Cuba is the biggest island in the Caribbean, just 90 miles from Florida and like all of its Caribbean island neighbours it has the great tropical beaches, but it also has a uniquely different character too, forged through its chequered history and since the 1950's by its communist leader and larger than life character, Fidel Castro.
As a socialist country, the Government owns everything – businesses, hotels, hospitals, schools and the vast majority of people all work for the Government as their employer.
The language spoken in Cuba is Spanish – so ideally you should know some Spanish to gain the most from your travel here, or travel with someone who does. You can get by with English and a bit of sign language, but it helps to know some Spanish.
For accommodation – there are many hotels, depending on where you are, and many of these are owned by the Government too, though there are and will be more international groups taking either management over some of these properties or now buying them too.
In Cuba there are also private homes, with Licenses from the Government that offer a room or two to Tourist visitors. These are called 'Casa Particulares' where they offer accommodation and in some cases meals too. Ideally check before you pay. Be aware too that there are also 'hustlers' (Jineteros) who will try and get you to come to their very best friend's place for "a very good room, very cheap, very Close, Don't worry. I carry your bag." Sometimes these guys can really do what they say. Some though are scam artists.
The island is also possibly about to undergo a massive change too as in 2015-16 the United States began talks to end the Cuban trade sanctions that had been imposed by the United States in 1960-62. A lot has happened in the world in the 54 years since this happened.
A large number of Cubans living in Florida are immensely interested in the next stage of development and changes in Cuba.
There are also 'dissidents' – people who have been locked up as political prisoners and there is a support group of women called the 'Damas de Blanco' (Ladies in white) who every Sunday walk the streets to church as a group dressed in white clothing in a symbolic silent protest in support of the 'dissidents' that have been imprisoned. They have done this since 2010.
As a foreigner, it is best that you stay detached from any protest movements and don't get involved.
Talks and meetings between President Obama and Raúl Castro started towards the end of 2015, and while it is likely that the trade sanctions will be lifted in 2016, it is by no means certain. On March 20th, 2016 President Obama and Airforce One landed at Jose Marti International Airport in Habana, the first US President to visit Cuba since President Calvin Coolidge did so in 1928.
Just a few days after President Obama's visit, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones also played here to an enthusiastic audience – again an amazing historic event.
Travel by US Citizens is still very restricted (see below) and no 'Tourist Visas' are possible, though there are tour groups.
People from most but not all other countries can travel to Cuba but you need to check Visa requirements based on the passport you hold.
Before you board a flight to Cuba, check with the airline or Money Exchange or your bank so that you have the most current information on money exchange. Cash (the right cash) is king!
If the US Embargo is lifted and Americans are allowed to freely enter the country on a tourist visa, or invest here, this will herald big changes in the Cuban way of life. At the moment Americans can travel to Cuba, but this must be for an educational, religious, humanitarian, medical or research reason, or for a family visit. Double check the Visa requirements before applying.
Most people will have forgotten why the Cuban Crisis happened in 1960, but to give you a brief outline – it began when Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba and nationalised the Cuban Oil Refineries, then sugar refineries and banks of United States companies without paying any compensation. He also closed down the 13 casinos too, said to have links to the Mafia.
The United States then refused to buy sugar from Cuba (at that time the USA represented about 80% of Cuban sugar exports) or supply the Communist Cubans with oil, so Fidel Castro befriended the Soviet Union, who established strong relations with Cuba and began to establish a secret Missile base in Cuba, leading up to the Cuban Crisis in October 1962 and a possible nuclear war between the Russians and Americans.
Further deterioration in the relationship between Cuba and the USA occurred in April 1961 in the ill -fated "Bay of Pigs Invasion" took place with exiles from Cuba with the support and training of the CIA tried to invade and topple the regime of Castro. It was a disaster, and ended in Castro forces defeating the invading forces. Some 114 of the invading forces were killed and 1100 taken prisoner, and only released in 1962, when they were deported back to the USA.
War however was only averted when US President John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev from the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro came to an agreement to remove the missiles and the world breathed a sigh of relief that a Nuclear War had been not happened. I was a child at the time and remember being incredible scared about what was about to happen if this war took place, the thought being that this might well be the end of the world. Nonetheless the relationship between Cuba and the United States has never been the same, and this heralded a silent 'stand-off' war between the United States and Soviet Union – part of the 'Cold War' between the USA, Western Europe and the Soviet Union.
