Caribbean charisma in a country of contradictions
It’s a sunny Tuesday mid-afternoon and I’m standing on the wide Capitolio stairs waiting for my local guide Juan, a philosophy and communications tutor at the Universidad de la Habana. He is running late and I am getting too much attention from the passers-by.
Trying to ignore the salutations and accompanying remarks, I focus on a man wedged under a bright green 1950s Chevrolet that has broken down in the middle of the boulevard, where he is fixing it.
Vibrant vintage Buicks, Lincolns and Fords are passing, along with peculiar limo models of Russian Ladas from the 1960s, all surprisingly still in decent shape. Add to that a few horse-drawn carriages and pick-up trucks packed to the brim. No one is honking at ‘the mechanic’ or yelling because he is disrupting the traffic. Instead, bubbly coconut taxis—yellow three-wheelers with a curved roof, a Cuban version of a motorised rickshaw— are whizzing by, completing the picture of eccentric transportation in this city.
School children in white and burgundy uniforms are cheerful and untroubled, much like any others around the world. Except that this is Cuba and this year the country is celebrating half a century since the revolution that made it the only communist country in the Western hemisphere.
It’s been 47 years since the United States economic embargo and travel ban intended to keep out mainstream westernization. And this island is still famed for its resistance and hostility to the U.S. influence in the region.
These kids raise their left fists and chant “Seremos como el Che—We will be like Che” every morning, and learn about freedom and human rights— the same freedom and rights that the government still regulates.
That morning I spent meandering among beautiful colonial properties of Havana’s Vedado district and stood alone on Plaza de la Revolución imagining the echoes of revolutionary cliques, while admiring a mural reproduction of Alberto Korda’s legendary capture of Che Guevara. Mythical Che, looking ahead to his dreams, his gaze full of determination.
I travelled across dusty interstates and dirt roads, passing scattered settlements, villages and valleys of banana groves and sugarcane plantations. On the way I spotted many revolutionary slogans painted on crumbling walls, such as the prevalent “Socialismo o Muerte!— Socialism or Death” and “Libertad o Muerte!—Freedom or Death” in red and black block letters.
Juan explains that they are the faded illusion of revolutionary ideals at what is now the end of Fidel’s uninterrupted five-decade rule.
Trinidad, central Cuba, is a little town near the Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) under UNESCO’s World Heritage protection since 1988. It is more manageable than Havana and its neighbourhoods and buildings are in better shape.
Barefoot and shirtless boys play football on the cobbled dusty streets, guajiros (farmers) tend their meagre stalls, and no hustlers bother me with offers of tours or lodgings. It all feels less hurried than in Havana.
Back on the road to Santiago, which, though much less relaxed than Trinidad, is still welcoming. Dilapidated and crumbling facades surround us, scuffed, neglected and awaiting better times.
Some still display revolutionary slogans such as “Señores Imperialistas, No Les Tenemos Absolutamente Nungo Miedo!—Dear Imperialists, we have absolutely no fear of you”, a trace of former glory and of a once ambitious insurgent nation.
There is no lack of friendly people crossing my paths, talking about how they make their living far from postcard-perfect white sandy beaches, flashy all-inclusive package holiday resorts with free-flowing rum that most tourists see.
That is not the anti-capitalist ideal that they fought to uphold.
That is not the country of cohíbas and colourful vintage cars.
That is not what Che Guevara meant when he addressed the UN in 1964, speaking of Cuba as “one of the trenches of freedom in the world, showing by its actions, its daily example, that in the present conditions of humanity the peoples can liberate themselves and can keep themselves free.”
No, this is that other, more real Cuba.
words and photography © Deja Dragovic
[published in National Geographic Traveler UK/IR, June 2009]