Theyre All Waiting For Fidels Exit

Updated: Apr 2 2002, 05:30am hrs
The World Health Organisation is organising a conference in Havana and several people (who know I have been invited) are envious. Everyone wants to go to Havana. It is not that easy to get there. Because of another seminar, I am in the United States and there are no direct flights between the US and Cuba. So my travel agent tells me. (Later, a Cuban vehemently protests this. According to her, American Airlines operates flights from Miami.)

My travel agent books me via Panama City. However, disaster strikes. After 11th September, even if you are in transit, you need a visa for Panama and visas cant be granted in Delhi. They have to go all the way to Panama for approval. Might take weeks. You cant try Mexico either. Same problem. Eventually, I am routed via Kingston. On Air Jamaica. The Kingston to Havana flight is on a small plane. Carries around 40 people. Immigration is extremely friendly. I breeze through.

Disaster strikes again. My checked-in bag is missing. And it is small consolation that other people also have their bags missing. I make my way to the Lost and Found counter and lodge a report. What happens to my bag They dont know. Who does Air Jamaica.

The Air Jamaica office is closed. No one knows when it will open. I figure the best thing is to go to the hotel. The hotel should be able to help out. The taxi fare has to be paid in US dollars. Everything has to be paid in US dollars. As a visitor, you dont even realise there is a Cuban currency.

The hotel is called Habana Libre Tryp, one of the better hotels in Havana. This is where Fidel Castro stayed for a few days after the Revolution. The hotel asks for a cash deposit or a credit card. One of the inconsistencies in present-day Cuba is that everything is dollarised, but no credit cards issued by US banks are accepted.

The hotel strikes you as being remarkably suspicious. The phone is locked until you persuade reception to inform the telephone operator that you have made a deposit. Room service insists on cash, until you sort out the deposit problem. Ditto for the business centre.

To get back to Air Jamaica and the missing bag, the hotel is of no help. Air Jamaica is not listed in the telephone directory. I track down Air Jamaica in Kingston through the Net. But 800 numbers dont work in Cuba. Nor do my phone cards. I spend a fortune ringing up Kingston.

The bag hasnt been lost at all. It is there in Kingston. Air Jamaica chooses a small plane or a big plane depending on the number of passengers. Until there is a big plane, no luggage will be delivered. When might that happen No one knows. I decide to buy a disposable razor and a toothbrush. Partly the language problem, but it is extremely difficult to explain what I want. When I manage to explain what I want, it is impossible to find a shop. Perhaps we are in the wrong part of town.

Eventually, I pay $1 for a disposable razor and another dollar for a toothbrush. Seems rather steep. (In most hotels, housekeeping will provide these gratis. But not in this hotel.) Meanwhile, I have been continuously ringing up the Lost and Found department at the airport. Thirty-six hours down the line, I learn my bag has arrived. At three in the morning, I hail a cab and dash off to the airport.

The cab driver is extremely friendly. So is anyone who learns you are from India. The cab driver talks about the non-aligned movement. He has recently watched a TV programme on catching cobras in Kerala and extracting their venom.

There is no one at the Lost and Found counter. What am I supposed to do Bang on the counter, I am told, and someone will surface. After ten minutes of banging, someone does turn up. Having established ownership, I retrieve my bag and we head back towards the hotel. The cab driver wants to show me the sights. Since I am in a better frame of mind at having got my clothes back, I agree, even though it is four in the morning.

The stadium Cuba is very good at boxing and volleyball, I am proudly informed. The replica of Red Square where Fidel makes his speeches. Apparently, Fidel Castro also makes speeches every morning on television. I never get to watch these because the hotel only has US channels. Appropriately dubbed in Spanish.

Who owns the cab, I ask the cab driver. He is puzzled. Wrong question to ask. In Cuba, everyone works for the government. All modern cars are owned by the government. Personal cars mean Ladas and ramshackle Chevrolets and Buicks that go back to the mid-1950s. There are also smart and yellow-coloured autorickshaws known as coconuts. The cab driver advises me to take a trip to the Bay of Pigs, where there is an alligator farm, and a museum celebrating the Cuban victory over US aggression in three days.

If socialism is equated with investments in health and education, rather than with conventional notions of equity, Cuba represents the highest stage of socialism. The infant mortality rate is less than 6 per thousand, bettered only by Canada. Life expectancy is around 75. There is 100 per cent literacy.

No one is able to provide a per capita income figure. Apparently, this is impossible to compute. Some transactions are in dollars, others in pesos. How do you splice the two When the former Soviet Union collapsed, sugar exports collapsed and Cuba turned to tourism. Hence the dollarisation.

Everyone ponders about when relations with the USA will be normalised. Will Cuban immigrants in Florida permit it How long will Castro be around for Will Havana then become another Miami Will biotech and medical companies, built up on State support, be taken over by US-based multinationals Without any clear answers, everyone seems to be waiting for the post-Fidel era.

I have come back with regulation Che Guevara T-shirts and have made a mandatory trip to a nightclub. Cigars were too expensive. The social sector achievements are impressive. But not the general efficiency.