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Header image: Courtesy Prof. Rohan Jayasekara, Dean, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo (2011 - 2014).
Cuba Libre to a tourist is a glass of Rum
and Coke with a slice of lime. To the Cubans it is freedom from tyranny and
oppression. This came about after a bloody revolution that ended in 1959 but at
a price – lack of personal freedom.
Photo- A typical street
view of Havana
The travel guides and the travelogues never
describe Cuba accurately. I arrived in
Havana with preconceptions and prejudices but it is far better than what I was
lead to believe. When the opportunity arose to tour Cuba I was prepared to
leave behind the June sunshine and the cricket, back in England. I first came
to know about Cuba when Castro’s revolution toppled Batista’s despotic regime.
I was then an idealistic teenager with a jaundiced vision of a fast changing
world. The history of the revolution 1953-59 is a gripping tale of selfless
courage. Subsequently with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban
missile crisis, Cuba remained a thorn in the side of the Unites States for
decades. Many rich Cubans fled the country to settle in Miami.
Fidel Castro, a qualified lawyer, brought
in wide ranging reforms including equal rights for Blacks and women.
Significantly reduced corruption and unemployment. They eliminated illiteracy
and brought in land reforms. Great improvements were made in hygiene and
sanitation. Supposedly the country has the best free health care in the world.
They make their own vaccines and medicines and even export doctors to other
Spanish speaking countries in South America. Education is free to all. The man
on the street is well informed and civil. Many seemed happy with their
lot.Those Cubans we met were kind and
generous. No one was allowed to travel abroad until recently when restrictions
have been removed. There is a possibility that the American embargo will be
lifted. The Cubans have mixed feelings about this. They fear the arrival of
drugs, mafia, casinos and the return to capitalism, the very climate that
brought on the revolution. Fidel Castro in a speech whilst on trial during the
Batista regime said “History will absolve me”. The world can decide!!
As I set foot on Cuba the warm breeze and
palm trees brought back memories of my beloved homeland. The airport is small
and seemed very basic. On the way to our hotel the narrow roads and the tired
looking old buildings with plaster peeling off reminded me of Ceylon of the
1950’s. There are no skyscrapers. The popular Russian Ladaand old American Dodge, Buicks, Pontiacs and
Plymouths plied the streets of Cuba. Import restrictions have made all foreign
goods expensive and beyond the reach of the people. They call Miami the 2nd
capital of Cuba as many Cuban émigré live there sending money to their
relatives in their homeland. Cuba depends on tourism, Sugar cane, Cigars and money
sent by émigré to balance their budget. Cuba
received considerable economic support from the Soviet Union. The American
embargo since 1959 and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 , have had a
crippling effect on the Cuban economy but it has survived the worst. They have
2 types of currencies. One for the tourists called CUC and that for the rest it
is the CUP.
The hurricane season runs from June to
November. Cuba is very well organised, disciplined and prepared for such events
and there are excellent evacuation procedures. This is in stark contrast to
other Caribbean countries like Haiti.
Photo – Vinales
All businesses are owned by the state.
People can rent a property to farm or to open a shop but have to give the state
a percentage of their income. Although theoretically all the houses are owned
by the government there are some houses owned by individuals and I was unable
to get to the bottom of this issue as much of this information is shrouded in
secrecy. The Cubans have ration books to
obtain essential items of food at below cost. If more is needed they got to pay.
Towards the end of my stay I asked our guide, most discreetly, if their was a
secret service in Cuba like the CIA and KGB. After a short but distinct pause
she said, yes, and went on to illustrate the point that such an organization is
needed to safeguard the country and its leader Castro. There has been 600
attempts on his life since 1961 and far too many bids to destabilize the
The Castros and the political hierarchy
maintain a low profile. I saw so very few inscriptions or statues of the
leaders although they have been ruling the country since 1959. There is a
mausoleum and a museum for Che Guevara in Santa Clara. He is considered a
martyr for the cause and is remembered with great awe and affection. I read his
memoirs in my youth and saw a film about his “Motorcycle Diaries”. As a young
man he travelled widely in Central and South America and witnessed the poverty
and oppression due to dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. With his Marxist
ideology Che felt the only solution was armed revolution. He gave up a
comfortable life as a doctor in Argentina to fight for the people. The rest is
history. I wore my Che Guevara T-shirt with pride to visit his mausoleum and
pay homage to a man who had the courage to give his life to make it better for
others. He died at the age of 39 and
left a wife and 4 children. Personally, I have no strong political affiliations,
convictions or ideologies. My revolution will remain against disease and the resultant
The author and journalist Ernest Hemingway
loved Cuba and its people. He bought a house and named it “Finca Vigia” in the outskirts of Havana where
he spent time writing his books. Two of his best books ‘For whom the bell
tolls’ and ‘The old man and the sea’ were written while in Havana. Hemingway
loved fishing for Marlin in the waters around Havana.He held lavish parties for his Hollywood
friends at Finca Vigia and the lovely Ava Gardner was a regular visitor. The
house is well maintained as it was during his day and is a monument to this
Nobel prize winning writer.
I have left the descriptions of hotels,
scenery and landscapes to the last as it is no different from the rest of the
world. The internet is painfully slow and the Wifi virtually non-existent. With its
Caribbean sub-tropical climate the fauna and flora are very similar to Sri
Lanka. The many different and colorful plants reminded me of the taxonomy in
Pulimood and Joshua. Delonix regia are in plenty and were in full bloom as if
the trees were on fire. Ipomoea biloba, Antigonon leptopus, Magnolia,
Thunbergia grandiflora, Nerium oleander were all in flower in June. There is
manioc and bread fruit in plenty. Although they have many snakes non of them
The capital Havana looks tired and old and
needs a lick of paint. The people are discouraged from demolishing old
buildings. When painting they have got
to use its original colour. Cubans are very musical and their favourite
instrument is the guitar. Whenever we had a meal in a restaurant there was a
group to serenade us playing the old favourites – Guantanamera and Cielito
lindo. I visited the famous Buena Vista
Social Club. It played the perennial
favourites of the 1950’s.Buena Vista Social Club’s popularity was
revived by Ry Cooder in 1998 with a famous album and a film of that name.
Cubans are born with the natural rhythm to dance. Their evocative hip gyrations
and rhythmic movements have given rise to the ever popular Cha cha, mambo and
the Salsa. It is indeed a great pleasure to see the dances performed in their
Vinales Valley is a UNESCO World heritage
site. It is encircled by green mountains and is a pretty sight. They use
traditional techniques for agriculture using cattle. Much of the best tobacco
is grown in this region. Their staple food includes rice which is cultivated
We moved on to Cienfuegos where they grow
sugar cane. This again is a World Heritage site. Its buildings and architecture
show their French and Spanish past.
Varadero has beautiful beaches and many
plush hotels. This is a city which shows life is changing fast in Cuba. Do
visit the country before it loses its old world charm and values.
Photo – The Beach in
It is indeed a beautiful country. Cuba is
just beginning to open up to the outside world. I hope I have succeeded in
giving you a birds eye view of Cuba and an overview of its tormented past and its
less troubled present.
Perhaps the present regime in Cuba has done
their best. They need to tweak their
dogma to improve the quality of life of the people.In a democracy the people decide but in
Castro’s Cuba it is much harder to change. The Cubans deserve peace and freedom
like us all without returning to the problems of the past. I wonder for how long
they will continue to chant “Viva la Revolucion” Long live the revolution?