Thursday 23 May 2019

Cuba's window to a vanishing world - will it turn into a theme park?

Fidel Castro 1926-2016

Havana, Cuba
Havana, Cuba
Giant museum: The crumbling paint on the walls was a signature of urban Cuba
A pink car in Cuba
Fidel Castro

Eoghan Corry

Castro's death spells the end of the country's vintage charm, says award-winning travel journalist Eoghan Corry.

The death of Fidel Castro means that one of the great museums of the world is to be torn down and replaced by something far less interesting.

Cuba is big as museums go, one and a third times the size of Ireland. It has been in a state of suspended animation for 57 years, an interactive spectacle with museum streets, museum community life, museum theatre and museum music.

Sadly, it will likely be replaced by a theme park.

That's the trend and Cuba can no longer buck it. The first thing, maybe the most important thing, you notice as you travel to Havana is that the people of Cuba somehow managed to turn the volume down. There are silent streetscapes.

We don't notice when we travel the noisy world just how noisy it is, but we are being shouted at, screamed at by people who want to sell us things - cars, mobile phones, straight teeth - with their impossibly happy consumers leering at us from billboards and TV screens.

Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro

Not that the streets of Cuba do not have their own special signs. There are reproductions of Jim Fitzpatrick's Ernesto Che Guevara Lynch silhouette head on gable walls, posters, the names of restaurants. One of these Che Guevara icons had the wisdom of Lennon, not Lenin, painted over his portrait: "You may say I am a dreamer but I'm not the only one."

"Victory to the revolution" is painted in yellow and blue, rather discreetly on some street frontage, a yellow sun to the side. It's subtle as if they really didn't want people to notice that the revolution didn't export as well as they would have liked.

A personal favourite was the giant "socialism or death" placard at Cienfuegos airport (departing passengers needed cheering up).

The other three remaining countries of the communist world, China, Laos and Vietnam - even the twilight zone territories such as Transnistria and Northern Somalia - all have advertisements.

That silence, the volume turn of background music, is certainly doomed. Not so much death of a salesman as death of the anti-salesman.

An odd thing that I did not expect was, in the absence of billboards, you notice other things in the urban landscape - colours, faces, doors, clothes. The crumbling paint on the walls was a signature of urban Cuba. Tractors with workers standing in the trailer a signature of rural Cuba.

Musician playing upright bass, Santiago, Cuba
Musician playing upright bass, Santiago, Cuba

The streets with artistically-wrought rusting iron balconies, classical pillars and peeling wood where shutters might otherwise have been, the shops with no produce and broken tiles, the bars with lines of Havana club bottles on the shelves.

Over another glass of Havana Club or Bucanero beer, Cuban people wondered why we needed so many different varieties of the same product. Surely one brand would suffice. Washing powder comes in one brand. Why do we need more? We can expect the brands to come tumbling on to their shelves, with their built-in obsolescence and the cry to consume more.

You would not learn it from movies or observe it from a hotel room in Valadero, but Cuba is one of the most complex and culturally diverse countries on earth. Diversity in a homogenised world is something cherished by a traveller weary of seeing the same thing everywhere he turns.

There are surprises and not all of them have been eradicated by 55 years of collectivism or one-brand centralism. The shrine of Our Lady of El Cobre, up a flight of 254 steps, would not be out of place in Mediterranean Europe, or indeed the west of Ireland. Old women kneel here, deep in prayer to Cuba's patron saint, oblivious to history.

Visitors to Cuba will notice the wind has already changed. Since the smell of the end of American blockade, hotel prices have soared and existing contracts have been cancelled.

The 57 years of Castro's regime have not blinded them to the prospects of a fast buck.

Locals who look forward to the walls and rusty ironwork being repainted would do well to heed the lessons from the feeding frenzy that accompanied the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe - the mistakes of Bulgaria, Romania and even Hungary versus the pragmatism of the Czechs, Poles and Slovakians.

This very Hispanic society, a world away from the Florida coast that is just 75 miles away, would do well to keep their distance culturally as they tightly embrace the Americans economically.

Cuba's great stand was to enter the 21st century with the volume turned down. This, not their socialism, is what marks them out, rather than dictatorship, which is a shared displeasure with three quarters of the countries of the world, or, most astonishingly, their ability to survive the displeasure of the USA.

Castro did not have to die for us to wonder how long it can continue. This is the Alamo, the Moncada Barracks attack on consumerism as we know it worldwide, the last stand for those who don't want their houses, like the Mickey McConnell song, full of stuff they didn't really want.

Unlike other communist leaders, Castro's body will not be embalmed. The requiem for a lost world that is the bearded one's funeral is almost certainly the signal for a new dictatorship to begin - consumerism in the face of communism.

No doubt some Cubans will love having more than one type of washing powder to chose from.

They will, no doubt, share the feeling of post revolutionaries everywhere that they should have taken more care about what they wished for.

Read more:

21st Century Cuba: My solo journey in a country facing amazing change Cuba: 'Come before Americans arrive in their droves'

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