|Castro assuming power with his barbudos|
By the mid 1960s, the Cuban government had eliminated all private property rights, kicking out every leftover foreign investor from the pre-Castro era. This eliminated the tourist industry, often viewed as the prostitution of their island and an enslavement of their 'compañeros'. Many of the hotels that were left open catered only to Cubans and their communist brothers. It was not until the fall of the Soviet Union, and the loss of Soviet financial support, that the communist regime reluctantly opened the island to foreign visitors. The island’s government was without friends in the global community able to subsidize its economy and welfare net. The special treatment, with trade subsidies, during their Eastern European love affair were long gone and never to return. The quality of life had tanked. The islanders know this infamous period as the Special Period. The regime was desperate to replenish their coffers. After much debate among the old guard, a tourism policy was enacted, which led to the restoration of hotel buildings, allowed international chains to reinvest and begin the arduous task to revive the aesthetics of their cities. Before long, the floodgates were open and the tourist industry fuelled a major part of the economy, surpassing the sale of sugar and related products.
In February 1999, my parents and I arrived in Havana to spend four days under the welcoming Caribbean sun. As soon as the aircraft’s door swung open to let the passengers out, there was a sweet aroma of Cuban tobacco overpowering any other perfume. Even a Cuban welcome came with its own glorious smell! The customs routine was slightly intimidating for first-timers, as the officer was sitting in a booth a few feet over ground level, looking down at tourists. Even if a large family was travelling with small children, the rule was that people had to come through one by one. You stand in a sort of booth, without being able to look at who has passed and who is about to. This was very unusual. I was wearing my trusty Rage Against The Machine Che Guevara t-shirt, which brought an “I like your shirt, young man” comment from a hard-looking Cuban state official. Guess this was a good icebreaker. After collecting our baggage, we were greeted by a representative of our travel agency and driven to our hotel, 200 kms away in the beautiful coastal town of Varadero. At the halfway point, we stopped at a wonderful lookout, the highest point on the road, to sample a “welcome to Cuba” mojito with the sound of an animated salsa band.
We took a day trip to Havana from Varadero aboard an air-conditioned van led by Jorge, a knowledgeable guide. I quickly developed a strong rapport with him as he could notice I had passion and a strong understanding of his country’s history. Someone in the tour bus had asked at what age Che Guevara had died, and I was the only one who had the answer. We visited the old city centre, a wonderful area full of colonial buildings and fortifications dating back to the 1500s. Cuba was the last Spanish colony to gain its independence in the New World. There were also several bars with special stools chained off as memorials to Ernest Hemingway who sat regularly to drink there. He was a true connaisseur of Cuban rum-based beverages. Due to Jorge’s employment with the state – most people dealing with the public shared the same employer - he was not permitted to enter the city’s cathedral. His - and the only political - party on the island did not tolerate religious affiliation. Marx called this “the opium of the masses” if I am not mistaken. On the streets, there were black women dressed in white, wearing a white turban of sorts and smoking a cigar. Jorge mentioned that these women are leaders in the Santería faith – a blend of African, native and Christian faiths with similarities to voodoo – and he recommended not to engage or even to look at them. Although people were not religious, they were indeed superstitious.
|Jorge, Maman and I chatting outside the cathedral|
Cuba was an awesome experience. I absolutely recommend it to any open-minded individual not holding a US passport, especially before the existing regime crumbles. It is one of the safer countries in the world due to its totalitarian structure, so you are relatively free to discover the place on your own. If you speak Spanish, this is definitely to your advantage. It is almost like time travelling to the past. You will see these magnificent American cars from the 1950s in incredibly great condition. Cubans proudly take care of their cars. The buildings throughout Havana whisper secrets of what the city must have looked like in its belle époque and the people are always welcoming. This place is a walking museum equipped with a full-time afro-Cuban salsa band accompanying you every step of the way. You will most certainly notice, on the negative side, the lack of overall freedoms the population has to endure. People have a tougher reality in acquiring very basic goods that we all take for granted in more developed countries. Make sure to give a tip whenever you can or even the cap off your head, a pack of smokes, or anything you are willing to part with. They will truly appreciate it.