HAVANA – Upon discovering Cuba, Columbus called it the “Loveliest land ever beheld by human eyes.”
Cuba became a Spanish colony, and gained independence only in 1902. Beginning with Prohibition in the US, there was an influx of wealthy Americans, including mobsters, and casinos proliferated in Cuba.
Fulgencio Batista was elected president in 1940. He engineered a coup in 1952 and ruled as a US-backed dictator until 1959.
Under Batista, the gap between rich and poor widened, corruption proliferated and secret police carried out torture and public executions. Time was ripe for a change.
The Cuban Revolution, led by the charismatic Fidel Castro, began in July 1953.
Batista was ousted in January 1959 and Cuba became a socialist state. In 1962, the Soviets began building missile launch facilities on the island and shipped nuclear weapons to Cuba. This was too much for the Americans, who issued the Soviets an ultimatum. The October 1962 Cuban missile crisis almost brought about nuclear war. The US and Soviet Union backed down and the missiles were withdrawn.
Castro closed casinos and fancy hotels, initiated agrarian reforms and nationalized all businesses in a sweeping socialist reform movement. Diplomatic relations between US and Cuba were severed and the US imposed an economic and travel boycott on the island in 1962. As a socialist-communist police state, Cuba survived only because the USSR pumped billions of dollars into its economy.
With the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba headed for economic collapse, entering a “special period” that necessitated food rationing. People were forced to live without many goods and resorted to eating anything they could find. There were severe shortages of gasoline, which the bankrupt Russia could no longer supply.
We visited Cuba at a historic moment, arriving the day Fidel Castro died. The nonagenarian had been ailing for several years and in 2008 had turned the government over to his brother Raul. An official nine-day mourning period began. There were, however, almost no signs of mourning or sadness in the streets. People appeared ambivalent – even impassive – about Castro as they went about their everyday activities. This was probably because Fidel Castro had been out of the limelight for almost a decade.
In addition, his legacy is controversial – a hero to some, a heartless dictator to others.
His achievements include an excellent healthcare system and abolition of illiteracy.
His economic policies failed dismally. His regime was harsh; dissidents were imprisoned and thousands fled the country.
Several things strike one on arriving in Cuba. First, there are the ubiquitous old 1950 classic vintage American cars including Dodges, Chryslers, Fords and Chevrolets.
Second, not once did security officials search us, even when lining up with thousands of Cubans to view the casket containing Castro’s cremated remains. Third, there were few images and representations of Castro in the streets and on buildings.
He did not build up a cult following. On the other hand, images of Che Guevara abound. He was the charismatic Marxist revolutionary guerrilla leader, physician and author who aided Castro in the 1955 revolution.
There is barely a Cuban town that doesn’t have a monument named in Jose Marti’s honor. This towering personality – a philosopher, writer, poet and journalist – sparked the idea of a free independent Cuba. Born in 1853, Marti spent half his life outside Cuba, but his words and ideas had a profound influence on Cubans.
What about Cuban Jews? Marranos arrived with the Spanish. There was significant Jewish immigration in the early 20th century from Turkey, Eastern Europe and Russia.
About 24,000 Jews lived in Cuba in 1924.
More immigrated to the country in the 1930s. Cuba had an open policy and admitted Jews escaping Nazi persecution. After the 1959 Communist revolution, 94% of the Jews left. In 2007 an estimated 1,500 known Jews remained in the country. Most are elderly and many young Jews have emigrated to Israel and elsewhere. Intermarriage is very high, but there is no overt antisemitism.
There are two Conservative synagogues in the outlying Vedado suburb of Havana: the Sephardic Hebrew community and the Ashkenazi Beth Shalom, whose president is the charming Adela Dworin, the de facto head of the community. The only Orthodox synagogue in Cuba, Adath Israel, caters to both Ashkenazim and Sephardim and has daily minyanim.
Today, vacationers are pouring in, but Cuba sorely lacks the basic tourist infrastructure.
One can rent cars, but they are often unreliable and the roads are bad.
Also, gasoline stations are sparse. Trains leave much to be desired. The easiest way around Cuba is by ship.
After spending three days in Havana, we embarked on a voyage with Celestyal Cruises, the only company currently offering weekly cruises round the island. On our ship, the Celestyal Crystal, it was possible to experience Cuba in a comfortable environment.
Accommodation was excellent, food plentiful and the chefs made every effort to comply with my religious requirements.
On board, there were lectures and videos on the island. Cuba is known for its vibrant music scene. The nightly entertainment program on the cruise was made of extremely talented local Cubans. There was a pool, spa, Jacuzzi, sauna, casino as well as medical facilities.
Havana, the largest city in the Caribbean, has a vibrant culturally rich urban center.
