Cuba…So Close and So Far
Cuba is a country with a long and varied history, but also one with an uncertain future. Its modern history dates back to 1902, but has suffered through many political systems.
Starting with its discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and then controlled alternately by Spain and England. Spain ceded Cuba to the United States at the end of the 19th century and then Cuba gained its independence soon thereafter.
Though it had gained independence, the US remained in control for many years after by supporting failed leaders and also backed corporations that invested much money in the country, but did little to control social discrimination and corruption. The US repeatedly intervened in the country, but permitted brutal dictators to control the government, though they promised measures to improve conditions that never materialized.
A socialist party was established that later became the seed for the Communist party which took over the government in 1959 through a violent revolution. That revolution was fifty seven years ago and the US choose to break diplomatic relations with Cuba after it nationalized many US interests. Diplomatic relations were recently re-established when President Obama further certified that significant event with a visit to this island nation at the same time as our visit to Cuba.
Today, Cuba is a country whose development has been suspended since the revolution and life there is as it was over fifty years ago. It was further impacted by the economic downfall of Russia and their inability to provide aid to Cuba. That is not to say that some technical advances have not reached their shores, but it seems that otherwise, life has just stood still. It is a stunning contrast in extremes.....the upper class have retained their wealth and the poor, well they just remain poor. A middle class has tried to survive, but the system does not permit them to realize any significant economic growth.
More specifically the economic system is it not designed to let workers acquire wealth and move up the economic ladder. The current economic system is in decay and without some input of money to improve the well being of the people, which in turn with help the country to become stronger, Cuba as a country will slowly deteriorate and its people will suffer.
That said, there is a very beautiful side of Cuba...its people. The Cubans are filled with warmth and are frustrated with a stagnant economic system. They love living with one another, they share their love of music and their creative talents give them the purpose to live, while enduring a difficult economic life as they hope to live like the rest of the world.
Now the country appears to be entering a new phase. Peace with America will open many doors, but just who will prosper is not yet known. In Cuba, the government controls everything. As new American businesses become part of the tourist fabric is not known. It is questionable whether the gains will go to the people who get jobs in these American ventures or will the government reap the rewards of the new money.
Salaries in Cuba are extremely low by almost any standard…but the country provides education, health care, pensions for retirement and burial services for free, such as they are. At every stop as we exited our tour bus, people were begging for most anything we could give them…anything. And yet we were told that everyone in the country has a job.
Many people cannot afford to go from one town to another, most never leave their country, and they do not own transportation other than a maybe a wagon or a bicycle. Homes are without air conditioners, except the wealthier families do have cooling in their bedrooms only because the energy costs are so high. The weather is quite tropical all through the year in Cuba, but gets brutally hot in the summer period.
We found the food to be rather bland, especially in the government owned restaurants, but more interesting when eating in paladars, or privately owned restaurants. Main dishes often consisted of grilled pork, shredded beef known as ropa vieja, chicken or fish and accompanied by rice and black beans. I often asked for piquante sauce……just to add some flavoring.
Associated with each meal were pleasant service, a drink and live music which was always excellent and coincided with an opportunity to buy a CD. We could not eat the raw vegetables or fruit as our digestive system could not tolerate the water, so our meals were further limited for health considerations. In fact, we would not even brush our teeth with the running water, nor wash our tooth brush with the water. Bottled water became our staple……
Our trip was a person to person experience and we had amazing access to the music of Cuba and visits with many artists to learn about their work and to view and purchase their paintings. We toured the old towns in each of the cities we visited, had wonderful lectures on life in this island country and experienced many of the fabled modes of transportation.
We rode in 1950 versions of American automobiles that have been maintained to accomplished perfection. We were on pedicabs where the driver pedaled us up hills and down again as we bounced around in the back seat. We sat in horse drawn carriages as we toured an old city. All of these means of transportation gave us a unique look at life in Cuba….. However, our tour bus was quite modern and most definitely air conditioned as were each of our hotel accommodations.
Certainly the heat in March during our visit was a difficult element of the trip for me…..it was relentless and impossible to escape. Our days were very full of visits and touring programs……our Cuban tour guide was exceptional…..knowledgeable on almost every subject. He was always there as he guided us expertly through each event. Our Road Scholar tour guide was equally adept at keeping us healthy and ensuring that our documents were always correct and available. It was a wonderful program that took us across much of the Cuban island and introduced us to amazing facets of Cuban history and life as it is today.