a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘fidel castro’

viva la revolution!

It is strange and somewhat disconcerting to be a tourist in a Communist country.  Of course, you can just follow a tourist guide around and not think about it or stay in a posh resort that is wholly capitalist despite the national politics.  I always like to try and understand a place when I visit to the extent my few days immersed in the local culture will allow.

drifting through havana

drifting through havana

Since I only had about five full days in Cuba, I decided to just stick to Havana so that I could try and get a good sense for it and save the rest of Cuba for another visit.  There is plenty to do – and think about – in Havana so I was never bored.  I also went on these crazy walks all over Havana that lasted for hours and frequently resulted in me being lost for some portion of the walk.  The wonderful part of that was that I discovered Havana in a way I never would have just speeding by in a pretty refurbished automobile from the era of Trump’s fantasy America.

I did feel that I should do that at least once, and since I had gotten lost trying to walk to Plaza de Revolución, it seemed a

an eerie place

an eerie place

good case for a fancy ride through Havana.  I would definitely recommend at least one ride in a classic car.  Mine was very expensive compared to everything else in Cuba but, as a gringo, I just accepted I was contributing to the economy.

Plaza de Revolución is a lot different in person that it looks in photos.  There is the fancy metalwork saluting Fidel and Che, which is a compulsory tourist photo.  The square is gigantic and generally eerily empty.  The military presence is very obvious and you realize you are in a police state.  It feels like someone is watching from a hidden camera every moment.  There are lots of signs marking where you can no longer wander.

welcome to china!

welcome to china!

Communism and other forms of dictatorship make me nervous.  I was relieved to get out of the Plaza de Revolución and to another part of Cuba that felt hopeful and festive.  When I was in China, my hotel was close to Tiananmen Square and, despite being a major hosting venue for the Olympics, which had just ended, no taxi driver seemed capable of finding it so I spent a lot of time in Tiananmen Square.  It is an unnerving place to be deposited.  Mao is always looking at you and there are plenty of dudes with rifles milling about.  One of the most bizarre sights was the soldiers standing guard in front of a giant display of the silly Olympic mascots.  There should have been a sign saying “Welcome to China!  It’s complicated.”

All countries are complicated but Communist countries increase the complexity by an exponential degree.  Theoretically, all this communism is FOR the people and offers them a better life than the capitalist pigs would have allowed.  But it’s never really gone down like that.  Every supposedly Communist state is a little different.  ALL love propaganda!  All are comfortable suppressing the truth, controlling the media and rewriting history.  Visiting a Communist country really makes one appreciate the freedoms and benefits of democracy even if not all of its attributes are sublime.

When I was in China, it was entertaining to read the history of Shanghai through the Chinese government’s eyes.  In Cuba, you can get the same experience by visiting the

ya gotta love propaganda ;)

ya gotta love propaganda 😉

Museo de la Revolución.  It is located in the former Presidential Palace so worth visiting just for the architecture.  You will certainly learn about the Cuban Revolution.  You won’t learn much beyond that, though, and it’s all glory and sacrifice and the 1960s.  Just another aspect of Cuba that feels like a time capsule.

fidel is watching you...

fidel is watching you…

It’s important, though, to note that young Castro was a noble guy.  He did some good stuff.  It’s easy to go communism bad, capitalism good, but it’s not at all that simple.  Probably why the vast majority of the people who score high on happiness and quality of life on those international indices live in socialist countries. The best system includes elements of both.

And Castro and team did some remarkable things in Cuba.  They defeated the United States of America!  They got rid of the mob and the casino culture that had overtaken the economy.  They sent young disciples out to rural Cuba to teach everyone how to read so that Cuba now has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.  They also have free education and healthcare and some basic food is provided by the state.  It’s an idealistic concept that would have appealed to the very young men and women who masterminded the Cuban revolution.

The tough part, though, is how to sustain that kind of system and how to be able to interact with a world that doesn’t share the same system.

the iconic che

the iconic che

The original system was more crazy fever dream than well-reasoned new political and economic philosophy.  As an example, I learned that Che Guevara was appointed President of the National Bank of Cuba and Minister of Industry in addition to being in charge of Agrarian Reform.  OK, first, TOO many major jobs.  Second, SERIOUSLY, who appoints a dude who’s a doctor and a guerilla war expert to run the money stuff???

