12/2011 – 01/2012
Visiting Cuba means visiting a challenge. You will have to question yourself about the value of safety, security, and social harmony on the one hand hand, together with good health care, good education, and the absence of starvation and extreme poverty, compared to freedom, the free market, free travel, free choice, on the other hand… the same questions which were of importance after the wall came down in Germany in 1989. What a challenge!
My visit started in Varadero. Coming from Germany, this is the most important airport, as most of the holiday travellers want to stay at the beach, and Varadero has a beautiful beach. You cannot expect the luxuries of Western Europe or North America here, but you will receive the basics for a good holiday, and considering the price you pay for it, this is all right. However, you also cannot expect the Western European or Northern American service mentality. Cuba is a different world. I say this now after spending a more than three-week holiday there. During the first days of my stay, this was not an easy experience, because my expectations did not correspond to reality. What does this provoke? Frustration.
After a number of days in Cuba, about a week, I let go of my expectations, and then everything was much more pleasurable. If you are asking yourself what I am talking about, let me describe our situation when we arrived at our first hotel: It was already after midnight, and we were tired. The lady at the reception desk did not greet us when we came into the lobby, and although we were the only guests when we arrived, she served guests who came after us first (they were Cubans or at least Spanish-speaking). This made us feel aggressive. But what could we do? Northing. I was too tired, and convinced that it would not help to express our irritation.
There are special rules in Cuba which can not be compared to the norms of a capitalist society. It is a challenge to get online. It was impossible to use my own equipment. It was possible to find places with connections to the internet, but we had to look for them. We had a wonderful morning in Varadero because we met a taxi driver who drove us up and down the peninsula and explained the most important things about it to us. Everything is clean and well cared for. The property with a large golf course offers the most beautiful beach, where you can have a coffee or stay overnight. You can still feel the legend of Xanadu here. Some reminders of the Mafia are also proudly displayed.
Then we left for Santiago de Cuba, the city of the Cuban heroes. What I understood during the three weeks I stayed in Cuba is that independence and self-determination as a nation and as an island is most important for the Cubans. They were and probably still are ready to sacrifice even their lives for this freedom. Cuba does not want to be ruled by other nations: that is the most important message which came through to me there. This is particularly important because Cuba is so close to the United States, and because Castro has officially been the object of more than 600 attacks on his life. These attacks were all planned from the U.S., mainly, or at least frequently, by the CIA, and so I understand that the Cubans do not feel very secure.
Santiago de Cuba is the symbol for their fight for freedom and liberty. It was the place where Fidel Castro and his compañros landed with the boat Grandma to liberate the country. It was here that Fidel Castro proclaimed Cuban independence at the town hall in January, 1959, and as somebody told us, there is not a stone left untouched by Cuban heroes in Santiago de Cuba. What I felt is that Santiago de Cuba is the heart and soul of Cuba – not only because of politics, but especially thanks to culture: music, dance, and the people. You can hear music from morning to night. Music accompanied everything we did, and this music was not played for tourists, but was an essential expression of life, and the citizens of Santiago took active part in it.
Sanitago is also the location of the famous Moneda military fort, where Cuban nationalists like Castro and others were imprisoned and which was transformed into a youth education centre after Cuba became independent of U.S. domination in 1959. From Santiago it is not far to Guantanamo, which we also visited. Guantanamo is a regional centre with strongly self-confident inhabitants. One notices a considerable number of soldiers and police there. We were lucky because there was a Christmas celebration in which the whole town was participating, offering food and drink in the streets. This was lively and friendly, although I also sensed that the people were not used to tourists, foreigners, and strangers, and responded to our presence with a certain suspicion.
Later, I bought a book about Guantanamo written by Fidel Castroin which he explains that immediately after he took power in 1959, Cuba demanded to get the Bay of Guantanamo back from the U.S. but was unsuccessful. Several U.N. resolutions passed by a majority of countries condemn this disobedience on the part of the U.S., even more so since the lease to occupy the bay ran out in 1999, and the U.S. has no legal basis for staying there. Instead of accepting Cuba’s sovereignity, the US reinforced its presence with the Guantanamo prison, and Halliburton expanded these buildings in 2005. For the people of Guantanamo, it must be a very strange feeling to be in the vicinity of an occupying military force which takes the most precious part of the beach from them by force.
Cuba is very safe as far as crime, traffic accidents, or other dangers of the everyday life are concerned. I assume that in this respect, Cuba is one of the safest places in the world – surely the safest in Latin and South America; but it is not too safe with regard to its independence. I just read that during their campaign in Florida, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney both announced that they can imagine some kind of attack against Cuba if they are elected.