The United States has always been a fierce supporter of 'Democracy' as a political system, whereas Cuba and the Soviet Union were fierce supporters of the 'Socialist /Communist' Planned Economy model. In Cuba the 'planned economy' meant that everything was and still is owned by the State, but the State also provides free education and healthcare to its people, along with subsidised food. Most business and employment was and still is in State enterprises. The country has some of the best healthcare and education services and many foreigners also come here as 'medical tourists' to avail themselves of this. While the health services are free to Cubans, foreigners must pay but the cost is a lot less than it would be in the United States.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990's also had an impact on Cuba too, and gradually there has been a small move more towards a more market economy and the acceptance of tourism has resulted in more foreign exchange coming into the country. You can't use Credit cards that have a USA connection but can withdraw money from ATM's in Cuba, but not all will work, so in most cases you should bring cash (Euros, Canadian Dollars, pounds Sterling preferably ) with you – but not US Dollars at the moment, though this may change. At the airport and at various locations in bigger towns and cities there will be Cadecas (money exchanges) or a BFI Bank where you can exchange foreign currency for local CUC's (Convertible Pesos) that have a fixed exchange rate of I CUC to US$1, but there is another second currency called 'Moneda Nacional do Pesos' – which has a floating exchange rate. Yes, two currencies! Tourists are expected to pay in CUC's – and will pay a higher price than locals – which is probably fair.
Fidel Castro handed the Presidency to his younger brother, Raúl in 2008.
Fidel was born in 1926 and Raúl in 1931. Given their age, it is likely that if and when a new President replaces Raúl this will also herald big changes in Cuban society and way of life.
The island of Cuba was settled by Ciboney and Taino Arawak people when Christopher Columbus first sighted the island in 1492, and within a few years Spanish settlers arrived in Cuba to establish their control and put down any resistance by Taino warriors. By 1514 Havana was established as a settlement and the Spanish were firmly in control with a large number of the Taino people succumbing to diseases to which they had no resistance. Most of the Spanish who came here were male, and it wasn't long before liaisons between Spanish men and Taino women resulted in children.
The Taino people were already growing crops including Tobacco (a Taino word) and the rich soils in Cuba led to sugar, tobacco, cocoa and other crops to be planted, with African slaves mainly from Hispaniola also being transported here to work from about 1520 onwards. The first Cuban cigars were exported to England in 1795, and in fact, British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, almost always photographed with a cigar in his mouth had spent time in Cuba in his earlier years, no doubt where he picked up the habit. In the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana there is even a bar called the 'Churchill Bar'.
From 1500 to 1762 the Spanish ruled over the island, building Havana (Habana) into a fortified city with the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña overshadowing the Harbour. In that year (1762) the British attacked Havana and took over Havana, opening up free trade and bringing more slaves to the island, but 2 years later under the terms of a Treaty signed between Spain and Britain at the end of the Seven Year War in Europe, Cuba returned to Spanish control, with Britain gaining control over the then Spanish Territory of Florida in exchange. Many of the Spanish in Florida at the time then moved to Cuba.
While Slavery was abolished by Spain in 1820 and by Britain in 1833, it was not abolished in Cuba until 1886, the late 1800's being a time when the sugar industry was at the height of its prosperity.
It was the Spanish-American War in 1898 that resulted in the United States taking control over Cuba from the Spanish, and Cuba came under a US Military Governor from 1898 to 1902, at which point Cuba became an Independent nation. Part of the Cuban-American Treaty of Relations stated that Cuba was to remain an independent nation and no foreign power was allowed to have a significant presence (Other than the USA). Also under the Treaty, the USA was given a perpetual lease over Guantánamo Bay to establish a military naval base there on the south east end of the Cuban Island. In recent years this has become the infamous US Military prison of the same name.
From 1902 until 1959, Cuba was ruled over by a succession of Presidents but corruption and cronyism led to a widening wealth gap between those in power and authority and an impoverished populace. For a number of years, Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) was President elect or President (1940-1944; 1952-1955 and to 1959) becoming a dictator over the country. While he rose to power through a coup, in the end he fled the country having amassed a fortune, ultimately living in exile in Portugal. Fidel Castro then came to power, instituting his revolutionary socialist plans for the economy and Cuban society.
