by Linda Clair and George Abenstern
Nuestra firmeza no claudicara ... We must stand firm and not give up the struggle...
These are strong words which greet the eager traveler when first setting foot on Cuban soil -- words which represent the very essence and beauty of Cuban life today.
Yes, Cubans were certainly entitled to a revolution after so many centuries of colonization, aggression and genocide, first at the hands of Spain and then under United States domination.
In 1959 the US puppet dictator Batista fell to Fidel Castro's rebel army. As though coming out of a nightmare, Cuba's people suddenly found the Revolution gave them back their dignity, confidence and above all, a sense of nation hood.
People say that Cuba is not a paradise -- but it is.
Descending to Cuba from 35,000 feet, the immediate impression is of how green the island appears. Despite massive deforestation, much of it is being painstakingly replaced. Everywhere there are exotic trees and shrubs; a wealth of flowers and a rich variety of birds from vultures hovering overhead to humming birds which dart from bloom to bloom. This is like Kew Gardens without the glass.
Throughout our travels which centred mainly on the Sierra Maestra, we saw huge plantations. The main crop is sugar cane but we also came across maize, coffee, bananas and tobacco, of course. There was also a good deal of organic fanning. Everywhere citrus fruits, pineapples and guava were being grown.
Occasionally we saw coconuts which, in their natural state, are much larger than what we see on our market stalls. The thick outerskins are removed before they go for export.
To the unsuspecting traveler who goes to the white sandy beaches of Varadero or the Cayo Large, all would seem too good to be true. Indeed, that is where the bulk of the travelers or holidaymakers go. They come mainly from Canada and Germany.
But there are many that go for other reasons; not so much holidaying as going to spend time among a people in a country struggling against the might of the United States. Since the Revolution in 1959, Cuba has faced an enormous problem: an illegal US embargo against the Cuban people despite widespread international condemnation. With the backing of Britain and Israel, the US is attempting to bring Cuba's economy down and Cuba's people to their knees.
The Revolution must not fail
Following the demise of the Soviet Union, particularly of the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia, Cuba found itself not only totally isolated but also thrown into economic chaos. To a considerable extent Cuba depended on trade with these countries to resist the embargo. But when this trade collapsed, Cuba was left high and dry. Almost literally everything the Cubans possessed began to crumble, from TV sets and washing machines to agriculturalmachinery and whole factories. Little could operate for the lack of spare parts.
At the height of the crisis in 1993, referred to by Castro as "Our Special Period", the import of oil which drives almost every aspect of Cuban life, was reduced from 14 million gallons a year to a mere trickle of three million. The country, as a consequence, almost ground to a halt.
But the Cubans were determined that their Revolution would not fail. Food was rationed and horses, mules and oxen replaced tractors. But the Revolution's two key gains in health and education remain the number one priority. Evidence of this is everywhere to be seen.
Throughout the countryside schools abound even though some are no more than shacks. One isolated school we visited had only six pupils! Despite their obvious poverty, they sat upright and bright-eyed before us, dressed in their prim red and white uniforms and eager for the pencils we were able to give them.
We also saw the many easily recognizable two-storey doctors' houses. We were told that the state provides a doctor for every 250 people and judging by the number of these houses we saw, this seemed quite believable. One of the doctors we talked to showed us around his clinic on the ground floor. He told us that all general practitioners like himself were also required to study and practice two extra specialities -- In his case, paediatrics and gynaecology.
Pointing to posters on the walls and readily available leaflets about self-examination for breast cancer, education on Aids and vaccination for children, the doctor explained that in Cuba the emphasis was on preventative medicine. Clearly, he belonged to the people he served.
Getting about by any means
Transport remains one of the most difficult problems. Thousands of people throughout the country are daily on the move, but there is simply not enough public transport to go around. There are trains between major cities although we didn't see any.
There are also buses, some of great vintage and most of a type we hadn't seen before. Innovations reminiscent of Vietnamese legendary make-do have led to articulated monsters comprising a cab with trailer attached and an amazing standing carrying capacity of 350 people! It trundles through the city streets, full to overflowing and invariably belching black smoke.
