For over fifty years Cuba has been an enigmatic place for the world. The country lived in a sort of ostracism that drove it away from the rest of the world, but now that same lack of verified knowledge about Cuba attracts every year millions of visitors to the island. Who could better explain to a tourist the Cuban reality than Tomás Rodríguez, a man who has lived and experienced both sides of the recent history of Cuba.
A stunning poster welcomes visitors of the Casa Particular Mercedes. Its design in the style of the most genuine socialist realism, with a gigantic image of a guerrilla leader Ernesto Guevara, invites to visit Santa Clara. Those who want to learn first-hand about the history of Cuba after the triumph of Revolution established by Fidel Castro in 1959, must come to this house and talk with Tomás Rodríguez Durán, the patriarch of this family business recognized as one of the best in the city by the site TripAdvisor. Those who want to understand the ongoing changes occurring on the largest Caribbean island, definitely should visit the home of Tomás and Mercedes.
Tomás fought against the government of Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s and after the triumph on January 1st of 1959, he entered the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), where he served for more than three decades. In 1989 he fulfilled internationalist mission in the Republic of Angola and a year later he was granted the rank of colonel of The Cuban Ministry of the Interior (MININT).
In 2004 he put aside a military career and set up his own business. Soulidays visited his rental home in the city of Santa Clara, in central Cuba, to talk to him about the ongoing changes that are taken place in his beloved land.
“I decided to set up my private business due to financial reasons. I retired with a salary that, after the Special Period, which was a result of the collapse of the socialist camp, wasn’t sufficient even to buy loaves of bread for 4 pesos each. We were living in a time of strict government surveillance and then I made that decision. It was a tough decision, but I would not change it. Nevertheless, I remained the same in the way I think and act”.
Did your decision cause you any problems at that time?
For many the decision I made were seen almost as a betrayal, but I decided to rent my house because I wanted the tourists to come to Cuba and get to know the reality of the Revolution. That interested me more than the opinion of three or four people who thought that I was doing something wrong.
Were those people your former army buddies?
Some, but those who really matter to me said they wish all the Colonels decided to rent their houses (casas particulares) in order to make the tourism in Cuba feel safer. I am a determined person and I am not afraid of making some big decisions in my life. I used to think that what was being done in the country was the best possible and in the past there was no freedom of commerce the way we have it today. We could make a list of the good things of the Revolution and of those not so good too.
On that list, what are the positive things and what are the negative ones?
We could talk for many hours about the good sides of Revolution. Among others, the freedom we have in Cuba, the rights of citizens, gender equality, free education and healthcare. Now, the bad things we did? I could write another long list of mistakes that normally are made during a Revolution like the one we carried out in Cuba, since the Cuban Revolution was extremist in its early years.
Do you consider yourself an extremist?
I am part of that generation. I was an extremist, but I’ve evolved as a person. The fact that I have my private business and that it is precisely a vacation rental home for foreigners does not mean I have abandoned my revolutionary principles. I have a huge responsibility towards my country and the Cuban Revolution.
As a revolutionary, how do you explain to your visitors the things that Cuba has to change?
Actually when tourists come to Cuba they believe that we live in poverty. They ask me about the Internet, freedom of expression, the possibilities of leaving the country, traveling and about the salaries in Cuba. But then I explain them, with all respect, Cuba’s social achievements.
And do they understand?
Two months after Cuba-United States relations thaw, two American journalists came to our home. They were looking for information to write an article about the Cuban reality and I convinced them of our social benefits. If I could convince them, I will succeed with anyone.
Tomás, you passed your youth in a country with capitalist economic system. Do you think that with these changes Cuba moves towards state capitalism?
That’s a very interesting question. I like it because the foreigners, especially Europeans, ask me often about it. We are not going towards capitalism because the education and healthcare remain free. Large companies are still state-owned. Now that small businesses such as hospitality are privately owned, we are doing just fine.
What do private business owners like you have to offer to tourists? What the Mercedes House has to share?
Lots of love and affection. As you may notice, my English is very basic but we always receive our guests with joy. I think that the personalized attention to tourists is the biggest strength and virtue in the tourism market in a way that it can actually become a source of income for the country. The vast majority wants to know how Cuba is. They are eager to learn how the country functions and they want to know its culture and customs. In this business you have to be honest.