While the Cuban Revolution was a political 'socialist' revolution designed to change the power structure in Cuban society, it also became an inspiration for a youth revolution around the world, with one of the Revolutionaries in Castro's 26th of July Movement being Ernesto 'Che' Guevara (1928-1967) becoming a symbol of rebellion and revolution. The 1960's was the age of the Vietnam War, protests and peace movements with T-shirts and posters around the world carrying the image of Che Guevara as a symbol of the revolution. His image is still being sold on T shirts today.
Che Guevara himself was Argentinian by birth and part Irish by heritage, graduating in Medicine as a doctor in Argentina. In his early 20's he had ridden a Norton Motorbike across much of South America and seen extreme poverty and at the same time seen the power and wealth of ruling elites. The idea of the repressed proletariat rising up against the Capitalist pigs was born in the 1960's. He believed that the only way out of poverty was through education and a fundamental change in the structure of society, and his readings of Karl Marx, Lenin, Mao Tse Tung and other writers, led him to join the Cuban Revolution and ultimately to his execution in Bolivia in the 1967 political uprising in that country. He was just 39 when he died and 29 of his fellow revolutionaries were also killed or executed at the same time.
His memory has lived on and his body and those of the 29 other revolutionaries were later exhumed in Bolivia and brought back to Cuba where they were given a hero's welcome and later placed in the Che Guevara Sculptural Complex (Mausoleum) built in 1997 and located on Reparto Raul Sancho, in Santa Clara.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN CUBA –
Tourists coming to Cuba come for various reasons – sometimes to relive part of their Cuban ancestry or connect with family here, others to head to a hospital for treatments and operations while general tourists and travellers come to experience a very different socialist society, for the music and spirit and to see cities like Havana that can trace their history back to the 1500's.
There is also the intrigue at seeing early American cars from the 1950's still on the streets, almost a time capsule of times past.
Havana (Habana) in the early days of Spanish settlement was the gateway to the Americas, with Spanish ships calling into Havana Harbour on their way to the Americas or from Spain and the port itself becoming prosperous as ships were careened (repaired), or set up with new supplies for their long sea voyages. Months at sea also meant sailors coming ashore for a good time, and that also led to the city developing both its commercial, merchant and entertainment activities and also later ship building. The Havana settlement also came under attack by pirates and smugglers too in the 1500's with the Castillo del Morro fort built in 1597 and the city of Havana becoming the official Capital of Cuba in 1607.
In British and American architecture, homes and buildings of significance are built on prominent locations often looking outwards to a view of the landscape around them. As glass technology changed, small windows became larger, and much later the picture window emerged, again on the basis of establishing a view. Traditional houses would also be landscaped with a front lawn, gardens and discreet enclosed backyard for privacy.
In Spanish architecture, classic houses are designed with a large and imposing doorway to the street, often with wrought iron work, with rooms built overlooking a central square garden, with often depending on the building size a walkway around it at ground level and balconies on the first floor. In other words the view or vista was created within the building looking into the square garden space, as opposed to looking out to a landscape beyond.
In England, villages were built with a 'common' (a space shared by all in the village) with a 'village square' where markets and trade could be conducted. In Spanish town planning, a 'Plaza de Armas' is a central feature of almost all Spanish towns, and a 'Plaza de Armas' will almost certainly be found in all Central and South American villages and towns too. The 'Plaza de Armas' – was built as a defence to a village, a central square from which the villagers or military officers could fight off attack from enemies. In almost all cases buildings were constructed on each side of the Plaza on the four sides, with small alleyways or roads leading out from the Plaza. In many of the older cities, including Havana, a wall would be built around the city, again as a means of protecting the village/town and its people.
In Old Havana there is a 'Plaza de Armas' as well as a number of other Plazas or squares too, each plaza with its own character and charm. Each Plaza is surrounded by classic buildings most with colonnaded walkways, columns, archways, balustrades, intricate wrought ironwork, most two storeys high, sometimes three storeys. Such is the magnificence of the aged and sometimes decaying architecture that Old Havana has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are certainly small tour groups that will tell you about particular buildings here, but just to wander and sit down in a Plaza, a café or bar to people watch will give you pleasure, and of course there are the cobbled Calles (Streets), grand old hotels and mansions, fountains, statues and old forts that were built to protect the city that also add to the grandeur of Old Havana. Old Havana is very much a living city too so in amongst the Museums and Forts you will also find music, dance, cigars, shops, art, food, fun and also the tiny yellow 'Coco Taxis'.
