Cuba from a Distance

Statue of José Martí, icon of Cuban Independence, near the Paseo del Prado in Havana.

Views expressed not necessarily those of the Free Speech and Secular Society

As Barack Obama’s time as President draws to a close, the time is coming for commentators and analysts to assess his achievements and failures in office. In the former column there lies the (not uncontroversial) normalisation of relations with Cuba. The first direct flight from the US to Cuba touched down in Santa Clara in August, and there are hopes of an end to the embargo. For now, however, Cuba remains in a strange limbo, accessible to the outside world and yet resolutely apart from it.

The Museum of the Revolution stands a couple of blocks to the East of the Paseo del Prado in Old Havana. Inside the visitor can get a blow-by-blow (if one-sided) account of the uprising led by Castro, Guevara and Cienfuegos. In the ground floor lobby there sits the “Rincon de los Cretinos” (wall of the cretins); a giant cartoon strip unflatteringly depicting US Presidents Reagan, Bush senior and Bush junior alongside despised former dictator Fulgencio Batista.

The Museum of the Revolution.

In a country where the written press starts and ends with the government mouthpiece “Granma”, and internet access is nigh on impossible, the overridingimpressions for the visitor are of pictures and sounds not of words. This aesthetic intensity is further heightened by the complete absence of the commercial advertisement hoardings that crowd cities the world over. There are, of course, the famous propaganda posters which immortalise Che and deify Fidel, though these are sufficiently sporadic and ill-kept to avoid 1984 – style ugliness.
Indeed, upon leaving Havana and going East to the Provincial centres of Santa Clara and Sancti Spiritus, the state becomes almost invisible. Since assuming the duties of state from his brother, Raul Castro has allowed limited liberalization of the economy, particularly in the tourism sector. Cubans can now obtain licences to rent out spare rooms to travellers, as well as to set up private restaurants. Police, meanwhile, are British-style (without guns) and are rarely seen on the streets. Furthermore, whilst the citizens in the square of Santa Clara may prefer to talk about European football, many will also speak openly to foreigners about their hopes and fears for the future of their country.

Music has been perhaps the most notable export of Cuba in the past couple of decades, such as Buena Vista Social Club. This is consciously a-political music, and is still played for tourists across the island. However if you venture off the beaten track then the music you hear most young Cubans listening to seems to look more across the Florida straits for its inspiration. Across the island, we saw people sporting stars-and-stripes caps, t-shirts, even trousers. It is difficult to say whether this is an act of rebellion, or a celebration of the recent thaw in relations with the US.

Back in Havana, the National Art Gallery sits opposite the Museum of the Revolution. In the space between the two edifices a glass pavilion houses the yacht “Granma” from which Castro et al disembarked at the start of the revolution. Inside the art gallery it is possible to trace the history of Cuba through painting and sculpture, without the need for narration. The pre-revolution rooms house cubist masterpieces by Wifredo Lam and the vivid colourscapes of Renè Portocarrero, both artists still relatively obscure to Europeans. In sharp contrast the post-revolution rooms are dominated by pop-art propaganda and tedious images of Che.

The Che Guevara Mausoleum in Santa Clara.

Only once in the entire trip were we confronted with what seemed like outright dissent. We were walking down a steep hill in Vedado when a middle aged man stopped us, and, engaging us in conversation, claimed that he was part of an underground movement – a fugitive from Castro and an outlaw. He demanded money towards his unlikely project, and we left, followed by his shouts of abuse. This was certainly a strange encounter, but what did it mean? We would never know whether he was a fantasist, a real dissident, or just someone with a novel way of making money out of foreigners.

In truth, travelling around Cuba was a joy – the people were overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable, and the country is startlingly beautiful and varied. Yet it seems there is no way for a visitor to really understand Cuba – using a different currency, and always with the freedom to travel the rest of the globe that the Cuban people are denied – and no way to really gauge the reality of living under a one-party state with one of the world’s worst records on freedom of expression.