On Saturday morning after breakfast on Sequoia we headed to the tour buses out in front of the yacht club. The tour buses were both modern and in first class condition which caused me to speculate that they were privately owned. I later found out that they are in fact owned by the government. As we walked to the buses, we observed that the area was covered with litter. This was the case because the poor would go through the garbage, and throw much of what they removed on the ground surrounding the waste basket. It would then blow around the marina and into the water. This not only occurred at the marina but in many places throughout Cuba. It is very unfortunate and influences one's overall reaction to the country.
The tour buses exited the marina and began the 8 to 10 mile trip to Havana. The sites along the way were quite varied. Many of the houses were very small and their condition extremely deteriorated. There were also apartment buildings which reflected the typical Soviet era construction which was both ugly and of poor quality. This was similar to what I had seen both in my business travels to Czechoslovakia in the early 1990's and our recent family visit to Bulgaria. Early on in our journey, we passed the compound where Fidel Castro lived and where Raul Castro is reported to currently live. I use the term reported because Raul like Fidel does not disclose his location on a current basis. This likely is a hold over from their revolutionary days where they often killed their adversaries when they discovered their location. Raul, and before him Fidel, obviously understood what worked for them likely would work for their adversaries. The compound was huge and one could not really see much because it was protected by a wooded area and surrounded by fences, gates and guards. As one continued on the road into Havana, the scene was transformed from a journey through a third world country into what is known as the fifth avenue of Havana. On this section of the road one could see many of the world's foreign embassies. By far the largest, and perhaps the ugliest, was the Russian embassy constructed during the height of the Soviet empire. In contrast to the other buildings we had seen, most of the embassies were very nice buildings from past eras and in excellent condition.
During the day, we visited many of the iconic sights of Havana such as el Capitolio, Gran Teatro, Parque Central, the Barcardi building as well as famed squares as Plaza de Armas, Plaza Catedral, Plaza San Francisco and Plaza Vieja. Many of the buildings in Havana were in a tremendous state of disrepair and from the 1950's and earlier era. To understand Cuba and its architecture, one really needs to understand the history of Cuba and so I will jump ahead and provide a summary of Cuban history to provide context for my observations about what we saw. This summary history was provided by the tour guide in the Mafia Tour on the following day. Our tour guide served in this part time capacity to supplement the $28 a month salary he received as a history professor at the university in Havana:
1492: Christopher Columbus discovers Cuba
1509: The Spanish invade Cuba. The native population is shortly after wiped out by the introduction of European diseases.
1509-1800: Spanish colonization occurs and sugar production develops with the assistance of imported slaves.
1868-1878: rebellion against the Spanish due to harsh authoritarian rule. Spain continues to control the island but promises reforms.
1886: Slavery abolished.
1892: US wins Spanish American War and acquires Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico.
1902: Cuba becomes a nation but the government is characterized by corruption and Irresponsibility. US introduces Platt Amendment which authorizes US to intervene militarily in Cuba if merited.
1906-1909: US occupies Cuba following a rebellion led by Jose Miguel Gomez. His government is immersed in corruption. US departs.
1912: US Military Forces return to Cuba to help put down black protests against discrimination
1924 Gerado Machado institutes many measures to improve agriculture and other sectors but then establishes a brutal dictatorship.
1933 Machado overthrown in a coup by Sergeant Batista
1934: US abandons right to intervene militarily in Cuba, reduces sugar tariffs and improves other trade terms.
1944: Batista retires and is succeeded by Ramon San Martin.
1952: Batista seizes power again and presides over an oppressive regime.
1953: Fidel Castro leads an unsuccessful revolt against Batista
1956: Castro lands in Eastern Cuba from Mexico and seizes Sierra Maestra Mountains where aided by Che Guevara as he wages a guerrilla war.
1958: US withdraws military aid to Batista regime.
1959: Castro leads a 9000 strong guerrilla army into Havana forcing Batista to flee. Fidel becomes Prime Minister, Raul #2 and Che Guevara #3.
1960: All US businesses nationalized.
