If I were to ask you what you associate with Cuba, you would probably reply something along the lines of: cigars, missile crises, a certain man named Fidel Castro. Indeed, it was armed with such expectations and vaguely recalled pictures of “El Comandante” smoking an absurdly long cigar in his green military fatigues that I, with the family in tow, ventured out to Cuba for Christmas.
One of the first things I learnt about Cuba before I went was that its motto is “Patria o muerte” (Fatherland or Death). That‘s quite an intimidating introduction, yet as soon as I arrived, my expectations were confounded. Cuba’s turbulent history has made it into one of the most eclectic and culturally diverse countries in the world.
To some extent, the Cuban experience is a surreal one. Nowhere else in the world can you see traffic jams in which 1950s Classic American cars are driven side by side with rickety old Soviet Lada and Zhiguli models. Nowhere else in the world can you see such a syncretism of African and Spanish cultures in both the religious and musical spheres. Driving in to Havana is like driving onto a slightly decrepid film set. The city is divided into both old and new quarters with dusty 19th century Iberian houses being punctuated by imposing modern constructions. Ernest Hemingway, who lived here for 22 years of his life, wrote that “In terms of Beauty, only Venice and Paris surpassed Havana”.
As with many countries who adopted the socialist model, Cuba has a high literacy rate and a low rate of violent crime. There is no private ownership and you cannot sell your house since it does not technically ‘belong’ to you. Mobile phones are a luxury and you still see long queues at internet centres as locals wait to get online. However, this is not the stern-faced bureaucratic socialism of Eastern Europe. It was incredible to see how much Cubans express themselves vibrantly through dance, religion, music and art. The Buena Vista Social Club hails from Cuba and you can hear the wonderful ‘Chan Chan’ in many streets after dark. One night we stumbled across a mass outdoor fiesta. There must have been over 200 couples enthusiastically dancing to the drumbeat rhythm of the Salsa music – quite an experience for any unsuspecting witness.
Ever since Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic and discovered both the Americas and Cuba in 1492, the country has only truly had self-governance since the 1959 revolution. It was under colonial rule of the Spanish from 1492 to 1898 (which included an 11-month occupation by the Brits), and controlled, by proxy, by America until 1959. This was the year that a pair of young revolutionaries by the names of Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara swept into Havana, overthrowing the American backed Batista government. Since that day, Castro has survived over 638 assassination attempts which have included bizarre efforts by the CIA to kill him with exploding cigars, fungal-infected scuba-diving suits, and mafia-style shootings. You have to respect the man for continuing to puff away at his Cohibas.
After the Revolution, Castro expropriated private property and nationalised many industries in a move towards socialism. Some of these industries were American and, as you can imagine, the US was far from delighted by such treatment. In 1961, the US government tried to overthrow Castro by landing about 1400 military trained Cuban – American immigrants on the Bay of Pigs. However, they were defeated and captured. This spectacular failure on the part of the Americans pushed Cuban – American relations to an all time low and in 1962 the US government imposed a trade and travel ban to Cuba for all its citizens, which still is in effect today. Later that year, the Cuban government allowed the Soviet Union to put nuclear missiles pointing in the direction of their northerly neighbour causing the Cuban Missile Crisis and almost prompting World War Three.
I was reminded of Cuba’s Soviet past when I saw an enormous Russian warship which had anchored in Havana harbour on its way to do joint exercises with the Venezuelan navy. Hundreds of barely adolescent Russian sailors were walking in columns in one of the nearby squares, with many of them enjoying the delights of Cuban ice cream. A Ukrainian street vendor told me how he had been sent out to Cuba before the fall of the Soviet Union and had been left there, unable to afford a return ticket. It was a surreal encounter but a reminder of Cuba’s eastward looking past.
One thing which is noticeable more than anything else is the iconic image of Che Guevara’s face – on just about every tourist t-shirt and billboard. Even on the beach, a sunburnt Brit played volleyball with Che’s face tattooed on his not-so-muscular left peck. I am pretty sure that this is not exactly what Che envisaged when he started the revolution and I don’t think he would be too happy either knowing that his face had been adopted by the capitalist consumer culture and plays a crucial part in every gap year traveller’s wardrobe.
You may wonder why, if the Cold War is over and Cuba no longer presents a threat to American interests, the embargo still exists. Well, in Florida the Cuban-American lobby is extremely powerful. It is composed of emigrants from Cuba who oppose any sort of normalisation of relations due their hostility to the regime. The embargo detrimentally affects the lives of Cuban citizens. They can’t use dollars, they can’t export to America and the economy is being deprived of both American investment and American tourism. There are many highly educated Cubans who are forced to work as taxi drivers or vendors because of the lack of employment opportunities. Fortunately, the incoming Obama administration has made positive noises about lifting the embargo. If this is done, then the country will change beyond recognition as it boards the capitalist train.
Such changes will include a reduction in the number of wonderful 1950s classic American cars on the roads, as Cubans import newer models which they have not been allowed to do since 1959. The country will be forced to modernise and doubtless Ronald Macdonald will become a permanent Cuban citizen. Many of the crumbling 19th century houses will be demolished to make way for development and a visit to Havana will become a simple weekend trip for most Americans (it is only 90 miles from Miami). Cubans will undoubtedly benefit greatly from these changes and the strong pull which memories of the revolution exert on Cubans will weaken when the ailing figure of Fidel Castro passes away. All I can say, is that you must visit this wonderful country before it is brought out of isolation as, safely discounting North Korea in terms of tourist appeal, it is one the few socialist countries left in the world, and a beautiful, surreal and fascinating one at that.