Cuba was an amazing experience. It was great to be in the country at a time when there is about to be significant change with the easing of relationships between Cuba and the USA. The whole country seemed optimistic about the future but I do wonder if everyone really appreciates how quickly things will move forward, and that not all changes will be for the best. Commercialism can bring its own unique problems. I am glad, however, that the Cuban government do seem to be wary about the potential sudden changes and have already implemented laws to limit the impact of the changes.
One of the most iconic images associated with Cuba are the old 1950s American cars. These can still be seen around Havana and rest of Cuba; some are immaculately preserved while others have a old rustic feel about them. They are all highly desirable and valuable. Thankfully the Cuban government has, apparently, implemented a law that will mean that these iconic cars cannot be exported out of Cuba. This is a great move. It will mean that Cuba retains one of its unique characteristics even with the advancement of commercialism.
My view of Cuba changed considerably while I was there. I gained an understanding that the people of Cuba were generally behind the revolutionary Fidel Castro and that we in the “West” do not always get an unbiassed view. For example, before Fidel took over conditions for the average Cuban were not good. Illiteracy was high, income was low and healthcare was hard to come by. There was an elite in Cuba that did very well at the expense of the average person. Within a few years of Fidel taking over conditions for the average person had improved immensely. Literacy across the country improved, polo was practically eliminated, day to day living costs were reduced and there was a real drive to educate the population. However, the downside was that many businesses were taken into public ownership (including many well known American brands) which of course infuriated the USA. The USA initiated the trade embargo and Cuba turned towards the USSR, their only real means of importing much needed goods.
The USSR was Cuba’s lifeline and their legacy can be vividly seen in the communist style buildings and lada cars that are still present across the island. But, as our guide in Cuba put to us: ‘In 1991 Russia decided they no longer wanted to be Communist’ which left Cuba in a very isolated position. The USSR provided Cuba with practically all of its oil based products (petrol, diesel, heating fuel, agrochemicals, plastic etc.) and overnight this supply dried up. This meant that that there was suddenly insufficient supply of oil to run cars, produce electricity, operate factories and produce food. Essentially the economy in Cuba ground to a halt. What happened next I feel is a real inspiration to the rest of the world. Instead of Cuba caving in to the demands of the West, the Cuban people grafted and battled through. Essentially overnight Cuba went from having highly mechanised farms to needing to retrain oxen to plough fields. To supply sufficient food for the population every spare piece of land was brought back into production by local community groups. The community spirit of the population won through and Cuba managed to become essentially self sufficient for food without mechanisation and petroleum derived agrochemicals.
Cuba has a complex past and this is evident across the island – there is a strange but wonderful mix of different time periods (colonial to present day), people and cultures all in one relatively small country. In addition, there is Cuba’s love of music and dancing. I have never been to a country where every bar, restaurant and hotel has its own live music often with associated dancers. The music stared early and went on late into the night. Cuba was a wonderful vibrant mix of apparently happy contented people. We all have a lot to learn from the Cuba’s resilience and love of life’s simplicities.