Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Cuba Trip - Laying Some Groundwork

Wow. I am so overwhelmed by the experience that was Cuba that I’m not sure where to start.  I took this trip with my boyfriend Adam, since I assumed Cuba isn’t the best place for 12-year old girls. (In hindsight, Madelyn probably would have been fine there, but I am happy I had a strong man who speaks Spanish along.) 

Special Blog Guest Adam 

Since a lot of you have asked me why Cuba is so full of old American cars, I think we will start at the very beginning -- with a brief history lesson. It will be helpful for everyone to understand why Cuba is so cut off from the rest of the world before you read about our experiences there. Please bear with me for this post, so our incredible stories will be in context. I will break up our trip into 6 additional posts, one for each day, all full of amazing photos. I think you will want to read all 6, as Cuba is the most challenging, stunning, one-of-a-kind place I have ever been. OK, here is a quick overview of Cuban history as I understand it. All photos are my own.

Obviously, the Spanish colonized Cuba, way back in the day. That’s why they speak Spanish. In 1762, Havana was briefly occupied by England, before the English traded it to Spain in exchange for Florida. The Spanish American War resulted in Spain withdrawing from Cuba in 1898, and Cuba gained formal independence in 1902. In the early 1900s, a series of corrupt politicians oversaw a period of rapid growth and development.  Now here is where it gets interesting…

In 1952 Fulgencio Batista staged a coup and took control of Cuba.  More progressive Cubans, including students, protested right from the beginning. Batista responded by closing the universities.  His government was a violent dictatorship, with his primary goal being only to make himself rich.  He sold vast amounts of Cuban land to American firms, and pocketed the profits.  American tourists flocked to Cuba to experience nightlife and gambling at places like the famous Tropicana.  As casinos, prostitution and drug use flourished, the American mafia took over, using luxury hotels for money laundering – and paid Batista for the privilege.  Think of it as a Caribbean Vegas, led by a corrupt dictator.

The Malecon in Havana, once a glamorous nightlife destination

Meanwhile, a young Fidel Castro was infuriated by the illegitimate and corrupt government, and started building a rebel army in the mountains of Cuba. His army included farmers, students, women, and soldiers who had left Batista’s army. In 1955, he went went to Mexico to meet with 82 other exiled revolutionaries, to form a plan to overthrow Batista. There, he met Argentinean doctor Che Guevara, who joined the cause. The men loaded up on weapons, boarded a yacht, and invaded Cuba. They were brutally defeated by Batista’s Army. Only 12 men survived, including Fidel, his brother Raul, and Che, who all fled into the mountains. There, they reorganized, and gained the support of farmers and the working class, who helped them fight and take back Cuba, city by city. Batista’s army fought them with weapons supplied by the US.

In 1959, the revolution was won, and Fidel Castro became prime minister, replacing Batista’s government with a revolutionary socialist state.  (Batista fled to Spain and died one of the world’s richest men.)  Che served various key roles in the new government, including leading a campaign against illiteracy. Fidel made sure all citizens had free education and medical care. Still angry at the US for helping Batista, he seized lands that had sold to Americans – and didn’t pay back the land owners. This pissed off the United States, who in 1960 declared an economic boycott that blocked the export of petroleum to Cuba and the import of Cuban sugar.

This economic boycott left Cuba no choice but to closer align itself with the Soviet Union for economic support. Cubans were struggling, and only had one main source of income – sugar. If the US wasn’t going to buy it, they had to sell it to someone who would, so they turned to the Soviets.  The US wasn’t comfortable with Cuba’s new BFF, so during this time, the Eisenhower administration began plotting to oust Castro.

In 1961, the CIA trained 1400 ex-Cubans living in the US (mostly wealthy Cubans who had supported Batista, opposed the revolution, and fled Cuba after Castro took power) and had them invade the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. The US expected that Cuban civilians would rise up against Castro, but they were mistaken. The Cubans supported their new government and helped Castro’s army fight the invaders – who were defeated.

