Cuba’s new diplomatic status is good news for its people, economy and democracy. However, will its changing social landscape take away its magic?
No matter where I travel, whether it be the standard backpackers trail frequented by travellers or the snail trail preferred by tourists, I find little pockets of loveliness. Asking me to talk about the best one is like Sophie’s Choice. I’ve fallen for Malaysia’s deserted aquamarine coastline and colonial cities. I’m a sucker for Japan’s cultural juxtaposition. I’m head over heels for Rio’s tropical and jagged beauty. And I’m bowled over by New Orleans’ party and, dare I say it, Dunkirk spirit.
However, my one true love isn’t the country I originally fell for. A country under a new, more democratic regime has totally transformed. And not in a good way – for travellers anyway. Cuba was the most incredible assault on the senses and completely unrivalled.
Like all relationships, ideologies change to the point where you become almost unrecognisable. Cuba needed to evolve to keep up with the changing economic climate that had polarised its people from the rest of world, therefore having a detrimental effect on its progress.
Cuba is a commonly debated political hot potato. No one can talk about American imperialism or the Cold War without mentioning Bay of Pigs or the Cuban Missile Crisis. At least once a month, the news is littered with something from Guantanamo Bay. If only people knew that there’s more to Cuba than foreign aggression and Tony Montana.
I went in 2004. Fidel Castro was getting on a bit, but still in good health. I went expecting the 1950s Chevys and salsa dancing. What I didn’t expect was the poverty, how cruelly under-resourced it was, how terrible the food was and how its people were the happiest I’ve ever encountered.
We landed in Havana. I likened it to Elizabeth Taylor in its faded, yet glamorous beauty. Its opulent colonial architecture was verging on derelict. However, this added to its charm and, in my eyes at least, its character and allure. The temptress of a city was being constantly beaten by the Caribbean Sea at the Malecon. Lovers and children were darting in and out of the waves that crashed against the promenade, trying not to get wet and giggling at the simple joy this bought.
Walking through Havana, I resembled a snake being charmed by the salsa music blaring from every tenement building, hypnotised by residents dancing in the streets to Latino beats. Each townhouse boasted sweeping staircases, elegant balconies, imposing sculpted doors and patterned tiled floors – a nod to its affluent past, but filled with families making $25 a month regardless of the job they’re placed into.
The beating sun floodlit areas like Revolution Square, which paid homage to its Soviet counterparts. A vast, Cubist space that gave a sense of power, together with a relief of local hero Che Guevara (although he was Argentinian) emblazoned on the Ministry of The Interior building reminded us of the value of people, not money.
His legacy can be seen everywhere, not just in Cuba’s crashed economy but in its people. They were genuinely happy, perhaps envious of our Nokia 3210s, but happy. They were fully qualified doctors, teachers and engineers, but worked as bellhops, tour guides or cleaners. It’s a little known fact that Cuban’s have one of the best healthcare systems in the world and nearly all of its population is highly educated. This was Che’s main objective and overall philosophy – you just need to read The Motorcycle Diaries to understand how passionately he felt about this and creating a fair, just and equal society. They may not enjoy the same freedoms that we do, but money corrupts and no system is without its flaws.
Despite a North American embargo, they traded entirely in US Dollars. Their cars ran on palm oil and they cooked using only locally sourced ingredients. However, they couldn’t fill the toilet roll dispensers with paper and hot water was a luxury. A meal with wine in the best restaurant in Havana could cost in the region of $10, a bargain for us but nearly half the waiter’s monthly wage.
However, the Cuban’s were entrepreneurial; you could eat the best home-cooked seafood in someone’s living room, as they opened their homes to offer something unique to tourist. It was a revelation not having a McDonald’s on every corner, not being able to drink Coke and nipping out to buy a new outfit for going to see Buena Vista Social Club wasn’t be easy. But you made do and you had the best time.
Still in the enchanting afterglow of Havana, we headed towards to the tourist trap of Varadero. Its stretches of golden beaches married to the crystal Caribbean waters. Varadero lacked the soul that the rest of Cuba had in abundance. And the reality of a Communist regime screams at you – this is what Cuba’s future looks like. A homogenised, money hungry and soulless place frequented by tourists who don’t give a damn about Cuban culture or its people, they just want to tan their pasty bodies and drain the all-inclusive bar.
Gone were the bohemian art districts and Spanish architecture. Replaced by prefabricated buildings designed for one purpose and one purpose only, making money. However, getting to Varadero was beautiful and enlightening. Trekking through valleys filled with banana plants, dotted with quaint villages, like Santa Clara, that were revolutionary strongholds in the 50s. With weather-beaten charm they stood proud as comrades of Che. You could almost see the tanks manoeuvring through the narrow streets and men in army fatigues having intense, animated and hurried strategy meetings in formerly sleepy cafes.
This paradise island has everything, from rolling, tropical countryside, pretty villages to buzzing cities and idyllic coastlines. Add its fascinating history from native civilisation and Spanish colonisation to American exploitation and revolutionary spirit and you’ve pretty much have the perfect package. I began by saying that Cuba was more than its revolution and diplomatic battle with USA, but it’s this that made it the perfect escape from globalisation and a stark reminder that not all that glitters is gold.
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