Australian Government,  Blog post,  Communications professional

What I learnt from my trip to Cuba

One of my passions is traveling. I have been to almost 70 countries. It’s an addiction, I start planning my next holiday while I am on my current one. I love the thrill of discovery, seeing new things, learning about other cultures and the food! My husband and I always go somewhere different – sometimes visiting friends or attending a destination wedding, but other trips are just for the adventure. Last week we got back from one of our adventure trips – Cuba.

Cuba has been on my travel list for a while now. I wanted to visit while it still had that “communist charm”. There is something about a communist country that I find fascinating, it is just so different from the commercial, Internet-driven society that we live in. I love learning about how people live, their challenges with government and the passionate belief some have about their way of life.

If you haven’t been, you need to put Cuba on your travel list. It was simply stunning. From Havana where you drive past crumbling colonial architecture in a 1950s convertible, to riding through the rolling tobacco fields of Vinales, and stumbling through the cobblestone streets of Trinidad. It was a country of contractions and one that is still (to a degree) sheltered from the outside world.

I wish I had gone ten years ago before everyone had a mobile phone and international companies entered the previously closed market. But it was still an eye-opening experience and one I didn’t fully appreciate until we needed to google a health issue, ran out of toothpaste or wanted some chips after a night of mojitos.

My time in Cuba also made me stop and reflect on government communications. Communist countries are known for their propaganda and despite some stark differences there were a few insights that I wanted to share.

The effectiveness of government communications

If you have ever doubted the effectiveness of government communications visit a communist state! Everywhere you go you are faced with propaganda and sure the messages might be different from here in Australia (My favourite Patria o Muerte = Homeland or die!) but every citizen has a clear understanding of current government. And that’s the point isn’t it, government communications exists to provide citizens with information they need to know about laws, policies and programs. Regardless of if you agree with the government’s position, communications are critical to keeping the public informed.  

Propaganda billboards

Reinforce your message

If there was ever a place to learn this lesson Cuba was it! Regardless of if you were driving, reading a newspaper or walking around the streets of Havana you understood that Fidel was legendary, the revolution was great, and Che Guevara is a national hero. Reinforcing your message through multiple channels is critical to ensuring you reach your target audience. Consistency is also important, the more you change your message the less impact it will have, just repeat it, often, on every street corner, and the public will eventually get it.

Everyone hates public servants

While on a walking tour in Trinidad the local guide pointed out City Hall. This was the place he told us where the lazy public servants worked – they spent more time doing their nails or with their feet up on the desk than actually working. I realised that regardless of where you are public servants are misunderstood, the myth of the well paid, but lazy public servant reaches far and wide.

I hate this perception, I don’t remember a time in the last ten years when I have worked less than a 45 -50 hour week as a public servant, often getting in early and staying late to just keep up. A good week was not having to take work home or work on a weekend. Outside of the “Canberra bubble” there is still this idea that public servants are all overpaid and underworked. At least it’s not just the Australia public that has this perception!

Internet is life

While it was nice to put the phone down and shut off from the world for a few days, being in Cuba also highlighted how reliant I am on the internet. In Cuba very few private homes have internet connected and if they do have a router the only way to access the internet is through purchasing an internet card from the government-owned provider for about AUD$1.50 an hour. This doesn’t sound like much but when you earn an average of AUD$14 a month it’s unachievable for many Cubans.

Despite recent moves to increase access to the internet on the island, Cuba remains one of the world’s least connected and most repressive environments for information and communication technologies.

Freedom on the net https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2018/cuba

In most places we stayed we had to go to a public area, such as the one below, where we could access the internet (sometimes) on our phones. Tourists flocked to these places, desperate to tell the outside world they were alive (through Instagram and Facebook posts).

I didn’t need to see what was happening on social media, or care about checking the news but I do like to understand the country I am in and read about some of the cultural or political differences and without Google this was impossible.

The restricted access also means this is not a channel of communications for the government. The Cuban Government still communicates through ‘old school’ channels – billboards, posters and radio (there are two radio stations). It made me reflect on the reliance we now have on creating digital communications – our websites, social media channels and the 24-hour media cycle. Our government communications is now predominately online.

The WiFi steps of Trinidad

I love to travel, and one of the things I love about it is how much I learn along the way about life, culture but also communications! It makes me grateful for what we have here in Australia and at times jealous for what we miss out on by living in such a hyper-connected society (but I also like to have all of the answers at my fingertips).

Travelling keeps me grounded, reminds me that I am lucky and that there are amazing things out there in the world to see.

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