I found it difficult to get an exact timeline of the events that led to the forming of the Republic of Cuba in 1959, and was grateful to the Lonely Planet ‘Cuba’ guide to explain this to me.
Christopher Columbus discovered Cuba in 1492, and described it as ‘the most beautiful land human eyes had ever seen’. Not finding gold on the island, which he gave the name ‘Juana’ to, he departed for Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Twenty years later four ships and 400 men arrived on the island from Spain, taking over control of the island, and creating seven towns, including Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Trinidad. The indigenous population already living on the island stood up to the strict control of the Spanish rulers of the island, leading to a rebellion. Gold and other minerals were quickly mined, and the local people used as ‘slaves’. Another twenty years later the inhumane treatment by the Spanish of the locals as slaves came to an end. Spain ruled Cuba for 200 years thereafter, with a short British occupation in 1792. In 1868 Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a poet, lawyer and owner of a sugar plantation, abolished slavery on his property, and created an uprising. He called for the abolishment of slavery, and an independent Cuba. Maceo took over the battle, miraculously surviving many death attempts. The battle cost 200000 Cuban and 80000 Spanish lives. A lacklustre pact in 1878 solved little.
The hero of Cubans is José Martí, a ‘poet, patriot, visionary and intellectual’. He was arrested when only 16 years old, for expressing his political views against the Spanish in a letter to a friend. He went into exile, and formulated his revolutionary ideas, as well as a model for a non-materialistic Cuba, influenced by what he experienced in America. In 1892 Maceo and Gómez came out of exile, and with Martí led the war against the Spanish government in Cuba, ultimately costing the life of Maceo, a man known to have miraculously survived many attempts on his life. America came to the rescue in 1898, under the pretext of protecting the American citizens in Cuba, but its ship exploded in Havana Harbour. A battle between the Spanish and Americans followed, President Theodore Roosevelt leading a cavalry charge into the country, which led to the surrender of Cuba by the Spanish to America in 1898.
Cuba became an independent republic in 1902, but the Americans appeared equally disliked by the Cubans as the Spanish were, a love-hate relationship which appears to exist to this day. Batista became Cuba’s President in 1940 following an election, reigning for four years. He was succeeded by President Ramón Grau San Martín, associated with corruption and inefficiency in the country. Batista was not out of the picture yet, cutting a deal with the Mafia in America, giving it carte blanche in Cuba in return for a cut of its gambling profits. He was set to make a comeback into power.
Sensing he would lose another election, Batista staged a coup in 1952, supported by America, and the election was cancelled. At this time Fidel Castro, a fluent orator and lawyer, created a revolutionary circle around him, including his brother Raúl, suggesting that the only way to rid Cuba of its dictator Batista was by force. The first rebel uprising attempt failed in 1953. Castro and his men were captured, imprisoned, and Castro appeared in court, in which he presented an impassioned speech ‘History will Absolve me’, which became his political manifesto. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison on Isla de Pinos. In 1955 Batista won the elections, deemed to have been rigged. To curry favour with the population, he announced an amnesty of all prisoners, including Castro. Fearing that Batista would have him assassinated, Castro fled to Mexico. He left an underground resistance movement behind, named the 26 Julio Movement. During my stay in Havana banners were erected to celebrate this 26 July public holiday.
Castro was assisted in planning a revolution in Cuba, with Camilo Cienfuegos and Argentinian Che Guevara. He and 81 men fled from Mexico on the boat called ‘Granma’, landing two days after the start of the uprising in Santiago de Cuba in December 1956. Over the next three years the Castro rebels gained traction. Castro persuaded the Americans to sign a treaty to no longer provide aid to President Batista. President Batista fled to the Dominican Republic, and Castro embarked on a cavalcade of victory around the country in 1959. The local newspaper is called ‘Granma’.
Cuba aligned itself to Russia, facing American trade embargoes. When the Soviet Bloc fell in 1989 – 1991, an austerity campaign was introduced, with rationing, no luxuries, and lots of sacrifice, despite being politically free and independent. In 2006 Fidel Castro resigned due to ill-health, and passed the power over to his brother Raúl Castro.
