Area: 110 861 kmē
Population: 11 116 000
Currency: 1 US$ = 21 Pesos
GDP: 150 / 1 700$
HDI: 58 / 0,765
Cuba's major problem of being so close to its big northern neighbour is not new.
As early as 1823, the American president, John Quincy Adams, argued for the annexation of Cuba and would have proceeded had it not been for the strong opposition of Britain and France. The failure to annex Cuba led to president Monroe's doctrine that the US would restrain its territorial ambitions in the Americas but would also firmly defend the status quo from any third power intervention.
The Monroe doctrine did not however quell America's appetite for Cuba as president Pierce authorised the offer of 100 million dollars to Spain for it in 1854. With that background, it was natural for the US to support the 1895 Cuban revolution for independence from Spain. The explosion of the battleship Maine, that had been sent to Havana in January 1898, sparked the Spanish - American war by which the US gained the Philippines, Puerto Rico and a big brother relationship with Cuba.
American dominance was formalised by the Platt amendment, that the Cubans had been forced to accept in their constitution, giving the "Big Brother" the right to intervene as it saw fit. The US engaged in overt military action in 1906, 1912 and 1917 as well as in constant covert interventions to keep the Cuban government docile, supporting corrupt president Machado and his successor dictator Batista. The island became "The Whore House of the Caribbean" where the US Mafia ran casinos, brothel and other illicit ventures.
In July 1953 Fidel Castro led the historical attack on the Moncada army barracks, initiating the revolutionary process that led to Batista seeking refuge in January 1959, with fellow dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Castro's meeting with Nixon could have changed the course of history but Big Brother chose to set in motion the process of subversion that led to the Bay of Pigs humiliation and the escalation that ensued, the missile crisis etc.
Now that the cold war is over, the US and Russia are in bed together or almost and China will soon be accepted in the US dominated World Trade Organisation but Cuba is still portrayed as a threat to US security and vilified by the US Government. Personally. I think that's ridiculous and I suspect that most people agree, not only in the world at large, but also in the US itself.
I see that as an example of how imperfect democracy can be.
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This is Hotel Nacional where I spent one night in 1975 as part of a week sun and sea vacation package at Varadero beach. It was world class tourism, we were herded onto a sightseeing bus in Varadero, whizzed through Havana's landmarks, brought to the famous Copacabana show and bedded here for the night before the flight back to Montreal.
I don't remember much of the few hours spent in Havana but I do recall how a week's rest on Varadero's white sands and the wild night life that went with it, did wonders to recharge my batteries at a time when the career rat race held a high priority for me.
All I wanted then was a break from stress and a change of thoughts. I got it and came away with good memories of Cuba but I had not met any Cubans in a significant way nor learned anything about the country.
This trip was different, I met real people like Sara, her two sons and her mother as well as her sister, relatives and some of her colleagues at Infomed, Cuba's medical IT network. It made all the difference in the world of course.
Most visitors leave Cuba with strong favourable or unfavourable impressions but all agree on the friendliness, hospitality and human qualities of the Cuban people.
It is hard to be objective about Cuba. Reality in Cuba is not all black or white as some rednecks would have it. Nor is it a dull grey, there is a broad range of brilliant white, greys and some black. It has to be experienced first hand for each will see only what his or her bias will allow.
Most visitors will agree that Havana, which is somewhat run down now, must have been quite beautiful forty years ago.
I have tried to express what my own biases have allowed me to see in a separate page titled Impressions of Cuba. I don't expect you to agree. Few of those who know Cuba first hand will agree on much more than to say the Cubans are amongst the friendliest people on earth. Go and see for yourself if you have not been there yet.
Havana was no doubt beautiful forty years ago but it was also very powerful four centuries ago when it controlled the shipping of booty to Spain from its American colonies.
The fort shown here and in the preceding photo, the "Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes de Morro" called "El Morro" for short, was erected from 1589 to 1630 to protect the entrance to the harbour where galleons assembled for the twice yearly convoy to Spain. It was backed up by the larger "Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña" built between 1763 and 1774, also on the eastern side of the harbour.
Old Havana lies on the western side of the harbour, inland from this relatively small "Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta"
About 10 kms further west, this "Castillo de Santa Dorotea de la Luna de la Chorrera" was built in 1646 to protect the mouth of the Río Almendares.
