The history of Cuba is long and turbulent and since Christopher Columbus landed there in 1492 it holds one of the most complicated Latin American Sagas to date.
Its story is not unfamiliar. The echo’s of a colonial nation’s struggle murmurs throughout Latin American history. Cuba’s story is an unadulterated version of the Spanish exploitation of a land’s natural resources, enslavement of people and corruption of government and power. Hundreds of years of struggle for freedom and autonomy has a heavy price tag that is paid to date in patience and still unresolved.
Jose Marti, the famous and revered Cuban poet said that the Island of Cuba belonged to Cubans and it needed to be run by Cubans. He even attempted to overthrow the Spanish in the late 1800’s but with no success. This was a counter directive against the years that Cuba was controlled by the Spanish. The people of Cuba suffered as the Spanish built and extensive infrastructure of farms, industry and urban decadence. Havana, its capital could have been considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world before 1960 and has since has fallen into great decay. The American presence here was enormous and they muddled in political affairs for decades including support for Cuba to oust the Spanish stronghold but even this kind of support ended. It is pretty simple, the Americans and the Spanish wanted to be a part of Cuba, the US even attempted to purchase it from Spain as the US was an enormous land owner of Cuba. Cuba was in the middle of a tug – of – war for its resources and it really only wanted to be independent.
Cuba was up against too many odds to be independent. If you combine the beauty, natural resources, geographic and strategic position to Latin America and its proximity to the US, the momentum of power began to take over over the island by greedy businessmen and politicians. By the early 1900’s Havana becomes a playground for American and Spanish Agriculture, Industrial and International Businesses. It becomes a Haven for bankers and a playground for rich tourists. Havana becomes something like a “Boardwalk Empire” run by thugs, mafia and greed. After Spanish Rule, American Influence and 100’s of years of stronghold, Cuba is taken over by a revolutionist named Battista who’s greed becomes apparent to the people of Cuba. Under Battista, the Cuban population dipped into deep poverty and corruption. What was considered the financial hub of the America’s becomes a haven for the rich and a hell for the poor all fueled and supported by the Dictator, the United States and Spain. In the meantime, a young man named Fidel attempts a coup – fails and is jailed. This made Fidel even more determined and after a reorganization in Mexico, returned to Cuba with a plan. Fidel teamed up with Che and had a simple idea:to put the island back in the hands of its people that were on the brink of starvation. In 1959 – Revolutionists drove tanks into a city ruled by excessive greed and brutal rule. In a short time a dictator is ousted, Americans and the Spanish landowners are booted and the fate of Cuba fell into the hands of Fidel. At the beginning he promised social and financial equality for all Cubans, in the end, his rule is of the most controversial governing powers in world history. The Americans actually supported Fidel for a moment but that relationship quickly fizzled when he ousted the US from their land ownership and the relationship is weak to this day.
Fidels’ promise to give people a social and equal existence turns into a power struggle that almost results in a nuclear war with the US and Russia! This small island became strategic pawn for cold war chess game. In retrospect, that the US turned their back on Cuba in embargos resisting the new government turned to be deprecating for the Cuban people and the Cuban cause. This forced Cubans into the hands of communism. Within years of the take over the country was broke, the agriculture business was decaying and Fidel needed help and got it from Russia, the US’ main enemy.
The city of Havana and the country of Cuba as the world knew it was brought to its knees and today remains bruised. 53 years after the tanks rolled into Havana no one can argue that Cuba is one of the most interesting and unique island nations in the world with enormous problems. Still there is a pride instilled in its people that hope for better days.
The exiles of the revolution are bitter. They lost everything to the communist regime. These ex hoteliers, industry owners, lawyers, doctors and bankers turned a blind eye to such inequality in the early part of the century and left immediately after the revolt. Most can be found today in Spain or Miami. This “1 percent” was knocked to their feet in a Dr. Shovagoesque way . The 99% completely took over its streets, mansions and buildings. Most of the decadent homes were cut up into apartments and a complete halt on imports effected the way Cubans lived. There is a great social struggle between those that left and those that stayed and for the last 50 years there were the escapees, caught in the middle. Cuba might have been at its worst with the fall of the Soviet Regime. Support for Cuba dried up and it resulted in Cubans washing up on Florida Beaches daily.
