As part of our Cuba series, this post focuses on the history of Cuba: What influence do the Cuban revolution and the US Embargo have on Cuba today?
The clueless traveler
Yup, that’s me. To be very honest, I came to Cuba a little clueless. We found a cheap flight and booked. What lured me into great expectations of the country are the typical images: old cars, people smoking cigars, and oh yes, those Buena Vista Social Club movies and songs. And I think that is exactly how many people end up in Cuba.
When I got there, I sometimes had a little bit of an irritant feeling. Also a feeling of sadness upon realizing the situation many Cubans are facing today. On the other hand, the overwhelming positivity and joy of life of the Cuban people left a lasting impression. I learned that in order to truly understand and appreciate Cuba, it is important to look a bit at the history of Cuba. Here goes my (probably still quite clueless) shot at this:
A revolutionary tale
Right after landing, you will see them everywhere – the banners, the posters, the statues glorifying the Cuban revolution. To be more precise, they are glorifying a revolution that happened between 1953 and 1959. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are omnipresent in these displays. My parents were born around that time.
From the outside, it seems quite counterintuitive to put up posters about the Cuban revolution that happened 58 years ago. But in Cuba, the revolution is alive! Or so it seems.
Why it all started
For the time at which the Cuban revolution actually happened, it made a lot of sense. Cuba was facing a president that seemed to base his political views on the benefits to be gained from cooperation. He silenced critics in the country. After invasions, occupations and political ties, many Cubans were probably quite tired of connections with the United States. The revolution promised improvements in many areas, and it initially delivered results. It brought back formerly condemned communist beliefs and made many improvements in the daily life of citizens.
58 years of power
Once the revolution was in power, it sadly reinstalled very similar ways to silence opponents. The fighters went from occupying jungle houses to living in luxury hotel suites in no time. Fidel and Raul Castro, brother of Fidel and another major player in the Cuban revolution, are holding power up to this day. Fidel Castro was president until 2008 and died in 2016. This gives him a solid run in power for 49 years, of which he was president for 32 years. Raul Castro took over in 2008, and has another 9 years of presidency under his belt. 2018 might see a new president, which could become an important event in the history of Cuba.
Why foreign products are so hard to get
The Cuban revolution most definitely took its toll on foreign trade and international relations. The US Embargo against Cuba is the longest lasting foreign policy in the history of the United States. So western products, US brands, new technologies and even network contracts are all at a loss in Cuba. Most of the country’s population seems to be heavily struggling with access to school supplies, toiletries, food, building materials, and even medicine. Because of the shortage of goods, a large part of Cuba’s infrastructure has not been updated since its revolutionary days. Not a good start for a roadtrip on Cuban roads, but we’ll talk more about that in our next post!
Little room for change
Food is rationed in a system called “La Libreta de Abastecimiento” – a supply card that regulates the amount of certain products that can be bought. This system has not changed since the revolution, as seems to be true for many things. The first steps made between Cuba and the US are more of a one-off than a steady introduced change.
So those revolutionary changes that once made perfect sense were followed by a drastic period of no change at all. This brings the country back in a rather historic setting compared to the rest of the world. Which is (very ironically) the main reason why we all want to visit Cuba so bad.
But small changes still occur
Small and slow… but still important changes. Raul Castro started a few years ago to make Cuba more open to the world by allowing foreign investments and starting discussions with former US president Barack Obama, which was an important event in the history of Cuba. Even if, after Trump’s election, the US embargo is still not planned to be removed, you can already see some changes once there:
- Private hotels and restaurants are more common now and, in the majority of cases, propose better services than state-owned alternatives
- Finding imported products is still difficult but probably less than a few years ago
- Cubans are allowed to officially host guests in their apartments/houses. Which can be a more genuine and authentic experience in Cuba (see our next posts for more on this!)
However, the future of the island is quite uncertain and 2 factors might bring even bigger changes (good or bad):
- Trump’s plans for Cuba are still ambiguous, so the future of the US embargo is unclear
- Raul Castro will leave power in 2018 at the end of his second five-year term. Chances are his successor will continue his politics and plans… But you never know.
The effects you see (and love)
This is a very ironic plot twist. The trade regulations that limit the country so much are also the cause for most of it’s unique characteristics. And with that the things that draw visitors to Cuba in the first place.
Remember the trade regulations? Cuba did not get flooded with modern substitutes from major car manufacturers around the world. As a result, the country is still using what they had before. The most beautiful examples of those old American-style vintage cars are used today for one purpose only: to drive around tourists.
There is something very laid back and unique about the people of Cuba. Being disconnected for so many years also gives the country a great sense of independence and pride. This is where I see the main positive part of this revolutionary tale (or what it could be).
Yes, even the music styles of Cuba have evolved in their unique way because of the lack of access to innovative tools. Musicians have focused for centuries on getting excellent at playing traditional instruments. You can hear the outcome of that in any bar or street corner, and Cuba became world famous for the results!
Know what to expect
To me, understanding the history of Cuba made it much easier to better understand this beautiful country and its people. It also helped me to be more forgiving if things won’t work like I am used to. Our next post will talk about things to expect that will prep you for your trip – stay tuned!