Cuba was one of the major stories of the 20th century, from the stunning overthrow of the dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 by a ragtag revolutionary army to Fidel Castro's tenacious hold on power. And although virtually everything about Cuba is filtered through an ideological lens, Cuba is a fascinating living laboratory of social and political experimentation, and a test case for a people's perseverance. A defiant Fidel Castro weathered the fierce opposition of the U.S. government and the hostility of Cuban exiles in Miami, just 145km (90 miles) to the north. While some of his radical reform goals have been achieved, Cubans have also been greatly disheartened by the regime's abject failures. The Cuban people have been forced to make unfathomable sacrifices in the face of a poorly planned (and worse performing) economy and the ongoing American trade embargo.
Cuba was once the dazzling iconoclast, held in awe by much of Latin America for its willingness to stand up to the United States. In recent years, though, Fidel Castro found himself increasingly isolated, and few are those who don't believe that Cuba is a Communist dinosaur. Although Castro promoted foreign investment and joint ventures in oil, mining, and tourism, Cuba remains willfully individualistic.
The country's uniqueness is also the source of its phenomenal appeal. Cuba is a puzzling anachronism, a creaky and sputtering country caught in a tortuous time warp. Many of Havana's crumbling colonial buildings are little more than facades, propped up like a movie set. While most of the planet plunges ahead at a dizzying digital pace, Cuba crawls along in slow motion. Homes, which Cubans do not actually own but are instead given title to by the state, have only the most rudimentary appliances -- if they have any at all. Vintage Chevy and Cadillac jalopies from the '40s and '50s, their chrome fenders pock-marked and their engines patched together with a hodgepodge of parts, lumber down the streets of dimly lit cities. In rural areas, even antique cars are a luxury; transportation is more commonly by oxen-led cart and rickety iron bicycle.
To many visitors, Cuba offers a mystifying, but welcome retreat from the whiz-bang of technology and convenience to which most of us have become accustomed. Groups of underemployed men while away the hours playing dominoes on card tables set up in the street. Septets of octogenarian musicians play traditional Cuban son, music with roots in the 1920s and whose rhythms are largely unaffected by outside influence and changing global tastes. Neighbors gather on doorsteps in the wilting heat of the late afternoon to chat and fan themselves, and they form friendly networks working together to solve problems of accommodations, transportation, plumbing, and electricity.
Many travelers, convinced that Cuba cannot forever remain a land of time travel, hasten to experience the country before it gets reeled in by a ravenous Western world. Cuba's tourist potential is almost unlimited, and the government has embraced tourism as its best and perhaps only hope to bring in hard currency and employ large numbers of people. The largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba is abundantly blessed with palm trees, sultry temperatures, hip-swiveling rhythms, stunning beaches, warm people, a surfeit of rum, and the world's finest hand-rolled cigars. In the mid-1980s, only about 250,000 visitors traveled to Cuba annually; in 2007, there were more than two million visitors. Tourism has now surpassed the source of Cuba's original wealth, the sugar industry, to become the country's top revenue earner. If all Americans were allowed to travel legally, politicians and hoteliers reason, Cuba might receive as many as 10 million visitors annually. Yet massive tourism is still a dream in Cuba. Most travelers still cling to package tours and tourist resorts clustered on beaches.
Modern Cuba is a tangled mass of contradictions. The centralized economy is dependent upon capitalistic joint ventures with foreign investors from Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Plenty of Cubans survive only with the assistance of political and religious opponents of the regime who've fled the country and send hundreds of millions of dollars in hard currency each year to relatives. Until the change of head of state in February 2008, the socialist regime, ostensibly founded upon an egalitarian revolution, didn't allow its own citizens to step foot into certain tourist enclaves, including many resorts, hotels, and restaurants, and a long list of goods and services readily available to foreigners could not be enjoyed by nationals. Many of these goods still cannot be enjoyed by Cubans. Although now allowed to own mobile phones and computers, for example, these consumer goods are beyond the reach of the vast majority of Cubans. Start-up mobile-phone contracts cost CUC$40, but with average salaries of around CUC$10 to CUC$20 a month, owning a mobile phone is a pipe dream for most Cubans.