Just some of the things to see here are the Castillo de la Real Fuerza Fort, built in 1582 complete with its moat and ramparts; the Museo de la Ciudad (City Museum) located in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales; the El Templete Temple next to the Plaza de Armas; the Catedral de San Cristóbal (Cathedral) and other churches; and the Museo de Arte Colonial.
Some of the MUST SEE places in Havana are
- The two forts that overlook the canal and Harbour – the Castillo de Los Tres Reynes del Morro with its lighthouse on one end and the San Carlos de la Cabaña built in 1762.
- The Capitolio building built in 1929 on Paseo de Marti esq. in San José with its cupola dome roofline and grand columns and stairway entrance. There are tours of the building to point out its many highlights including the 17 metre (56 feet) high Statue of the Republic.
- Ernest Hemingway House Museum (Finca Vigia) located about 9 miles from the centre of Havana on Calle Vigia y Seinhart, San Francisco de Paula. This is where the American writer, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) lived at one time. In Old Havana you can also visit his favourite bars too – La Bodeguita del Medio – Calle Empedrado No. 206 where he enjoyed a Mojito, and Bar La Floridita – Obispo No. 557 esq. Monserrate where he went to have a Daiquiri.
- Cementerio Colón (Cemetery) – Zapata y Calle 12. Architectural Grandeur in the 1800's didn't just apply to buildings, it applied to grave sites too, with Family Mausoleums built in honour of the dearly departed. This is a vast cemetery and it is interesting to see and read the inscriptions and see the mausoleums and statues that are here.
- Cabaret Tropicana – see www.tropicanacaberet.com Calle 72 y Linea del Ferrocarril, Maarianao. This cabaret theatre has been operating since 1939, and has a great show full of dance, music and colour, almost a celebration of the 1920's and 1930's when Havana was the 'Paris of the Caribbean' and the Rumba, Mambo, Cha Cha Cha, Salsa, Bolero, Danzonete and Jazz. Definitely if you can get tickets, it will be a night to remember.
There's a lot to see in Havana and of course look to enjoy Cuban food, music, food, rum and maybe even a cigar as you take in the atmosphere of this great city with its 2 million or so residents.
Cuba is a big island with a population of just over 11 million people and from Maria La Gorda on the western end of the island (best known for its diving) to Baracoa, founded in 1511 near Guantanamo Bay on the western end it is around 1300 kilometres – a long way. If you have the time and the inclination the countryside and smaller villages and towns can be reached by hire car or bus. Between Maria La Gorda and Havana is the remarkable Valle de Viñales (Valley) – where there are sugarcane growing in the Valley, overshadowed by giant round top Karst Limestone hills, with sheer Cliffsides that seemingly drop into the valleys below them- Quite spectacular scenery.
East of Havana there are many beaches too – with the best known and most popular beaches being along the Varadero Coastline with white sandy beaches and a number of resort hotels with their swimming pools and other services and the Archipelago de Sabana just off the coast too. Further east along the coast there are also more beachside towns too, including Playa Santa Lucia, Guardalavaca and others.
While Old Havana city is a pretty amazing place to see, if you like architecture and history head to the southern side of the island to Cienfuegos and Trinidad, both cities with lots of historic buildings to see, and located next to beaches and off-shore deep sea fishing, sailing and scuba diving. Trinidad (the city) dates back to 1514 and is also listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, with churches, Palacio Cantera, Museo Romántico mansion house, Museo de Arquitectura and the remarkable Museo de la Contra Bandidos all within walking distance of each other in the historic centre of the city.
Off the southern coastline is the small island of Isla de la Juventud (Island of youth) which is a renowned diving site with some 672 islands and islets located here in the Canarreos Reef area. In earlier times it was also called Evangelista by Christopher Columbus, later it became known as Pirate Island when Sir Francis Drake was here and then Isla de Pinos (Island of Pines) on account of the Pine trees growing here. At one stage it appeared to be the 'Treasure Island' referred to in the story by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) but he never came here nor is it likely, though its remoteness and pirate connections may yet yield a treasure somewhere buried on the island.
There's a lot to see in Havana and Cuba and the country is at an interesting time in its history. Whatever happens on the political side, no doubt the island will still retain its character and dance its way into the future.
I hope you have a great time seeing Cuba.