Time takes a pause in Cuba, even as Cubans have adapted themselves to a life of inevitable change.
The world knows Cuba for its Cigars, the best in the world, and its rum. Cuba is much more as a visit to this island nation called The Republic of Cuba will testify. Above all it's the people and the Cuban spirit that impresses.
People have occupied these islands for 4,000 years. The Spanish were the first to colonise the country. The indigenous people were made slaves to work on the sugar and Tobacco plantations. As world demand for sugar grew slaves were imported from Africa. When there was trouble in neighbouring Haiti, the French managers moved to Cuba to manage and fund the sugar industry. Even the English occupied Cuba for a short while post the seven years' war. (They exchanged Cuba for Florida with the Spanish). As people from these different races intermarried they produced the distinctive Cuban look, swarthy, handsome men and world famous Cuban beauties.
The history of modern Cuba begins with the 1956 Revolution when a lawyer named Fidel Castro overthrew the mafia controlled government of Fulgencio Batista. Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul continue to rule Cuba to this day. People just shrug when asked what happens after them. Currently there is no relationship between the neighbouring US and Cuba. In Cuban eyes, the US is seen as the land of opportunities. Many Cubans will attempt to cross many successfully. One such incident took place in front of my eyes; a middle aged lady with no knowledge of English was detained at the Cayman airport on our way to Miami.
How would you like to live in a country where education is free (the best in the Caribbean), medical care is free (world class) but your take-home salary could just about meet a week's household (four people) expenditure? How do the Cuban people manage? They manage by generating income from different methods, hiring out rooms, or making eatables, running a one room restaurant and pooling the salary of many working members.
Cubans in the tourist trade are better off as tips and expenses are paid for by the tourist in pesos convertible (CCU's) (equal to one $US) which is about 25 per cent more than the peso national (Cuba has two currencies. One for the tourist — the peso convertible (CCU's) and the other for the locals the peso national). As this cabbie who picked me up said, “I get paid my salary in pesos national but tourist like you will tip me in pesos convertible, besides because of my command of English (that's another story) I do translation work — English into Spanish and Spanish into English. I am better than a King. I earn more than a top surgeon in the hospital.”
Time has taken a pause. There is a 1950s atmosphere. Old cars from the American era are the means of transport. Buicks, Plymouths, Dodges and the occasional Cadillac, some lovingly restored others made to run by ingenuity and old parts. Every Cuban has to be a mechanic, if he owns or runs a car.
Apart from the language, the Spanish left behind cities with grand buildings, parks and broad boulevards. Habana the capital is a prime example. Take the red-hop on off- bus to see the landmarks of Habana. Walk around the old city the Habana Veija. Take in the atmosphere. Along the narrow streets are apartment blocks. Glance into a house. You will see a clean house with lace curtains, perhaps flowers in a balcony. There is an acute shortage of housing in Cuba especially in Habana. It's likely two or even three generations are sharing a small flat. In the locality there are likely to be small shops, a small vegetable market, and a meat shop. The shops may be full of vegetables and meat this week but no one knows what will be available next week. Poverty is palpable (no beggars) but being a socialist state there are no wealthy people to contrast the poverty against, all are more or less equal. This leads to another trait. Cubans have no class differences, all are treated with the same respect be it the peanut vendor or the police sergeant.
The staple diet is rice, beans and fried plantains. Ice cream is a passion. The ultimate experience is to have ice-cream at the Copella in Habana. Just to experience this from a Cuban perspective I exchanged some pesos convertible to pesos national. (Establishments will refuse to serve you if they sense you are a foreigner wanting to pay in peso national). I stood in a queue for half an hour (if I was paying in peso convertible I would not have to wait). Finally we were seated. I shared a table with a mother and her three children. I could pass off as a Cuban provided I did not open my mouth. The girl collected our money for the ice-cream (I did not say a word) and it took another 15 minutes for the ice-cream to arrive. (No such wait if you paid in peso convertible, indeed you would sit in a different part of the restaurant). The family came prepared with biscuits sticks which they offered me. I had to rudely refuse with a gesture.
The Cubans love the ballet, music and dance. The salsa, rumba and the Son have their roots in Cuba. Cuban music has influenced Caribbean and Latin America music. It has impacted Jazz. Take in a Cabaret de Cuba show either at the Tropicana or on a smaller scale at the National Hotel, both in Habana. The beautiful actors, the rich costumes, choreography and the beat of Latin music…. Look around see tables of well-dressed people, hear the lively conversation. It's then you realise that the Cuban people have adapted to a life of contrasts — a relatively poor existence with a rich heritage.