Thinking Out Loud

February 20, 2017

Two Worlds: The Cuba Caste System

poverty-in-veradero

Perhaps it’s not a caste system the way we normally use the phrase, but there was something eerie about the way two worlds seem to coexist in Cuba: The tourists and those who work in tourism.

In one resort at Varadero, a tunnel is used to get workers from the street into the basement level of the hotel. There were no doubt staff entrances at all of the 40-or-so resorts on the peninsula, but it was the tunnel that caught our eye.

Workers arrive by bus, not the air-conditioned ones known to the tourists, or even the double-decker versions, but older, hotter, more crowded ones.

For the non-tourists, there is also a different currency. We paid for things in CUCs, the convertible, tourist version of the Cuban Peso. Residents pay in CUPs. One Cuban Convertible Peso equals 24.728383 Cuban Pesos. Some stores accept the one, some accept the other, some accept both.

So we find ourselves in a country where there are two sets of currencies, two sets of buses, two types of taxicabs, etc…

…Another lifetime ago, I worked for a musician who played a number of Jewish venues including the banquet halls of major hotels as well as synagogues. It was customary to unload and load equipment through a service elevator or even through a kitchen. I am personally acquainted with what it means to be part of the service staff in a place where, on the other side of the wall, wealthy people are enjoying unlimited food, drink and entertainment.

There was something about this trip however where it reflected differently. I was, for seven short days, one of the rich tourists. As noted in yesterday’s article, for our tour guide to stay one week in this place, he would have to spend the equivalent of 19 months’ wages. As noted the day before, there is something unsettling at the fragility of the curtain which separated our tour guide from we tourists.

I say that not because I’m not wanting to associate with the waiters and chambermaids, but rather because I don’t want them to be invisible; don’t want them to have to be quietly ushered in through a tunnel…

…Last week in the Canadian parliament, a member stood up and mentioned in passing that before his government career he was a bus driver. And guess what reaction that got?

The members of the opposition party laughed at him.

I want to emulate the Nazarene who “humbled himself, taking on the role of a servant.” I want to be able to come alongside the waiter who is carrying too many plates, or grab the other corner of the bed-sheet while the maid makes up the room.

But the world doesn’t like it when those barriers are not firmly set in place.


Thanks for your indulgence during these 3 articles. There’s one more which will come a few days later, as I want to share our impressions in a tourist environment that is devoid of Americans and consider the potential of an influx of US tourists on Cuba.

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