Today Cuba is thought to be populated by supporters of the government and ex patriots of the Old Cuba and people that generally suffer. The Cubans now living in are much different than their grandparents and definitely different than the exiles. With the strength of the American Embargo fueled by ex Cubans against Fidel – the story continues with strong opinions on both sides.
There was no doubt on anyone’s end that a revolution needed to happen; how far it went is something everyone can scratch his or her head on. Brother Raul has now taken over power from Fidel who still gives weekly radio addresses to its compatriots. Raul has begun to lift laws that regulated the people so heavily for the past 1/2 century and I am told Cuba is on the brink of change.
Today there are no fast food restaurants, no advertisements, and certainly no Banana Republics. Besides a few post war soviet modern buildings you could argue that the city of Havana has literally been frozen in time, but at who’s expense? Frozen would also mean that it is preserved which this city is most certainly not. Unesco came in recently and named Old Havana to be a world heritage site, granting funds to renovate and restore but I would bet that a million structures need renovation, so having a square rebuilt and repainted barely makes a dent.
For Cubans to survive Patience is needed and in the period that Cubans have lived under the latest regime, one could argue its had its most difficulties and downfalls. Cubans have had to reinvent the meaning of survival. There is a tourist industry that thrives on their misfortunes and Havana is the heartbeat of this heartbreaking story. People might say “You must go to Cuba before it gets ruined” and other might argue, “don’t go to Cuba, it is already literally in ruins”. There is something to say for a country with No Home Depot’s, Walmarts or fast food chains. Something beautiful about billboard-less country side and 7 TV stations to choose from. Something intoxicating about the idea of socialized medicine and free education for all. There is also something tragic about people driving cars from the 50’s because they have no choice, watching buildings literally fall around the people due to neglect and decay and people literally having nothing but surviving on utter basics. Sure they have peso rum, cigars and good music, but I would think that begins to wear out. If you are human and you visit you see holes in the system and you dream of cleaning out your basement and throwing it on a ship and bringing it down. Cubans need everything.
NYC – HAVANA via MIAMI the First 24 Hours.
Miami International was insanely busy and the check in for flight to Havana even worse. After I sorted my visas and passport with our travel guide we are relieved that we are carrying on. “We” is my friend Lisa and me who are going to see our friend Sandra for her birthday party! Lisa lived in Cuba for a year and it has been a decade since her last visit. As you know by now I always fly carry on and now with duffel, the line up of Cubans flying to Havana with large suitcases is daunting. Everything is plastic wrapped and I already feel that they are supplies for relatives and friends. Diapers, tissues clothing and such. Basics are really basic in Cuba and sometimes-resident needs to decided between laundry detergents and cooking oil. I am happy I packed soaps, tissues and candy for anyone that will take and regret not packing 20 suitcases of clothing and medical supplies.
We board our charter flight and take off in a sky of clouds… before we even reach cruising altitude, Sky King Charters announces its descent and as people begin to cheer we approach the runway. Below is lush green trees and farmland. I even see cows from the air. Our gentle landing is welcomed… we made it – Lisa starts to cry.
Customs and Immigration was painless and an officer actually helps me with my paper work. As we walk through the custom doors we here welcomed cheers and noise, as there are hundreds of people waiting for our flight to come out. We see a sign that says our names.
For some reason I am inclined to hug our taxi driver as he greets us with a smile! We made it! HOLA!!! As we arrive to his car I am shocked. It is a 1954 Buick and his girlfriend greets us and off we go…
The sun is setting and Lisa starts asking our driver Remy and his girlfriend Amaris questions. They immediately talk about the changes Raul is making with big smiles on their face. We pass a grocery store and as they point saying, its the country’s first. Not the best – they carry all the same brand, but none the less a grocery store! The pollution is thick and the car rattles down the road. I am startled that the car still runs. As we sit deep in the back seat we pass billboards in support of the revolution. As we get closer to the city, Amaris talks of her son who went to the University of Havana and is now an engineer. As we enter the old city, the university is on my right and am told that the government allows cell phones but no interent. YET! They even tell us that foreigner might be able to buy real esate in as early as 5 years from now! Remy shakes his head in excitement and we turn the corner and drive the long driveway toward the National Hotel. This will be the first of many examples of the “Once was” in Havana… Remy and Amaris say goodbye and I am handed a business card with Remy’s picture on it and his number. Yes, things are certainly changing… I just got a business card from a communist.
