Cuba is controversial. Travel to Cuba is controversial. At least from an American perspective.
Our first night in La Havana, Cuba, and we just enjoyed a blond beer at La Taberna de la Muralla in la Plaza Vieja. That place is usually packed with patrons waiting in long lines for the best beer in town. We rambled in without a delay. La Plaza Vieja was practically abandoned on this early Thursday evening.
We finally found a taxi willing to drive us out to Vedado. We had to walk out in front of the Capitolio, kilometer zero to any spot on island and a mirror image of the White House.
Riding in the taxi late at night, Horacio is quiet. Then I start peppering him with questions about life in Havana and Cuba. He opens up.
“¿Dónde vive Fidel actualmente?”
“Pues, no one knows where he really lives. We’re not sure if he is even alive.”
Never scared to ask a question, “So, how is life in Havana?”
“Well,” he responded in a Cuban Spanish that is really quick for a country that is so lethargic in its’ actions. “The “jefes” make the money. The government keeps the people poor. If we start making too much money, they fine us for random stuff. If we have too many fines, we eventually lose our license, and then we have no job. They want you to make just enough to feed your family, but that’s it. If you make too much, they will shut you down.”
In 1940, Fulgencio Baptista was elected president. He wouldn’t be considered an exemplary leader.
During his first term, the Communist Party supported him on his populous platform. When he ran for President a second time in 1952, his campaign ran a distant third. Realizing it’s not fun to be third and his defeat was imminent, he simply organized a coup d’état and seized power. Baptista was now backed by the American government. During his second “term“, he back pedaled on communism and coddled up to wealthy landowners. Corruption characterized his government.
This is when Castro brothers and a famous Argentine medical student came into the picture. Fidel, Raúl, and Che Guevara sailed from Mexico to Cuba on a vessel christened “Granma” (also the name of the national newspaper). They conducted a two-year guerrilla warfare campaign from the Sierra Maestra mountains. On New Year’s Eve 1958 they successfully overthrew the Baptista government and he quickly fled with millions of dollars to the Dominican Republic two days later.
Not being big fans of Fidel Castro in charge of a Communist Cuba, the U.S. put into action a plan to topple his government. Armed dissidents invaded Bay of Pigs in 1961. The offensive failed within days. This only bolstered Fidel’s grasp on power and established their comradeship with the U.S.S.R.
These actions then led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. After Russia had committed nuclear missiles to serve as a defense against any American invasion, the U.S. enacted a naval blockade of the island. With this threat looming over thirteen days, the U.S. and Russia negotiated the dismantling of these nuclear bombs and their subsequent return to the U.S.S.R. In exchange, the United States promised not to attack Cuba.
They deployed an economic embargo against Cuba instead. Cuban products could not be exported to the U.S. (other than quality baseball players) and all business relations ceased to exist.
Fifty years later, I have now entered the fray of American-Cuban relations.
My first mental image of Cuba was formed by American public media and then by literature I read in university (Yes, I actually read a book or two) and what I have seen here in Grand Cayman. My perception was that cities were crumbling and disheveled while highly trained doctors, supplementing their $25 a month salary, moonlighted as taxi drivers in brightly painted 1958 Chevrolet Bel Airs. Every citizen had access to some of the finest medical care across the Americas.
My desire to visit Cuba started while living in Peru. At that time, I learned that all nationalities, including Americans, could travel to Cuba. Americans simply had to fly there via Canada or Mexico and avoid having their passport stamped by Cuban immigration.
The wish to explore a place that wasn’t completely “legal” for Americans piqued my interest. My intuition is that once the Castro brothers die, the flood gates of the modern world will flood the Caribbean island nation and wash away some of their unique attributes. Like the fact that Cuba hasn’t been influenced by the outside world (i.e. cheap smartphones, cars manufactured after 1959, etc.)
In some ways, my intuition about the country was spot on and in other ways, inaccurate. I think Cuba needs a bit more research.
Classic cars did rule the road, and not just in Old Havana.
The theory of communism as an economic and social system just doesn’t seem to vibe with the warm, Latin American culture.
The embargo has made an economic, social, and psychological mark on the nation.
Cuba seems to be a country stuck in the 1950’s while the rest of the world is hurtling ahead into a wild nanotechnology future.
Despite failing infrastructure, Havana is tidy. Unlike countries like South Africa, there is no obvious upper and lower class, everyone appears to be at a lower middle class.
Over the next couple of blog entries, I am going to recount what I observed in my four days in La Havana and Viñales with a focus on the people, survival, government, and an uncertain future.