Viva Cuba

May 24, 2020

“Kooba” as Cubans call it is an extraordinary microcosm of both time standing still and modernity trying to nudge its way in

A labyrinth of cobbled streets

Cuba is mostly associated with Fidel Castro, communism, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Guantanamo Bay and of course, Cuban cigars. Few, however, know of Cuba’s model of healthcare which has bravely paved the way for medical humanitarianism. Cuban doctors have been recently travelling around the world to assist countries in fighting the pandemic - just as they did during the Kashmir earthquake in 2005. But Cuba is much, much more than all this. “Kooba” as Cubans call it, is an extraordinary microcosm of both time standing still and modernity trying to nudge its way in.

We landed at midnight in Havana at Jose Marti International Airport, named after the original Cuban liberation hero of the 1800s. Unsure of what to expect of this Caribbean island nation known more for shutting itself off from the world and the world shutting it out.

The airport reminded me a bit of the old Karachi airport; bulky and outdated. As we exited, the palm trees were a visible indication of the lush tropical greenery we were hoping for. The roads were mostly deserted, red-lights at the intersections empty. But our driver maintained the speed limit, stopping meticulously at every signal, waiting patiently for the non-existent cars to pass by. This was the first indication that Cubans are by and large, very law-abiding citizens – and heavily regulated by the state.

As we approached central Havana, even in the dark of night, the colourful colonial structures and vintage 1950s’ cars the city is so known for, began making themselves known. Daylight would bring even more colourful surprises.

And it did. Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a stunning mix of neoclassical and baroque architecture. A photographer’s (and art deco lover’s) paradise, time has literally stood still in this city, where more modern architecture is a rare find. Centered around the El Capitolo, Cuba’s imposing national capital building modelled after Washington DC’s Capitol building, old Havana is a labyrinth of cobbled streets leading towards the ocean and harbour.

Habana, as the locals refer to it, celebrated its 500th-anniversary last year. Since the Spanish established the city in 1519, they indelibly left their mark on this Caribbean Island, the largest of them all. Not just in its architecture, but its language, its people, its religion (Cubans are overwhelmingly Catholic) and its way of life. Cubans are demographically a mix of dark-ethically indigenous and white-Spanish ancestry. Inter-marriage between the two groups over the decades has given rise to the Mestizo or mixed-race demographic, the second largest after those of white Spanish descent. But Cuba’s black African roots still remain prominent. Fifteen percent of Cubans belong to this demographic.

 The vibrant streets of Havana

It is not possible to ignore the country’s more modern political turmoil anywhere one goes. Its two most famous personalities, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, are everywhere. From the Plaza de la Revolución, to souvenir shops, to graffiti plastered along the vibrant streets of Havana and beyond, Che and Fidel are stark reminders of what has defined Cuba for decades now: the United States.

The vibrancy of Habana, is starkly contrasted by the impact of US sanctions on this communist nation. Cuba’s ascent into a more open nation, is still overshadowed by its turbulent relationship with the US. Americans still need special permits to visit the country. US capitalism, read franchises, are (thankfully) non-existent, though they still maintain an Embassy there, an imposing high-rise structure right on the Malceon, the city’s famous coastal avenue along its seawall.

A church in old town

During Obama’s tenure as president, relations were at their most favourable and the world famously attempted to visit Cuba before the “Americans capitalism descended” and ruined it. But with Trump’s arrival, the country has moved back to its darker days. US embargos have heavily affected the country. Oil, the main supplier of electricity, originally comes from Venezuela via the US. But embargos have now had to reroute the supply, leading to electricity shortages. While none of this overtly affects life in Cuba, businesses and shops shut down by 6 pm to conserve electricity, a shopkeeper told us.

Food is still rationed in Cuba. Every family is issued a ration book registered to the head of the household. The government supplies basics like rice, salt, oil and sugar, but most food is imported. Rice is imported from Uruguay, Vietnam and China. Cuba farms its own chicken and pork, staple foods in the country. But beef and lamb are imported, as are most perishables and beverages, from China or Latin America. Hence, menus list them, but can never provide them due to import limitations. Orange juice and beef, for instance, were out of supply everywhere we went, yet were listed on every menu.

Internet, a new entrant to the country, is also rationed. Cubans can purchase internet @30 hours a month per person for one Cuban Peso an hour. Despite this rationing, the sight of Cubans glued to their mobile phones, was a common one, as many cling to internet hotspots around restaurants and public parks to maximize their time on the World Wide Web.

