Category Archives: Varadero

Forever Heroic

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As I write this, I wonder whether the last part of Santiago’s slogan — heroica siempre — sounds a little too adoring of Fidel’s revolution. Cuba is not some socialist utopia, and Castro is no Gandhi or Mandela (though he certainly had some bromance with the latter). That said, there is a real heroic element about the David & Goliath story that is the Cuban Revolution. While Castro’s David is certainly not innocent (I guess the original David wasn’t either), he is the one leader who has stood up to America’s Goliath and succeeded.

You can’t listen to many Latin American leaders for long without hearing the phrase ‘el coloso del Norte’. This nickname for the U.S. (the Colossus of the North) is the result of the Monroe Doctrine, an 1823 American policy statement that declared the entire Western Hemisphere (aka: the U.S. and Latin America. Oh yeah, and Canada.) as part of the United States’ ‘sphere of influence’. It was essentially America’s declaration that they were now joining the big leagues of Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands who had ruled the colonization game for so long. In the two centuries since, this has manifested itself in the form of American-backed coups, assassinations, and manipulative free trade deals in Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Mexico, Panama, Brazil, and, before 1959 at least, Cuba. These have left millions dead and hundreds of millions more impoverished.

But not Cuba. La Revolución has never negotiated with the U.S. on anything but its own terms. It has maintained a decent standard of living without owing (or losing) anything to the U.S, which is more than can be said for most of their Latin American neighbours. They have built industries (sugar, coffee, tourism, and, of course, rum and cigars!) that can and do compete on an international level, something that can’t happen when American companies flood the market. (For a more local example, think of how Canadian farmers struggle to compete with cheap American beef.) For this reason alone, the Cuban Revolution deserves to be called heroic. That, and the fact that Castro has avoided more CIA assassination attempts than anyone else in history. Well done, bro.

Che Guevara’s words, “Always towards victory,” remind us that the revolution is not something that happened once back in 1959, but an ongoing state of resistance against American military and economic control.
Hasta La Victoria Siempre

Debris from the American spy plane that illegally entered Cuban airspace during the Cuban Missile Crisis, unceremoniously placed on display on the side of the road outside of Havana, makes for a powerful symbol of resistance against ‘The Colossus’.
Fighter Jet Wing

Now, way back in Part One of these rather verbose politico-economic musings (to be fair, you were warned!), I wondered about the price of such a stable and egalitarian society. One doesn’t have to wonder long…especially when one lives in a country that is ‘glorious and free’, governed by the ‘charter of rights and freedoms’, and is constantly bombarded with media from the self-proclaimed ‘land of the free’.

I think the answer is obvious.

The freedoms that Cubans lack are disconcerting to Canadians and Americans, who value that much-debated f-word above all else. Cubans are not free to leave their country without a difficult-to-obtain visa, they are not free to form political parties, and freedom of the press is non-existent. We are right to be troubled by this, but let’s put it in the context of their other Latin American neighbours…

Cubans are free from debilitating poverty and unemployment. Cubans are free from organized crime and drug wars. Cubans are free to access quality education and health care, regardless of race, gender, or wealth. Cuban businesses are free from being acquired by American corporations, and their markets are free from being flooded by cheap American, made-in-China products. None of this can be said about the rest of Latin America.

Excerpts from Castro’s speeches adorn billboards in every city. This one says “We will begin the march and we will perfect that which we need to perfect.”
Perfect What We Will Perfect

So what, then, is it that needs to be perfected?

La Revolución has succeeded in breaking many of the bonds that keep the rest of Latin America down. What the Castros (or whoever inevitably succeeds them as they reach the end of their impressively long lives) need to do next is to find a way to merge those OTHER freedoms, the ones that Canadians and Americans enjoy, with the freedoms that they have fought so hard to win. They need to find an unprecedented way to be free from America while still granting democratic freedoms to their citizens. If they succeed, they will not only have provided a road map for other Latin American nations (heck, even Canada!) to follow, but they will have finally earned the title ‘forever heroic’.

