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The Lost World, Part II

This is the second in a two-part series about Cuba beyond Havana. Click here for Part I.

Most of Cuba is flat with low rolling hills, but after leaving Cienfuegos and heading toward Trinidad, I saw the Escambray Mountains—home of the anti-communist insurgency known as the Escambray Rebellion—off in the distance.

The island finally had a skyline.

Those mountains might be a nice place to camp or go hiking (you would not want to camp or hike in the sweltering lowlands), but the overwhelming majority of Cubans have no way to get there. They aren’t prohibited from traveling to or in the mountains, but hardly anyone owns a car. Salaries are capped at twenty dollars a month. Driving to the mountains for a day hike from Havana would cost more than a month's salary just for the gas. A bus ticket likewise costs more than a month's salary.

Then it hit me, ton-of-bricks style. Most Cubans have never seen those mountains. Nor have they seen Trinidad, one of the oldest Spanish colonial cities in the hemisphere which lies on a narrow coastal plane between the Escambray and the Caribbean.

The city threw me off balance when I stopped there for a day and a night. I had absolutely no idea what to make of this place. My preconceived notions and assessment of the country thus far got smacked in the side of the head with the force of a knock-out punch.

Cuba is a total surveillance police state and Havana has fallen to ruin, but Trinidad is both delightful and charming.

And I don’t just mean Trinidad has the potential to be delightful and charming. It’s delightful and charming right now. Even under communist rule.

How was this possible?

The regime wants me to describe the city this way, which makes me not want to do it, but I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to tell you every place in the country is dreary and drab when it’s not.

Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, conqueror of Cuba, founded Trinidad exactly 500 years ago, in 1514. It’s older than almost every building in Paris. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1988, and for good reason. Hardly any colonial city in the world is preserved as well as Trinidad.

The streets are made of stone, the roofs beautifully tiled. All the buildings and houses are colorfully painted. Every visible structure in every direction pre-dates the Industrial Revolution. The city is a living museum piece, not just of Cuba before communist rule, but of Latin America during the Conquistador era, of the world before industry and machines, before globalization and standardization and the mass society changed politics and culture for everybody forever.

Havana is also stuck in the past. Cubans themselves call it a time machine. It’s largely unchanged by modern high-tech civilization—what Alvin Toffler calls the Third Wave in his landmark book of the same name. Hardly anyone has a computer, the Internet is banned in private homes, email addresses are for foreigners, cell phones are for the elite, no one can order anything from Amazon.com, and so on. Havana is firmly stuck in the Second Wave, the industrial mass society era of the assembly line, centralized bureaucracy, and the Cold War.

Trinidad is still in the First Wave, the period between the invention of agriculture in the Middle East thousands of years ago and the Industrial Revolution.

No part of the city—none that I saw, anyway—is falling apart like Havana. Communism seems to look somehow less communist in smaller areas. I felt the desire to live there, at least for a while, then checked myself.

Wait.

What?

Trinidad is ruled by police state. I can’t live there. I wouldn’t want to live there for even a month, let alone a whole year or—God forbid—longer.

What was the matter with me? How could I entertain such a thought for even five seconds?

*

If you went to Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia during Yugoslavia’s communist period, you might have had a similar first impression. A friend of mine went there in the 1970s and said it was magnificent even then. I believe him. I only spent a few hours there in 2008 on my way to Kosovo from Bosnia-Herzegovina, but that was nevertheless long enough for me to say Dubrovnik is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.

My memory of Dubrovnik, and what my friend said about it during that era, resolved my cognitive dissonance about Trinidad. It’s forehead-smackingly obvious. I just had to wait until the initial surprise wore off.

Trinidad is not a nice place because of its communist government. Trinidad is a nice place despite its communist government.

It’s five hundred years old. None of it was built by the communists. The city looked as it does now centuries before Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto. Fidel Castro is responsible for precisely nothing I love about it.

All he did was fail to destroy it. That’s not progress or a point scored for the revolution. It’s just damage control.

