President Obama’s recent visit to the socialist island really was a long overdue step in eliminating the final vestiges of the cold war.
American citizens may now visit the island, but under a ‘people-to-people’ cultural exchange program. Of course Canadians and Europeans have been coming for years, but through the eyes of my open-minded American clients, the rekindled Cuban-US friendship is exciting and so very logical.
We are feeling the thaw. For the last few weeks I have been touring steamy-hot Cuba and have enjoying its people, food and healthcare system. Needless to say, those who have chosen to visit Cuba arrive with open minds and are generally impressed by both Cuba’s history and successes. Perhaps a little too impressed…
As a tourist destination I give Cuba 7 / 10. If I were an old-car fanatic or a lover of colonial architecture, I could perhaps add a point or two. As a society I again give Cuba 7 / 10 and as a post-colonial / post-slavery experiment I offer Cuba a generous 9.5 / 10.
For Americans, Cuba simply has to be 10/10 given the long isolation and propaganda war. This new relationship is better.
On paper Cuba is far better off than virtually any of its regional neighbours. When compared to Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador or perhaps even Puerto Rico, Cuba’s statistics are miles ahead.
Life expectancy is longer than in the United States. Literacy is virtually universal, race is hardly a theme and gender parity is an achievable goal. Cuba has the lowest birthrate in Latin America (1 child per family) and there is almost no homelessness. Cuba’s famed universal medical system is evidence based and its doctors are well trained. Wow.
These achievements are genuinely remarkable particularly in light of Cuba’s tragic colonial history.
For over 300 years, these Caribbean islands were the front line of Spanish and European colonial brutality. Upon the arrival of the conquistadors, genocide quickly ensued. Disease, enslavement, massacre and massive rates of actual suicide eliminated all indigenous peoples from the Cuban archipelago.
With no native people to enslave, Cuba and the neighbouring islands were the largest recipients trans-Atlantic slavery. Cuba’s native flora was removed as the land became intensely cultivated. Havana’s peeling colonial architecture stands as testament to the incredible wealth that was generated on the back of slave labour.
Moving forward into the later 19th century, Cuba remained one for Spain’s few colonial possessions. As a crumbling and failed empire, Spain lost control of Cuba and the Caribbean’s largest Island quite logically fell into the American sphere of influence.
Post civil war USA had finally ended slavery as the north industrialized. Cuba became the playground for the rich, corrupt and famous. Only 90 miles from Florida, Cuba’s distinct legal system made the country a perfect destination for money-laundering and wild parties. Much like modern-day Panama.
Wealth flowed through Cuba culminating in the grand National Hotel constructed in Havana in 1930. The good times continued, while the majority of the island’s population lived in dismal rural poverty.
A corrupt puppet government in Cuba was certainly far from unique. As the ideological divide of the Cold War became increasingly defined, the United States intervened throughout the region.
Cuba really did have all the elements necessary for a revolution; a rich economy, an educated elite and masses of poor and disposed people. With no land borders (excluding Guantanamo Bay) and genuine popular support, the revolution, once achieved, was more easily defended.
Historically we know Cuba had the necessary elements for a successful revolution, because the uprising succeeded. But were its goals achieved?
Herein lies the debate. When I talk to my friends and colleagues in Cuba – even in private settings – they actively support the revolution, but add that it is now time to move on.
Cubans in Miami feel somewhat differently, but generally their comment is; “Cuba has nothing.” I sympathize with this concern. For a week or two, Cuba is very appealing, but forever, it must be stifling.
The success of the Cuban revolution was the elimination of gross systemic abuse and inequality.
The failure lies in mass emigration, Soviet-style housing, a lack of free speech and extremely limited opportunity.
When Cuba first built its all-inclusive resorts, Cubans were not permitted to stay. Fidel is gradually fading away, but the Castro family has remained in power since the revolution, which suggests the same generational lifespan of similar regimes.
All that noted and well documented, it is important and relevant to compare ‘like’ experiences. Indisputably, Cuba surpassed every regional neighbour in providing for – and educating – its population.
Why do I only give Cuba 7 / 10 as a tourist destination?
- I tire quickly of Spanish-colonial architecture. Havana is magnificent, but town after town, city after city are clean and colourful, yet bland and concrete.
- With virtually no echo of indigenous culture, Cuba’s distinctiveness is vibrantly musical, but certainly not magical
- Cuba’s humid heat often surpasses my (granted very northern) comfort limit!
- The main all-inclusive tourist resorts are reasonably well run (and the water is a beautiful turquoise), but these spiritless resorts could be anywhere in the sun belt, and the masses of drunk, cigarette-smoking Canadians a little embarrassing
- The island’s landscapes are intensely cultivated and tropical, but not particularly interesting when compared to other regions of Central America and the Caribbean such as Costa Rica or Guatemala.
The tours I recently lead were short and interesting. We spent quality time in Havana – worth every minute of the visit! Discovered the beautiful waters of the Bay of Pigs, visited the colourful city of Cienfuegos and the UNESCO-protected city of Trinidad.
We were also very impressed by the causeway over the Cayo Santa Maria where my AMERICAN visitors suddenly witness mass all-inclusive tourism akin to that of Cancun.
Traveling throughout the socialist island with US citizens was an excellent experience and I expect I will return next year. Almost universally my travellers were enthusiastic and impressed.
It is easy to be critical of US policies towards Cuba and the embargo has contributed to serious challenges and poverty, but it spurred a creative and recycling-based economy.
Additionally and perhaps controversially, it is important to travel back to the cold war. When Fidel and Che defeated the the oppressive Bautista regime in 1959, the US immediately cut Cuba off. Had an open hand been offered, perhaps the story would have been different. Yet Cuba turned to the Soviet Union and the Cold War came very close to the United States.
Additionally, the Cuban revolution quickly became the ideological – and often military – model for uprisings throughout the hemisphere.
Groups such as the FARC in Colombia and the Shinning Path in Peru took violence to such extremes they moved far beyond any justification.
The back and forth of the Sandinista / Contra exchange in Nicaragua is deeply disturbing on both sides.
The regime in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was – on balance – bad. In the 1960’s the United States and its allies did have concrete reasons to want to contain that style of Soviet expansion.
Stating the obvious, the tragedy of the Cold War is still being felt throughout many of the poorest parts of our world. From Venezuela to Iraq to North Korea, millions suffer directly from ideologies and military results dating back to that 20th century conflict.
Meanwhile, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, little Cuba, thus abandoned, managed to maintain its public services and now is liberalizing while maintaining many of the universal principals deeply lacking in so much of the world.