Cubans often fall back on an all-purpose national refrain to describe what their lives are like: No es fácil. It isn't easy. Cubans are specialists in what might be called the arte de inventar, the art of inventing solutions where there are none. That means fighting to make ends meet through odd jobs and hustling. Setting up neighborhood networks that distribute contraband goods, such as cigars nicked from the tobacco factory. Running illicit paladares in living rooms and backyards, serving black-market lobster or beef. Cuba is an entire nation jimmy-rigged and bandaged with duct tape.
Unless you're ensconced in a gleaming, all-inclusive beach resort, where the realities of Cuban life are whitewashed for the benefit of tourists, the grinding deficiencies of the Cuban economy and bottomless needs of the Cuban people are hard to ignore. Talk to almost any Cuban and he'll tell you about appallingly overcrowded housing and transport conditions, state rations that don't cover basic needs, the scarcity of basic commodities, and the CUC$10-to-CUC$20 monthly salaries paid in Cuban currency, the national peso, which then must be converted to the convertible peso (CUC) often at an unfavorable exchange rate. Workers trained by the state as engineers and doctors instead scramble for more lucrative positions as bellboys, while others cobble together a few dollars worth of hard currency from occasional, often extralegal, odd jobs. Ration booklets allow Cuban citizens to buy a certain amount of basic goods at highly subsidized prices in Cuban pesos. However, the rations allotted do not suffice: just 5 pounds of rice, 2 pounds of white sugar, 3 pounds of dark sugar, 1 packet of coffee, and half a pound of oil. Rations have been cut back since 2008, and supplies like cigarettes, beans, chicken, and some other products are difficult to get. A few other goods are available on an irregular basis, such as fish, ham, and toothpaste. Anything beyond those miserly provisions -- the odd piece of beef, a pair of decent shoes -- must be purchased on the black market or in hard currency-only stores.
Yet Cuba is remarkably free of the crushing poverty sadly common in Africa, India, and even other parts of Latin America. Housing is provided by the state -- homeless people sleeping on the streets are nowhere to be seen in Cuba -- and all citizens receive regular food rations. Many appear surprisingly well dressed, no doubt a privilege of possessing a job that earns a few dollars or having family members outside of Cuba who send money that helps ease the pain.
Fidel Castro took power in 1959 with a commitment to remake the nation by overhauling its economy, land ownership, education system, and healthcare. On a social agenda, Cuba has been remarkably successful. All Cubans receive free healthcare. However, most hospitals and pharmacies lack the most basic supplies, like aspirin and X-ray plates. The fabric and interior of some hospitals are appallingly outdated and back-up electricity generators for apagónes (power cuts) have been known to fail while operating theaters are in use. Compulsory state education through high school is free, and the national university system has produced some extremely accomplished professionals in medicine and the sciences. Average life expectancy rose from 57 years in 1958 to 77 in 2006 -- the highest in Latin America. Infant mortality, just 6.22 per 1,000 births, is the lowest in the region and equal to or better than many developed countries. Literacy rates are above 95% (the government claims to have erased illiteracy entirely), violent crime is almost nonexistent, and the pervasive sexism and racism of pre-revolutionary Cuba have given way to a more equitable landscape.
Those achievements receive less attention, though, than Cuba's strangled economy and continued political repression. Opponents of the socialist regime, both outside of Cuba and increasingly within the country, make the case that Cuba is a nation with no semblance of democracy. A single political party dominates all Cuban life. Cubans cannot speak freely, the media are state-owned and closely orchestrated by the Communist Party, and ordinary citizens have no rights to travel freely beyond Cuba.
Hundreds of thousands of Fidel Castro's early opponents fled Cuba in the early days of the Revolution, when the state was busy expropriating private property, land, and businesses. Since then, thousands more have tried, only a few successfully, to make it to U.S. shores, often in rickety balseros (rafts). The less daring, but equally hopeful form daily queues at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and other foreign embassies, desperately hoping for exit visas. On three major occasions, including the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, Fidel Castro sought to relieve pressure by allowing large groups, many of them deemed "undesirables," to emigrate.
Although the U.S. trade embargo and travel restrictions are still firmly in place, there has been much focus on new U.S. President Barack Obama, and his policy towards Cuba. Obama's promise to close the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay in eastern Cuba has not been met, but he has relaxed rules on Cuban Americans visiting their families in Cuba. In 2009 Obama also removed certain restrictions on food and medicines and offered to open a dialogue with Raúl Castro; Castro, in turn, said he was willing to talk to the president about "everything". However, since then, there has been little sign of the geopolitical thaw. The sanctions against Cuba have been renewed twice since spring 2009 and Cuba remains on the U.S.' state sponsors of terrorism list.