I would encourage you to go to Cuba and check it out for yourself.  Go with an open and inquisitive mind.  There are some good ideas there.  There is a lot of idealism.  There is a lot of pride.  There is also naivety.  Cuba is an example of incredible idealistic ideas brought to fruition – but it is also a cautionary tale that it’s really important to have a plan that’s sustainable and pragmatic enough that your revolution will actually achieve the ideals you hoped it would for the long term.  The hardest part begins the day after the victory parade…

 

 

in cuba the present IS the past…

I still have a little more to say about South America but decided it was time to change locales for a few posts…

You may recall I bumped Cuba up the travel list because I was worried it would be flooded with Starbucks before I got to see it the way I had always romanticized it.  Of course, all that is in question now, which means making a visit soon is likely not as urgent but I would still encourage it.

While I love the internet, it has been responsible for the commoditization of global culture.  I first noticed this in the twilight of the twentieth century when most people still hadn’t figured out how to use the internet.  Even then there was global media, cheap travel and far easier ways to share ideas than had ever existed before in human civilization.

As someone who grew up in the middle of nowhere and dreamed of having access to what was actually going on in the rest of the world, it was exciting.  I was also able to start travelling a lot and quickly understood that it also meant that so many places looked alike that had once been unique.  The trendy bars in Sydney, Paris and San Francisco all looked shockingly similar, devoid of elements that made them reflect their unique local cultures.

What I discovered is that if you got a little more adventurous, you could still find something that surprised you in a delightful way.  It might be in Cambodia, Tanzania or Romania.  It was likely to always be in an emerging market.

In Cuba, things go a little further.  Not only is it unique but you feel like you are visiting history without a time machine.  In Cuba, Fidel, Che and Ernest are still in their prime.

It feels a bit like you are on an acid trip (or how I imagine an acid trip would unfold 😉

There are several shrines to Hemingway.  Pretty much anything associated with Hemingway has a plaque at minimum.  It’s very surreal as there is almost no advertising or promotion in Cuba – except when it comes to the big three.  Coming from a market economy it is both comforting and disconcerting.

But you can just go with the kitsch and not obsess over its moral implications 🙂

worth the price!

worth the price!

One place you really should hit is El Floridita.  It’s been around since 1817 and about 100 years later it acquired a new Catalan immigrant owner, Constantino Ribalaigua who invented the frozen daiquiri in the 1930s.  Neither he nor the daiquiri may have become so famous had it not been for one of his patrons – Ernest Hemingway.

These days there is a bust of Hemingway along with memorabilia and a lot of tourists!  It is the most expensive daiquiri in Cuba (but still cheap by first world standards) and absolutely worth it.  It’s a daiquiri factory still set in the 1950s.

If you are a Hemingway fan, you can also try a mojito at La Bodequita or just hang out at Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway was a resident from 1932 to 1939.

If following Fidel is more your thing, you should head for the Hotel Habana Libre.  It originally opened in 1958 as the

it's 1960 in havana

it’s 1960 in havana

Havana Hilton with Conrad Hilton himself in attendance.  At the time it was Latin America’s tallest and largest hotel and likely the swankiest.

On January 8, 1959 Fidel took residence in suite 2324 as his headquarters.  In October 1960 all American hotels in Cuba were nationalized and the hotel was renamed the Hotel Habana Libre.

a daiquiri worth seeking out

a daiquiri worth seeking out

It’s now owned by the Spanish Melia chain and a great place for a fantastic daiquiri – the best I

the view!

the view!

had in Cuba and about half the price of El Floridita.  There is also a nightclub on the top floor but it wasn’t open when I stumbled upon it on my walk around Havana until you figure it out unofficial excursion.  I was hoping to get a drink and take cool photos of Havana.  Luckily I shared my goals with one of the hotel employees and she took me in an old-fashioned operator controlled elevator to a high floor that felt like something out of the Jetsons.

You can live in the past – or at least visit it 😉  I highly recommend exploring the past and present intermingling in one of the only places left in the world where that experience is still possible.

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