Paging Michael Moore: A Real View of Life in Cuba

McClatchy reporter Kevin Hall has a fantastic piece today on his trip to Cuba to cover Pope Benedict’s visit. It’s a collection of interviews from 60 or so hitchhikers he gave rides to as he traveled across the island. Odd how Michael Moore’s Sicko and its praise of the Cuban medical system missed what’s really going on in the country of “zombies” to our south. An excerpt:

I left Havana at 5 a.m. sharp on a Sunday, a good day to travel because people are trying to hitch rides home after weekend visits. I was led out of Havana by a cab driver I paid to get me to the Carretera Nacional, the national highway that is the first stretch of the Carretera Central, or Central Highway.

At the start, the drive looked promising enough, four lanes of completely empty highway. About 20 minutes in, however, the four lanes became two with no advance warning. The only indication of roadwork was the metal barriers — not visible in darkness — that I nearly hit skidding at 70 mph.

Minutes later, I drove over a hole so deep that my head hit the roof as the seatbelt snapped tight. And soon after, there was fog so thick you couldn’t see three cars lengths ahead. It was a tough start.

About four hours in, I got on the narrow Carretera Central. Imagine a two-lane back road in Anywhere USA. Now imagine it rutted with deep potholes. This was my road, and my starting point for picking up riders.

Hitchhiking is about the only way to get around outside Cuban cities. Gasoline costs about what it does in the United States. Most Cubans don’t have cars. Most earn a monthly government salary of less than $20. Getting from Point A to Point B requires patience, lots of it. The central highway is clogged with horse buggies, ox carts and tractors pulling wagonloads of people.

Cuba differs from the rest of Latin America in that there aren’t shops and stalls along the roadside with people eking out a living in sundry small businesses. This sort of self-employment has only just been legalized in Cuba, which officially disdains the private sector, so it isn’t widespread yet.

Instead, the Cuban roadside is mostly bare, with occasional in-home restaurants — known as “paladares” — and a whole bunch of revolutionary billboards.

One mocked the U.S. financial crisis with a downward plunging red line on a financial chart. Others called for the release of five Cuban spies jailed in the United States. And some were just plain odd.

“Socialism: Homework for the Free Man,” read one confounding sign. Another, near an abandoned workers dormitory, read, “Fidel, yes we did it.” My personal favorite was at an ecological reserve, declaring, “Nature is Revolution.” Huh?

Sometimes subtly, sometimes directly, I asked the same questions of all my passengers. How do they feel about the newly announced economic openings? Are they better or worse off than before? What do they think of President Raul Castro?

If they weren’t too nervous, I asked what would come after the deaths of Fidel, 85, and Raul, soon to be 81. They’ve ruled Cuba for 53 years, 50 of them under a U.S. trade embargo. Simple math says their end is near. And I asked what’ll happen if Venezuela’s cancer-stricken president, Hugo Chavez, dies? He’s helped keep Cuba afloat with cheap oil.

What I was after was this: Is Cuba ripe for an Arab Spring, where people can’t stand it anymore and take to the streets? Has the government lost its moral authority? Is it at risk of collapse from within?

Most riders expected continuity, post-Castro brothers. An exception was Carlos, a paramedic picked up outside Havana late in the week on the way east along the northwestern coastline.

“The day that they both die will be the day that the country reclaims its real liberty,” he said, adding, “Cubans want the same rights as the people who live closest to us, in the United States.”

Carlos, 52, said he was among legions of Cubans who tried to make it to U.S. shores by raft. He was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard seven miles off Florida and returned during the 1990s.

“We’re living in a country of lies,” he said, angry that tourists can come to Cuba and enjoy a parallel currency, while ordinary Cubans cannot travel.

Franklin, an eloquent economics-trained restaurant worker in his 30s, spoke passionately about his hope for change.

“In every country there are distinct parties because not everyone has the same thought, the same ideology. There are Republicans and Democrats in your country,” he said indignantly. “Here there’s just one party, there’s no party that is in opposition. When we analyze it, it’s as if we are all of the same mindset — and of course it’s not like that. But what can we do?”

Asked if the eventual deaths of the Castro brothers might lead people to spontaneously take to the streets, Franklin wasn’t optimistic.

“We are like zombies. We walk, but we don’t know what our rights are, our duties are, what we should think. What we’re presented is how we think,” he said, not hopeful that the dissident movement has much influence. “If 1,000 or 2,000 people (out of 11 million) think like this, it won’t change anything.”

The entire piece here.

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