Two years ago, I was given what quickly became an awful assignment. I was told to visit Cuba. Oh sure, like everybody I thought: dark rum, hot nights, fat cigars, the rumba. The reality was very different. Cuba was wretched. Every day the photographer and I encountered distressing scenes of women, children and ageing Cubans living in terrible poverty....
Elsewhere, we found barefoot children searching through rubbish bins for food. There is a large black population in Cuba - many of them are descendants of sugar-cane cutters - and there were many blacks among the beggars. Women with babies at the breast tugged at our clothes, begging for pennies. In the Western-style bars, beautiful Cuban girls hung off the arms of Western men.
We drove into the countryside and found people living with open sewers and dirt floors, with no food, no coffee, no rum, no pork, no music, none of the things a Cuban needs to thrive. Castro's revolution - free food, free education, free health care for all - was a sad, sorry joke. The classrooms were decrepit, the school books so old as to be useless. Store shelves were empty. It was a police state, too. Nobody would speak ill of Castro (if they did, it was quietly, with a pale, strained face and a furtive glance over the shoulder).
We visited the homes of dissidents and heard that librarians, poets and free-marketeers - good, friendly people - had been taken to prison, some of them sentenced to 20 years or more in a cell no larger than a toilet block, forced to walk around and around in circles, 400km from home in a nation where it's impossible to visit anybody unless you hitch a ride in the back of a creaking, humpbacked truck known as a "camel", made in eastern Europe and liable to break down in the Cuban heat.
It was a terrible shock because, like many people, I'd believed the hype about Cuba: that it was a socialist paradise; that Castro was a visionary leader; that the Cuban people were happy communists. In fact, Castro is a gutless dictator who has never been brave enough to hold a presidential election. Yet across the West he continues to be celebrated as some grand, visionary leader, instead of being derided as a lunatic on his last legs.
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