Eight days later, President Kennedy declared an official trade embargo and the end of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Now I love President Kennedy as much as the next girl, but to me this seems a bit like the actions of a petulant, pouty, foot-stomping child. And it certainly didn’t help relations.

Tensions between the two nations peaked again during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviets weren’t thrilled that the US had placed ballistic missiles in Turkey, so they went to Cuba and said, “hey, in exchange for all the sugar money we give you, as well as this other huge pile of money we are willing to give you for economic aid, can we place some missiles there?” Cuba was all, “no problemo” and agreed to let the Soviets secretly place SS-4 Sandal and SS-5 Skean ballistic missiles on the island. Cubans began to write to family in the US about the freakishly large amounts of ice going to rural areas, which led to the discovery of the missiles, confirmed by US military satellite reconnaissance photos. The United States responded by sending naval ships to circle the island (international waters) to stop Soviet ships from bringing in more missiles. A blockade is illegal under international law, so the US said “it’s not a blockade, it’s a quarantine!”  Seriously, we said that.  But the Soviets called back their ships anyway, and agreed to remove the missiles already there, in exchange for an agreement that the United States would not invade Cuba and would remove all US missiles from Turkey.

Of course we just couldn’t let it go.  On 8 February 1963, the Kennedy administration took the ban even further, forbidding US citizens to travel to Cuba or conduct any financial or commercial transactions with the country – restrictions still in place to this day. 

At first, the embargo did not extend to other countries, and Cuba traded with most European, Asian and Latin American countries, and especially Canada. However, the United States later pressured other nations to restrict trade with Cuba.  Most complied. The US government also told foreign companies doing business with Cuba that they could not also do business in the United States, forcing them to choose between the two.  This effectively cut off Cuba from the rest of the world, and froze it in a time warp. All cars in Cuba are pre-1963 American automobiles (or Russian Ladas imported from the USSR in the ‘70s and ‘80s). They were never allowed to import anything else.

Typical Havana street scene

In November 1963, president Kennedy was assassinated, and some believe that the Cubans (or the mafia who was mad they lost their money laundering home base) were responsible.

In 1965, Casto decided he didn’t want to be a socialist anymore, and reformed the government along Communist lines. This would further strengthen ties with the Soviets, and ensure that the rubles kept flowing in. The Communist Party, now headed Raul Castro, continues to govern Cuba today.

Che Guevara didn’t agree with the communist shift, so he left Cuba in 1965 to seek new revolutions abroad, and continue his fight against imperialism. He was captured by CIA-assisted forces in Bolivia and executed without a trial in 1967. His face is seen on all those hipster t-shirts even today because so many leftists admire his desire to create the consciousness of a "new man driven by moral rather than material incentives.” It probably didn’t hurt that he also had a really nice face. Time magazine even named Che one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Che's handsome face, still seen painted on walls all over Cuba

Cuba struggled economically, but still received massive amounts of money from the USSR, until it fell in 1991. Since then, aid has been mostly cut off, and the country has been crippled by poverty. Once rich from sugar exports and foreign aid, now its primary source of income is exporting labor (some Cuban military members are even helping Russia fight ISIS in Syria) and limited tourism from countries other than the US.

The huge economic downturn, and the establishment of a socialist system in Cuba, led to the fleeing of many hundreds of thousands of upper- and middle-class Cubans to the United States. 1.2 million Cubans have illegally left the island for the United States, often by sea in small boats and fragile rafts.  Approximately 80,000 Cubans have died trying flee. In 2012, Cuba finally agreed to allow Cuban citizens travel to foreign countries.

However, Americans are still not allowed to travel to Cuba, unless they fall under one of 12 categories (such as professional research, journalism, missionaries, etc.). The embargo is still in place, and Americans can be fined up to $15,000 for spending money in Cuba. Thankfully though, the Obama administration has pretty much stopped enforcing the embargo, and re-opened the US Embassy there last year, resuming diplomatic relations.

So keep that all in mind as you read about our travels, because it colors everything we experienced. Until tomorrow,