Havana fortifications protected her through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries but were of no use to prevent the American invasion of Cuba via Santiago at the other end of the island in 1898.
Beautiful and once powerful Havana became an American playground (to use a polite expression), run by US crime syndicates with the tacit approval of corrupt dictators backed by the US government.
Then, along came mister Castro whose revolution overthrew the last US stooge, dictator Fulgencio Batista who ran off with 40 million dollars to the Dominican Republic in 1959 where fellow dictator Rafael Trujillo was bleeding the country with US approval.
Batista went on to live in luxury in Franco's Spain but I'm sure he missed his Havana home, this presidential palace which has become the Museum of the Revolution.
After the forts and the presidential palace another seat of past power that must be seen is the "Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana" in the heart of the old city. Begun in 1748, it was finished almost 40 years later in 1787.
This place had fallen in disrepute during the last four decades but it might be on the way of making a comeback since the visit of the Pope in 1998.
Tourism is on the upswing in Cuba these days. These street musicians in front of the Cathedral are just the tip of the iceberg of a growing segment of the population who have the privilege of serving tourists.
Tourism saved Cuba from being suffocated by the stranglehold of the Torricelli and Helms-Burton laws intended to be the "coup de grace" delivered by the US to the small island when it was already economically on its knees as a consequence of the breakdown of the USSR.
Cuba has made a considerable effort, in the last decade, to cleanup and restore sites with touristic potential (like this "Castillo Real de la Fuerza"), because it desperately needs the hard currency it would normally obtain through trade were it not for the US embargo.
Tourism saved Cuba but it is destroying the Cuban ideal of a classless society as surely as the intervention of US marines snuffed out equalitarian tendencies in neighbouring Grenada and Dominican Republic.
The parents of some of these beautiful kids, photographed in the Plaza de Armas, belong to the new privileged class that can obtain dollars by serving tourists. The others, limited to the peso economy, constitute a new proletariat strongly tempted to cut corners to narrow the gap...
With the priority on tourism, the historical "Palacio de Los Condes de Santovenia" on the Plaza de Armas, has been converted into the five star Hotel Santa Isabel where the price of a room for one night can exceed what a top notch surgeon can earn in a year. (Unskilled laborers earn the equivalent of 10 US$ a month or less while highly qualified professionals can earn up to 25 US$ a month.)
The "Cafe de O'Reilly" on calle O'Reilly is in the centre of tourist country not far from Hemingway's favourite bar, "La Bodeguita del Medio" on calle Empedrado.
Elegant calle Oficios leads from the Plaza de Armas south to the Plaza de San Francisco.
The "Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco de Asis" on Plaza de San Francisco has now been converted into a concert hall and museum.
The resemblance of the Capitolio Nacional to the US Capitol building is not accidental. It was built by US puppet dictator Machado in 1929 to be the seat of the Cuban Congress. Now it houses the Academy of Science and the National Library of Science and Technology.
At the right hand edge of this picture can be seen the tower of the famous Hotel Inglaterra where José Martí spoke for Cuban independence in 1879.
Next to the Parque Central are two more tourist hotels that very few Cubans can afford; the red pillared Golden Tulip Hotel and the Hotel Plaza on the corner next to it.
Well shaded Paseo José Marti leads north to the Parque de Los Enamorados on the Malecon closing our circle tour from the Castllo de la Punta.
Tourism is having a major impact on run down Havana as fine buildings like this one on the Malecon are being restored either as hotels or as dwellings for the new rich.
The priority given to health and education meant sacrifices in other sectors such as urban renewal explains why most of old Havana is crumbling from neglect.
In my mind, the restoration of a beautiful old building is a happy event giving a new life to the past whence we came from. I know it can be an act of love as I have restored a 1928 stone farm house.
I should have been happy to see parts of old Havana being so carefully restored but my pleasure was marred by the realisation that the restored buildings were not for Cubans but for tourists whose massive introduction was corrupting the remarkable social realisations of the Cuban people.
The renewal of private vehicles and taxis has also had a low priority rating. Only few new Russian cars were imported. Cuban mechanics have done wonders keeping alive old American cars of late '50's vintage. So many of them seemed to be in good shape that I made a special page of Cuba's antique cars that you can visit by clicking here. If you prefer, you can go directly to Piñar del Rio with the link below.