My husband has a black and white poster in his study that features a classic Cuban vintage American car driving through what is seemingly a typical Havana street. He has often mentioned that he wanted to witness that vision before Cuba went through any changes, which seems to be inevitable given the current political climate there. This wish came to fruition this year when we decided to participate in a bicycle ride around the Western part of Cuba. Prior to our departure we gleaned some information about what to expect, however, given the amount of contrasting information we received, nothing seemed to be a certainty. This uncertainty became clear to us when we were informed that we required a tourist card in order to enter the country. No one seemed to know what the official protocol was. Too late to apply for one via the Cuban consulate in Canberra, we were advised to fly from the United States to Mexico, buy the visa there and the fly onto Cuba. Flying directly to Cuba from the U.S as non-U.S citizens did not guarantee entry.
This was just one example of the unstable and unpredictable geo-political situation that we were flying into. A U.S embargo imposed on Cuba is to maintain sanctions on Cuba so long as the Cuban government refuses to move toward “democratization and greater respect for human rights”. The embargo was initially imposed upon Cuba after the 1959 Revolution by the U.S as a reaction to Fidel Castro’s confiscation of American businesses in Cuba. The U.S owned much of the manufacturing and farming enterprises in Cuba. Cuba had for many years relied on U.S business associations. Fidel Castro introduced reforms with the aim to make the lives of the poor better. Castro’s political approach featured socialist and even communist values, despite the fact that he insisted that he was not a Communist. Yet, he modelled the economy on socialist countries like the Soviet Union. Without economic ties with the U.S, Cuba relied solely on the Soviet Union for its survival, and in return, Cuba was obliged to follow the Soviet Union’s communist and socialist policies.
Visas in hand, our arrival in Cuba saw our suitcases arrive along with innumerable amounts of securely wrapped packages brought by returning Cubans visiting relatives. Since the partial lift of the embargo in 2016, ex-Cubans are now allowed to fly directly into Cuba from the U.S. Flat screen T.V’s, microwaves, pots and other household goods arrived ready to be excitedly handed over to relatives. Thus began our foray into Cuban life, albeit for a very short time.
Taking our first stroll through downtown Havana quickly brought our attention to the dilapidated condition of what were once clearly stunning buildings. It didn’t take long for us to begin to hear the adage ‘ before, and after the revolution’. Ruins aside, toe tapping, finger clicking salsa music blares from bars where tourists drink incredibly inexpensive Mojitos.
The “revolution” took place on January 1st, 1959 when a group of resistance fighters led by Argentinian doctor Ernesto Che Gevara, Cuban lawyer Fidel Castro and his brother Raul Castro and a band of faithful revolutionaries revolted successfully against the dictatorship of Falgencio Batista, who was regarded by most as a puppet of the U.S government.
Revolutionary success and his talent for public speaking, saw Fidel Castro self elected to oversee the creation of a new Cuba that would see its people unified as one to rebuild the Cuban identity free from U.S influence and control. In order to build Cuba, he needed trade. His first choice of trade partner was the Soviet Union. A union with the Soviet Union meant that there were conditions. A complete re-orientation of the Cuban economy and trade relations were required. This eventually led to Socialism. This move marked the end of Cuba’s relations with the US. Despite the Cuban victories in The Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, Cuba remained an enemy of the U.S and Fidel a target of numerous assassination attempts.
The brutal reality as a result of the revolution, and the demise of American economic ties, by what is seen on the streets, to the western eye, is a failure. Dilapidated buildings, potholed roads, and out-dated Russian manufactured cars, are what remain of the ‘revolution’. By 1969, crippled by debt, Fidel Castro attempted to reignite the Cuban economy by re-establishing the sugar plantations and sent the whole country regardless of their professions, out to harvest the crop. This resulted in the near collapse of the country’s economy. The only positive outcome of this failure was that the Soviet Union forgave their debt.
Fed by socialist rhetoric and visions of grandeur, the majority of Cubans are committed to the rule despite remaining poor, earning meagre wages. Even with increased tourism dollars, American dollars, pouring into the country, most of it goes to supporting the military.
During our visit, we had the opportunity to take a Jewish tour of Havana. Our guide, a young Jewish meteorologist, volunteers her time for the Jewish centre to educate tourists about the 1200 remaining Jewish citizens of Cuba. She lives with her mother and grandparents, unable to live independently on 30 CUC (roughly $30 USD) per month. We questioned her unwavering support of the Cuban government. She justified her support by saying that it was due to the government that she had such a wonderful education resulting in such a dignified profession. She did admit however that with the doors of technology slowly opening in Cuba, the desire to know more about what goes on around the world increases. A suggestion that she establish a small tour guide business was met with trepidation, but with a small amount of excitement. She understood that Cuba today would not frown upon such entrepreneurship.
Havana, despite its crumbling colonial style buildings, is seeing slow change. Advertising billboards display visions of future hotels and apartment blocks. Change though will be slower to arrive in the countryside. Cycling through country towns provided us with the opportunity to catch a glimpse of how primitive, backwards yet charming the country is. Horses and buggies are still the most popular mode of transport.
The country is on the precipice of great change, hopefully to the advantage of the average Cuban. What hopefully will not change is the vibrant music scene and those incredible salsa dancers, the endless flow of Mojitos, the warmth of the people and hope. Hope of a better life, one of equality for all. A life where Cuba can maintain it’s unique culture free from the confines of communist restrictions. “Yo soy la revolucion”- “I am the revolution”. “Venceremos”- We will win!!!