Camilo Condis does not fit Jesse Brown’s narrow stereotypes of a Cuban. He is neither attempting to escape his country on a raft, nor working in the service industry serving drinks in Varadero.
Instead, the Cuban entrepreneur and podcaster is in fact a Cuban entrepreneur and podcaster — two things that, until fairly recently, it wasn’t possible for people in Cuba to be. But since the country started rolling out mobile internet access in late 2018 and allowing private enterprise in 2021, quite a lot has changed, and Condis has taken advantage of both: he runs a small company of electrical contractors and, since 2019, has hosted El Enjambre (loosely “The Swarm” or “The Beehive”), which in some ways is sort of a Cuban equivalent of CANADALAND.
“We try to tell the news — at the same time, make fun of the news — about Cuba,” he explains. His show focuses on “what’s happening in Cuba every week, and we try to discuss it using mainly the opinions of experts, academics, people who have a high knowledge about the country and why the things are happening, how they are happening, and what we can think about that.”
The show even manages to be critical of the government, though has to walk a tricky line when doing so.
On this week’s CANADALAND, Condis speaks to Brown from Vancouver (where he was presenting at a conference) about what it means to be a podcaster in a country with very limited press freedoms, as well as the peculiar relationship that Canadians have with Cuba:
In this lightly edited excerpt, Condis explains why he has no desire to flee his troubled country and how Canadians manage to travel to Cuba without ever actually going there…
Jesse Brown: You are speaking to me from a conference in Vancouver. I’m sure there are many Cubans who would very much like to be in Canada, or at least that’s something that we’re told here. And I suppose if you wanted to, you could just not go home.
Camilo Condis: I have to be honest about this. I’m a person who is very objective and logical, and I don’t have a very objective and logical explanation for why I don’t want to flee my country.
I think Cuba is home. I have had the opportunity to travel abroad. I have been in Europe, other places in Latin America, I have traveled extensively to the U.S. This is my first time in Canada, and I’m loving it. But I have never felt at home abroad. I have never felt like a place where, “Yeah, I can see myself living here,” you know? Maybe it’s because I’m doing, you know, just a visit to a country, and I know exile is completely different, because you are forced to go to this country and you’re forced to get accustomed to this country, right? But I just don’t see myself doing that. And for me, it’s hurting that people are being forced to leave the country; some of them actively by the government and some of them in a passive way, because if you have nothing to eat, if you see your kids starving, you are being forced out of your country. And I want to see change in my country. I want to see a country where people feel free to speak their mind. I want them to be well. I want them to not have to worry about what they’re going to have for dinner tonight, because this is a very common problem for Cubans. So this is a completely different mindset in our country, for what the issues are and what the real problems are.
JB: But meanwhile, you are travelling and you say that you love Vancouver?
CC: I’ve only been here for two days, and I’m going to leave soon, but yeah, I think it’s a pretty city. Although, I have to be honest: I have been impressed by the amount of homeless doing drugs in the street, just in front of everybody. Like, the morning I arrived, I was walking downtown at around 7:30 a.m. All of these homeless people were doing drugs. Like, right there. I was like, “Wow.” I had never seen this. And I have been coast to coast in the U.S. I have never seen this in my life. And it shocked me, to be honest.
JB: Yeah, no, it’s a terrible problem, and a lot of people are dying from toxic drugs. While we’re talking, is there anything I can answer for you? Anything you’re curious about…?
CC: You are telling me that you have a cartoonish view on Cuba and repression and freedom of speech and the political situation. But at the same time, Canada is one of the main issuers of tourists to Cuba — like, Canadians go to Cuba a lot. So my question would be, like, are all Canadians aware of the situation and they say, “Let’s go there to go to a hotel, anyway”? How does this work?
JB: That is an excellent question. Well, I have been to an all-inclusive resort in Varadero. I have been to the, you know, the one-day day trip to Havana, to sip a cocktail at the bar where Hemingway hung out. And I simultaneously have a narrative about Cuba, which is largely something I receive through the American media. So those are two concepts that do exist simultaneously: that this is a tropical paradise, where my dollar spends well, and also that this is a horrible, repressive place that people are dying in the ocean to flee, where there’s no real freedom and people are starving.
I think that the way that those ideas are able to coexist is through a rationalization that it wouldn’t do Cubans any good to not go to these resorts. In fact, perhaps we’re even helping by doing that. And I think that those ideas are allowed to coexist, or able to coexist, because I have never been forced to actually witness firsthand, nor have I chosen to witness firsthand, any of these human rights abuses or this poverty that I know exists. And I think that part of what Canadians buy when they buy these vacation packages is a curated experience that keeps those sites away from us. So I recognize how feeble an answer that is, but I think that probably is the answer, about how those things are able to happen at the same time.
CC: I guess I would advise you that the next time you go to Cuba, go to a private lodge, like a private apartment, like an Airbnb or something like that, and you will be supporting Cubans much more. I do want the private sector in Cuba to grow, to become stronger, so we can be an agent of change. Because we want to see change in our country, and we are very, very, very, very, very, very limited by the government. So any time a Canadian has the opportunity or wants to visit Cuba, if they can say, “You know, I’m not going to the all-inclusive, I want to meet the Cubans, I want to talk to them. I’m going to stay at the private house, I’m going to eat at private restaurants, and I’m going to really and fully support them,” that would be my advice to you and all Canadians listening to us.
JB: I think that’s really good advice. And that’s some of the best travel advice I’ve received. Let me ask you this: Canadians have been going on vacations to Cuba — and largely they are marketed as budget vacations — for decades. What do they think of Canadians? I have an image in my head about Cubans. What is the image that Cubans have of Canadians?
CC: I think the best way to tell you about this is, back in 2015-16, maybe, I was also in Varadero at an all-inclusive hotel, and I met a couple of Canadians over there. We were playing pool, you know, and they told me that this was their fifth trip to Cuba. I said, “Oh, wow. So you like Cuba a lot. So what do you think about Havana? Camagüey? Trinidad?” “Yeah, we don’t know about that.” “What do you mean?” “Oh yeah, we get a plane, we arrive to the airport, get on a bus, go to the hotel, spend a few days, go back in the bus, go to the airport, and go back home.” They don’t experience Cuba. They experience a hotel in Cuba. And that hotel could be anywhere in the world. I don’t think that would make any difference, you know? I was like, “Man, you have been five times to Cuba, and you don’t know Cuba at all. You don’t know anything.”
Because of this, I don’t think many Cubans have not only a strong opinion, but any opinion at all on Canadians, because they don’t get to interact with Canadians. Because Canadians don’t go to Cuba to interact with Cubans.
JB: These are two countries that have been in contact for a long time, but maybe we we haven’t yet met each other.
CC: Yeah, very superficial contact, yeah.
Top photo of Condis in Vancouver from his Instagram account.