The new President introduced a number of reforms, Cubans being allowed to buy cellphones and electrical goods, and stay in tourist hotels for the first time. In 2011 500000 government workers were laid off, and business licences were introduced for 178 government recognised professions, to stimulate the private sector. In this year too Cubans could buy and sell cars and houses. By 2013 400000 Cubans were working in the private sector, a small start to a big change, especially given the dreadful government salary of about 200 CUP a month or 15 CUCs, an equivalent amount in Euro. Working hours are long, twelve hours a day in the BnB in which I stayed, with a short lunch break. It appears that the base salary is the same for all staff, irrespective of the type of work one does, reflecting a socialist state. Cubans live rent-free in government-owned apartment buildings, many in a shocking condition, having been painted on the exterior a long time ago, but apparently are dreadful inside. The apartment is shared with three generations of a family, and passed on. Most of the locals can not afford to paint or repair their buildings or apartments, given the low salaries. I experienced two occasions of a chunk of a roof and the edge of a building breaking loose, and crashing down, alongside the BnB and across the road from it, in the 25 days in which I stayed there. Credit card payment is rarely allowed, with a card surcharge in the few high-end places taking MasterCard and VISA, and sometimes a minimum spend is required too.
Fidel Castro died on 25 November 2016, at the age of 90. He is buried in Santiago de Cuba. In the same year President Barack Obama visited, and signed a number of cooperation agreements with Cuba. While the Lonely Planet Guide is not up to date since President Donald Trump took over the running of America, the relationship has soured, no American cruise ships being allowed to dock in Cuba, severely affecting tourism, I was told.
I sense a love-hate relationship with America amongst the locals, it being made very clear that American credit cards are not welcome in the country. The Apple AppStore does not work in the country, and I was not able to book accommodation in South America on Booking.com, despite the App working in all respects except the acceptance of one’s credit card details for the payment. Yet many family members of Cubans live in America already, fathers of persons I got to meet, and a number of young people would love to move there. But America is making it tougher for Cubans to be granted a visa, to visit family there.
President Miguel Diaz Canel took over from President Raúl Castro in 2018. He looks like a gentleman President, with greying hair, dressed in business style shirts, but I have heard locals mutter that what he projects is not always what is really inside, said with a suggestive hint that Raúl Castro may still be pulling the political strings, despite his advanced age of over 80 years of age.
This year Havana celebrates 500 years of its founding, with posters, stickers, the TV, and shopping bags communicating this important milestone of the city.
Cuba has a population of 11 million, of which about 70% lives in Havana. The Lonely Planet guide Book breaks down the population by skin colour, South Africa style, as being 65% White, 25% ‘Mixed’, and 10% ‘Black’.
Despite the very poor salaries, the Cubans survive. Some take double jobs, to earn extra income. Well-studied persons, like doctors and engineers, change careers, like driving taxis, to earn better salaries than the government ones. Renting out a room or more in one’s ‘Casa particular’ accommodation is increasing, one seeing signs to this effect on every street, with ‘Rent for Rooms’ signs added in neon and other means of attracting the attention of passers by. They stand together, help each other out, with a hand or a few CUPs, or a shared beer or glass of rum. They have become smart operators, seeing opportunities to make money, bicycle taxis being the most persistent with their repeated ‘lady Taxi’ pressure.
They do not complain about their austere circumstances, they dress neatly, some ladies sport long manicured finger nails, going to a home-style salon, and certainly would not have the number of dresses I managed to fit into my little hand luggage suitcase, of which I became increasingly aware. Cuba has become gay-friendly yet a referendum allowing gay marriages was rejected recently, I was told. Family is all important, and looks after each other, sharing a small precious accommodation space over two or three generations.
Cubans make a plan to fix or get around things, sometimes even bending the rules, challenging the creativity and innovation of the locals. Tourists are seen as an important source of revenue, whether for business, or personal in earning a tip. Homes have flat-screen TVs, a fridge, a stove, and a fan, but a basic item like a kettle was even missing in my BnB, the water boiled in an open pot on the gas stove. Crockery may be chipped, but it is good quality. There are no fresh flowers, a luxury, but I did see two street vendors selling them. The internet was introduced in 2018, and everyone with a cellphone (Chinese brands) or laptop (Toshiba is the brand I saw most often) is using it.
But all is not poverty and austerity. I have mentioned Cubans living rent-free. The government provides free education, medical care, and subsidises tickets for the movies, theatre shows (not the tourist ones), and music concerts.
With America being so close (80 miles away to Florida), and family members living there already and earning better incomes than they would in Cuba, many younger Cubans dream of making it in America, despite the stand-off politically between the two countries, a contradiction of Cuba as much else.
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein