Cuba is a land with a rich history of political struggle. Since turning communist 50 years ago the island nation has more or less gone downhill, mostly due to a trade embargo placed by the United States. No Americans or American products allowed. Because of this the country has evolved rather unevenly in this time of political isolation. Growing investment in the resort town of Varadero has brought relative wealth to the region yet the nearby city of Cardenas has felt none of it. The capital, Havana, is full of old-world charm and hasn’t changed since its heyday in the 1950s.
Classic cars in Cuba
It seems like a lot of people are going to Cuba these days. I mean, what better way to give the Americans the proverbial finger than by getting on a plane to Cuba? It’s a mecca for tourists looking to escape the brutal winter –a tropical island, the Fiji of North America. The tourist capital, Varadero, sits about 140km east of Havana, and is becoming a growing beacon of capitalism in this small nation which sits partly in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The growth of this tourist town in the Matanzas province is a bit of an anomaly – a resort town in the middle of Cuba - a country celebrating 50 years of Communism this year. 50 years since Che Guevara and the Communists overthrew the dictator Batista. 50 years of little contact with the outside world.
On the road to the Varadero markets, a wall bears a painted bust of Che with a yellow star in the background. Beside it reads “Hasta la victoria, siempre!” which, loosely translated, means “Towards victory, always!” The importance lost on many of the island’s visitors who inevitably pass by this tribute to perhaps the most volatile period of Cuba’s history. The markets themselves are filled with young tourists and families looking for ‘authentic’ Che Guevara merchandise. Most, I imagine, without a clue as to how important the revolution was to the people here - let alone the role the man, whose silhouette is now a pop-culture icon, played in it all.
The Varadero Markets
Varadero is saturated with resorts, filled to the brim with tourists who have money to burn. Many Cubans choose to work at these resorts because, admittedly, there is good money in it. Well, as good as you can get in Cuba. There isn’t much authenticity in a place like Varadero though; it all seems a bit fake. The resorts themselves lack any authentic Cuban artefacts, not to mention the food – as western as Cubans can make it.
Resort workers will sometimes supplement what they earn by running businesses on the side, mostly selling cigars to tourists or offering cut-price tours to the capital Havana. Only a small percentage of these holiday-makers will venture outside of Varadero though, most comfortable to lounge by the pool or on the beach. Locals also take the opportunity to peddle their wares to beach-goers on what is essentially a shop on a bicycle. Anything to earn a little extra money in a country where the government controls all means of production and is the number one employer.
If Varadero can be thought of as the ‘fake’ Cuba, overrun by free enterprise, then Cardenas is what could probably be considered the ‘real’ Cuba. Located about 10 miles south of our resort in Varadero is a place in stark contrast to the relative wealth of the tourist capital. Cardenas, a shell of what it used to be and home to many of Varadero’s resort workers, has not felt the trickledown effect from the success of the resorts. Many of the houses are ramshackle and open sewers are a common sight. The people seem happy nonetheless and the city takes great pride in its history – in 1826 the first statue of Christopher Columbus in the Americas was erected here, it was also the first place to fly the national flag after defeating the US forces who tried to seize it from Spain in 1850. It’s a far-cry from what many tourists expect and yet so close to the tourist hub.
The nation’s capital, Havana, however, is a metropolis and home to a large proportion of Cuba’s population. A statue of Jesus watches over the city from across the river, akin to Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Reminiscent of Washington’s Capitol Hill, the Capitolio can’t help but be the focus of your attention as you marvel at the cityscape. The city itself is exactly like the movies – brightly coloured cars from the 1950s which are now held together with Russian parts. Mothers hang the days washing out to dry from the windows of their old, weathered apartments. The architecture is a mix of old and not so old but nonetheless magnificently Romanesque. There are probably some gangsters around somewhere too, smoking a few Cubans; drinking a few mojitos. The only thing out of place in this bustling city, are the tour buses full of tourists.
The markets are filled with beautiful and original paintings and handmade knick-knacks and, again, overflowing with tourists. Locals try to make a quick peso by selling cigars on the street – most likely just banana leaves. One of the only places to buy genuine Cubans is from a store located, where else, given Cuba’s military history, but in an old military fort overlooking the Havana Bay. The man who made cigars for Fidel works here; it’s also the home of what used to be the world’s longest Cuban cigar which manages to wrap around the tiny store three times and measures around 66 feet. The title has since been usurped and an attempt to claim it back was a case of close, but no cigar. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Hemingway lived here for a while too. The bars he frequented in old Havana just a quick stroll from his home at the Hotel Ambos Mundos where he penned most of his book ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. The bars, where he could allegedly drink up to twelve daiquiris or mojito’s whilst reading the newspaper, still tell fond stories of ‘Papa Hemingway’. The Cubans have since claimed him as their own making a museum out of his room, keeping it just as he left it.
So what has 50 years of Communism in Cuba achieved? Like its communist brothers, probably not a lot. But the most striking thing is that this old city of Havana, and indeed the rest of this old country, has had a long history plagued with hardship and adversity yet somehow its people still keep smiling, still keep laughing. Despite Cuba’s attempts to cater for it’s mostly westerner clientele it still has a distinct old-world charm. A place relatively untouched by today’s modern, fast-paced world, Cuba gives you a chance to go back in time and experience life from a bygone era. Kick back, enjoy a Cuban cigar and down a few mojito’s while you’re at it. When in Rome, right?
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