Paul has been writing about our trip through Cuba… but equally to the Amazon, I feel the urge to add some of my own thoughts.
Firstly… Casas particulares: I’ve always preferred B and Bs to hotels because of the more personal touch, and this has, even more, relevance in Cuba. These Casas are a win-win concept – Cubans can add to their generally meagre income and earn some much-valued divisas (convertible currency) by renting out a room to a stranger for a day or more while we get a closer look at Cuban life. We are not served by bored, low-paid government-hotel employees (and I’m sure there are exceptions to this stereotype) but by people who welcome us as guests into their homes. And genuinely welcomed we felt in pretty much all the Casas we stayed in. The experience was very different though in each of them: While we hardly saw our host in Havana (she had just returned home after surgery), we had very long and interesting conversations with our host (a just-retired former broadcasting director of the local radio station) in Camaguey, and dined (and danced) on the balcony of our casa in Baracoa in earshot of the Casa de la Trova, with yummy dishes prepared by our young, wonderful 20something hosts. From the apartment with views over the Malecon in Havana to the room off the plant-filled patio in a beautifully restored house in the historic centre of Santa Clara to the newly built/added ones in Trinidad, Santiago and Baracoa – every place was unique.
Fight for independence
Secondly… Cuba’s fight for independence: I purposely didn’t say revolution as there is more to it. Starting from Columbus’ discovery, the country has been first in Spanish hands, and then an annexe to the US (we read the Declaration of Independence signed between the US and Spain – mind you Cuba was not involved – prepared by US lawyers… the patronizing tone of the document sounds even more than 100 years later strangely familiar). Many Cubans have fought for their country’s independence, first against Spain, later against the US-supported Batista regime. The names of those follow you wherever you go… from the 19th-century heroes like Marti, Agramonte, and Maceo to the ones of the 20th century including the Castro and Pais brothers, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, Abel Santamaria, Celia Sanchez and many many more. The museums dedicated to the fight for Cuba’s independence, particularly since 1953, are (probably not surprisingly) the best-organised museums in this country. And because the activities of those independence fighters happened all over the island there are museums and memorial sites everywhere: from the Moncada Barracks in Santiago where Fidel, Raul, and Abel famously failed in 1953… to the site in Santa Clara where a train with soldiers and army supplies was derailed by Che and his men in late 1958, sealing Batista’s defeat on 1 January 1959. Being in Cuba, there is obviously a lot of socialist propaganda going on, from the way museum artefacts are explained to the slogans on walls, Che/Fidel/Raul/Camilo murals etc. But one thing no one can deny the Cubans is RESPECT… The revolution in itself is nothing short of a miracle given how outnumbered and undersupplied the revolutionaries were. But also the efforts after the overthrow of Batista are amazing… particularly given this all happened despite the US embargo. Cuba may have a lot of shortcomings (to the eye of an outsider living in a developed country) but it has achieved a lot too… analphabetism is practically unheard of nowadays, healthcare and education are free for its people. One of Cuba’s best exports is not its rum or cigars but its doctors who have been training locals in other developing countries for years. While other countries in Latin America have been more or fewer puppets of the US, this island in the Caribbean has managed to withstand the threats from its big neighbour. Quite amazing indeed… and something I take my (now dusty) cap off for.
That brings me to my 3rd point… the Castro brothers are omnipresent, but what will happen when they die? Cuban resilience, their ability to improvise and recycle to make do with whatever they have, and the big sense of community spirit are things that have reminded me of old GDR times (other things like lack of supplies, badly maintained buildings, long queues and the ‘same wage policy’ – no matter what level of education or responsibility one has – sadly too). Having experienced the end of socialism before, I do wonder whether Cuba will go through a similar process as the veteran revolutionaries die out. Things have changed here already… with the opening of the country to Western tourism and private businesses, and the dual currency system (the local peso and the convertible peso), a big gap between the haves and have-nots is appearing… very familiar to what we’ve seen in other (and not only developing) countries. While the community used to look after the disabled and elderly, we have seen many of them begging on the streets. In a strange way, by staying in Casa particulares, we are contributing to this divide… as our hosts are now able to buy the mod-cons of modern Western society like flat-screen TVs, air conditioners, microwaves, even cars (and I’m not talking 1950s Chevrolets or 1970s Ladas). We can’t stop progress but I hope Cuba can retain some of the good things socialism has brought.
I had hoped to come to Cuba for a long time. I remember when I was a kid, my dad learned Spanish as he was due to be sent to Cuba to work, together with his family. In the end, the plan never materialised… but finally seeing Cuba, I wonder sometimes how our life here would have been like.
Cuba was certainly a very different experience to the other countries in Latin America… for many reasons. Walking through Havana’s old city centre, some houses are beautifully restored, others look more like the ruins in Germany after WWII. It’s amazing that there are still people living in them. Seeing the passion with which Cuban musicians perform is amazing… infectious, raw and pure enjoyment. This alone is worth coming for… especially for anyone who loves Salsa, Rumba, Cha Cha etc. I don’t know when I’ll be back but I will.