Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Slow Train to Guantanamo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th August, 2013

Slow Train to GuantanamoAmerican presidents have come and gone, but the Castro brothers have hung on to power in Cuba for 54 years; there’s a delicious irony in that. I first visited the island nearly 20 years ago, when its economy was flat on the floor following the withdrawal of Russian subsidies, exacerbating the effects of the unjustifiable US trade embargo and, let’s be frank, the inbuilt incompetence of a centrally-planned economy. Six visits later, in 1999, I made a radio documentary for BBC World Service at the time of the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, but I haven’t been back since. So I was particularly interested to read Peter Millar’s new book, Slow Train to Guantanamo (Arcadia, £11.99), to see how much has changed. Not that much, it transpires. US dollars no longer operate as a parallel currency, giving enormous privileges to those with access to them; instead they have been replaced by a mickey mouse “convertible peso”, compulsory for foreign tourists, while most Cubans subsist on the national peso one 25th its value, and their ration cards. At least health care and education and in some instances housing are free. There are now more small private businesses, including tiny guesthouses and restaurants, though Peter Millar’s experience of the latter was mainly dire. However, the main curiosity in his book is that he set himself the challenge of travelling from Havana to Guantanamo (the town, not the nearby US base and notorious prison camp) by train. In Cuba that is more of a challenge than one might imagine. And some of the trains are barely holding together, even when they run. But as many other writers such as Paul Theroux have shown, train journeys are a great way of meeting and observing local people, as well as the passing scenery. Alas, Peter Millar’s Spanish was rather basic when he arrived, though it improved during what was actually quite a short stay on the island. So his contacts and the conversations he has with them inevitably remain somewhat superficial, and he not surprisingly focuses on those who Cubans he encounters who are eccentric or physically striking. What saves the book from a certain triteness, however, is the fact that the author can draw on his experiences in central and eastern Europe during the twilight of Communism, especially in East Germany, and therefore make some interesting comparisons. So even if Millar in Cuba isn’t quite the “expert” he was in his earlier book, 1989 The Berlin Wall (which I reviewed when it came out), he is an entertaining companion and at times endearingly self-deprecating in highlighting instances of his cultural naivety.

Link: http://www.petermillar.eu

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