I have more questions, most of them unanswered, which adds a piquancy to the beautiful aquamarine seas through which we are traveling off the south coast of Cuba.
Wednesday morning we visited an island off that coast called Maria La Gorda, which I translate as Maria the Plump, a term of admiration at the time. She was kidnapped by pirates who frequented these waters and then abandoned on the island that wears her name where she set up a profitable business, probably the expected brothel-and-bar that is always a money maker. We were shown through small island parks, only dozens of acres large, by local guides whose pride in them was touching, particularly in the context of the huge U.S. national parks that are often treated carelessly. One guide has spent fifteen years learning to imitate the calls of the local birds, and managed to summon one of them, although I wasn’t able to see it.
There are a lot of people on this trip, and one of them, a man named Hermes, has spent a lot of time in Cuba and told us that it’s not so much the embargo, in his opinion, that has caused all the economic problems, but the failure of a central idea of the revolution, boarding schools for all teenagers where they were educated in both the traditional western ways and in the ideology of communism. The plan was, according to this man, to produce a labor force to work in the orange groves, a major export for Cuba before the embargo; we saw no orange groves and indeed no fruit or vegetables cultivation. But, again according to this one man, the boarding school plan fell apart because parents refused to send their daughters, having heard that “everyone” got pregnant.
How often, it seems to me, a progressive idea is felled by our fear of sexuality—especially the sexuality of teenagers—when providing means of birth control would have scotched this rumor—which may have only been a rumor anyway. But instead the boarding schools closed for lack of girl pupils.
We westerners would of course argue that no educated young person wants to work in an orange grove, but as the world is going, that’s the kind of work—possibly the only kind—that will be available, if global warming allows orange groves to exist. The legions of lawyers, doctors and accountants turned out in the U.S. might find it less objectionable than they expected to drive taxi cabs instead of practicing their professions. At least the taxi drivers we’ve met, all trained for white collar jobs, seem resigned, if nothing better, as the people living in these pastel colonial villages may not miss our TV sets, cars, appliances and fast food choices, but are not tormented by the ravages of alcoholism and drug abuse. The culture seems to mandate against addiction, as well as a lack of money to bring these noxious products in, and the government has apparently been successful in keeping them out. This leads in turns to a much smaller jail population and a scarcity of treatment centers, both for-profit industries that thrive on our wastefulness.
Maybe working in an orange grove in a tropical climate is not such a dreadful fate, if your education and health care costs are taken care of by the government. And if you know poetry, as the taxi drivers here do, you have a way of keeping your imagination alive, no matter what you do.
[For more on my trip to Cuba, please see Part One.]