if US sanctions were lifted tomorrow it's doubtful the leadership would follow through with a Chinese-style open door policy.
We invited Benita for a (very good) meal – rare in Cuba – and a gossip. At the end of the meal her granddaughter rang on her Blackberry to ask where she was. “ I’m not usually out this late apart from Saturdays when I go dancing.”
Music and dancing – not slogans - are the glue that binds this beautiful country together. Wherever you go there’s a salsa or timba band belting out irresistible rhythms.
Benita’s sons were sent to fight in Angola in the 1970's along with 25,000 others young men and women against the US and South African backed liberation movement. Cuba exported its revolution to Africa and Latin America. The West saw them as troublemakers. They saw themselves as the Scarlet Pimpernels of the Communist world.
Its poster boy of course was the impossibly handsome Che Guevara who died trying to start an insurrection in Bolivia. Che was the rock star of the revolutionary movement.
Thousands died in Angola. “ But my boys survived and came back to me”. Did she resent the fact that her sons were put in harm’s way to fight someone else’s war. “ No. I didn’t. It is who we were. It was a way of giving back to the revolution.”
Perpetual revolution is exhausting. Fidel Castro ousted the US-backed Mafiosi who had turned Cuba into a fleshpot with a few hundred men back in 1959. But to young people that's history.
They watch people like us flood into the country, wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, and think the world is leaving them behind.
I asked her whether she thought Cuba could go on keeping the door ajar and the world at bay and its people content.at the same time. “ I don’t know. For now we’re OK”.
It's a fantastic country. Come before it gets overrun by tour groups.