With the recent death of Comandante Fidel Castro, one of the most influential men in modern history combined with the relaxation of international trade embargos by the United States Cuba is currently experiencing key developments in its history as this island nation finally opens its arms to cautiously embrace the world. I was fortunate enough to be visiting Cuba during Fidel's death, potentially an instrumental moment in Cuba's modern history, here is my story...... view Cuba through my eyes.
One thing that I definitely did not expect during my time in Cuba was the death of Fidel one of the most influential and infamous figures of the past century. To be honest, I do not really know where I stand in regard to socialist ideology but I do know one thing whether you love or hate communism/socialism you still have to have a degree of respect for the impact this man has had on the world and furthermore you cannot question that this man fought with every ounce of his spirit for what he loved and believed in. In the aftermath of Castro's death Cuba did not break into the level of emotion and mourning that one would expect with reactions ranging from low levels of grief, to high levels of respect and even to secret levels of happiness depending on who you spoke to.
On my final evening in Habana I was deeply immersed in history when I attended Castro's Memorial/Funeral in Plaza de la Revolución with close to one million Cubans. Although grief and mourning were not readily present the level of respect that Cubans have for this influential figure and the high levels of patriotism they displayed could not be questioned. [Continued below]
Over the past century the beautifully vibrant nation of Cuba has endured a dramatically turbulent and challenging history to say the least. Commencing with the emergence of the ruthless US backed Dictatorship of the tyrannical Fulgencio Batista which was dramatically over thrown against remarkable odds by the Socialist Cuban Revolution led by Fidel and Raul Castro and spearheaded by the indomitable Ernest "Che" Guevara. This lead to Cuba's 50 years of exile where the country was literally cut-off from the rest of the world by US lead trade embargoes following the aftermath of the revolution.
Fidel crossed the Caribbean from Mexico in December of 1958 with as little as 82 revolutionaries on the tiny yacht Granma in an attempt to spark his revolution. This number quickly dwindled to a mere 12 after a failed landing near Santiago where Castro was forced to retreat to the jungle and commence Guerilla warfare tactics. Two years later remarkably Fidel had over thrown Batista and taken control of the country largely thanks to Che's military leadership and the passionate support of the lower class Cuban peasants.
While I may not support socialism or the outcome of the revolution, I do have a degree of healthy respect and admiration for people who would risk everything for what they believe in to fight with all their heart against the injustice of Batista’s reign. Although Cuba was among one of the most prosperous and successful countries in the world at the time for the rich upper and middle classes the poor and numerous lower class Cuban peasants however (who were to form the basis of the support for the revolution) were extremely oppressed, drowning in poverty and were doing it very, very tough indeed. While in hindsight the outcome of the Revolution may not have operated in the best interest of the Nation however the situation in Cuba at the time was bad, very bad and urgently required rapid change.
Replacing one dictator with another dictator may not of been the best solution and to say Cuba endured some extremely trying times during Castro's reign is an understatement....but were these hard times more of a direct result of a flawed socialist system or more of a direct result of strong opposition, interference and heavy trade embargoes implemented by the USA? Part of me would say the later. A small island nation with limited resources cut off for trade from the rest of the world is bound to fail. However, it will be interesting to consider if this socialist system could of succeeded had the heavy trade restrictions not of been in place taking into account Cuba's strong infrastructure at the time of the revolution and it's key trading location in the Caribbean. But hey, what do you expect will happen when you allow Russian Nuclear missiles to be stationed in your country aimed directly at the biggest powerhouse in the world, the United States?
This unique political, social and economic environment in which Cuba has existed for the past half century has nurtured a truly unique country and culture unlike anywhere else on the planet. Because of this uniqueness (like many of you) the thought of visiting the once isolated shores of Cuba has often filled me with much intrigue. The thought of this small island country being in a virtual time warp and isolated from the world for close to fifty years is almost unfathomable.
Within the past five years access to this unique and often misunderstood country has become easier than ever with the relaxation of the once impenetrable trades barriers by US President Barrack Obama in 2015 and a more open mindset to the world by the powers that be within Cuba. Like many of you the desire to visit Cuba has long sat in the back of my mind and on route from Costa Rica to Colombia I found myself within close proximity and with ready access to cheap flights I decided to take a detour and make the quick hop across the Caribbean to the shores of this perfectly imperfect country.
Many are drawn to Cuba for the obvious clichés of salsa, cigars, classic cars and mojitos but this country has much more to offer than these remarkably stereotypical tourist draw-cards. Prior to my arrival in socialist Cuba I enthusiastically spoke to many fellow travelers about my pending travels plans and almost all responded with the now to common statement of "I want to visit Cuba before it changes too much". Well my friends, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but you are already ten years to late in this regard. The cruise ship and all inclusive package deal holiday tourists have long since beaten you to the punch. Maybe you are not quite as intrepid as you think?