In the country people travelled in huge open lorries, often crammed in like sardines, whatever the weather. Many travel on bicycles and it is said Cuba imported some two million of them from China. Cuba now manufactures sturdy single speed "sit up and beg" type roadsters, each provided with a single front brake and a rear carrier for a passenger. By our standards the bikes are very expensive. Young men particularly treasure them because it is said: no bike, no girlfriend. We often saw whole families on a bike -- father pedalling, eldest child on a makeshift seat over the cross-bar and mother behind carrying a child.
Some people even had cats but these could not be bought. They were handed down from father to son, not to daughters. There were some Ladas, but the majority were pre-revolutionary American models. How did they keep these huge cars going, we asked. If you look carefully, we were told, you'll notice most cars have undergone a metamorphosis. It may look American on the outside, but under the bonnet there are Lada engines. Again, in the country, those without bikes would travel on horseback. We saw only men in the saddle ... and we had to admit, with their hats turned up al the sides and rarely without a cigar, they looked pretty good and proud.
If we had any difficulties at all, it was the fact that we could not communicate with people in their native tongue. Spanish is the first essential of a traveler in Cuba. We had none. A few hastily cobbled together phrases, committed to memory on the way over, didn't get us very far. Our lack was particularly felt when we visited the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. Although we could observe the pictures, everything else was in Spanish and no English speaking guide was available to help.
Life: dignified but hard
But there was a more fundamental problem that we soon came to realize: foreign travelers and Cubans don't mix. What we eat and enjoy as travelers is denied the Cuban people.
Take our mode of travel. On a nine-day safari through the mountains, we were transported first in a state-of-the-art Japanese minibus and then, when the terrain got tough, in Suzuki jeeps. We could also eat in abundance: bowls full of grapefruit, oranges and water melons, beautiful bread, butter, eggs, fish, pork and rice. Fresh orange juice and spring water were always available.
During our travels, we stayed in a succession of hotel complexes which can only be described as breathtaking. Each is complete with a swimming pool and would grace the most luxurious resorts in the south of Europe. By contrast the Cubans live to a large extent off their ration cards. Not everything from the card is accessible. But their sugar intake is enormous. We had to smile when we were told that six pounds of sugar per person per month was not enough.
Housing too is at a premium. The acute shortage gives a new meaning to the term "overcrowding". Not unnaturally and because of the heat and humidity, people spend their time on the street and round every doorway. Most people in the cities live in old tenement blocks and high rise flats. In the country we saw many small single-storey houses and sometimes of prefabricated bungalows.
A farmhouse in the heart of the country that we visited was a wooden frame construction. The sides were covered by thick overlapping palm leaves and the roof was made of heavy thatch. There were small windows with shutters but no glass, and doors to front and rear.
Inside, light partitions divided the house into rooms. In the kitchen area, a pot seemed to be permanently on the boil over a small wood fire. The hard dirt floor was immaculately clean. Life for the farmer and his small family was hard. We could see that. There was no denying it -- they looked lean. Outside, was a huge black pig lying asleep in the midday sun. Happily it was unaware that its end was nigh!
Standing around this farm it suddenly dawned on us how clean the countryside is and, as we came to discover, so too were the city streets, hotels and airports. And walking through those streets, we couldn't disguise the fact that we were tourists. We were constantly asked where we came from.
Talking about the sharp contrasts between what we felt was "us and them" with our guide, we were told Cuba needs dollars which to a large extent the tourist actually provides.
Cuba has therefore invested heavily in a holiday infrastructure it thinks is attractive to Western tourists. In theory this is fine. We the tourists pay through the nose for everything in dollars ... and gladly too ... but does the little child asking for a pencil, the young man in the street wanting us to buy a cigar or the young girl being prostituted by her two pimps outside our hotel door understand that our dollars go some way to keep their economy afloat? What do they think when they see us eating ourway through a more than ample meal?
On one occasion we met an English speaking professional artist. We asked him what he thought was the most pressing problem confronting the man, woman and child in the street. He gathered the fingers and thumb of his right hand and pushing them in and out of his mouth replied with the obvious -- the people need food. During our conversation we were joined by an American who had just made it to Cuba via Mexico. At least, he said wryly, they're spared the indignity of American life.
