Cuba is presently in a process of change. It’s president, Raúl Castro, is planning to step down from office in April. He has been president since 2008 and his retirement will mark not just a change of leaders for Cuba, but the end of an era.
Cuba’s next generation of leaders won’t have the same claim to revolutionary authenticity or legitimacy as Raúl and his brother Fidel, but they will represent renewal and the promise of a fresh start for the nation. No one yet knows how this change will play out, but hopes are high.
I visited Cuba in October 2016, just a few weeks before Fidel’s death. At the time, there was optimism that US-Cuban relations might finally beginning to thaw. A year earlier the Pope had visited Cuba, and the US embassy had re-opened after being closed for 54 years. Then in March 2016, US President Barak Obama visited – the first US presidential visit to Cuba since 1928.
Yet even though the restrictions on US citizens visiting Cuba had been eased, much of the US economic embargo was still in effect. As a non-US tourist, there’s no problem browsing accommodation sites such as Airbnb or Booking.com, but when you make a booking it seems to take a very long time for the hosts to reply and confirm. That’s because the internet in Cuba can be problematical and access for locals is slow and expensive. Wikipedia blames this on lack of funding, tight government restrictions and the U.S. embargo.
Digital pre-planning & money
If Cuba is on your itinerary you can save yourself a lot of digital grief by not depending on the internet to be your guide book, language translator, map, bank, and reference resource all in one. Instead, plan some things ahead. For example, unless you speak Spanish, it’s a good idea to pre-load the language into Google Translate so you can use it offline. Downloading some Google maps of where you are likely to go is also a good idea. (Your phone’s GPS will still work without internet access, and can place the blue dot on a pre-loaded map to show you where you are – which is very handy when you get lost).
For tourists, the more immediate consequence of the US embargo is that organising your money is not so easy. Credit and debit cards can be problematical in Cuba, even when the cards are issued by a non-US bank. During my visit, I found it difficult to find merchants or even ATMs that accepted Mastercard. If you plan to take plastic, Visa is definitely the better choice, but old-fashioned cash is still the most reliable.
If you plan to take cash it is better to take Euros or Canadian dollars, because Cuba slaps a 10% exchange rate surcharge on US dollars. Notionally, 1 Cuban Convertable Peso (CUP) exchanges for 1 US dollar – less the usual forex fee, but if you bring greenbacks, 10 cents of your US dollar will be ‘taxed’ as you begin the process – meaning you’ll have 90 cents remaining before the exchange rates and fees are calculated. (This “tax” on greenbacks is supposedly in retaliation for the US embargo on Cuba).
When you do arrive in Havana, it looks like quite a happening place, at least on the surface. There´s a great deal of construction and renovation going on, and plenty of brand new Chinese-made “tourista” buses shuttling about. Cuba has worked hard to preserve old Havana, and it is old. The city was founded in 1519 – a mere 27 years after Columbus made his fateful voyage – and a full century before the founding of other “New World” cities such as New York or Boston.
The effort to preserve old Havana began in earnest in the 1970’s with UNESCO support. It continues still. The port city has so much history it is a delight to wander about. Around one corner you will find ancient cannons used as street bollards, and around the next, a plaza with cafes and restaurants and with boundaries de-marked by lines of genuine cannon balls. And when you look up you see balconies with slatted shutters and you can sense the presence of so many lives and so many stories that have passed within those tropical walls.
Havana feels very safe. In fact of all the places I’ve visited in Central and South America, Cuba was by far and away the place where I was least worried about crime, even when wandering the streets at night.
The city also delivers on that other icon from the tourist brochures, those classic old American cars from the 1950’s. The best examples look immaculate and for a modest fee you can enjoy an open-topped ride along the Malecón with the warm wind in your hair. Just remember to not look too closely behind you.
In reality, thanks to the US trade embargo, most of these cars have had no access to spare parts for 60-70 years, and while Cuban panel beating is excellent, no amount of clever maintenance can substitute for genuine spare parts. Many of the original engines have been replaced by diesels which belch black smoke everywhere. Havana traffic isn’t at all heavy, but the air near the roads is often filthy from car fumes.
Not all of the cars in Havana are of the “yank-tank” vintage. There’s a growing presence of modern European and Asian models, (nothing from the USA because of the embargo, of course), but the most common vehicle on Havana’s roads is still the Lada.
The Lada was based on the old 1960’s Fiat 124 design and manufactured under license in Russia in the 70’s and 80’s. The Russian manufacturing quality was so poor that even when these cars were brand new they had a terrible reputation. Nobody imagined that any of them would still be around 40 years later, so it’s a real credit to Cuban resourcefulness that so many still survive here.