With loss of Cuba's major trading parting the Soviet Union in 1991 Cuba was forced to look towards alternative methods to cover this loss of income and Cuba being the resourceful nation that it is actively begun to enter into joint tourism ventures with many overseas countries to develop this sector. Sorry if I burst your bubble but truth be told Cuba now boasts a well developed and fledging tourism industry with world class hotels and resorts scattered across this once forgotten country.
Visit any of the major tourist areas especially in the historic centers of Trinidad and Havana/Habana you will not only be greeted by beautiful and immaculately restored historic buildings that could easily be at home in any city throughout Europe but you will also find yourself overrun by a massive influx of foreign travellers all overly desperate to obtain their "authentic" Cuban cultural fix. These historic centers are pleasant and more than easy on the eye however be warned that in peak season tourists outnumber locals almost ten to one in these areas. Definitely not what I had traveled to Cuba for. [Continued below].
Did I burst your bubble? Do you want to stop reading now? Well quite frankly I do not blame you. The real authentic Cuba of which we all dream of is still out there and thankfully you do not have to search to hard to find it. Step back from these majestic colonial centers and move towards the residential areas of Centro Habana and non central Trinidad where most mainstream tourists rarely tread and you will find yourself quickly immersed past your neck in everyday Cuban life, the real Cuba.
Centro Habana is where I spent well over 80% of my time during my five days in Cuba's capital city here I eagerly roamed street after street with no plans whatsoever, merrily following the lead of my eyes and ears. For me Centro Habana represents the beating heart of Cuba where you will be instantly swallowed by the vibrant, bustling and chaotic everyday life of your average Cuban. This is where neighbourhood apon neighbourhood is happily over flowing with raw unadulterated Cuba culture.
I found that Cuba posses one of the most social cultures I have ever encountered on my travels to date, where families literally fill the streets, doors to houses are unashamedly left open, groups of friends would readily congregate on street corners to play dominoes or immerse themselves in passionate conversations about the state or Cuba or the latest hot local gossip. I could write for hours describing the uniqueness of the life in Cuba but as they say a picture speaks a thousand words and in this instance it is best to let my pictures do the talking for me. People here will have heavily animated, borderline shouting conversations across the street. Here everyone knows everyone, children play unsupervised and freely in the streets for hours upon end with little or no fears for their safety.
The crime rate in Cuba is surprisingly low....Western world please take note. Although it may not look like it on the surface Cuba is one of the safest if not the safest countries in the Latin Americas as serious crime is virtually non existent here. This I was told by locals was largely due to the strong stance the country has on crime and the heavy punishments for crime. After a year spent living in Central and South America it was refreshing for me to be able to walk where I pleased alone even late at night with my camera in tow without any fear for my personal safety and without constantly having to look over my shoulder. All this in what is a relatively poor country with low levels of personal ownership. [Continued below]
Socialist Cuba can be criticised for many things but the generation of an extremely passionate, social and safe local culture in Cuba is not one of them. Maybe one could argue that in a socialist environment one has little access to many of the personal comforts all to common in the Western world such as the latest I-phone, I-pad, computer games etc (although this is rapidly changing in Cuba). Maybe this lack of personal ownership has helped to nurture a more personal, close, vibrant and friendly culture where Cubans have historically had little access to modern distractions and instead importance is channeled more strongly towards family and friends.
As a visiting tourist it is simple at times to observe this dynamic culture but it can prove more difficult than one might expect to become truly immersed within it as there is definitely a massive divide and social separation between visiting tourists and the local population. In the central tourist regions one will find no shortage of what one might deem on the surface "friendly" locals more than willing to interact with tourists with what starts out as a friendly conversation but quickly moves down the line of selling something whether it be cigars, taxi rides, accommodation, assistance to restaurants, tours etc. These highly annoying and crafty Cuban touts know locally as Jineteros can be a pain in the ass to say the least but after traveling through Central and South America for over a year I am well versed in this type of behaviour and I pretty much ignore anybody who approaches me in the street especially if they speak English. "Hey my friend, where are you from? Do you speak English?". All common lines aimed at engaging you in conversation while you can almost see the dollar signs glittering in their eyes. It's simple do not engage and keep on walking and they are powerless. I can deal with this hassle but what annoys me is that it can detract from genuine local interacts because as you have your back up that when you are actually approached by someone who is genuine and friendly you might actually ignore them and miss out on something great.
