Cuba is one of those places everyone knows something about. And, most of the times, this something is wrong. Coming from an ex-Soviet country myself, I felt like I knew it all as well. Cold War between the West and the East, ideological battle of capitalism and socialism, Fidel, classic American cars, deficit, Cuba Libre. However, Cuba surprised me, more than once. Here are some key facts: I have collected them from the Museum of Revolution in Havana and Julia’s Sweig’s book “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know” (to counterbalance the official view of the Revolution and a rare sympathetic American reality check). The tales of Juan Carlos, our Cuban guide, spice up the facts and build a bridge between imagination and reality.
1. Cuba does not equal Fidel. For everyone Cuba means Fidel, and Fidel means Cuba. Even now, after his death, Fidel Castro remains a symbol of Cuban Revolution and the main force that has shaped up the life of 11 million Cuban people for the last 64 years. However, there are surprisingly few public images of Fidel around the country, and when there is one, it is usually to illustrate some motivational revolutionary quote. Che is, on the contrary, all over the place. My first guess was that that’s because Che is so much better looking, – but in reality, Fidel avoided self-canonization on purpose. Unlike pretty much any other powerful political leader before or after him, he was aiming at building a state which would function irrespectively of him and, eventually, without him. He was controlling every aspect of Cuban life during his period of political power from 1976 to 2008 and, de facto, even afterwards until he died. Yet Fidel’s dream was to have Cuba owned by its people and independent of anyone’s will, including his own.
2. Che Guevara, whose portrait has been going viral on all sorts of media for more than half a century, is not even Cuban. Technically speaking, he was proclaimed “a Cuban citizen by birth” in February 1959 for his instrumental role in the Cuban Revolution. However, Che, whose real name, by the way, was Ernesto, was born in Argentinian city Rosario (now a randomly bought Starbucks mug from there suddenly has a meaning!). A chronic asthmatic and a doctor by education, Che was introduced to Fidel by his brother Raoul in Mexico, where Fidel was regaining his forces after his first unsuccessful revolutionary attempt (and Che, the first blogger of his time, was just chilling on his romantic exploratory route through Latin America, which he later documented in a book). According to the legend (or Juan Carlos, in this case), Fidel and Che talked for the entire night, Fidel going strong with his revolutionary view, and at the dawn Che famously said “I am in!”. And in he was.
3. No one will ever know whether Fidel was a true Communist at heart, but it is a fact that with the U.S. around the corner he effectively had no choice. I found a great quote in the book of Sweig. It dates back to 1823 and pretty much sums up the U.S. take on the Cuban policy (and, in fact, the merely existence of the Cuban policy).
“There are laws of political as well as physical gravitation; and if an apple, severed by the tempest from its native tree, can not choose but to fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its unnatural connection with Spain and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only toward the North American Union, which, by the same law of nature can not cast her off from its bosom”.
As pronounced (proudly, I suppose) by John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the U.S. and at the time the Secretary of State, in 1823.
Fidel did not seek a conflict with the States. He travelled to Washington in April 1959, four months after the Revolution, as the Prime Minister of Cuba – his first role in the newly formed state. Eisenhower, the President at the time, was too cool to meet a small nation’s rebel and passed him to Nixon. During the three hour meeting, Fidel has shared his ideas with the VP of the United States in the same manner he did with Che several years ago. Only that the effect this time was different. In his private notes (how did the legendary figures of the past managed to have time for hand written notes, later published in volumes?), Nixon concluded that the new Cuban leader was enormously naive (or enormously influenced by the Soviets, – which was more of a paranoia, really, because in 1959 the contact between Cuba and USSR was very limited).
Even before the meeting took place, the National Security Council was drawing evil plans of taking the Cuban Revolution down. There plans blossomed when CIA became the part of the equation and did not lack imagination, from contemplating the Bay of Pigs to contacting mafia to assassinate Castro to poisoning Cuban crops from airplanes to cause some food shortage and further weaken Casto regime (all the real and imaginary evil done by the Americans is generously displayed in the Museum of Revolution, while the Sweig’s book confirms the key facts). Not surprisingly, that lack of comraderie shifted Cuba closer to the Soviets – what would you do? The Bay of Pigs invasion – and Castro declared that the Cuban Revolution was Socialist in nature. “Preemptive” air bombing on Cuban missile forces, killing dozens, – and Fidel declares himself a Marxist-Leninist while attending the funerals.
4. The alliance with the Soviet block paid off. With the U.S.-inspired embargo under way, the Soviet Union was the main trading partner of Cuba: up to 1985, the trade between the two countries made up 70% of Cuba’s total trade. On top of that, the Soviet Union has been pumping up economic, military and educational assistance to the island (Juan Carlos, for instance, picked up his terrific Russian while studying for a doctor in the suburbs of Moscow). In 1972, after the infamous failure of Castro administration to overdeliver on sugar, the Cuba joined the club of the planned economy. To encourage this good behaviour, the USSR invested $1.7 billion in Cuban plants that year. And to keep the new engines running, $750 million a year were invested additionally between 1981 and 1984.