But I will give Cuban communists this much—they feel a connection with the pre-communist past and aren’t trying to obliterate it from the earth or from memory. They are not at war with every single last thing that predates them. There was no Year Zero in Fidel Castro’s Cuba like there was in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The colonial buildings of Trinidad were not razed and replaced with horrifying tower blocks as was so much of the Soviet bloc. Cuban communists did build some ghastly new structures, but not at the expense of what came before, and not in the old center of Trinidad.

That’s a low bar for praise, to be sure, but so many communist regimes failed to live up even to that. Look at what the Soviet Union did to Chisinau in Moldova, which is even older than Trinidad.

Nicolae Ceausescu turned the Romanian capital into an anthill. He razed whole swaths of the center of Bucharest and replaced gorgeous classical European neighborhoods with Godzilla-sized concrete towers and blocks.

I spent a week or so in Romania in 2008 and couldn’t wait to get out of that city. It felt inhuman and oppressive even decades after Ceausescu and his Lady MacBeth of a wife were executed on television. It could take a hundred years or more before their totalitarian legacy is finally torn down in Bucharest, and what came before it is gone now forever.

So when I say it’s terrific that Castro did not take a bulldozer to Cuba—I mean it. It’s important. He’s letting most of Havana collapse from decades of contemptuous neglect, weather, and entropy, but Trinidad, at least, is still a jewel.

Not only does the city look like it did hundreds of years ago—it sounds the same as it did hundreds of years ago. A great and wonderful hush hangs over it always. It is far and away the quietest city I have ever visited, mostly because it’s almost entirely free of automobile traffic. I stayed there for more than 24 hours, and I doubt I saw more than two dozen cars—and that’s including the parked cars.

Nor did I hear loud music or televisions. And when I climbed a terrifying exposed spiral staircase to the rooftop of a museum and looked down onto the roofline, it struck me for the first time that not a single person in Cuba has a satellite dish. The world’s poorest cities are bristling with satellite dishes, but not Trinidad or anywhere else in the country.

So I went downstairs and asked somebody about it.

“Satellite dishes aren’t allowed. We only get six channels, five from Cuba and one from Venezuela.”

Of course. Venezuela. The late Hugo Chavez’s socialist paradise, now one of the world’s most violent and dangerous countries.

That’s only part of the price Cubans must pay to keep that city stuck in a time warp. The only reason Trinidad is still free of automobiles, electronic stores, satellite dishes, cell phone towers, and so on, is because it’s governed by a totalitarian state. Preventing those things from transforming the city requires extraordinary repression and violence. Trinidad doesn’t look oppressive—no one is getting shot in the streets—but no one who affixes a satellite dish to their roof will last very long either, so they know better than to even make the attempt. The population is thoroughly cowed.

Even if Trinidad could be preserved against time without repression and violence, it’s neither realistic nor reasonable to expect Third World people to live in backward conditions for the amusement of foreigners who want a break from modernity.

Would you be willing to live primitively so rich foreigners can spend a few days in your town and enjoy the silence and the dearth of corporate billboards and Starbucks?

Cuba is the most oppressive country for thousands of miles in any direction, but I understand now why many tourists return home and say it’s fantastic. Parts of it are if you don’t think about it too much. Unlike me, tourists don’t go there to pull back the curtain or peer behind the façade. They don’t spend hours and days contemplating how and why Cuba is frozen. They simply enjoy the fact that it is. It’s understandable. They’re on holiday and they want to relax. But I was not there on holiday, and my cognitive dissonance didn’t last very long.

Trinidad is surprisingly nice for a communist city, but a resident explained to me that most of the local economy is not even technically communist anymore. The majority of residents, or so I was told, no longer work for the state. They run tiny businesses for themselves or work for family members who do.

Though most of the national economy is still in government hands, Raul Castro began implementing micro-capitalist reforms a few years ago when his ailing brother Fidel stepped aside. Apparently, Trinidad has benefited from these reforms disproportionately. Perhaps that’s because it’s a destination for tourists and Raul understands that concentrating reforms there and in similar locations is necessary for the same reason people clean the house before having guests over.

But soon enough I’d have to revise my opinion again.

A woman at one of the city’s museums told me she and her neighbors still struggle mightily to survive, despite the structural reforms.

