Extravagant Egalitarian by Azwa Petra – A LoyarBurok series featuring Azwa’s jaunts and jottings, with a take on human rights and putting it all in context with the social development of Malaysia.
Azwa Petra was (recently) described in a Star article as being, “[At] 38 and still single, … already far beyond the average age at which Malaysians are expected to get married.” When not deluding herself that her day job will win her the Nobel Peace Prize, Azwa is continually planning her next travel escapade and spending money taking photography lessons which she forgets the next day. She loves dancing salsa and samba de gafieira, and her latest passion is trapeze flying.
In it’s third outing, Extravagant Egalitarian discovers Cuba, Castro, Che, Cohiba, good music, and boring food. The contrasting freedom of movement enjoyed by Malaysians as compared to Cubans brings to mind a group of people in Malaysia who do not have as much freedom or much else – refugees and stateless people.
As a Malaysian, traveling is relatively easy. You will be surprised at the number of countries you can just turn up at their doorsteps (read: immigration checkpoints) and they will let you in without you having to queue and apply for a visa with a flight ticket in hand and oodles of cash in your pocket or bank account weeks before your vacation. All you need usually is your national passport with enough pages for a stamp and at least six months’ validity. One of these countries, to my surprise, is Cuba!
CUBA. Just the name immediately evokes images of anti-American and anti-Capitalism slogans, the Castro beard, the Che beret, and of course the Cohiba cigars. But it is so much more yet wanting. It is a country full of contradictions. It is defiant yet hopeful; resigned yet perseveres; happy yet sad; friendly yet cautious. In Havana, there are people living in literally crumbling buildings yet every few doors, you find newly constructed restaurants and office spaces. On the roads, you see old Russian Ladas and American Chevrolets alongside shiny new BMWs and Volkswagens.
What to do in Cuba? You have the historical sites, the revolutionary museum, the cigar factories, the beaches, the mountains, the art galleries, and, of course the salsa scenes. In fact, one of the main reasons Cuba ended up on my top three dream destinations was because of movies about Cuban salsa like the one with Vanessa Williams and Cheyenne as well as Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights! And there’s the film documentary, Buena Vista Social Club. Indeed, music simply permeates from every pore, nook and cranny in Cuba. Life can be hard but that does not mean it must do without an amazing background score.
I must say it was quite refreshing not to see KFC, McDonald’s or Starbucks about. And while I loved everything about Cuba, there was just one exception – the food. Maybe we just did not know where to go but on the menu of practically every eatery we went to were grilled chicken, grilled shrimps, grilled pork and not much else. We did have Chinese food once, cooked by authentic Chinese chefs in one of the several Chinese restaurants that were in Havana’s one street Chinatown!
Just as we had a go at a few paladares, family-run, private restaurants limited to twelve seats, we also only stayed in a local’s home during our trip – locals can rent out maximum of two rooms in their homes called casa particular. This is one sure way of getting to know the locals! We got to know an especially nice family who helped us with alternative accommodation in Havana since their persistently well-reviewed casa particular was booked up well in advance. We managed to spend time with them nonetheless by having breakfast at their house everyday in Havana (no, not FOC).
The elder father would entertain us with his limited English and generous humour while helping his wife serve us breakfast. His son has better English and is an engineer but makes too little money from his day job so he actively supports his parents with the casa particular. They had connections all around, whether to help make arrangements for our short trip to Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage site, or to get a doctor make a house call when I suffered an ear infection (from too much sun, sand and sea!).
The son also introduced us to Sandokan (emphasis on “San”) – a character for him very closely associated to Malaysia which we had no idea about. I Googled it afterwards and found out that it is a fictional character also known as the Tiger of Malaya – a pirate in the South China Seas rebelling against the Dutch and the British – penned by an Italian author in the late 19th century. Films and television series were made based on this pirate and had great following. We discovered simply saying Sandokan to the locals was the easiest way of explaining where we are from!
We figured if Malaysians did not have to get a visa to enter Cuba, then there should be a reciprocal arrangement for Cubans and encouraged the hospitable family to visit Malaysia. Alas, the father and the son sighed – this is very unlikely as it is very difficult for Cubans to travel abroad. They simply summed it up to the complex procedures and stopped short of complaining about these restrictions. Often, when we asked the father how is life in Cuba compared to prior the revolution, he would put a finger to his lips and go “Shhhhh!” While done in jest, we understood he did not want to say too much. Yet they, like several other locals we spoke with, remain genuinely proud of the Cuban Revolution.
According to Human Rights Watch:
The Cuban government forbids the country’s citizens from leaving or returning to Cuba without first obtaining official permission, which is often denied. Unauthorized travel can result in criminal prosecution. … The government frequently bars citizens engaged in authorized travel from taking their children with them overseas, essentially holding the children hostage to guarantee the parents’ return. … The government is also clamping down on the movement of citizens within Cuba by more aggressively enforcing a 1997 law known as Decree 217 [which] requires Cubans to obtain government permission before moving to the country’s capital.
Our national passport permits us to travel anywhere we want abroad (except for Israel) and freedom of movement is generally good inside the country (apart from that minor requirement regarding travel between Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah/Sarawak). But there is a group of people in Malaysia who do not have as much freedom moving about in the country. These are refugees and stateless people. Malaysia is not party to the Refugee Convention but allows the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, to consider and determine the refugee status of asylum-seekers who come from all over the world, from neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and Myanmar to further flung ones like Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Somalia. UNHCR also has responsibility for stateless people like the Rohingyas in Malaysia.
That there are so many of them in Malaysia and a large number of them have been in the country for years is a testament of better living conditions in our country compared to their countries of origin; yet they are like each and everyone of us entitled to an identity and to a life with dignity. Because Malaysia is not party to the Refugee Convention, recognised refugees are never considered for local integration. According to Malaysian law, these people are no different from illegal immigrants. So at any time, they are susceptible to being arrested, detained, prosecuted, punished and deported.
Malaysia can go far to protect this group of people by being party to the Refugee Convention as well as conventions related to statelessness and implement their provisions into domestic law; but until that time comes, we the ordinary Malaysians can come forward instead to help this marginalised group of people. Sure we have our share of troubles but relative to the conflict and persecution that these people faced and fled from, I think we can afford to be good hosts and share a little bit of our good fortune as Malaysians.
Indeed, I believe we have a shared responsibility in assisting them where we can. As one Nobel Prize winner (in Literature) Toni Morrison quote goes, “the function of freedom is to free someone else.”
LB: The views expressed here are solely of the author’s in her personal capacity and not necessarily those of her employer organisation.