However, other promising strides have been made between the U.S. and Cuba. In 2010, a U.S. congressman from Minnesota, Collin Peterson, proposed the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, which would lift restrictions on sales of agricultural goods and effectively end the travel ban for Americans wishing to go to Cuba. In June 2010, the House Agriculture Committee voted in favor of the bill, but this is the start of a long journey. The bill must go before the Foreign Affairs and Financial Services Committees before it goes to the full House. Only then can it go before the Senate. Track the bill's progress on www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h111-4645.
However, the Castros' regime still persists. Despite years of difficulty and isolation, La Revolución, now 52 years old, continues to be the nation's rallying cry and raison d'être. Schoolchildren don't become Boy or Girl Scouts, but Young Communist Pioneers. Secretive local chapters of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) keep tabs on dissenters and those not upholding the party line. Throughout the country, giant billboards function like government pep talks to convince a population more worried about shoes and food than ideology to stay on the path. Billboards proclaim quaint notions like VICTORIA DE IDEAS (A Victory of Ideas), VIVIMOS EN UN PAIS LIBRE (We Live in a Free Country), LA REVOLUCION SOMOS NOSOTROS (We Are the Revolution), and even the melancholy rationalization SOMOS FELICES AQUI (We're Happy Here). Larger-than-life portraits of heroes and martyrs like Che Guevara (the roguish icon of revolution the world over), José Martí, Camilo Cienfuegos, and "Los Cinco" (five suspected spies convicted and imprisoned in the United States) guard the entrances to towns and are plastered on the walls of shops, offices, and homes. Perhaps fittingly, most of these billboards and portraits are now worn and faded.
Amid the extraordinary dilapidation of Havana and other decaying towns, it's near impossible for travelers not to wonder: What must this place once have looked like? Formerly grand, and now just badly faded and deteriorated buildings stand -- if barely so -- as harsh evidence of 5 decades of frustration, empty state coffers, and bankrupt promises of an idealistic, battle-hardened regime. Cubans are exhorted to fight on to bring the Revolution to fruition, but many Cubans, especially the young who've known nothing but Fidel, are weary of waiting. Un año más -- one more year, they say.
When Raúl Castro replaced his ailing brother in early 2008, there was much talk of hope and great reforms. Many Cubans thought a corner had been turned. And although Raúl did implement some changes when he first took power, it seems that he has only recently started to rethink Cuba's socialist policies now that Cuba's economy is under serious duress.
Cuba, though, is as exhilarating as it is perplexing. One of the most exciting, mind-bending, and sensation-tingling countries you can visit, Cuba is a flood of indelible images. Many are inspiring, others heartbreaking. An open-air cafe with a smiling band of preternaturally cool musicians locked in a perfect groove. Huge crowds of hitchhiking Cubans gathered on the side of the road, desperate for a lift. Noisy Carnival rumbas and conga groups piercing the heat with Afro-Caribbean rhythms. Sexy couples with well-oiled hips gliding across dance floors. Those combative billboards forlornly pitched along the side of empty highways. Crowded camellos, crazy people-hauler flatbed trucks that look like urban transportation in a post-apocalyptic world. Mile-long lines for ice cream at Coppelia shops. Kids playing pelota, the national pastime of baseball, with a stick in the hollows of a ruined building.
But perhaps the truest picture of Cuba comes from the people themselves. Resilient and eternally patient Cubans somehow find the will to rise above devastating poverty, shortages, dense bureaucracy, and political authoritarianism. With wonderful senses of humor and hospitality like few others, they invite visitors into their cramped homes even if they've nothing to offer them. Schoolchildren, like an ad for the UN in identical maroon and mustard-colored uniforms, smile sweetly for photographs.
Cuba remains a quandary and a country full of potential. Hope can be seen in the painstaking restoration of landmark colonial buildings in La Habana Vieja, whose decrepitude only a few years ago was the perfect metaphor for Cuba. Now that the ailing Fidel Castro is mostly in the background, all eyes are firmly on Raúl Castro and the flurry of proposed reforms that he announced in summer 2010 to relieve the desperate economic situation in the country.
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