A Lada in Habana
My own encounter with an ancient Lada was quite by chance. On the way to visit the El Morro fortress, my companion and I had taken a ferry across Havana harbour, but we’d disembarked at the wrong jetty.
The view from the less visited South Eastern side of the harbour is very pretty, but the pre-loaded map in my smart phone said we were much further from the El Morro fortress than it looked, and not in a part of Havana frequented by tourists – or by many taxis.
Guessing that the fortress couldn’t be more than a few kilometres away, we decided to walk. It was interesting to be in a part of Havana which is never featured in tourist brochures and doesn’t have any of the buzz or tourist-fed prosperity of the old city.
It still felt very safe, possibly because in the heat of the day the streets seemed so empty, but after an hour of walking, the tropical heat began to have its effect on us. We began to wonder if the decision to walk was such a good idea. (All travellers know such moments of doubt). Google’s pre-loaded map told is where we were, but without the internet, it was no help in finding the shortest way to where we wanted to be.
About then a Taxi came by. It was the first one we’d seen since we’d stepped off the ferry, and it already had a passenger. But thankfully the driver stopped – perhaps because he could see a couple of strangers looking very out of place. He had no English and we had only a little Spanish, but after a short exchange he decided to help us. We climbed aboard and rode with him as he first completed the trip for his existing passenger. She was elderly and he was taking her up the hill to what looked like a bus stop. I was so pleased not to be walking anymore that it wasn’t until we set off for El Morro that I noticed the condition of the taxi.
The inside door handles were broken. Fair enough, I’ve seen that before. Seat belts? It’s lucky we are going so slowly. Upholstery? – only a memory of what once was. Is that the ground I can see below? Through that hole in the floor? Why is the engine making that noise? Is that a hill ahead? Is the engine saying I think I can, I know I can or is that just me? Or is it the driver?
The driver never took his eyes off the road. There was no traffic. I’m sure he was concentrating and projecting his willpower to the engine, determined to get his little Lada to make the distance. I began to worry that even if it did, would it be able to get him back to his home? It never occurred to me to wonder about the car’s brakes…
But safely arrive we did, much to our relief and I suspect, to the driver’s. He seemed very pleased with his Lada’s achievement and asked only for a very reasonable fare. I admired his pride and determination.
El Morro fortress
Because of its fine harbour, Havana quickly became the strategic hub of Spain’s presence in the New World. However, with so much wealth and plunder passing through it, the port soon became a tempting target for greedy eyes. After a particularly bad pirate attack in the late 1500’s, the Spanish constructed a fortress to guard the entrance to Havana’s harbour. This fortress, the El Morro, is one of the worlds best preserved examples of fortifications from that era. It is truly impressive, with walls up to 3 metres thick, still dotted with ancient cannon of all sizes, and visitors are free to wander all around the battlements.
Inside the fortress are bunkers which function now as a museum. One of them contains a poignant painting from 1762, almost 200 years after the fortress was built. It depicts a scene of the fortress defenders watching the arrival of a massive British invasion fleet.
Moments before I saw this painting I’d been standing on the fortifications above, at almost the exact point from where the image was made. This made it easy and almost personal to imagine the apprehension of the fortress defenders looking out from the parapets at the arrival of this massive superpower with hostile intent.
That British fleet consisted of over 200 ships carrying nearly 30,000 soldiers and seamen. Even by today’s standards, moving such an army under sail would be impressive – but this fleet had carried its invasion army across the Atlantic a full 15 years before Captain Cook managed to “discover” the east coast of Australia.
The British did not attack El Morro directly from the sea, but instead landed northeast of Havana and attacked from the land. After a 44 day siege, the El Morro fortress was captured. With Havana lost, all of Cuba came under British control. The Seven Year’s War is sometimes described as the first global war, because it spread over five continents and involved every major European power of the day. Cuba was merely a side event in the much bigger conflict, and the war finally ended a year later.
As part of the peace settlement, Britain swapped Cuba for the then Spanish territory of Florida, probably because they considered Florida to be of more strategic importance to the security of the 13 English colonies in North America.
Would they have made a different decision if they knew they were about to lose all of those colonies anyway?
Today, 140Kms east of Havana, on the perfect white beaches of Varadero you can see the contrails of commercial jets overflying on their way from Florida to Latin American destinations further south.
Varadero is a peninsular strip of beaches, dotted with late 80’s hotels where former Soviet block families still come for their all-inclusive tropical holidays. The resorts are complete with South Pacific-style palm leaf thatched roofing over the restaurants and poolside bars, and Che Guevera merchandise in the shops.