We rented a car for four days, taking the opportunity to drive from Santiago de Cuba to Guantanamo, then to Camarguey, Sancti Spiritus, Santa Clara, and on to Trinidad. In Trinidad we spent another week, and savoring the passion and liveliness of the South. Trinidad is a beautiful old town with a lot of extraordinary shops and such adventures as horse riding, using coaches, riding the old steam locomotive which runs occasionally, or being guided by the local volunteers. Every evening, you can dance Salsa and listen to music at various places. There is one main plaza at the centre of the town where you can sit or stand and just listen to the music, watch the dancers, and drink typical Cuban beer or ron (the Cuban word for rum). Bathing in Trinidad is very different compared to Varadero because the beach is smaller, and the sea gets deep so quickly that it is more of a challenge to get into it. The operators of our hostel in Trinidad, Buri and Ernestina, asked us to laud their excellent service. They run a small private pension with two guest rooms, motivated by the ambition to give perfect service. This was a wonderful experience. I highly recommend taking the road from Trinidad to Manicaragua leading through a rural area and a rain forest into the mountains with their little villages. You can see a lot of beautiful landscapes and of Cuban rural life. The roads are not exactly perfect, so you need a good car. From there, the way to Habana doesn’t take long anymore, as one can take the Cuban motorway, the »Nacional.«
I had to get used to Habana – again, it is not the typical city or capital I was accustomed to or had been expecting. Due to the lack of foreign currency and the need to save the foreign currency for vital goods to secure Cuba’s future, there are not very many cars in Cuba, and not even many buses or other means of public transportation. Thus collective transportation is vital all over the country, and people are used to coordinating, communicating, and socializing to reach their destinations. Seeing a city with few cars is something really awesome. After a week in Habana, I can say that the lack of much traffic is perfect – the best thing you can expect from a city – because it makes the city peaceful, beautiful, and QUIET! For tourists, life is easy because you can get a taxi wherever you want. For Cuban citizens, this is different because they usually cannot afford a taxi.
Another difference from other cities is the fact that in the evening, Habana is not as illuminated as other cities are. There is enough light to be able to find your way, but it is quite dark compared to what I am used to. Again, as with the cars, this is a very environmentally friendly decision, and after a few days, I really got used to it – especially thanks to the fact that I never felt afraid of being raped or robbed or the like.The next difference from anything I had ever experienced was that not for one second did I sense any racism in Cuba. I have definitely never seen people feeling so relaxed with one another, behaving so naturally and so freely. This was something that I noticed very quickly. It still impresses me, and it makes me very happy to think of it. Also, very, very many people are dressed in a fashionable and attractive way. As all Cubans have 12 years of school education, one can see this education in a lot of ways, and it also expresses itself in the way people dress.
Habana is a beautiful city. It’s a good idea to visit the Museum of National and the Museum of International Art, where there is a remarkable collection of Ancient Egyptian art. There are several other museums, as well. You can also go shopping, and if you stay longer you can visit the outskirts of Habana. I think it could take three months to even start to understand this city. After a week at least, you can begin to understand its structure.
The people of Cuba have free medical care, free basic food, and free education. This high quality of life is provided to them. Today, however, they want to know more about the world. They want to travel. They want more luxury and foreign products. This is a difficult challenge because there is not yet much private property and no free trade. It seems inevitable that capitalism will establish itself to give more people jobs, business opportunities, and a future. Private ownership will probably be first developed for the middle classes. You can see that people are looking forward to it and getting ready for it, as Raul Castro has granted the possibility of private entrepreneurship during the last two years. Banks are granting loans more easily, and you see shops the sale of products, mostly handicrafts, everywhere.
The people of Cuba are very friendly, communicative, interested and interesting, helpful and good hosts. The island of Cuba is huge and offers almost everything you can think of except snow, ice, and deserts. Even in the wintertime, the climate is very mild, and so the simple housing in general has no glass windows. This is different in Habana, where most of the houses in the centre of town have glass windows.
For Cubans, José Marti is a very important person. He is spoken of as the forefather of Cuban independence wherever education is practised. I bought a book with some of his speeches and thoughts: he was a very compassionate man who helped and helps South American citizens to become self-confident and responsible for their own lives.
In Cuba, you can buy books which you usually never see or think of, and can inform yourself about Cuban reality. Reading books written by Fidel Castro and others (I also read a book with speeches of Salvador Allende) gives one additional insights which one usually would not be able to attain, as there is no other access to this information. I thus recommend visiting Cuba to broaden one’s horizon and confront oneself with a very different, sustainable, and, in broad areas, also humanistic environment.