Peter Millar: Havana and Hell, EIBF 2012, Review

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Peter Millar, Andrew Franklin (chairman)
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Cuba is the only communist country where I have not felt under constant watch by secret police or informers, veteran foreign correspondent Peter Millar told a capacity Peppers Theatre Book Festival audience.

It was noticeable, Millar said, that people would openly criticise the regime in public without any sign that they feared the consequences. He was speaking with considerable personal experience, initially gained on his first assignment as Reuters correspondent in East Berlin and later in Moscow.

After German reunification 21 hidden microphones were found in his combined office/flat. Millar said he later obtained access to the Stasi (secret police) files on him, which closed with the words “passed to fraternal colleagues” – the Soviet KGB.

Millar’s latest book, Slow Train to Guantanamo, is based on a recent visit in which he stayed in B&B houses rather than hotels and drank where locals drank, not tourist haunts.

Cuba is the only Latin American country to have a nationwide rail system, he said. It was the fifth country in the world to have a national rail system, a system in place before that in Spain, the ruling colonial power.

His graphic account of the difficulties in buying a rail ticket informed and amused the audience, more than half of whom had been or planned to go to Cuba on holiday. You naturally go to the railway station for a ticket. Not in Havana. There you go to an office, some distance away, find the right sales window and try to buy two tickets, one from Havana to Santiago and one from Santiago back to Havana.

Failed. You can only get a ticket from Santiago to Havana in Santiago, five days before you want to travel. Gets ticket for the time-tabled hourly service to Santiago. At station asks, “Next train to Santiago?” The reply, “four hours", brought rueful laughter from some listeners with similar experience.

The train carriages date back to the 1920s -- and show it -- but the engines are fairly new, from China. The top railway speed is 40 km an hour, so it’s a long journey to Santiago in eastern Cuba.

Getting to Guantanamo from Santiago was complicated with stops and train changes en route. One change was to the Hershey rail line, built to serve the original home of the Hershey Chocolate Bar so loved in the United States.

The rail journey was so roundabout and time consuming that he decided to go back by bus, Millar said. While waiting for the bus, a passing truck stopped and the driver shouted: “Going to Santiago – get in.” So he rattled along to Cuba’s former capital with jazz blasting out all the way.

The US base at Guantanamo is at the mouth of the bay and a considerable distance from the town. The area is a security zone with special entry permits needed, but some Cubans managed to quit the country by way of the base until Fidel Castro surrounded it with cactus.

The base was forced on newly-independent Cuba in the early 1900s with a lease in perpetuity at an annual rent of 2,000 dollars, since increased by inflation to 4,000, but Castro has never cashed any of the cheques.

Summing up his view of life in one of the world’s three remaining Communist countries, Millar said there was extreme poverty and a low standard of living for anyone without access to hard currency. There were six classes, with party functionaries at the top, lower echelons ranked largely by their access to hard currency and those with only meagre peso earnings at the bottom.

Unlike Eastern Europe, the revolutionary government did not seize private houses, though buying and selling property was prohibited. House owners with spare rooms to let pay a special tax that enables them to take in tourists – there are many magnificent houses falling apart for lack of money or materials to maintain them.

Dollars are banned in Cuba, which has two kinds of currency, pesos and convertible pesos. Visitors must change foreign currency into convertible pesos to be used for accommodation, souvenirs, “luxury” goods and even a special beer. Millar said other beers that can be bought with ordinary pesos are better and very much cheaper.

He said that despite the many hardships, there were certain merits in the system. Cuba has the highest literacy rate in Latin America and a national health system unequalled in the continent. You can find doctors trained in Cuba throughout the United States, he said. He added that though medical students and valued patients came to Cuba from other countries, US imposed sanctions meant essential medicines were lacking.

A lively question session covered varied topics, from the safety of private accommodation, bus, rail and taxi travel, dangers of the sex trade and elicited some sound advice.

“Don’t be lured by the offer of lobsters,” he said. “Cuban waters have some of the best lobster in the world but the Cubans can’t cook. They boil the lobster for hours and it’s tough and inedible."

There was a book-signing but Millar said copies of the book talked about were not available as the publisher could not pay the printer. “Download it on Kindle. It’s only £2.99 and I get more from that than I do from the printed version,” he said, brandishing the Kindle from which he had culled extracts during the talk.

Event: 17 August 2012