Cuba and the World

Although much about the Cuba we visited earlier this month is firmly stuck in the 50’s and 60’s, we did notice some small but clear signs that changes were happening in that country. I have no idea exactly how the passing of Fidel Castro last week will affect them but I doubt it will reverse the course of progress.

Casa Particular

In the past five years or so, citizens have been allowed to open private restaurants (called paladars) to compete with the state-run establishments and there certainly seemed to be many of them. In popular tourist areas, like the city of Trinidad we visited, many people also rent rooms in their homes (called casa particulars) to visitors. The home in which we stayed was comfortable but not a “bed and breakfast” by American standards. We also saw lots of construction around town, adding rooms and entire floors to buildings, as enterprising Cubans anticipate even more visitors.

Getting Online

The young people we met in Cuba seem to have a good grasp on events and trends outside the country, with regular contact with the rest of the world, especially the United States. They are the people subtly pushing the government for change. I was a little surprised to see as many smart phones and computers as I did, believing that would be something the government would restrict.

But those kinds of restrictions have changed as well. Although very few people can afford a $400 computer or phone, one of our guides remarked that everyone in Cuba has a relative in the States. It seems many of the devices we saw have come through those connections.

Street Computing

And those digital devices bring information. The state telecom company allows a few public internet points in most areas and sells access cards for them. Accessing the internet is expensive, especially compared to the income of an average Cuban, and the connection is very slow. Nevertheless, we often saw groups of people staring into their phones (and occasionally a laptop) near to wherever there was a wifi point.

But slow and expensive internet isn’t an impediment to information flow. Our guides told us about what Cubans call “the package”. Every week, those people with regular access to the web, download all the news, movies, television, magazines, and more they can, and then pass around on storage devices (anything from a USB stick to a portable hard drive) whatever fits. It’s all about the sharing.

Student

In addition to paladars and casa particulars, some enterprising Cubans are also starting other businesses. One we visited was a private photography school, also housed in a home and ironically right across the street from a state secondary school. The school seems to be relatively successful despite being too expensive for most of the population. In spite of those costs, Cuban young people, like the photo student working on his project above, seem to be especially eager to learn new skills, and to create art, and commerce, of all kinds.

As always, many more photos from our trip are on Flickr. The previous two posts in this series are here and here.

Fix It! (But Don’t Expect Me To Pay)

Today is election day here in what my friend Kathy calls the Republic of North Virginia. That implies we live in a liberal region but that is very relative and only accurate when compared to the rest of the state.

Anyway, we have no national races on the ballot, which means turnout will be very low. But that doesn’t mean the vote isn’t important, as brilliantly explained here by John Oliver.

With few particular controversies to campaign on this year, all the candidates alternate between describing how evil their opponents are, and how much they support a wonderful life: better schools, better transportation, better health care, more jobs. The stuff that sounds good in 30 second ads, but is very complicated to accomplish in real life.

The problem, however, also lies with us voters. Just about everyone who will bother to vote today will tell you they want the government to improve life in our area, in some way.

They just don’t want to pay for it. No one ever gets elected to office in our little Republic (or anywhere else in the country, I suspect) if they even hint at asking people to pay the bills.

Transportation is a good example of this “I want it all for free” attitude.

Most everyone around here will tell you traffic stinks. The DC area regularly lands at or near the top of the list of most congested cities in the US. Too many cars trying to get to the same place at the same time, even during non “rush” periods.

But the only solutions that interest our local politicians involve building pay-to-drive car pool lanes along major highways – what are called HOT (high occupancy toll) corridors. Roads that require either three people in the car or payments that can be over $10 for five or so miles of relatively congestion free driving. Projects that suck down lots of money while doing very little to address the larger problem.

Public transportation systems that don’t involve cars? Don’t be silly. Most of our “leaders” (including the Congress critters who live in the area most of the year) don’t ride Metro, much less want to pay for it. Buses are for poor people. Walkable, bike friendly cities are for socialist countries.

So, a few of us are choosing many of our local leaders today. The Board of Supervisors, School Board, members of the state Assembly and Senate, various other offices. But they won’t fix any of the problems mentioned (very) briefly in their ads and speeches.

Because we say we want government to provide good public infrastructure. We just don’t want to pay for it. And they know it.