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Under The Radar
series: Cuba's Secret Side
air date: 2/19/13 4:00 AM
Knowing that the Cuban government severely restricts all foreign journalists, Karin Muller took a huge risk - she set out to film a documentary on a simple tourist visa. Free of government minders, she hitchhiked around Cuba for three months - sleeping in private homes, working with farmers and fishermen, and participating in festivals and religious ceremonies. She was arrested over a dozen times, but in the end she discovered a side of Cuba that few foreigners get to see. Like Hector - Havana's pizza guy - who lives on the third floor and uses a basket and pulley system to deliver pizza. Or the wonderful way Cubans have of turning a tedious wait in line into a social event, and the unexpected joy of Havana's waterfront. Cubans joke that the Revolution produced three successes and three failures. The successes were health care, education, and social equality. The failures were breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In the rural sugar town of La Vega, Muller discovered the secret to Cuba's good health. Dr. Angelina walks house to house, visiting every one of La Vega's two thousand inhabitants - even if they're healthy - at least twice a year. Angelina knows everything about her patients, from how many pillows they sleep with to whether they're getting along with their spouses. She is happy with her life and work, despite going home each night to a tiny, dilapidated apartment without running water and having to work two days to earn enough to buy her family a can of spam. Education is another Cuban success - 97% literacy and free universities - but it's not all good news. Books and newspapers are censored, so a nation that has learned to love the written word has no choice but to read the party line. The monthly food distribution provides all Cuban citizens with staples like sugar, rice, and beans. The government also pays retired Cubans a pension, though it's rarely enough to make ends meet. The elderly often augment their meager incomes selling newspapers or collecting cans on the street. When Castro took over Cuba, most wealthy Cubans fled. The government divided their mansions among the poor. Fifty years later tenants still pay virtually no rent, but the marble floors and vaulted ceilings are now human warrens where thousands of Cubans live with crumbling roofs and no running water. Lurking in the basement of one building is a sea of human feces, roiling with maggots. The plumbing rotted out years ago. The Cuban government is not entirely to blame. Cuba was in fact doing quite well until 1989, when the Soviet Union fell apart. Without Soviet subsidies, the Cuban economy ground to a halt. Castro declared a "Special Period" and ordered farmers to go back to plowing their fields by hand. In desperation, the government began allowing people to go into business for themselves. And Cubans have their own way of dealing with adversity - through music and sports. Kids play baseball with homemade balls and bats on every street corner and in every park. And even in the worst of times, the Cuban government still underwrites a free concert now and then. But you can't live on entertainment. Castro urgently needed hard currency. He knew that over 60% of Cubans get money from overseas friends and family - he just had to find a way to get his hands on some of it. So he printed a whole new currency and opened up a bunch of luxury stores filled with American sneakers, designer sunglasses, and refrigerators. In the process, Cuba once again became a two-tiered society - those who have and those who don't - exactly what he launched a revolution to end. Cubans are nothing if not ingenious. Despite having almost no money, they still manage to keep things going - like their 60-year-old American cars. For those who can't afford a set of foreign wheels, there's always Cuba's public transportation system. It's cheap, but breakdowns were so common that the government came up with an entirely new way to move people around - the camel bus. It's a converted flatbed truck and can carry up to 300 passengers. When that wasn't enough, Castro made hitchhiking an official form of transportation. Despite all of its efforts, Cuba was still in a downwards spiral. Reluctantly, Castro opened the country up to tourism with a string of new hotels and resorts, but made sure that foreigners had as little contact with the locals as possible. Nowadays you can go hang out on a tourist beach, sit by the pool, or take a horse-cart ride through old Havana. But if you do, you'll miss the most interesting part of Cuba - the Cubans themselves. They are the focus of Hour 2 of Cuba's Secret Side.
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