1961: US breaks off all business relations with Havana. US sponsors Bay of Pigs Invasion (fiasco). USSR becomes close ally of Cuba
1962: Cuban Missile Crisis.
1972: Cuba becomes a full member of the Soviet based Council for Mutual Economic Assistance.
1991: Soviet military advisors leave Cuba following collapse of USSR.
1993: The US tightens embargo on Cuba which undergoes severe economic dislocation due to loss of Soviet support and the American action. Cuba initiates partial market reforms to provide some relief to its economy and some international currency reserves. Tourism and some small privately owned businesses begin to develop.
This brief summary of Cuba's history is necessary to understand the architecture of Cuba. Specifically, there is much beautiful architecture from the pre 1959 era reflecting the greater wealth (and the disparity of wealth) in that period. But with the revolution in 1959 most construction stopped. So did the importation of many foreign goods like cars. This is why so many people describe Cuba as a country where time (and economic development) stopped more than 50 years ago.
Given the above summary of its history as well as conversations with our tour guides and the Cubans we chatted with , here are some of my observations on Cuba and its people:
Spain really blew its colonial strategy in Cuba as did England with the US. However, Spain was even more harsh than the British. Had both countries treated their colonies like the core parts of their empires, they might have avoided revolutions.
The US had a long standing and somewhat sordid involvement with Cuba. The unattractive nature will become even more apparent when we discuss the Mafia Tour in Log 6. Had the US taken a more enlightened approach, Cuba might well be part of the US today, and we certainly would have avoided the Cuban Missile Crisis and the near destruction of the world.
The Cuban People love and admire Americans and are generally very friendly. They do not like the American Government and frankly they do not like the Cuban Government. One Cuban remarked to me as we were visiting the square where Castro gave his victory speech that Fidel announced to the people that he had accomplished the revolution for the people: "Look, look what we have done for you the people". The cynical Cuban said he should have said: "Look, look at what I have done for myself and my brother."
When we were in Cuba, we were watched nearly all the time by Government employees. In fact at one point, one of the guards put two fingers to his eyes and then pointed to one of the members of the tours indicating that he had eyes on.
When Cubans wish to speak candidly about the government, they come close and whisper in your ear reflecting the fact that they feel someone is always listening.
Generally there is little violet crime in Cuba but pick pockets are not uncommon. One night after dinner a good looking women approached me while I was with Melinda and Michael and Bobbe Brown. She came up smoothly, bumped me slightly and quietly said handsome man. At first I thought she was a hooker but then reflected a hooker would not approach me with my wife in the group. I then realized that she must have been attempting to pick my pocket. Fortunately, I had left my wallet in the safe on Sequoia and was carrying my CUC's (local currency) in my front left pocket as opposed to in a wallet in my back pocket. So she got away with nothing. I suggest anyone visiting do the same as your dollars are not generally accepted. The same goes for credit cards.
There are four no no's in Cuba: NO pot, pedophiles, (problematic ) politics and pornography. Visitors need to stay clear of each of these.
There are many people looking for your money or other belongings. In order for a private currency exchanger to come aboard Sequoia, he had to pay off the guard standing watch over our boats (or was it us?). When I went to take a picture of an immense statute of Jesus, the guard came up to me, pushed me in the stomach and informed me that I could not take a picture. But if I were to pay him, he would take a picture for me with my camera. I demurred. The most annoying instance was where a reasonably well dressed Cuban came up to me and admired my hat. He then implored me to give it to him in light of the fact that we would soon be leaving Cuba.
The most overwhelming conclusion I had was that the United States had not handled relations with Cuba as well as it could have and that it repeatedly made the same mistakes. More troubling is that our country seemed unable to learn from these mistakes. This will become more clear from log 6 which describes the Mafia Tour as well as succeeding logs. Clearly the well earned belief of the Cuban population is that when people, including good people, achieve power through government that power corrupts them. This they learned repeatedly as one revolutionary after another came into power and promised reform. Then the new leader would ultimately become corrupt and authoritarian. Thus the Cuban people believe the smaller and less empowered the government is, the better it will be for the citizenry.
(Back in Lafayette)