We saw it yesterday in our visit to the town of Trinidad, about an hour east of Cienfuegos on the southern side of the Island. Like the Old City of Havana, Trinidad has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site. Our tour guide, Abel, claims that it is the single finest example of a preserved 18th century village in the entire world.
The picturesque architecture, and the pristinely maintained/restored pastel-colored buildings, seem right out of a movie.
More difficult to digest is the relationship between slavery and the world that these buildings represent. In one museum that we went in to, we saw a stockade that held slaves during an auction, and heard about the inhumane living conditions that slaves had to reside in.
Our encounter with slavery here in Trinidad raised important questions about race in contemporary Cuba today. I get the sense that there are mixed messages being sent in Cuban society today: racism is officially deemed illegal by the government; and yet, those of African descent are more likely to hold ‘less desirable’ jobs in the Cuban workforce. On reflection, one cannot help but wonder if their unresolved questions on race are perhaps similar to our own.
We returned to our hotel in the afternoon and were brought right back to the imperfect present moment. Pristine is not a word our group would use to describe our Trinidad-area hotel. We are all aware of the ‘Westchester privilege’ that was part of the “baggage” that we carried onto the Island, and we are all humble and modest in acknowledging an awareness that - in comparison with the average Cuban - we have been living luxuriously during our time here. Nonetheless, we have been struck by how inefficient a “state run” hotel here is. (In Cuba, most hotels are exclusively state-owned and state-run. Our hotel in Havana was an exception: a unique capitalistic partnership between the state and a private Spanish hotel chain.) Abel explained to us that there is no notion - in state-run enterprises - of customer service. In a labor force where the salary of a hotel barman is basically the same as a surgeon (both earn approximately $35/month), the dynamics of job performance are markedly different from how we think of the question in the States.
But things here are changing. We have seen it repeatedly throughout this trip, and we have heard it over and over again from most of the Cubans we have met: Cuba is no longer the Communist machine of the past. Since Raul Castro came to power, more and more Cubans have had the opportunity to start their own businesses, and acquire their own private property (which had been forbidden for decades until Fidel). In the tourism industry, the best example of this is the institution of the palladar - a restaurant that is literally in someone’s home.
When I was here in 2010, the palladar was new as a concept. I think we visited one during my week here and it was a big deal that we had been allowed to do that. During this trip we’ve been in and out of palladars every day. (Remember: the alternative are state-run restaurants.) Last night, we ate at a particularly fine one, where the owner had saved up money over a period of years, bought and renovated a historic home on the main square of Trinidad. And then - thru happenstance - had a connection with the Indian embassy in Cuba and got someone there to teach him and his chefs a little about Indian cooking. The result: a Cuban-Indian fusion restaurant that truly stood out in a country where most of the cooking often seems the same as one goes from restaurant to restaurant and palladar to palladar. Innovation and creativity, motivated by capitalistic free enterprise: our group is hopeful that these positive forces will pave the way for a stronger and brighter Cuban future.