Yesterday, today and tomorrow – or trying to understand a changing Cuba

Yesterday, today and tomorrow – or trying to understand a changing Cuba

Cuba’s history is barely history. When we told a family friend, Ray, at our wedding that we were honeymooning in Cuba, and that we were looking forward to learning the country’s history, he laughed.

“Is that what you call it?” he asked, “history? I remember when we just called it news”.

Cuba’s history, as far as revolution is concerned at least, has only just happened.

Me and Gemma knew very little about Cuba, nor its history, nor its recent past, nor it’s present. We were only vaguely aware that they had some sort of a revolution, and that we may have seen one of the revolutionaries on our mates walls as students. So it was probably Pete Doherty or a French black cat. We’d been so busy planning and organising a wedding that we hadn’t managed to read up on Cuba almost at all!

And more than that, so many people seemed to think Cuba was a dangerous country. A lady on the phone from the terrible vacuum cleaner company ‘Vax’, had told me not to leave my ‘hotel complex’ in Cuba, or I’d get shot. When I told her that we were backpacking she seemed genuinely worried. It didn’t worry us mind because we’ve travelled a lot before, but it intrigued us somewhat. Why does everyone think Cuba’s so dangerous?

When we arrived in Havana we still didn’t know much about the country’s history, other than its immediate history, in which a flight had landed from Gatwick London.

Our first morning in Havana I found a book in the book exchange called ‘Enduring Cuba’ (by Zoé Brân) which I thought might give us more of an insight. We spent some of our time in Havana mooching around museums and learning about Batista’s gangster and essentially US run Cuba. Then we learnt about Fidel’s revolution and his brother Raul and of course Ché (who must have been the fella posing as a French black cat, or Pete Docherty on our mates uni walls). We came out of the museums feeling surprisingly pro revolution!

But hang on… had we just been propaganda-ed?

We visited the Hotel Nacional, where Batista and Sinatra (yes… that’s Frank Sinatra) entertained gangsters post revolution. This was a time when, in Cuba, money could be made in abundance through leadership and criminal activities, albeit at the detriment to the majority of the country’s residents. It was a more corrupt, and simple time… for some.

Whilst on the road between towns I read ‘Enduring Cuba’, which told us of how socialism worked in Cuba. It told us of how, under Fidel’s rule, the country’s people had good education and free healthcare, but that the education ultimately lead to nothing in a land where it wasn’t possible to better yourself, and that, thanks to various embargos at the time, the free healthcare lacked drugs and supplies. Doctors were paid tiny amounts (but did the job because it is an important one) and had to work as guides on the side where, secretly, they could make more from the tourist dollar than state pay, but illegally. The book told us of a communist land where, if there was a democratic election, the current government would probably be re-elected by the old (as Fidel had done a better job than Batista) and abandoned by youth (as they have, largely through tourism, seen the benefits of capitalism, and long to leave a country that it is currently illegal for natives to leave).

The last thing the book taught us was that Varadero (the last stop on our Honeymoon) was closed to Cubans as the government didn’t want natives to complain about local life to tourists. The government needs the tourist dollar to recover the Cuban economy, but of course, this should be kept apart from socialist Cuba itself, as the two ideologies collide rather dramatically.

The book portrayed a very bleak Cuba, a country full of contradictions and paradoxes, but to be honest, what the book was telling us wasn’t the experience that me and Gemma were having at all! People seemed to be proud of their country (and very proud that I was wearing a watch with a map of Cuba on the face), proud of the museums depicting their past struggles, and proud of the revolution that we in the west are regularly taught was a bad thing.

A museum in the Bay of Pigs (which, unsurprisingly focussed on Cuba’s victory over America’s attack on the Bay of Pigs) explained how people around that area were living in swamps, diseased and impoverished, before the revolution. The revolution came with it huts for them to live in. Everybody equal. The rich lose out, and the poor gain, but everybody, equal. Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the fundamentals of communism, and why, nice an idea as it is, it eventually all goes to pot, but the revolution seemed to be a good thing for this country, at the time, no matter which way you looked at it. There was no question that the museums we were visiting had a fairly large element of propaganda seeping out of them, but we also began to wonder how much of what we’re taught in the west about Cuba is propaganda.

For example, as I said at the beginning of this blog, a great deal of westerners seem to think that Cuba is a dangerous place to travel, when actually it has a lower crime rate than any country in central and Latin America. And more than that, it feels safe, and it feels welcoming. But that’s not what we’re told about Cuba back home – other than tourist friendly Varadero that is.

‘Enduring Cuba’ was published in 2008, and written just before Raúl Castro came into power, so we were aware that things must have changed somewhat, but it was amazing to see how much. We were reading and learning about Cuba in the mid to late 2000’s, and experiencing it in 2014. Since Raúl, there have been privatisation laws, which meant that, whilst travelling round the country we mainly stayed in Casas (people’s houses, who were starting small and young businesses) and often ate in private restaurants (often seeming like someone’s garden) rather state run hotels and restaurants. And when we got to Varadero, there were definitely lots of Cubans there, making an earning from tourists, and talking at length about their lives.

But that’s not to say that the book was wrong, it’s just already out of date. It’s hard to learn about today’s Cuba in a book, because so much has changed in such a short period of time, and it continues to change now. If you’re reading this blog, it’s probably out of date. Only last week Obama and Raúl were discussing lifting the embargo, although Raúl’s response to protesters against the lift this week have put delays to the talks, if not an entire halt. And that’s history happening in the present.

We left Cuba with completely different perceptions of the country to what we in the west are often lead to have. It seemed to us that the revolution was probably a good thing at the time, and it seemed to help get Cuba out of a terrible patch in its history. Maybe it was an evil, but to us, it seemed it may have been the lesser of two. Don’t get me wrong, the communist rule has probably gone on too long, but under Raúl it seems to be on its way out. Cuba’s changing, and I can’t wait to go back in 10, maybe even 5 years, and see what it’s like then. Cuba’s history still sort of is news, it’s just not being reported on anymore.

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