15 Apr 2007
Seven Days In Cuba.
On March 27th, I joined eighteen of my pharmacist colleagues at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris for a visit to Cuba that was to take us till the 2nd of April. Cuba is a major destination for European tourists and as such the huge Boeing 747 aircraft heading for Havana, Cuba was full to capacity. The 7700 kms distance across the Atlantic Ocean was covered in about nine hours. If you add the distance from Douala (Cameroon) to Paris (5000 kms) the total length of our trip one way was 12700 kms.
We landed at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba at dusk on the 27th.
Different Faces of Cuba (photo: Njei M.T)
Our guide Delia Espionosa working for Havanatur welcomed us to Cuba. As we drove from the airport to the hotel, she started briefing us about Cuba. Knowing that we certainly came from a country with a capitalist background and our understanding of the workings of a socialist state are limited, she started by saying that we may find it “complicated” to understand how Cuba works. She assured us that Cuba was a nice country with hospitable people and virtually crime free. “To prove that you have been to Cuba, you would have smoked cigar, drank rum and danced Salsa”. She said. The best cigars in the world are produced in this country (we had the opportunity to visit a cigar producing factory in Havana) and rum-a liquor produced from sugarcane has been with Cuba for centuries. Salsa is the popular music of the area.
We were lodged at Hotel Presidente- a four star hotel on Avenue de la presidente not far from the sea. The growth in the number of visitors to Cuba (2,319,334 tourists visited Cuba in 2005) is trying to outpace the construction of new hotels. Many hotels in Havana are old buildings that have been renovated. The internal aesthetics of the hotels and standards are satisfactory. The hotels have TVs with multiple channels (over 20) including CNN, Discovery etc. while Cuban homes have four channels—2 for education, one for news and one for variety programs.
Education in Cuba is free and compulsory up to age 14. It is not unusual to find a ‘one pupil’ school in Cuba. That is the extent of the government’s commitment to education. Illiteracy rate (0.2%) is very low and the country prides itself for training and exporting competent doctors from her 14 medical faculties. Cuban doctors have rendered and are rendering services in virtually all continents of the world. Health is also free in Cuba despite occasional drug shortages attributed to difficulties of procuring pharmaceutical raw materials in the hostile environment of American economic blockade. Life expectancy is 76 years, and infant mortality is 5.3 per 1000 according to the Minister of Economy and Planning.
During our second day in Cuba, we visited the Revolutionary square in Havana where the statue of Jose Marti (Cuba’s late nationalist leader) stood conspicuously. A tower 109 meters high stands as the highest point in Havana. I had the privilege to get to the top of the tower and see the city of Havana from a height of 139 metres above sea level.
We had a tour of old Havana on foot, saw antique buildings and visited a museum of the ‘Aristocratic era’. In the evening we had dinner at Tropicana (popular entertainment joint) and later attended the popular cabaret that takes place there 6 days a week. It was said to be the biggest and best in the Caribbean and we really enjoyed Cuban music and dance.
The following day, we made a trip to Vinales valley- one of the most impressive of Cuba’s geographical terrain. The mural of prehistory (a rocky hillside with a painting 120x180meters depicting the valley’s life in prehistoric times) is found here. We also paid a visit to the ‘Cueva del Indio’ a long subterranean cave created by an underground river. We entered the cave on foot, walked for a distance before completing the journey by canoe to come out at another exit.
On Friday, 30th we left Havana for Varadero- a touristic paradise located 140 kms east of Havana. You are more likely to come across a foreigner here than a Cuban. Located on a peninsular, Varadero has one of the finest beaches in the Caribbean. Warm blue water from the Gulf of Mexico Stream splashes invitingly on the whitish sand. Over 60 hotels are located in this area. We were lodged at Playa Caleta- a four star hotel on the beachfront surrounded by beautiful palms. Majority of the tourists in our hotel were Canadians. “I escaped from home to come and rest here but the home followed me here”. Said a young Canadian in his late twenties in an apparent reference to the overwhelming number of Canadians in the hotel. Canadians, Italians, the British, Germans, the French, Spaniards and Americans form the bulk of visitors to Cuba. The Americans enter Cuba through third countries like Mexico in order to conceal their trip. It is currently illegal for U.S citizens to visit Cuba. I asked a fifty-year old Canadian that was visiting Cuba for his second time, “Why Cuba?” He told me that he visited the Dominican Republic last year but he did not get the satisfaction he derives from Cuba. Adding; “the people here are more friendly”. Another Canadian-based Yugoslav doctor I met in the hotel lobby had lots of praise for Cuba. “There is no [multiracial] country in the world like Cuba where racism has completely vanished”. He said among other compliments. None of the tourists I talked to failed to condemn the American economic blockade of Cuba.
Evidence of that asphyxiating American Economic embargo on the Island can be noticed almost everywhere. Transportation difficulties associated with the hurdle of procuring spare parts and high oil prices were very evident. From farm tractors to public transport, Cuba is littered with run down vehicles, some more than half a century old. Newer vehicles are few and it is not uncommon to see hordes of Cubans by the roadsides waiting for a means of transport. Due to this transportation problems, the government has mandated all official vehicles that have unoccupied seats to pick people along the way free of charge. Traffic inspectors are placed on the highway to enforce this rule. Other Cubans with cars are urged to give free rides as a civic duty.
Visit To Santa Clara, Ciefuegos and Trinidad
We departed from the hotel in Varadero at 6 am for the 14 hours bus trip to discover more of Cuba. All the roads we used during our stay in Cuba were tarred. Cuban cities and the rural villages are clean. As we covered the distances between the cities, we saw sugarcane, banana, mangoe, orange and guava plantations.