“We can’t get simple things like cooking oil and diapers and soap. None of us can afford having more than one child. Getting to the end of the month is almost impossible.”

“What kind of changes would you like to see?” I said. “Do you want political and economic reform?”

“We want both,” she said. “But mostly we want economic reform. We’d be happy if we could just have the things we need to survive.”

So it turns out even Trinidad’s bubble of private enterprise can barely hobble along when it’s encircled by communism and cut off from the rest of the world. In hindsight, that’s obvious. I showed up in Cuba on a middle class salary, and I even brought emergency money, but I still couldn’t buy anything. Nothing’s for sale. Everything is in short supply everywhere. It doesn’t matter how much money you have in your pocket or your account. Cash isn’t as worthless as it would be after the end of the world, but it’s close.

I’ve spent the last ten years visiting, researching, and writing about the broken parts of the world, and I can’t help but compare Cuba with the Middle East, the broken part of the world I’m most familiar with.

Cuba is better off in some ways. For one thing, there are more women out and about, even in the countryside. Cuban men have no reason to keep their women trapped behind the walls of their houses. It’s certainly easier to get a drink in Cuba than it is in most parts of the Middle East—as long as you are not Cuban. A beer costs a local person an entire week’s salary, but enough tourists show up from Europe and Latin America that adult beverages are easy enough to come by in even small towns.

Cuba’s art scene is more advanced than in the Middle East, too. It’s as advanced or even ahead of the rest of Latin America. Communism doesn’t appear to have had any negative effect on Cuban music, painting, or dancing—though it has unquestionably stifled Cuban writing with its smothering censorship.

Cuba at least appears to be ahead of even the United States in at least one area—racial integration.

Spanish imperialists obliterated the indigenous population hundreds of years ago, so almost everybody in Cuba is of European or African ancestry. Many are a mixture of both, including Fulgencio Batista whom Castro overthrew in 1959. Afro-Cubans are a large minority, and at least on the surface appear to be fully integrated socially with the descendents of white Europeans. (Politically, they are all oppressed equally.) Mixed race groups of friends are common, even ubiquitous. If they fear or resent each other, they sure don’t act like it outwardly. I saw this in small towns as well as in Havana, and I found it encouraging. Race relations are at least one potential problem Cuba has handled adequately, or so it appears.

I didn’t even detect any political tension aside from never-ending complaints about the overbearing state and the shortages, which is both good and bad. Good because political tension often leads to catastrophe, but bad because Cuba does not feel—at all—like it’s in a pre-revolutionary mood. Cubans could theoretically rise up tomorrow to overthrow the communist system as Eastern Europeans did in 1989, but at no point did I feel such a movement is imminent. I felt instead a calcified frozenness and a sense that Cuba has no imagined future, that the country is forever lost to time and to progress, that it’s a place where no one strives to do anything except flee to America, where “empowerment” is not an irritating pop psychology buzzword but something everybody desperately needs. It’s an island where information from the outside world is so restricted that it feels like a surreal science-fiction story or the island in the show Lost, but with a cast of millions instead of just dozens. Miami is so close, but it might as well be in another dimension. Every day and every month is exactly the same, even when it comes to the weather. The only real change is biological aging.

*

My bus pulled out of Trinidad and headed directly up and into the Escambray Mountains. At the top of the first ridge facing the sea was a lookout tower that can be reached by climbing a staircase.

“Can we stop there for a few minutes?” I said to the driver.

He nodded.

No one else on the bus cared to go up there, so I hustled to the top by myself. The climb was not strenuous, and the view at the top is spectacular. Trinidad looked tiny below me while the sea stretching onward toward Colombia and Venezuela appeared as vast as the Pacific.

The air is much thinner and cooler up there, and it’s dry. I felt no humidity. Cuba’s mountain air felt and tasted the same as the mountain air in the Pacific Northwest. I would love to have a house in such a splendid location, and I felt a brief pang of envy for the few Cubans who live there in scattered homes amid such rural splendor. But my elation was dashed when I remembered that most Cubans will never once in their lives get to see this.

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