Cuba with Simon Reeve: Interview

Cuba with Simon Reeve, Tuesday 11 December, BBC 9pm

You mentioned that you had to pay a little more than the locals to see the ballet, did you have to pay “tourist prices” to get access to anything else on your trip?
No, I don’t think so, certainly not in the way you mean! We’re very careful about making sure we don’t pay bribes.

What do you aim to achieve with your documentaries?
I’m aiming for a combination of information, education, and of course entertainment as well. it is TV after all.

The viewers are the judges, and we can get a sense of their reaction by how many are watching and how many switch-on/switch-over during the course of the programme. When we get it right viewers are keen to tell us they’ve enjoyed a programme and learnt something from it. And when we get it wrong they let us know.

How much do Cubans know about the outside world, comparably to other one party or autocratic states you’ve visited?
They’re pretty clued-up. The Cuban education system isn’t the best in the world, but it’s nothing like as bad as in other one party societies, or in many other countries in the Americas the state media in Cuba is good at letting Cubans know about the rest of the world, but obviously they focus on examples of where capitalist societies are getting it wrong.

I’ve met a few Cubans who think that a vast army of the suffering poor are freezing to death in the UK

How difficult is it to get to the truth when you’re denied access to the dissidents who have been trying to change the system the most?
Whenever we’re denied the freedom to go somewhere or meet certain people it makes it harder for us to get a full picture of life in a country or an area. But I think the key is for us to be honest with viewers and say these are the restrictions or issues that we had to contend with in bringing you these stories. viewers need to know the truth, even if the truth is that we couldn’t speak to everyone we might have liked to speak with.

Our focus in making the Cuba film was more on ordinary Cubans anyway, so it’s not like we went there to make a film about political repression and were unable to speak to the politically repressed.

Will Cuba be able to compete internationally without the allure of communism as a tourist experience?
I think communism is just a part of the allure of Cuba, the main political attraction is the idea of ‘revolution’ and Ché and the legend of the plucky little country that stood-up to the giant USA. Regardless of whether that’s true or not it’s certainly the tale that Cuba is selling.

But even without the revolutionary romance, don’t forget it’s still the biggest island in the Caribbean, with endless beaches, rum and rumba. tourists will still love it.

How are Cubans responding to the greater presence of branding?
You see very few foreign brands in Cuba because advertising is still in its infancy. Generally Cubans are quite clued-up about the major international brands, and they inevitably equate them with wealth and success.

As Cuba becomes economically more developed, do you think that western cultural homogenisation is inevitable?
Perhaps not exclusively western, but certainly global homogenisation. It does feel like many countries are all starting to look just the same, with the same global brands and the same brightly-coloured plastic shop-fronts

Did you find out what was required to get a licence to be a professional “dandy”?
No, I didn’t, but I’m sure it’s a competitive industry to enter, because a dandy is someone who gets photographed by tourists and gets tipped by them.

Many Cubans want to be working with or near tourists because they can earn more money that way than by working for the state.

How many days did it take you to get tired of Buena Vista Social Club covers?
Day 2.

Is there any concern amongst Cubans that the change in politics could return Batista-like leaders to Cuba with the disproportionate impact Miami money could have as the borders are opened?
I think most Cubans are too busy trying to make a living and put food on the table than worry about what’s happening at the top of the tree. The current reforms are designed to introduce change slowly so that the regime isn’t toppled.

With more American-Cubans returning as restrictions are relaxed, do you think that Cuba will suffer similar problems to other countries that have had to re-unite divided peoples such as Germany?
I think the greater concern would be that if restrictions were lifted, Cubans would try to emigrate out of Cuba. Many of them dream of a better life abroad, particularly in the USA, ironically enough. But I can’t see the US opening its borders.