Through our guides and those they introduced to us, we learned first hand about the immediate world around us. Coming as we do from our urban English background, many never ceased to amaze us with their display of astonishing knowledge of the flora and fauna on this magic island. Again and again they would name every flower, every tree and every bird in flight. Most also recognised and pointed out the medicinal qualities of plants that grew in such colourful profusion in every field and every garden.
Moncada, Fidel and Che
The Moncada Barracks beckoned. No visit to Santiago de Cuba -- its colonial past still reflected in the architecture of the country's second city -- would be complete without visiting the famous scene of Castro's 1953 uprising against the hated Batista regime.
The attempt failed and many of the rebels were sadly killed. Castro escaped into the mountains only to be captured and imprisoned in the notorious Presidio Modelo jail on the Island of Pines, now renamed Island of Youth. Around 18 months later he was released and from that moment on the history of Cuba was to take a dramatic leap into another world.
One aspect of the Revolution which live on is Che Guevara. He is literally everywhere: in the museums, on photographs, badges, T-shirts and in the many books which portray this extraordinary figure. In Bolivia he was betrayed. His subsequent execution and agonising death were deliberately orchestrated by the authorities who hoped to undermine any further attempts at revolution and to discredit Che himself. They railed. Che became a legend overnight and remains so to this day.
Just outside the city stands one of the finest churches in the country -- the Church of Our Lady of Charity. We went in and talked about religion, what else? Catholicism, said our guide, whilst appealing to the majority of worshipers, holds little sway in Cuba. This has been so ever since the Cubans discovered how the Catholic church and the Spanish colonists came to share the same mutual interests, particularly keeping dissent at bay.
Few would be surprised to know that religion is not encouraged in Cuba or that it doesn't play any role in the education of children. Despite that many Afro-Cuban religions flourish and there are also churches practising a Christian Afro-Cuban mixture.
Two hours flight time and the mountains were left behind. We arrived in Havana for the last few days, the highlight of which was a meeting with Alfredo Alvarez (of the International Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba), after which we went into old Havana. Like Venice, this quarter of the city wears the cloak of shabby elegance.
Its past colonial architecture must rate amongst the finest and most complete in the world. Many of its buildings are magnificent, boasting ornate frontages and beautiful balconies and standing on either side of wide and often tree-lined avenues. Sadly, despite some restoration, large areas of the old city are in total decay.
Many fine buildings are shored up and many reduced to rubble. But there are some wonderful oasis and amongst them the Plaza de la Catedral and the adjacent Plaza Armas deserve particular mention. These are really very beautiful squares, painstakingly restored and at the very heart of considerable social activity, for Cubans and tourists alike. Bookstalls, arts and craft stalls, cafes and bars and everywhere music and the sun, all make for an amazing atmosphere.
Our last excursion took us due west from Havana to the Province of Pinar del Rio. This is an area entirely devoted to the growing of tobacco and on either side of ourroad plantations stretched as far as the eye could see. The sheer green monotony of it all was only broken by the odd house or barn. In the town of Pinar itself, we watched rows of obviously highly skilled workers cut and roll the dried tobacco leaves into cigars.
Immediately to the north lies the Valle de Vinalles, an area of outstanding natural beauty but a landscape as wonderfully alien to the Western eye as a Chinese painting. Along the floor of the valley stands a line of sugar-loaf shaped hills teeming with rich vegetation and trees, the result of a once-upon-a-time geological eruption. Today, the valley and Its hills are the subject of many an unusual photograph.
May Day was out last encounter. We awoke early in the morning to the sound of buses and lorries taking people in the direction of Plaza de la Revolucion in central Havana. We dressed hurriedly, gulped down breakfast and followed. All roads leading into the Plaza were already packed with hundreds of thousands of people ready to take their journey into and through the square. We joined them along the Avenue Salvador Allende and immediately melted into the crowd amid all the colour, music, dancing flags and bunting.
Without exception, on sight of Fidel Castro, people shouted out loud, us too. This joyful and highly charged emotional atmosphere completely overwhelmed us. This was without doubt a workers' day; this was the Cuban people celebrating their Revolution. This is the way to remember Cuba, the image that carries us forward in our own battles.