Monday, 29 April 2013

Intrigued & Charmed by Cuba ….. April 2013

Marina Hemingway, Havana, Cuba:  22 – 29 April 2013

P4090011 Time for a History Lesson
During our final week in Cuba we spent as much time in Central Havana as we could, staying in the City to see it both by day and night.  We really wanted to take the time and try to understand what makes Cuba tick, to get a full understanding of the history of this amazing country and how it has impacted on the Cuba we were seeing now.  Never before has the politics of a country intrigued us so much, but then we have never spent any length of time in what is a “communist” country before.  P4240037
The Revolution!
We decided to start our “fact finding mission” at the Museo de la Revolución, centrally located in the beautiful partially restored former Presidential Palace The palace in its day would have rivalled any in the world, Tiffany’s had decorated the interior to please the string of power and wealth hungry Presidents that resided there until the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Fulgencio Batista in 1957 led by José Antonio Echeverría, a revolutionary student leader.  Bullet holes still pock mark the grand staircase as a reminder,  32 of the 35 attackers were shot dead as they fled.
We spent several hours in this fascinating museum, most exhibits were described in English and Spanish – many were photos and newspaper clippings, you could spend days reading them all. P4230008
Also housed there is the “Granma”, the motorboat that Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and 81 fellow  “revolutionaries” sailed from Mexico to Cuba on in 1956, to start the revolution to remove President Batisca from power and return Cuba to the people.  The landing and arrival went badly, soldiers discovered them and less than 20 men managed to escape into the surrounding sugar cane fields. 
The revolution was off to a very shaky start.  During 1957 Fidel Castro and associates slowly regrouped, recruited and reinforced their revolutionary army, meanwhile Cuba was being transformed into what was described as a military style police state.
The Castro Era
January 01 1959 marked the beginning of the current Cuba, President Batista fled to the Dominican Republic by private plane and the Castro reign began.  

Our impression of Cuban politics had us believe that Fidel Castro, and latterly brother Raul, have been dictators running a communistic government for over 50 years.   What we have seen in Cuba however,  is not actually what we expected of a communist government – we expected an oppressive reign, a communist dictatorship  – this was not what it felt like.

There have been many phases in Cuban history over the last 50 years that have had dramatic impact on the Cuba we see today, but Cuba seems to have coped with what has been thrown at it and carries on relatively unscathed.

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The neighbourhood looked somewhat rundown but La Habana Colonial Green House was a great place to stay
However, The following applies – to the best of our knowledgeP4230025
  • nearly all business is state owned and operated, however Government controls are weakening  
  • all income is fixed and to the best of our knowledge everyone is paid the same monthly wage whatever their profession.  We understand that income is somewhere between the equivalent of US$25 to US$50 – monthly!  Nobody really wanted to discuss it but that sure doesn’t seem like much money 
  • coupon books are provided for some food items, we do not know the quantities.  Most produce we saw was of quite poor quality but very cheap,  we didn’t see anyone that looked like they were starving 
  • there are only state operated TV channels, very few people have mobile phones and certainly not smartphones, internet is quite restricted and available mainly to the tourist sector.  Wifi was only available in a couple of 5 star hotels, internet cafes are very rare and are intended only for tourists
  • free education including university level is provided for everyone and Cuba is proud to have one of the highest literacy rates in the world
  • free health care is also provided for everyone and is said to be very good.  Qualified Medical Staff are encouraged to go and work offshore for 2 years.  If they stay away longer it is made almost impossible for them to return, even on holiday  
  • we did not see any visible signs of any homeless and housing is provided but we understand rent is payable


No Money to Spend ~ So No Shops???

There were some “label stores” in Havana, selling items at prices you would pay anywhere else in the world.  But outside the tourist areas there were very few shops, you don’t – as a rule – see a street with what we might call regular shops - clothes, shoes, appliances, books, chemist, food etc.  But as you walk down residential streets many houses have their front doors open and if you peer inside you might see a box of toothbrushes for sale in one, 6 pairs of shoes in another, some freshly baked cakes next door.  All quite bizarre really but we had the overwhelming impression that everyone was doing ok, getting everything they needed and seemed happy enough with their lives.P4230013

We saw no signs of any drug use or abuse, rum and beer are freely available and quite cheap but we saw no one drunk, we never felt unsafe yet saw very few police (just one from memory).  Crime levels are said to be very low and possibly this stems from the fact that everyone has the same so there is nothing to be gained ~ interesting thought!

Simplistic Views

We accept that we have just touched the surface of this totally intriguing country and those that have spent much more time here will possibly disagree or debate what we have said. P4230031 Some friends that have travelled there thought Cuba was a mess - the food rationing was inadequate, the inability to go and buy just what you want was suffocating, the state controlled enterprises in these times archaic, no freedom of press and controlled access to World News and no access to the internet appalling. 

And yes, if you compare all of this to the 1st World countries we are so lucky to have been born in then the Cubans have it tough.  However if you look at what the Cubans have compared with what some of their Caribbean and Central American neighbours have then they are doing great. 

We imagine many Haitians who live only miles away in famine and disease stricken neighbouring Haiti, might actually think Cuba was paradise.  If they had a home with electricity and water, food, clothing, education and health care provided would they be worried they couldn’t check their emails, watch CNN news or that it was beans ‘n rice for dinner again ???


Enough Said on PoliticsP4240039

Havana is an amazing city and you could spend many days here exploring all its central districts before even scratching the surface of the outlying areas.  We did the Double Decker Bus Tour (bargain at $5)  to view the cities periphery ~ we passed the cemetery which encompasses 15 blocks, circled the Plaza de la Revolucion with the biggest monument to Che Guevara we saw, toured the Embassy Quarter, and cruised along the waterfront Malecón, in a continual state of renovation. 

We did all the suggested walking tours and then just got lost, ambling down side street after side street, investigating bursts of live music wherever we heard them, peeking our noses into dark doorways and walking down dodgy looking alleys and happening upon lovely plazas and churches, schools and small markets .
There are museums everywhere, big and small, good and bad.  The buildings, architecture, plazas and most of all the cars held more than enough of our attention, maybe Cuba deserves another visit. 

Havana is a city full of soul.  Cuba is a country that has touched us like no other we have visited.  Amazing, Interesting, Intriguing, Cultural, Colourful, Classic – there are not enough words to describe it.

Go See For Yourself ~ Before It Is Too Late
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