How Cuba learnt to forget America and survive the blockade

It's 25 years since Simon Calder produced the first independent guide to the Communist state. He recently went back - to find a country that has made a virtue of its isolation

Simon Calder
Friday 19 December 2014 20:26
Cuba’s battered vintage cars are a symbol of its capacity for endurance
Cuba’s battered vintage cars are a symbol of its capacity for endurance

The departure board at Miami airport shows dozens of cities from Montego Bay to Montevideo. But I scanned the screens in vain for my destination.

Eventually I tracked down the right desk in an obscure corner of the terminal. Here, I handed over a wad of dollar bills and signed a form confirming my nationality. Finally, I was allowed to board a “ghost flight” that slipped out of Florida late on a Saturday evening to Jose Marti airport in Havana.

The year was 1989; the mission, to research the first independent guidebook to Cuba. Such is the paralysis of relations between the world’s superpower and the final fragment of state Communism in the West that, were I to repeat the journey tonight, the process would, despite the seismic events of this week, be much the same. Americans are not allowed to travel to Cuba, except with special permission, which explains why I had to certify I was British. And the duplicity of despatching aircraft to a country that is the subject of the Trading with the Enemy Act remains a matter of official embarrassment.

That year a quarter-century ago, just before the Eastern Europe dominoes started tumbling towards the West, turned out to be the last in Fidel Castro’s Golden Age. It had begun with the revolutionaries celebrating three decades since their triumph on New Year’s Day 1959. In the interim, Cuba had acted as sometime aircraft carrier for the Soviet Union, and thorn in the heel of Washington – of immense strategic and propaganda value to the Kremlin.

Cuba has turned to tourism to survive

The Castro regime had long been propped up by a sugar-for-oil swap that was skewed to Cuba’s advantage. However low the world price of the island’s staple crop fell, tankers full of Soviet oil continued to sail into Havana’s magnificent harbour. The surplus could be sold on to third countries for hard currency that was promptly pumped into maintaining the Cuban state.

From a visitor’s perspective, it was tempting to view the Caribbean’s largest island as a Marxist-Leninist theme park. Health and education had been transformed since the revolution; cities and countryside were plastered with slogans informing the people of the nation’s straight choice between socialismo o muerte, “socialism or death”; and the average Cuban weary of the Party line could easily party by grabbing a cheap bottle of rum and heading for the beach.

Behind the façade, though, Cuba could be a dark, frightening place. Despite official moves towards equality, racism was common – and young, desperate black men sometimes turned to crime. Political dissidence was monitored through local Committees for the Defence of the Revolution – an ideological neighbourhood watch scheme – and brutally suppressed.

To justify its many human-rights abuses, the government needed only to nod in the direction of Washington. Repelling the CIA-orchestrated Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 provided Fidel with his first major post-revolutionary triumph. Subsequent attempts to diminish or destroy el Jefe proved equally ineffective, and provided the regime with an endless reservoir of propaganda.

Che Guevara has iconic status

The economic embargo that began in 1960 has been exploited equally enthusiastically. It has enabled the regime to deflect criticism of the shambolic collectivisation of industry and agriculture. Satan was represented by the United States.

As I wrote in the resulting guidebook, Travellers Survival Kit: Cuba, the island was a wonderful destination for the intrepid traveller. The standard approach was on Aeroflot from Shannon. Accommodation was so scarce that it wasn’t a matter of selecting hotels for the travel guide, but merely listing them all. Local transport was a challenge, but you could always flag down a Detroit dinosaur in the shape of a lumbering 1950s Chevrolet or Studebaker. Culturally, the island combined the faded grandeur of European colonialism with the vitality of salsa. And with judicious use of the currency black market, the visitor could live splendidly on a shoestring. By the end of 1989, though, the game looked as though it was up for every Soviet satellite. From Berlin to Bucharest, Communist governments had collapsed. Havana found itself mercilessly unfriended. The economic umbilical chord to Moscow survived for a couple more years until the break-up of the Soviet Union.

How bad did it become? Well, the second edition of the travel guide contained the advice “If you want to lose weight, go to Cuba” and described a repertoire of public transport that ranged from a horse and cart to state-sponsored hitch-hiking. As the economy and infrastructure imploded, it was exhausting enough being a traveller in Cuba; living there appeared unbearable.

Kennedy addressing the US in 1962 over the missile crisis

The young, energetic President Bill Clinton passed the Helms-Burton Act in 1996 – prescribing penalties for foreign companies that had the temerity to trade with Cuba. Clinton’s move proved so effective that Thomson promptly cancelled its entire holiday programme to the island for fear that its directors could be barred from the US.

Yet – as another young, energetic President observed this week – ratcheting up the economic and political pressure on the Castro regime has proved not merely futile but counter-productive. The guerrilla leader has turned out to be the ultimate cold warrior.

President Obama, the 11th US leader to square up to the regime, is the first to be born in the Castro era and the first to recognise: “It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people’s, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.” In Wednesday’s meticulously constructed speech, he threw in the ideological towel by conceding what had been blindingly obvious to the rest of the world. Two decades ago, I would not have put a peso on the revolution surviving to the 21st century. Indeed, I was telling anyone who would listen: it appeared to me that Cuba’s despond would quickly deteriorate into economic surrender to the US.

So how did Cuba survive such an onslaught? Because the nation learnt, painfully, to forget America. Twenty years ago, as thousands of Cubans boarded makeshift rafts to try to reach Florida, Castro modified his message from “Socialism or death” to “Welcome to Cuba”. He concluded that the only way to preserve the gains of the revolution was to harness Cuba’s immense potential as a holiday destination.

“Only tourism can save Cuba” may not be as catchy a message as Castro’s defiant “History will absolve me”, but it did the trick. For a destitute country with a young, well-educated workforce, tourism is the ideal industry. It requires little capital investment, earns copious foreign exchange and is highly labour-intensive. Sure, it has had the unintended consequence of doctors and teachers becoming taxi drivers, and created a society with inequalities that would horrify Marx and Lenin.

Cuba stopped forlornly gazing north towards Miami, and instead looked to the rest of the world for support. Sun, sea and socialism appealed to Mexicans, South Americans, Canadians and Europeans. Tourism kick-started the economy, enriched the country and preserved the power base of Fidel Castro, now 88. After dodging Washington’s bullets for decades, Castro fell seriously ill in 2006. Some observers predicted that power would ebb away. Instead, it was smoothly handed over to Fidel’s younger brother, Raul. He has been a moderniser, but has preserved both the power of the state and the achievements of the revolution.

As I found on my most recent visit, three months ago, it is a country resurrected: confident, energetic and proud of a rich and multifaceted culture that has withstood austerity and will be strong enough to resist easy Americanisation. The old gas-guzzling Chevrolets are still rumbling through Old Havana, held together with welding and willpower as raucous symbols of endurance and resourcefulness. With the US as a friend, not foe, Cuba can begins a new chapter as a regional power. Perhaps it’s time for a new edition.

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