Cuba: Before the Americans
"No trip to Havana would be complete without a Cadillac trip"
In early 2015, the Presidents of the USA and Cuba announced that their countries would restore diplomatic relations after more than fifty years of economic sanctions and the diplomatic isolation of Cuba.
Caught in a fascinating time warp for decades as a result, Cuba will surely change under the influence of new American investment and tourism so Esther Lafferty went to visit ‘before the Americans arrive!’
Cuba is the largest of the Caribbean islands, and lies between Jamaica and the Bahamas, only a hundred miles from the southern tip of Florida: unsurprisingly the Americans have been here before, so what happened?
Cuba has a many-chaptered history, beginning with the Native American Indians who lived here until the arrival of Christopher Columbus, after which the island was occupied for four hundred years by the Spanish who shipped in an African slave population.
A revolution in 1898 released Cuba from Spanish rule and in the years following its independence, the Cuban republic saw economic development matched with political corruption as Americans (and others) almost took over the island for their own purposes. They bought up land and plantations, using Cuba as a glitzy and glamorous playground complete with a seedy underbelly of gambling and prostitution. This caused unrest resulting in a second revolution led by Fidel Castro and his right hand man, the Marxist Che Guevara. Castro, guided by the communist ideology, led the country’s government until 2011, when his brother Raul took over the presidency.
Today, Havana, Cuba’s colourful capital city, is hot and sultry. She welcomed us into her heart, a humid hustle and bustle alive with music, the rhythm of the rumba, and life lived on the street: the people sit in the shade, their front doors propped open wide. The colonial buildings are a crumbling glory and have a haunting beauty, mirroring the lives of the ever-friendly Cubans whose genuine smiles belie their desperately low standard of living. (The average Cuban earns, I'm told, around £25 a month, though the socialist state provides jobs, education, healthcare and a rickety roof over their head for free and utilities for nearly nothing. 'It's a social anthropologist's wet dream,' remarks a Dutch tourist I chat to in the pool of the high rise Havana Libre hotel that served as Castro's HQ during the revolution.)
There's the call of 'taxi' on every corner, and whichever way you turn there's a picture postcard view of a classic car in shiny-sweet-wrapper colours, a fitting metaphor for a country built on the sugar industry. Despite the plume of dark smoke pouring from their 1950s behinds, this is the most popularly marketed view of Cuba, and it's extraordinary to see so many of them, punctuated with the occasional Lada courtesy of the previous close ties with Eastern Europe. No trip to Havana would be complete without a Cadillac trip from Central Park around the old town and along the sea front.
Beyond the city, the rolling countryside is a lush emerald green, fields of sugar cane and other crops speckled with the occasional house or village, horses and carts rolling along empty roads. And then you reach Varadero, a paradise peninsula boasting sixteen miles of white-gold beach set against endless aquamarine sea. There’s tropical sunshine and warmth all year round, and it could be the picture in every honeymoon holiday brochure, with classy hotel resorts nestling amongst palm trees.
You’ll have the chance to dance, of course, and to dive – Cuba has coral reefs, sea caves and shipwrecks to entice you under water that’s wonderfully warm. And for serious relaxation, Pina Colada, Cuba Libre and other cocktails are on tap. Cuba is internationally renowned for its rum and cigars (one distilled from a sugarcane by-product, the other handmade from locally-grown tobacco) and so it’d be rude not to indulge. It’s the perfect place to do it.