12/31/2012 04:58 EST | Updated 03/02/2013 05:12 EST

Those Smiling Cuban Faces Really Get to Me


Tim Knight writes the regular Watching the Watchdog column for HuffPost.

I came to Cuba because it's the only island I could find that's cheap (I'm a writer), has palm trees, warm sea, good scuba diving and, since it's an officially Marxist-Leninist socialist republic, is godless, therefore likely to ignore Christmas.

It's the Cuban faces that I remember best now.

Cubans can't stop smiling. Their average wage is $20 a month, they can get locked up for saying impolite things about their government, yet they can't stop smiling.

They smile when I get to the hotel two hours late because my plane is delayed by snow in Toronto and it's close to midnight and they've been waiting for three hours so they can show me to my room and hand me my room key before finally heading home to their families.

They smile when they talk about the American embargo which is illegal under international law and has kept them amongst the Third World have-not nations for 53 long, cruel years.

They smile when they pour yet another Cuba Libre for yet another arrogant, drunken foreigner.

The Northerners at the bar and around the pool and at the beach don't smile. They grimace when they meet. They gurgle when somebody makes a joke. They giggle when somebody slips and falls on the stone pathways after the rain. They guffaw when they're drunk.

But they don't smile.

It's the contrast that gets to you. The contrast between the warm, open, generous faces of the Cubans who have nothing and value everything, and the cold, closed, selfish faces of the Northerners who, by contrast, have everything and value nothing.

It's the faces.

  • The distant faces of the British who once ruled the world and still pretend they're strolling the corridors of power although everyone knows they're a lot closer to the Third World than the first.
  • The lost faces of the Russians who until recently were co-rulers of the world, still resent the fact that the decadent West won and the worker's paradise lost, and pretend that they're not minor Russian Mafia even though no honest Russian can afford even the low prices here.
  • The tight faces of the Germans who once tried to rule the world and still claim somebody else ran the camps.
  • The bored faces of the Italians who, under another name, did rule the world long ago and now aspire to real democracy because enough of their politicians are out of jail to form a government for a month or two.
  • The smug faces of the French who fantasize that they don't care who rules the world as long as the wine is French, the accent Parisian and the world appropriately weary.
  • The polite faces of the Canadians who still pretend they're part of the club that rules the world even though they'd be the 51st American state if it wasn't for the fact that the Americans have quite enough problems as it is and certainly don't need those damned Québécois separatists to make things worse.
  • American faces aren't seen around Cuba any more (unless you peer through the barbed wire of the illegal military zoo called Guantanamo Bay). They're not here because the Americans (who do still rule the world) find it politically useful to pretend that this island of just 11-million people is a threat to peace, democracy, freedom, the pursuit of happiness and the American way.
  • In splendid contrast are the warm, smiling faces of the Cubans who will never rule the world but have a powerful love of life and enormous dignity so they don't have to pretend anything, but hope that when Fidel dies, it will be a nice idea to try democracy.

Since I'm a straight man, I'm naturally interested in the women here at the resort.

They are almost all Northerners and I can report that they are not happy.

You can tell from their faces and their behaviour, particularly when they're drinking those sweet Cuba Libres, that they feel somehow betrayed. That life has not lived up to their expectations. That the world has not delivered what they deserve.

Compared to the Cubans they have unimaginable wealth. But they are not happy.

Their faces are tight, their mouths thin, their eyes cold. And when they talk to other tourists (and to the Cubans who serve them with considerable generosity and politeness) their voices are abrupt and chilling and without courtesy.

These women spend much of their time complaining. It's too hot or too cold. The food is too spicy or too bland. The entertainment is lousy (which happens to be true, but it's also free).

These women wear ugly, elaborate swimsuits too small for their abundant flesh. I suspect that if they ever knew real passion -- the sort of passion that brings unendurable pleasure and le petit mort -- it was long ago and much too embarrassing to repeat.

Oddly, these Northern women who come here for cheap vacations seem like losers.

Yet the Cubans who live and suffer in this rigid communist state seem like winners.

In spite of the Americans trying to starve it into submission, Cuba has graduated from being a cut-rate American brothel to one of the few countries in the world where everyone can read and write, health care is free, and old people are looked after with respect.

Sure, everyone is poor, farmers still plough with oxen and criticizing Fidel's politics isn't the best way to be named a Hero of the Cuban Revolution. In fact, it can get you locked up in rather nasty jails.

But that's the government (which is appropriately paranoid). And these smiling ordinary Cuban people are not the government and have won a famous victory against a famous bully and they're proud of it.

They've stood up to the Americans -- the most powerful nation the world has ever known -- and beaten them. They've survived 53 years of American threats, embargoes, invasions and assassination plots.

They've said screw you, baby, to the biggest bully on the block, and survived.

If you had a record like this, you'd smile too!

I know there were smiles on the faces of the Cuban people this Christmas because -- unlike most of us -- Cubans care more about the value of things than the price of things.

Viva Cuba libre.