My first sip of Mojito at the National is a brilliant one. I exchange some euros for Cuc’s the countries local currency for tourists. (There is another currency for Cubans that is worth literally nothing, its the Cuban Peso). As the mint and Rum pacify my soul I sink deep into my chair. We realized it took us 11 hours door to door to get here and we were thrilled. Sandra suddenly arrives and we have a plan. Remember! Sandra is the birthday girl! We jump into the Buick and start cruising to our hotel.
Cruising down the road I notice the water on my left and the old fort ahead! “Esta el Malecon?” I ask our driver. “Si SI, estas el Malecon!”
And I scream!!!!!!! This walled watered edge road is another symbol of Cuba and it is called Cuba’s living room. At night people promenade the wall, make out and talk. Friday and Saturday nights Cubans stay out all night singing songs because they have nowhere else to go, since most Cubans live with generations of family under one roof.
The Hotel Terral is 2 weeks old and it is located right smack in the middle of the Malecon. Our room overlooks the Caribbean and just 70 kilometers north is Key West. The US actually never felt so far as I see the strong current in the sea. On the horizon are police boats – this is the shortest passage between Cuba and the US and escapee rafters get picked up all the time for the attempt.
We throw on our dancing shoes and head out to enjoy our fist Havana night! Lisa and I run into the Tropicana to meet the rest of the group that has come for Sandra’s birthday. On arrival, I feel as if we just arrived to the Fountain Bleu hotel except there are no cars being valet’d. As we walk through an enormous lobby a man approaches us. “Are you Lisa and Stephanie? Come with me”. How did they know it was us? In Cuba there are many unanswered mysteries and this is the beginning of a few. The Tropicana was the creme de la creme of Havana night life in the early part of the century. The who’s who of the world came here to watch the Cuban entertainment. Tonight – Dancers, Musicians and Performers rock the night away to Cuban favorites as a somber crowd of tourists watch. The show felt dated and I realize I have seen my 2nd “once was” in a matter of an hour. I think you know where I am getting with this. This city is the Capital of “Once Was…” that some how “Is.” If that makes any sense.
After way too many glasses of Havana Club Rum, the birthday group jumps on the stage with every other tourist and starts dancing. It was hysterical. A kind of end of night Dirty Dancing where performers come out to grab audience members and do the mambo. I have to say, when I arrived to the Tropicana, I thought “OH NO TOURIST TRAP” and it really is – Still we had a blast. Even though the service was slow – something you have to get used to here in Cuba and the food fair it was well worth it. In Cuba, all you really need is some good rum, a good cigar some music and friends. It is a recipe for love here in CUBA!
After the dance party on the stage we leave the Tropicana and we convince the driver to take us into town to go to a night club. This is a whole other experience entirely. I am told to watch out for Jinetera’s. Male or Female escorts looking for foreign tourists to date, marry or mooch off of. It is a method of survival here in Cuba and there are accounts of 13-year-old girls hooking up with 50-year-old Foreign Men to bring back money for the family or escape. Even stranger it is socially acceptable and married couples might escort on the side. Even doctors might do it. The dollar or the euro is much stronger than the Pesos or the Cuc and Cubans do whatever it takes to make ends meet. Rations are good for about 10 days in Cuba. The rest is left to you. This is the type of survival that Cubans have adopted as a culture. It is an unspoken fact that Cubans will entice you, be kind to you and even say I love you – for a quick buck. Cubans might be considered liars or cheats – I say that are opportunists. What is so sad is that I don’t think the revolution preached theft or prostitution as a part of selling the revolt. The people wanted equality. Times became so difficult here they evolved into the survivors they are today. It is an observation and you could argue that people all over the world have to survive… I decide it is not the surviving part that I criticize, it is the “No Choice” in the matter that really bothers me. People in life, need to do what they have to do… Cubans are not exempt from this.