Jose Martí, buried in his mausoleum here in Santiago, was the poet that united Cubans, of all races, to fight for Cuba’s independence from both Spain and the U.S. The next few years will see if his dream is fulfilled.
Jose Marti's Grave

Farewell, Cuba, and good luck going where no nation has gone before.
Havana nights

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First Impressions 

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We arrived in Cuba after a seemingly impossibly short flight… well, an impossibly short flight preceded by a classic Josh and Sara route involving a 16 hour road trip with our roommates to the Traverse City Film Festival, a Real Madrid vs. Chelsea football match in Ann Arbor, Michigan, some intense archery and cake auctions and Gravitron shenanigans with Josh’s siblings at the Alma County Fair, and a quick road trip to Toronto with my wonderful mother in law.

Pasties in the Yoopee
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Josh and his mom… alias the Pres-B-Rapperz (please, please ask Josh for a repeat performance!)
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¡Hola Cuba!
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With our only direct flight option being to fly into Varadero, our plan was to arrive there at 1:30PM and get out of there as fast as possible. As previously mentioned, there are a lot of opinions surrounding Cuba, and we were no exception. We had placed Varadero firmly into the category of tourist kitsch, brimming with resorts, overpriced key chains, and restaurants proudly advertising English-speaking servers. However, the vagaries of buying Cuban bus tickets online meant that the only bus that would bring us directly to Santiago de Cuba had us spending the next nine hours in Kitschityville Horror.

Resigned to our fate, we found a friendly Swiss guy to share a cab to the bus station from the airport (he was actually on his way to visit a friend in Vancouver, but as a flight with a 12 hour layover in Cuba was the same price, he had decided to hang out in Cuba for the day), found a guarda-equipaje for our bags (in other words, for $2CUC, we stood them behind the chair of friendly cleaning lady in the bus station), and then we ventured onto the streets of Varadero…

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…And two blocks behind the bus station, found the most glorious white sand beach, sprinkled with only a few sunbathing bodies and a generous serving of reggaeton. Up the street from the water was a neighbourhood dotted with restaurants, where we received our inauguration to Cuba’s frustratingly charming habit of handing you a hefty menu while rapidly reciting the few choices that are actually available. (Side note: My favourite game while dining is now witnessing Josh’s unfailing optimism/denial* as he asks about a different dish that the waiter didn’t mention but perhaps may still be available, and then watching both the waiter’s and Josh’s faces fall into bemusement as the available menu options are repeated.)

Our unexpected welcome to Varadero
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Our resolve to consume only bottled water products lasted exactly how long it took us to realize that all cocktails contained ice cubes. So far, so good! 😉
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Ron de 3 años y Añejo de 7 años. 0.70 cents and $1.20 respectively
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While “No hay!” (We don’t have it!) is indeed ubiquitous in Cuban restaurants, the promises of apathetic service and bland food simply do not deliver. Avocados, spiced tomatoes, tender beef, fresh seafood, tropical fruit, and of course, the classic (and classically named) rice-and-bean dish “Cristianos y Moros” — literally Christians and Muslims — are served in huge quantities by generally smiling waitstaff

So what have we gathered so far? That some sections of Varadero are undeniably kitschy and removed from Cuban reality, while others are definitely not. That some food and certain sabores are lacking in Cuban restaurants, while others are most definitely not. And that some Cubans work in jobs they are not suited for and could care less about, while others (…following me yet?) definitely do not.

When there is a single and controversial political ideal that unites a country, it can be tempting to assign all responsibility for the small faults and annoyances in a country to that ideal. But with excruciating honesty, we admit that in our own country there is merchandise that is occasionally unavailable (I worked at Blockbuster on Friday nights, I saw the madness that ensued when we were out of Little Man!) and service that is occasionally the absolute worst (anyone else remember the terrifying Sub Zero lady?)

Yes, la Revolución has caused some difficulties, as further days of travel and future blog posts will uncover. But in our first few hours in Cuba, we happily discovered that first impressions can make a big impression on unfounded opinions.

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*Editor’s note: While Sara has indeed derived much entertainment from my interaction with waitstaff, optimism/denial are not entirely accurate. Example 1: when you order pizza on the side of the road and the guy asks “cheese?”, it is not unreasonable to ask “oh, what else is there?” If he had simply said “cheese” — full stop — I would have accepted that that was the singular option and that, for some reason, he felt the need to state that. Example 2: when the waitress takes your order for pork, then asks if you want rice with a side of pork, I can not be alone in thinking that clarification is needed, amiright??**

**(Turns out no clarification was needed. I was, in fact, being offered pork with a side of rice and pork.)