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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Cuba Libre

By Nihal D. Amerasekera 

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 Lada  and 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 Valley

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 country. 

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 suffering. 

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 are poisonous.  

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 native environment. 

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 here. 

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 Varadero

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?


  1. Thanks for that short but informative piece on Cuba. I long admired Castro although I am not as a rule fond of dictators. But Castro was clearly a man who felt deeply for his fellow countrymen and did his best under very difficult circumstances. It is a reminder of how the Geography of a Country matters so much in this Age we live in and of course nearer home, some forget the reality of Sri Lanka's proximity to India. I would love to visit Cuba and from what I have gathered from some other friends who have visited Cuba, it is an example of a happy Nation without the greed and materialism we equate with "progress". I long believed that wide social inequalities in a Society is a harbinger of unhappiness and if you haven't listened to Prof Richard Wilkinson who is an authority of the subject, you should listen, ( ). Thanks ND.

  2. Mahen
    Thank you for the comment. It is a great country to visit but I wouldn't like to live there. That is the real test. Although much better off than before the revolution a "happy nation" it is not. Now there are millionaires in Cuba and an ever increasing middle class. This brings on inequality, greed and materialism. You have to see and experience it yourself. I enjoyed the holiday very much but didn't leave my heart in Havana.

  3. Jerked awake to reality! The idealist in me still lurks somewhere deep within me although time has made me older and hopefully wiser!

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  5. Mahen
    It was a wise man who said " If you are not a socialist in your teens you don't have a heart. If you are not a capitalist when you are older you don't have a brain" Personally, I wouldn't go that far but I get the drift

  6. Nihal, as usual we got a guided tour from you, with pictures in our minds, songs in our ears, and the feel of waves licking our feet on the Beach at Varadero. We were reminded of Cuba's past and its hopes for the future. It's politics fade and the vivid pictures remain. Thank you!
    from Zita

  7. Zita
    Thank you for your kind comments. Cuba is a lovely place to visit but is changing fast. Ah! their lovely Havana Club Rum never fails to help us enjoy the good life.

    1. Thanks ND,
      Come on !! Come on!!!! Wake up---- ND, That cannot be better than "Barley Water Nectar" from Bonny Scotland!!
      Slanji wa!!


    2. Razaque
      Nothing compares to the amber nectar from Scotland. I am glad I didnt say this "Don’t drink and drive, you might hit a bump and spill your whisky"

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.


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