I wanted to go to Cuba before the embargo was lifted and it changed from the post-revolutionary time warp from 1959. It looks like I got there just in time. This week the countries playground-nemesis America has began to make peace.
Obama has made headlines and history this week as he announced that he was moving to end the the half century of Cold War acrimony with Havana. With intentions to lift the embargo and the opening of an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century, the long-lasting foreign policy is finally having a rendezvous with common sense.
“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Mr. Obama said in a nationally televised statement from the White House. The deal, he added, will “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas” and move beyond a “rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”
The truth is that the US embargo against Cuba is nothing less than an act of vindictiveness and spite.
55 years ago, the revolution overthrew a human rights-abusing US-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, who presided over corruption, gangsterism and chronic social and economic injustice.
First of all, let me just mention that the Cuban revolution did indeed result in many achievements. Its healthcare system is recognised by the World Health Organisation as one of the world’s finest. Every year, the country sends tens of thousands of doctors abroad to save lives in developing nations and the country has one of the highest literacy rates in the world with an education system that is free even at university level. All while the nation was embargoed by a global superpower located a mere 90 miles away.
But statistics aside, what has life been like on the USA-snubbed island?
As an American, Cuba has always seemed a forbidden fruit. A mysterious island of romance, rum, cigars, and, of course, the best music in the world. Cuba is a hot destination for Canadians, Europeans and Americans like myself who can’t resist an illegal visit to the blooming country.
2014 marks 55 years since the beginning of Castro’s reign and the success of the revolution. And the streets were adorned with propagandized posters to remind everyone.
The capital itself is a vibrant city but now suffers from neglect and decay. Havana was once a bright city of architectural style, but the bright paints have began to peel and restoration process are taking so long that the plant life has began to use the scaffolding as trellises.
Due to the nature of communism, any westerner will immediately notice the lack of commercialism. There are no in-your-face advertisements for McDonald’s or banners showcasing sales. Although you could mistake Che’s face as an advertisement as there is no shortage of propaganda. If you actually manage to find a shop you will notice how poorly stocked it is and how badly the limited goods are displayed. There are no signs or window displays inviting you inside. Even museums lack gift shops. If you are in need of souvenirs your only chance is at the central markets, where the salespeople make more of an effort to get your precious tourist pesos*.
One of the biggest back-in-time factors in the country is the cars. Cubans have managed to restore and maintain a fleet of pre-1959 American cars during a 50-year-long embargo that prevents the ability to obtain replacement parts from the origin country. I found this in itself pretty incredible and evidence that the people of Cuba are very successful at making do with very little.
Life in Cuba is hard. The locals earn the equivalent of $17 a month and operate on a rationing system. To them, getting their hands on tourist currency is the best way to overcome the hardship of lining up for tough rations. As you walk down the streets you will constantly hear the music of locals – “taxi, taxi”, “lady, lady”, “beautiful lady”. It is the only sound you may hear more than salsa.
As a tourist – Cuba is paradise. Picture yourself sitting at a beautiful local eatery, sipping on a mojito and feasting on hearty local dishes and sweet fresh fruit. With a view of a pristine beach you are surrounded by beautiful dancing locals and talented live musicians. What more could you possibly want? Well, maybe a cigar or two.
The best part of this country really is the music. With a live band on every corner, Chris Guillebeau was not wrong when he said “There is no Burger King in Havana, but if there were, I’m sure it would have a full salsa band at the entrance as customers ordered their Whoppers.” My favorite moment in Cuba was being personally serenaded by a talented group of musicians on the streets whilst watching the sun set.
Cuba is perfect – For tourists. Cubans in Cuba don’t have it quite as good.
As the embargo disappears; we must hope that the dictatorship will follow in its lead.*Cuba has two currencies – one for tourists and one for locals. The tourist peso has much higher value and can be used at tourist shops and supermarkets – instead of lining up for hours to get rationed goods at the locals supermarkets. Be warned – cunning salespeople may attempt to give you change in local peso. This happened to me when I purchased a coconut as a policeman watched on silently…