At the showcase agricultural community of Las Terrazas in Cuba’s Sierra del Rosario, I sip a café con leche at the state-owned Café de Maria and try to tune my Short Wave radio to the BBC.
For Cubans, conduits to world news remain constricted. Internet at six Convertible Pesos (CUC) an hour is out of reach for most – a Cuban doctor earns just twenty CUCs a month; satellite TV is available only at international hotels.
Beneath the café’s veranda hens and chicks scratch in the undergrowth, wary of overflights by ever-watchful turkey vultures. Concentrating to distinguish the calm tones of Bush House there’s determined local interference. Cocks, loudly complaining sets of feathery bellows, crow almost constantly, dogs bark, babies cry, women shout in delight or desperation, live music plays and motorised wheelbarrows… well you get the picture. I turn off the radio.
Later, in Trinidad narrow cobbled streets and pastel–coloured buildings are distinctly un-socialist. Formerly a centre for Cuba’s highly profitable sugar industry the once brash opulence of its ornate architecture is now described in official UNESCO terms as shabby chic.
At the Museo de Historia Municipal, a 19th century plantation owner’s house, miserable earthenware and bone shards of Cuba’s pre-colonial civilisation are lost in a display cabinet. A brace of British naval canon stand to attention in the courtyard, still saluting a dark 18th century deal with Spain that saw Britain swap Cuba for Florida, ending the Seven Years War. In a side gallery a case contains one of the country’s few star-spangled banners, a flag that flew over Trinidad in December 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. Nearby, a typewriter used by El Comandante Che occupies the same cabinet as photographs of Fidel Castro canvassing voters before the 1952 election – an event negated by Uncle Sam’s man, Fulgencio Batista, who led a coup d’etat before votes were even cast.
At its height supplying almost a third of the world’s sugar, Cuba’s 19th century struggles for independence disrupted exports. US military intervention to ‘free’ the country from Spanish rule introduced new refining methods and saw the industry’s focus shift from Trinidad. More fundamentally, sugar profits were effectively siphoned off-shore by a swathe of centralised, US-owned sugar mills. After Castro’s revolution production was nationalised and Cuba’s addiction to a sugar continued, fed by a ready market in the USSR, a sweet tooth that ceased overnight in December 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet superstate.
Back in Havana I loll over a pleasantly cold beer in Hotel Sevilla’s open and airy lobby bar. The walls are hung with black and white photographs of another age, Hollywood stars of the silver screen, indolent socialites, gamblers, and ne’er-do-well mobsters such as Lucky Luciano and Al Capone. Graham Greene too stayed here while penning absurdist tales of Cuban beauties, Catholic guilt and vacuum cleaners in Our Man in Havana.
How times changed. The US embargo on Cuba endures, now in its 54th year, despite no such qualms regarding trade with many more unsavoury regimes. Indeed in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse restrictions were tightened, some in Congress perhaps swayed by domestic political interests sensing an opportunity. In the face of what was interpreted as vindictive bullying, Cubans’ spirit of national unity was strengthened. Combined with innovative programmes of austerity and a lifeline of Venezuelan oil cast by the late Hugo Chavez, Havana’s lights stayed defiantly on. Degrees of economic liberalisation have followed, and as the generation of the revolution dwindles and the Castros themselves bow out, Cuba is set to become a very different place, but not quite yet…
Today, streets nearby Hotel Sevilla are still populated by ill lit over staffed shops, arrays of pointless wares spread thinly under glass. Global brands are conspicuous by their absence. At a corner grocery store livelier than most I peer inside. It sells mostly biscuits and rum. I need neither but enter anyway.
‘My friend, what are you looking for, what do you want?’ asks one of several loitering youths.
‘I’m not sure,’ I reply honestly, unnerved by his zeal.
‘Look, here.’ He points at shelves filled by bottles of Havana Club. ‘Very typical. Very, very typical but, ha, not very good.’
‘Is this your shop?’ I enquire.
‘No my friend… this is the shop of Fidel.’
European colonial occupation, domination by the US and uneasy existence as a Soviet client state, Cuba’s Fidelist regime has outlasted all its erstwhile Socialist allies. It’s not a free country but by some measures Cuba is now more independent than ever.