The first place we visited before midday was the Che Guevara Memorial at Santa Clara. Beneath the giant monument are buried the remains of Che Guevara and fighters from the Bolivian expedition. Guevara, the Argentine born doctor and soldier was one of the architects of the Cuban Revolution. He joined Fidel and Raul Castro in Mexico and participated in the Granma expedition that saw a group of some eighty of them invade Cuba in 1956 and instigated an insurrection that culminated in the flight of the then Cuban dictator Batista in 1959. Che Guevara served as Minister of Industry in Cuba (1961-65) before embarking on another expedition to ‘export’ the revolution. He was eventually trapped, captured and executed in Bolivia in 1967. On October 17th 1997, Fidel Castro presided over the ceremony to rebury Che and his fallen comrades. “We did not come to say goodbye to Che, we came to welcome him”. Castro was quoted as saying during the ceremony.
The Cuban sculptor, Jose Delarra created the Che Guevara memorial. It took 500,000 volunteers working without pay to construct the monument that was started in 1982 and inaugurated in 1988. The memorial has an underground cellar containing a photographic display of Che’s history and implements used by him and a more secluded section containing his remains. On top of this is a column that is 6 metres high carrying the 6.8 metres bronze figure of Che Guevara facing South America. More than 2000 characters including Che’s farewell letter to Fidel have been chiseled into the wall of the column on which Che’s stature stands. Che Guevara led the detachment of soldiers that liberated Santa Clara during the rebel army’s onslaught. He is a national hero with near messianic influence. His face is ubiquitous in Cuba and beyond. Paraphernalia with Che’s image ranging from T-shirts to post cards constitute a substantial portion of goods bought by people visiting Cuba. Those of us from Africa visiting this memorial had a special attachment to the visit. It should be recalled that it was the Cuban soldiers schooled by the Che Guevara doctrine that reversed the invasion of Angola by the then Apartheid South African Army in 1975. The Cuban intervention in Angola brought early independence to Namibia and indisputably shortened the lifespan of Apartheid in South Africa. We were, in one way paying homage to this selfless revolutionary.
After we left Santa Clara, we then visited the city of Cienfuegos, walked and interacted with people on the street before heading to the town of Trinidad in Sancti Spiritus province.
People on the streets in Cuban cities seem to be relaxed and look well fed. They appear clean and dress lightly (due to hot climate) with women mostly wearing short skirts, shorts, trousers and T-shirts & blouses. As people dine in restaurants, groups of three to five musicians play such popular tunes like ‘guantanamera and hasta siempre (a song in honour of ‘commandante Che Guevara’).
Racism or any form of discrimination is completely absent in this multiracial nation comprising 51% mixed race, 35% white and 11% blacks. Military service is compulsory for all males but optional for women. Women emancipation is advanced. According to Statistics obtained from Granma (official Cuban gov’t newspaper) women are 46% of the work force in the public sector; 66.1% in the occupational category of technicians and professionals, 48.9% of researchers, 63.3% of university graduates, 56% of doctors and 52.3% of health personnel on internationalist missions; 71% of legal professionals and 36% of deputies in the national assembly. Many Cubans (men and women) smoke. Incomes are generally very low (except in the tourism sector) and some Cubans augment income by engaging in petty commerce (in the black market) with goods from government factories. The state controls virtually all of Cuba’s economy with the private sector almost completely absent. It is common to meet some Cubans on the streets proposing to sell items like Cigars (certainly obtained improperly from state factories) to you. One of my colleagues remarked; “Cubans may be poor but they are not miserable”. In Africa, poverty and misery seem to move hand in glove.
I took some time to talk to some Cubans to understand how they feel about their country. “I love Fidel, Che, and Marti. I consider Cuba a paradise and I don’t care what the Cuban exiles [in the U.S] say. I support the continuation of the revolution led by Fidel”. Said Dairy Acosta – a young mother whose father has worked as a doctor in Africa and the husband currently on mission to China. Another young mother spoke to me for over one hour while puffing one cigarette after another. “Fidel is sincere when he talks. He is always studying. Nothing can happen to our revolution. Cubans will rise up as one man if the revolution is threatened. We are fighting the Americans with the mind”. She added placing her forefinger on her head. When I asked her what Cubans will do if the Cuban exiles organize another invasion like the one in the sixties? “Cubans are not ignorant. We are all organized in CDRs (Committees for the defense of the revolution). We know what to do if the need arises. Even the children in the nursery schools and retirees know where to go and what to do when the time comes”. She said. Do you mean that when the time comes you will go for your gun? I asked. “That is a secret” She replied smiling. I inquired from her why she was so committed to the revolution when she was born after it and did not live the pre-revolution experience to compare the two systems? “My parents have told me how they suffered before the revolution. Anytime my mother narrates her experience, I cannot hold back my tears”. She said vowing not to let anything happen to reverse the gains. I then told her that the reason I am talking and looking straight into her eyes was to try and read if she is telling me what I need to hear or she is telling me what comes from her heart. “Oh my God! Why will I be saying what I do not believe? I will be deceiving myself if I was to do that”. She said. I had no reason to doubt her sincerity. I could not readily locate a male that speaks English (within the limited time I had) to interview. Official language here is Spanish.
In all, we visited six of those Cuba’s provinces located on the North-Western half of the Island namely Pinar del Rio, Mantazas, Havana, Villa Clara, Cienfuegos and Sancti Spiritus. This Island nation with her unique characteristics is a place I will not hesitate to recommend for anybody to visit. As Mbarga Desire- a Paris based pharmacist (that visited Cuba last year) told me in France; “Of more than a hundred countries that I have visited, I have not found one as fascinating as Cuba”. I certainly hold the same opinion.
View related photos at this link
Njei Moses Timah