While tourism is relatively well developed in Cuba it is still a new and it can prove difficult to have genuine interactions with locals as there a definite division between tourists and locals. This division is predominant in tourist areas where all the restaurants, bars and cafes are designed specifically for the tourist dollar which is directly reflected in the clientèle, pricing and entertainment such as traditional salsa music, salsa dancing which is not always readily found outside of the tourist zones and clubs as you would like to believe. Solely stick to the central tourist zones and you will have a Cuban cultural experience that is overly contrived, cliché and somewhat fake and if you return home with this as your main Cuban experience than I feel that you have missed much of what this beautifully vibrant island has to offer.
My best advice to breakout out of the tourist bubble and experience true Cuba is not to focus all of your time in the main tourist hubs but in fact where possible walk in the opposite direction and keep walking until to your reach the outer suburbs and keep walking until the locals begin to out number the tourist horde.
Often staying in a Casa Particular in the outer lying areas and staying with a friendly Cuban family can greatly assist you in getting a much needed foot in the door of local life and they will more often than not be willing to give you tips on your travels from a local perspective. Although at times difficult to find without a doubt my authentic experiences with locals were some of the best experiences of my visit and if you can successfully avoid the onslaught of Jineteros you may encounter some of the friendliest and welcoming people you will ever meet. [Continued below]
If you’re visiting Cuba for the first time my advice would be: have an open mind and leave your stereotypes and preconceptions at the door, or in this case the airport. The real Cuba may not be the Cuban Hat wearing, cigar smoking, mojito drinking and salsa dancing we have all been led to believe (although this is available in abundance if you stick solely to the tourist hotspots) but my advice is to be a tad bit adventurous, patient and don't expect things to runs as smoothly or as streamlined as back home. Things do not exactly run smoothly in Cuba to say the least but what do you expect from a country that has almost been living in suspended animation and has been practically isolated from the rest of the world and many modern technologies and developments for almost 50 years?
For starters Cuba has only had public access to the internet within the past two years. For me this organised disorganisation and shambolicness is all part of the charm of the Cuban experience. You have to que for everything, tourist and travel information can be hard to come by and the infrastructure is somewhat chaotic at times but if you want things easy then you are best of sticking to the package deal holidays and resorts.
Cuba has been stuck in a time warp and is only just awaking from it's slumber. Where vintages cars of varying condition flood the streets and countless historical buildings from varying historical periods fill the backdrop. Cuba would of been a sight to behold in it's heyday and prosperous period many years before Castro's revolution took hold. Saying that, in my opinion Cuba is still a sight to behold today as I often felt my jaw dropping to the floor as I strolled street after street of decaying and poorly maintained vintage buildings in Habana Centro and in the outskirts of Trinadad. I often found myself questioning how people still live in these borderline derelict buildings.
Cuba is a photographers dream and you could not stage the scenes better if you tried. It was commonly place for me to being standing there ready to photographic a building or a place of interest when a classic Cuban scene would magically erupt around you. Picture a small group of elderly Cubans debating fiercely on the sidewalk in front of a classical rambling and decaying building as many a classic car drives on by turning what would be an average photo into a classic Cuban moment. I roamed the street of Centro Habana for hours upon end, shooting photo after photo, capturing magic moment after magic moment. [Continued below].
What I did take from Cuba? As mentioned earlier after visiting I am not sure where I stand on the notion of socialism and my visit definitely opened my mind and helped me take in a completely different viewpoint to life.
Could socialism have worked in Cuba if the country had not faced world wide opposition and trade embargoes....quite possibly Strong healthcare and education systems aside I think the world can learn a thing or two from this uniquely misunderstood country. What I am alluding to here relates directly to what I had previously discussed.... the strong sense of community, friendliness and heavy focus towards people and not material possessions/status which is oh to common in the Western "Developed" world. Why would material objects matter when there is literally no sense of personal ownership in a socialist environment.
In Cuba there is a strong sense of closeness and togetherness between the community, families and friends who we are not distracted by the newest car or the latest i-thing. I observed this togetherness in Cuba in abundance by merely walking among the locals in the streets of the "real", rugged, raw and vibrant Cuba. Cuba hands down has the most social and personnel culture I have ever observed, it is a place where the community genuinely cares about each other and people matter, they matter most of all. This is one thing that the Western World is oh so rapidly losing sight of and I fear that Cuba could also be headed down the same path as the country becomes more and more open and embraces the Captialist Western World. In my mind, in this essence Cuba has not changed but it is indeed changing. I deeply hope that it does not lose sight of the one amazing cultural trait that to me makes Cuba truly, truly amazing and unique: its sense of care in the community.