Travel Tales

Cuba - "Azùcar!"

Travel Tale - No. 4 - Vol. 2

AlinkaCuba is an enigmatic Caribbean island between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, 150 km south of Key West, Florida, and slightly smaller than Pennsylvania. Its climate is tropical, moderated by trade winds and has a dry season. May to October is its rainy season. This large island has many natural resources such as cobalt, nickel, iron, ore, chromium, copper, salt, sugar, timber, silica, petroleum, lots of arable land, and of course, the famous Havana cigar.

The seas around Cuba are spectacular and the fauna is equally impressive with its 13 feet-long, 300 pound leaping crocodiles, the most aggressive in the world, and beautiful parrots which pair for life. The hutia is a large rodent which abounds and the Trogan is the national bird. But to understand the nature of the Cubans you have to go back to 1492 when Columbus discovered the island full of Amerindians.

Cuba map

The native Amerindian population of Cuba began to decline after its development as a Spanish colony during the next several centuries. Large numbers of African slaves were imported to work the coffee and sugar plantations. Havana, its capital, became the launching point for treasure fleets bound for Spain, sailing from Mexico and Peru. Spanish rule was severe and highly exploitative, and occasional rebellions were harshly suppressed. It was the US intervention during the Spanish-American War in 1898, that finally overthrew Spanish control. In 1902, the Treaty of Paris established Cuban independence.

Fidel Castro led a rebel army against Batista to victory in 1959, the year I visited Havana. His iron rule has held the regime together since then. As a student, I had taken the ferry from Key West with my school friend and stayed with her family in Vedado. I remember the guajiros (agricultural laborers) filter into the streets of Havana congratulating their Fidel for his victory. I was having a rum and Coke, with a twist of lime, (my favorite drink) at the bar of the Hotel Nacional, when Castro marched in wearing battle fatigues, flanked by El Che (Ernesto) Guevara from Argentina, and Camilo Cienfuegos. The women in the room rushed to them screaming as if they were rock stars. When they sat down to order drinks, I asked them to autograph my cocktail napkin. I have no idea where it is today. Probably torn to shreds by my Cuban friends.

I remember the guajiros sitting on top of buses with loud speakers blaring Castro's diatribe, while I was at the Tropicana night club watching a colorful show of scantily-clad women in feathers moving their hips to bongo drums. Castro was on TV for days talking non-stop as cigar-chomping Cubans gathered around the open-air bars watching him and applauding his every sentence.

Cuba's Communist revolution with Soviet support, was exported throughout Latin America and Africa during the 1960 to 1980s. Following withdrawal of the former

Soviets' financial assistance of about six billion dollars annually, and the US embargo, the island suffered economic difficulties. Illicit migration to the US shores on homemade rafts, alien smugglers or via the southwest border is a continuing problem. Cuba has only one political party: Cuban Communist Party of PCC, with Fidel Castro Ruz, as first secretary.

Private citizens in Cuba are prohibited from buying computers or accessing the Internet without special authorization. Foreigners may access the Internet in large hotels but are subject to firewalls. The average Cuban's standard of living remains at a lower level than before the depression of 1990s due to domestic inefficiencies. The government in 2004 strengthened its control over dollars coming into their economy from tourism, remittances and trade.

Prior to Castro's rule, the country was 85% Roman Catholic, and had a nominal share of Protestants and Jews, and those who practiced Santeria, (a form of witch craft.) In 1999 they established the death penalty for certain drug-related crimes; yet their territorial waters serve as transshipment for marijuana bound for the US.

I have many fun-loving, boisterous Cuban friends in Miami, who love to dance, and who taught me how to cook "arroz blanco con frijoles negros y lechoncito, con platanos maduros; y flan con crema y un cafecito bien fuerte con mucha azucar," (white rice with black beans and pork, fried plantains; egg flan with cream and strong black coffee with plenty of sugar.)

As Celia Cruz, the embodiment of the Cuban music and Latin flavor, used to shout from the stage: "AZÚCAR!"


Read Travel Tales in the Archives.