The historic neighborhood of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) has more than 900 landmarks comprising large plazas and historic buildings with arcades, balconies and internal courtyards. In such a cultural milieu, it is not surprising that luminaries like Ernest Hemingway and Fredrico Garcia Lorca felt very much at home. Batista had planned to destroy the old city and build a modern metropolis full of casinos. Luckily, this was aborted by Castro’s revolution and the old city is gradually being restored. The preservation of Cuba’s cultural heritage is the result.
The city boasts many architectural styles.
The Spanish constructed a series of fortresses to protect the island from foreign invasion. Later Spanish influences included buildings in the Mudéjar design with Islamic motives. With the development of a wealthy middle class, there was an explosion of baroque architecture. The finest examples are the municipal buildings and the homes of the rich middle class in Havana. This reached its apogee with the construction of Havana’s Cathedral.
The magnificent Gran Teatro de La Habana with its beautiful baroque façade is today home to Cuba’s National Ballet and Opera.
Then came the neoclassical period. Buildings have striking symmetry with grandiose columns, porticoes and lintels. A fine example is the Capitolio building, currently undergoing restoration, which is almost a replica of the capitol in Washington.
Art Deco also made an appearance and can be seen in the National Hotel, which opened in 1930 and remains a landmark. It has attracted celebrities in the arts, sciences and politics. The period of the 1950s saw the building of tall skyscrapers and modern hotels. Following the revolution, most new buildings were built in the unimaginative Soviet design.
Many of these building styles are evident on the famous Prado, which divides Central Havana and Old Havana and is adorned with tree-lined central walkways and statues. Another famous promenade is the Malacon, a seven-kilometer seafront boulevard that hugs the rocky coast of Havana. This is a popular place for social gatherings.
The Plaza de la Revolution has an impressive Marti memorial. It was here that Castro’s ashes were temporarily placed. The Museum of the Revolution, situated in the former presidential palace, was built in a neoclassical design. It features documents, photographs and memorabilia outlining the independence struggle. The last US vice president to visit Cuba was Richard Nixon and his picture is displayed. Subsequent US presidents are featured insultingly in the so-called Gallery of Cretins.
Cuba also has a vibrant art scene. Most impressive is Fusterlandia in Jaimanitas, on the outskirts of Havana where Cuban artist Jose Fuster, has his studio and has decorated the neighborhood with brightly colored ornate sculptures and mosaics.
Cuba has few deep-water ports, which prohibits large cruises ships from docking.
Even in the navigable harbors like Havana, there were only two available berths.
Our first scheduled stop was in Cienfuegos.
Its central square has a triumphal arch and monument to Marti. There is also the prominent cathedral, museum and the famous Tomas Terry theater. Terry, an unscrupulous slave owner, amassed a fortune and built the theater in 1886. Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt, among many others, performed here. With its neoclassical façade and Italianate interior, it has a U-shaped three-tiered auditorium with carved wood chandeliers, Carrara marble statues, wooden paneling and dramatic ceiling frescoes.
We drove on the promenade along Jagua Bay to the aristocratic part of the city in the garden suburb of Puenta Gorda, laid out by the French with perfect rectilinear streets. It has many attractive villas, the most impressive being Palacio de Valle.
Originally built in 1913 as a private house, today it is an upscale restaurant adorned with Gothic, Venetian and Moorish motifs.
We also visited Santiago de Cuba, the second- largest city and its center of Afro-Cuban culture. It is also the cradle of the revolution.
We were there on the day that Castro’s remains were brought to the city for burial after a four-day motorcade through Cuba.
Santiago usually pulsates with music but on this day, an eerie silence pervaded the city.
Santiago’s heart is the Parque Céspedes, a square named after one of Cuba’s founding fathers. On one side is the cathedral. Also on the square is the original home of the first governor of Cuba, Diego Velazquez, which is now a museum. This building is a wonderful example of the Mudéjar style.
Opposite the cathedral is the town hall. We also visited the conservative synagogue.
Guarding the port of Santiago is another imposing Spanish fortress.
Life for Cubans is tough. The majority work for the government at monthly salaries of $25. Low salaries are offset by free healthcare, education and subsidized living expenses. Today, many Cubans are finally permitted to have jobs on the side and a half million have joined the ranks of Cuba’s self-employed. A taxi driver earns more with daily tips than a doctor does in a month.
It was fascinating to visit Cuba as the start of a new era. The unimaginative US boycott now lasting more than 50 years is basically still in force. Other than cigars, rum and some souvenir stores, there is precious little to buy. But changes are coming. In 2015, former president Obama restored diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Travel restrictions have been largely lifted.
Cuba will probably be unrecognizable on my next visit. It will be flooded with Coca Cola, McDonald’s and of course designer stores and fancy malls! The author was a guest of Celestyal Cruises and thanks Ioanna Ananiadi and Frosso Zaroulea and for all their help.