Modern money is also a rarity. Credit cards are not accepted in a majority of locations, even at some of the best hotels as Cuba is still primarily a cash economy. And cash is in regulated supply. One of the most common sights in Havana was the long line-ups at ATMs across the city, and outside banks, the only source of currency. And such a valued commodity it is, that tourists are not allowed to take Cuban currency out of the country. While departing Cuba, we had to stand for an interminable amount of time at the currency exchange counters located at the airport, to exchange our leftover Cuban pesos (known as CUC’s and pronounced “Kooks”) into foreign currency.

But it is exactly this stark contrast that makes Cuba a fascinating country to observe, as it continues to beat the odds to survive. Almost 98 percent of the country, primarily an agrarian economy, is controlled by the government. Businesses, industries, services and particularly, tourism - a relatively new phenomenon, say many Cubans who originally flourished under Castro’s initial agrarian reforms in the early 1960s.

And while according to locals, a startlingly high 86 percent of Cubans own their homes thanks to this, the recent gentrification drive to make the country more appealing to tourists, has also seen many evicted from their dwellings and transferred instead, to government housing complexes further away from the cities.

But while many can claim that such a high level of control by the state is autocratic, the signs of a Cuban revolt are minimal, as the country is still mostly sheltered from external chaos. Cuba has some of the world’s best beaches, and the resort city of Varadero is littered with foreign resorts overwhelmed by tourists who bring in much needed monetary infusion.

Cayo Coco and Holguin are some of the most sought-after tourist locations for sun and sand, as are UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the town of Trinidad, the mountains and valleys of Viñuales, the colonial cities of Santiago de Cuba (where Fidel Castro is buried) and Pinar del Rio and the lush tropical forests of Las Terraces and Guanayara. All woven seamlessly together by one of the best road networks in the Caribbean built by Che’s revolutionaries.

One of our tour guides claimed that his father was apparently an extra in the Salman Khan/Katrina Kaif starrer Tiger, which filmed a sequence in Old Havana.

Colourful neighbourhoods of Cuba

But Cuba’s vibrancy as a cultural icon in Latin America and the Caribbean is not just its colonial history. It stems from its own indigenous past. Jazz, a Cuban staple, reverberating along the streets of Havana, retains its African origins. And you cannot beat the Buena Vista Social Club, Cuba’s answer to the musical revolution.

Likewise, Cuban art, particularly of the 1970s and 1980s, reflects the country’s rebirth in many ways and its extensive ties to the world. Influenced by African, South American and European art movements, as well as by the Cuban revolution and colonialism, Cuban artists like Mario Gallardo, Servando Moreno and Raul Martinez, are global treasures for the nation and the world of art.

Cuban religion is also celebrated not just through its colonial Christian heritage, but also its Afro-Caribbean roots, originally brought by African slaves transported to the island. Spiritualism runs strong, with many indigenous Cubans exercising their beliefs in the natural world and paying homage to the spirits of nature through rituals such as giving offerings of sweets to specific trees and plants, or the Almamiso or tourist tree (because of its red and peeling bark, like a sunburnt tourist), whose leaves are meant to cleanse you of bad spirits.

It would be remiss to talk about Cuba without Earnest Hemingway, the great American author and probably the most favourable American in Cuba, who made the city his winter home. A Hemingway tour cuts across the city showcasing his time spent on the island.

Contrary to what most people may think, Cubans are friendly. And very relaxed. “Where are you from?” was the question of the day as you walked around in old Havana. A clear indication of how much tourism plays a part in this country. Russians were perhaps the most prominent of the tourists, given the country’s political ties during the Cuban revolution. We were even treated to a ride up the mountains in a decommissioned Russian armoured truck, such is Russia’s indelible mark on the country.

But Cuban lives still vary markedly from what tourists see. Such as the lives of those like our tour guides Ramon, Mario and Ariel, who work countless days without a break, showing the marvels of their country to tourists. Or of those countless Cubans whose tiny decrepit flats overlook the now “gentrified” streets of old Havana, as they look down on the descending hoards.

The dichotomy of a country caught between its own revolutionary past and an uncertain future is apparent everywhere you go. S0 is the introduction of an alien culture that is hard to tell apart any longer from its indigenous roots: the Brazilian Rose, African tulip, Indian cedar, Candy tree and even coffee, a Cuban staple, but introduced by the colonists. Cuba’s authenticity is both clouded by its past and guided by its future.

The town of Santa Clara, where a dignified memorial to Che Guevara stands, and where his remains are interred along with those of 29 of his fellow combatants, is a reminder to the struggles Cuba has faced from its Western adversaries. And how much revolution has defined the country as it stands.

The writer is an independent international development and global migration researcher and specialist, based in Karachi

Viva Cuba