We find out that the Jinetera sictuation is decreasing. with the new rules, girls might open up a manicure shop or a hair salon before turning tricks! This news give ms great relief. For those that still turn the tricks, I heard that Foreigners actually come here specifically for the service of the escort and some even marry them. Most of the married couples that head back to Europe end in divorce. Some kind of Russian bride agreement. At the dance club, 2 of my guy friends are attacked by the woman and 400 dollars got stolen out of Jose’ pocket. I remind myself to keep my eye on my bag and carry as little cash as possible. And that even though fading, I am staying away from a Hot Cuban at all costs! 🙂
As the night of dancing comes to an end, we stumble home. The streets of Cuba are totally safe. It is fascinating. You can walk anywhere and nothing will happen to you. I figure I will give it up for the regime. Something good! Finally! Even though it looks like Beirut, the streets of Havana have a ton of life in them, I found throughout the trip that the streets were much more exciting than any club, restaurant or bar we visited. By 2 am with blisters on our feet we walk back to the hotel and I fell into bed. Day one was a long one, having been up for 20 hours, I was looking forward to al little rest.
Buenos Dias Havana.
There are no “TO GO” cups at the Hotel Bar, as I beg for my Coffee and Sandwich before I board the Tour Bus. I decide to cut open a plastic bottle and it works! Happy as a clam, we start our tour of the city. Within minutes, we realize our tour guide is a total commy. Still he points to his city proudly, and I am always out of sync with the guy. Where he sees a renovated building I see 50 crumbling ones. Where he shows us the upper class neighborhood of Miramar, I see a battered version of the Rhodes in downtown Miami. When he shows us something to the left, it seems I am more interested with what is on our right. Still we struggle through the tour and make our first stop at the cemetery, which reminds me of one you might find in New Orleans. Here you see people polishing decadent burials of Marble and gold and where we find our Amelia. A local saint whose miracle is that she died at childbirth. At her burial, he child was place at her feet but 5 years later, when they removed the top of the tomb. The baby was lying in her arms… A MIRACLE! It is the only gravesite that has fresh flowers placed every day by locals. You can also make a wish and Amelia might grant it. I somehow forgot to make one, but considering what I have seen so far, I think there is nothing to wish for, my life seems pretty good. My secret wish is that she grants all wishes to Cubans who need and want something.
I being to wander and realize I am thirsty. I look through a window of what seems to be an abandon building, and I see bread!!! I open the door. And enter my first Government Run Bakery. I initially gave it a C+ until I ate a sticky bun and I changed it to an A+ Delicious! In my first Cuban bakery and I can’t decide if I am impressed or depressed. I decide I am impressed (honestly I did not even think they had any). I buy some sticky buns, some almond cookies and big bottle of cold water and i am charged what seemed to be local prices – not tourist prices. Literally like 3 dollars. We all board the Commi tour bus and see a few other things. on our way to Old Havana and the Fort.
- Before we Board the Bus we see a fruit stand and decide to buy some bananas, I pull out the Cucs and realize he can’t take them. The People of Cuba get paid in Pesos and if they get Cucs, the government charges them to convert them. At many of the places you are forced to pay with Pesos and often times small fruit stand guys don’t want the Cuc’s it is too much trouble! I realize that this system is lame. Charging your people on your countries currency is a crime to me and it makes me angry. As we drive along the roads I notice that not much has been done as far as preserving the city around me. I saw a bit last night, but in daylight it is daunting.
- Revolution Square is like a big parking lot. Tourist Buses cruise by and people take pictures of the cities main communication hub, some offices and Marti’s Monument.
On our way to Old Havana we stopped on top of the Castillo de Morro we start to get a glimpse of old Havana. When we reach the top of the Fort, we get the whole picture os the city. It is here that I met my favorite horse Genardo and where we got to soak in the HUGE port City of L’Havana! it was just amazing.
Overlooking this city, I realize I get more confused as this city reveals itself to me. It is like an onion and as I peel layer after layer off my eyes begin to burn.This city has so much to see, so much life in every nook and cranny and it is daunting. At the same exact time, it has so much death. If you wonder how the Egyptians lost an empire, come to Cuba. Like the sands of the Desert that covered an entire civilization, so does this salty air that eats away at the walls of this city. Every day, something breaks, something falls and something cracks. I suddenly worry. How could a city just evaporate like this?
More to come as we continue to peel the Onion! Lunch at a Parador, Rain in the Old city, Art Galleries and More!