This time last year I had just got back from two weeks in Cuba, my second visit to a captivating island.
My first trip in 2006 was prompted by a desire to see Cuba whilst Castro was still alive and in power; it was an interesting time to go as his brother Raul had just taken over the reins. In 2011 some things had changed (in 2006 I took an illegal taxi ride in a 1950s car, by last year the government had recognised the tourist value of this and vintage cars could be seen parked outside the major hotels), but much was still the same. It was fascinating talking to our guide about the reforms to open up the economy to limited capitalism. He was an extremely well trained engineer, but had ended up working in tourism as it was better paid. But whilst we debated the new limited ownership rights where buying and selling property was being tested, donkeys passed us on the road where private cars were still extremely few and far between.
On my first visit I bought and read a pile of books that attempted to make sense of Cuba. Many are now dated by the Raul reforms that have happened since, and so offer an interesting historical snapshot of life in Cuba at the time.
Both Blue Cuban nights by Ted Ferguson and Enduring Cuba by Zoe Bran (both first published in 2002) are pieces of travel writing which describe the authors’ encounters with a range of Cuban characters as they travel the island in search of the ‘real’ Cuba. Cuba: The land of miracles by Stephen Smith (first published in 1997) was the one I enjoyed the most. It is accessible travel writing at its most enjoyable, written by someone whose style and tone I could most easily relate to.
Cuba Confidential by Ann Louise Bardach published in 2002 tells the story of Elian Gonzalez and the battle for his future, which I remember well as I was living in the US at the time in 1999 as the story unfolded. After a boat of exiles was shipwrecked and his mother drowned, the battle began between Elian’s father who wanted his return to Cuba, and Elian’s US-based relatives who wanted him to remain in the US. In the end he returned to Cuba and became a hero and a symbol of Cuba’s struggle with the US.
I also really enjoyed the most blatant propaganda book I have ever read: 100 questions and answers about Cuba, bought when I was there. It has questions like ‘Why is there just one political party, and why is it important to continue to have just one party?’ The end of a much longer answer being ‘The strategy is to build socialism: a more humane, better and more equitable way of life, with neither exploiters nor exploited, in which everyone is protected’.
I’d love to hear others experiences both of going to Cuba and reading about its history and politics.