Tourism is now a very important part of Cuba’s balance of trade. The old staples of sugar and tobacco are well past their prime, and much less valuable on world markets than they were in the past. The US embargo has limited Cuba’s attempts to diversify into other industries, although one surprising success has been in refining oil – (mostly from Venezuela, so a future uncertain).
As a tourist destination, Cuba offers excellent value to international visitors. It is tropical and warm. It has great beaches and offers the experience of a unique cocktail of history and culture.
But you have to wonder what revolutionary hero Che Guevera would think about having his image on T-shirts and coffee mugs and every other kind of tourist memorabilia.
It has been almost 60 years since the revolution. What would he think of Cuba today?
The Museum of the Revolution
The 1959 revolution is well documented in Havana’s Museum of the Revolution.
The museum is situated in old Havana, in the presidential palace formerly occupied by Batista, the corrupt dictator overthrown by Castro. It documents why Cuba’s 1959 revolution was necessary, how it happened and the suffering of the many people who fought in the struggle. The museum also has sections on events that happened afterwards including the failed CIA-backed 1961 “Bay of Pigs” invasion and Cuban military involvement in far away places such as Angola and East Timor.
I looked for but could not find a section about the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis. (Perhaps I was looking in the wrong places – some museum sections were under maintenance that day). The Cuban Missile crisis was probably the most dangerous moment in the Cold War, and the closest the world has so far come to nuclear Armageddon, so I was disappointed not to find any Cuban perspective about it.
The Cuban missile crisis has been documented many times, but consistent in all accounts is that the outcome was determined by the USA and Russia with scarcely any reference to the Cubans at all. To Washington and Moscow, Cuba was just a piece on a chessboard, with no control over its own fate – a situation not so different from 200 years earlier when the British and Spanish made a deal to exchange control of Cuba for control of Florida.
Of course, practically everything geo-political that happened in the 60’s, and 70’s and even the 80’s was influenced by the US-USSR rivalries of the Cold War. 1962 may have been the year of the Cuban missile crisis, but it was also a year in which 53 US soldiers were killed in Vietnam – the beginning of a costly and bloody conflict that would last until 1975.
The Future of Cuba?
I came away with overwhelmingly positive impressions.
The Cuban people are fiercely proud of their hard-won independence, but there is a strong mood for change. The difficult next step is going to be about how to open up the economy without reverting to the bad old days of US crony capitalism. (There is already an unhealthy situation developing where those who work in tourism have access to cash that most other workers in state-owned enterprises can only dream about).
For now, the nation is still a one-party state with no press freedom and very limited internet. On the other hand, it has a well-educated and ambitious population with a very strong sense of identity – and, it must be said, a relatively good level of social fairness.
To an outsider it is difficult to understand why the USA persists with its economic sanctions on Cuba. They’ve been in place for almost 60 years now. No other country has been so punished, not even Vietnam, where despite that terrible war which cost 58,000 American lives, US economic sanctions were lifted in the mid 1990’s – just 20 years after the end of the war…
And despite Vietnam, like Cuba, remaining a one-party communist state, the natural enterprise of the Vietnamese people has turned it into one of Asia’s Tiger economies – a trading partner welcomed all over the world. And today, even the US has come to value and appreciate Vietnam for its contribution to stability in the South China Sea.
I think something similar would happen in Cuba if the USA were to lift its economic embargo.
The cold war ended over 25 years ago…
Interested in more about Cuba?
Cuba Libre is an 8-part documentary series about the history of Cuba spanning five centuries from the first contact with Europeans in 1492 until just before Fidel Castro’s death in 2016. (The series was is a French-German co-production so it has a refreshing objectivity from the usual Cold War portrayals you may have seen or heard).
At the time of writing, Cuba Libre was available on Netflix. Highly recommended for people interested in a background of Cuban history. Here’s a Youtube link to the teaser, and below, the promotional description.
The Cuba Libre story fully encompass the history of Cuba, from its Imperial Spanish days to today’s Raul Castro. The historians who speak about the country are both from Cuba, and they are international as well. There are soldiers who fought alongside Castro interviewed along with Castro’s Brother in law as well. The show goes into depth about some of the lesser know Cuban history, such as the USS Maine incident, the Mafia owned Hotel chains, and the only McDonald’s on the Cuban island. The show uses photos and films that were made in as far back as the 19th Century. Overall, the Cuba Libre story is a must watch and is a very good example of an objective, well made documentary series.