Of Cuba, the Caribbean island 90 miles south of Florida, Christopher Columbus wrote it was “most beautiful land that eyes ever beheld.” Five centuries later, Cuba remains lush and mountainous, but in other ways, the country of 11 million people, with its complex politics and rich culture, is a very different place from when Columbus and subsequent settlers conquered the territory and its native people.
Most notably, the lifestyle and freedoms of Cuban people were stifled in the years after Fidel Castro and his communist party came to power in the late ‘50s. Cuban and U.S. diplomatic relations soured, and commerce between the two ceased following U.S. embargos. Today, the feeling among Cubans toward their country and leaders are mixed and complicated. Many remain supportive of the Castros and what they’ve done for the country, while others don’t, and hundreds of thousands have fled to the United States. There’s hope, however, that with a recent renewed dedication toward constructive relations with the U.S., Cuba will emerge in the 21st century a more free society, reconnected to the world.
Explore the timeline below to learn about the political and cultural shifts that have taken place in Cuba, from Spanish conquistadors and slavery, to Fidel Castro’s revolution and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Can you imagine not having easy access to the Internet? No Netflix, apps, Instagram or SnapChat? Something that’s such a big part of modern American social and entertainment culture is not a reality for 95 percent of Cuban people. While the government has built robust cultural institutions that nurture art, music, dance, drama, cinema and even sports—they have yet to build an infrastructure for the Internet. The 5 percent who are able to get online pay a high price for it, or may have special connections.
Although life without Internet certainly restricts Cubans’ access to information and the world in some sense, the government has long been dedicated to maintaining a high literacy rate among its people (slightly higher than the U.S., actually), and has built thousands of libraries. The government also controls, however, who gets the opportunity to pursue higher education, and who must spend their lives working in agriculture (including sugar and tobacco for world-famous cigars,) and other industries.
Due to tense relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the resulting embargo and longstanding communist policies and programs, most Cubans have extremely low incomes and limited access to even the most basic consumer goods and products. A glaring example of that can be seen in vehicles. Many refer to parts of Cuba’s capital, Havana, as being “frozen-in-time,” since so many still own cars from the ‘50s and ‘60s—the last time cars were imported from the U.S. But this demonstrates the resourcefulness and spirit of the Cuban people. With no replacement parts for their cars, the only option was, and still is, to engineer and make anything that needs replacing themselves.
Even the food supply is controlled by the Cuban government, which is high-priced and has unpredictable availability. Cubans do receive monthly food rations—a system that’s slowly being phased out—but it’s not enough. Thus, the black market in Cuba is a vast, complex, “underground” system that allows citizens access to virtually anything one might need or want.
Despite the many restrictions that exist for Cubans, a unique, treasured culture exists. Family and friends socialize over traditional meals of meats, stews, rice, beans, plantain and yucca. They gather around to watch the few weekly government-broadcasted telenovelas (think Spanish soap opera) or films. Cubans excel in many sports on the world stage, and particularly enjoy baseball, which is the country’s national sport.
Dance, music and religion are also an important part of the everyday culture, which are a blend of African, Indian and European influences. Each year Cubans dress up, dance, sing and celebrate Carnival, the grandest party of which is held in its second largest city, Santiago de Cuba. Another major holiday is observed on July 26, and recalls Fidel Castro’s attack on Fort Moncada in 1953, leading to the revolution several years later.
Demetrius and I sat down to chat and share with you some of our most vivid memories from the trip…
Its awesome we’re connected again and now maybe Cuba will become a better state than before.
I believe that it is great we are interacting with Cuba. We are helping people who have relitives and want to see them. We can bring families together!