5. Everyone knows that Cuba is full of old oh-so-charming American cars. True that. Those cars made their way to Cuba in 1920s-1950s, many even before their appearance in the U.S. American car manufacturers were using the island as their trial range before the official launch at home. What not everyone knows is that below the hood of those beauties there is very little American left. With the embargo imposed as early as 1962, Cubans simply could not afford to replace the broken parts of their cars by the originals and learnt to do with what they could get their hands on, from the Soviet materials to those coming from Toyota and Mitsubishi. Car maintenance is a special art in Cuba, something that many are proud of.
6. In Cuba, the Eastern blocks still rules the economy. Old American cars are many, picturesque and make up the expensive part of the private taxi park – probably, the most popular tourism business owned by private individuals. However, for every American car, there are five Soviet Ladas (best known as Zhiguli), Volgas, Podedas and even – to my delight – UAZ trucks. For anyone who grew up in the Soviet Union, a visit to Cuba is a fast-speed trip down the memory lane. Direct.
7. The most popular currency of Cuba for a long time has been its doctors. One of the central points of the Revolution has been healthcare for all. Throughout its recent history, Cuba has been ranking as one of the countries with the world’s best – and indeed accessible to all – medicine. The only limit to that was the shortage of medicaments with acceleration of embargo (when the U.S. extended trade restrictions to the subsidiaries of the U.S. companies overseas) and the electricity blackouts of the least glorious moments of Cuban history, when the entire city blocks, including hospitals, were left without power for days. Medical education has always been free (and extended to foreign students, sometimes even including those from the U.S.). Inspired, like most of educational and cultural undertakings of Castro’s government, by the Soviets, with many doctors educated in Moscow and its surroundings, even today the medicine in Cuba is state of the art. Good doctors are always in demand, and Cuba has been offering theirs on many occasions and for many different returns: as humanitarian aid in Africa during the many wars and revolution movements Cuba has been supporting there, during the hurricanes in the United States (ignored or rejected), and, my favourite part, as a sign of friendship and definitely the friendship currency to Venezuela in exchange of discounted oil. Talk about the power of good education.
8. Before doctors, sugar was the Cuban currency of several centuries. I did not know that, but Cuba had its first sugar (as well as coffee and tobacco) plantations as early as 1513: the first year that has records of African slaves brought to the island to work there. By 1774, 25% of Cuban population of 173,000 were African slaves, while another 18% were listed as “free blacks”, slaves that gained their freedom. By mid-1800s, half of Cuba’s population was black (facts that I have gathered from the Sweig’s book).
Sugar was one of the key products that Cuba traded before the embargo of 1960, and the cornerstone of its economy (it would later revive it to export lots of its crop to the Soviet Union). In the same way sugar affected Cuban economy, its infrastructure affected the Cuban social life. Trinidad and Cienfuegos were the capitals of sugar production, and their landmarks still bear the signs of those times: posh houses of plantation owners close to what remains of the poor construction of the homes of slaves, observation decks to control slaves’ works. And of course, deeply ingrained social divide and pain coming from the deprived freedom, – all laying the foundation of freedom cult that came later with the great thinker (and national hero) Jose Marti and got ingrained into the Constitution with Fidel.
9. Sure, Cubans are Catholics – and good Catholics. However, coming from the old times, central to the Cuban culture is the religion of Santeria. Santeria is a syncretic religion of African slaves with, well, some Caribbean/ Native-American flavour. Not much is known about Santeria because not much of it is public. Juan Carlos told us that the image of God in Santeria is represented by a (black) baby doll in white clothes. (The baby doll I saw was not particularly friendly, or saint, or peaceful, or otherwise enlightened. Might have been an unfortunate representation.) Juan Carlos did not seem very much moved by it either, even though he told me that he, of course, respected this religion. What’s interesting is that in good Soviet spirit, religion had been banned in Cuba for a long time, until Castro figured out the social benefits of marrying faith with revolution. Yet Santeria has always been around, and with centuries of silent practice, it got incorporated into the life of Cubans of all religions. Even good Catholics.
10. Last but not least: Cuba has unexpectedly stunning, breathtaking nature. Taking a road trip there is like watching a movie. The views are so beautiful that poor Juan Carlos had to accidentally stop every 15-20 minutes because we just had to take a picture. And I am not talking about the coast line only. The Sugar Valley, numerous waterfalls and, of course, the Vinales Valley are all just nature masterpieces, waiting to be discovered in the lands when winds of communism are mixed up with love.
For more on articles (and gorgeous photos ;)) of Cuba, click through my cover post on Cuba-Mexico 2017.