I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will even go further:
… In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.
— US President John F. Kennedy: 24th October, 1963
Daybreak, 210 km from Havana.
The sky is dimly promising a future brightening through blue, already revealing white-topped clouds in the firmament above.
Behind me, the friendly valley calls. The massive limestone mogotes above Viñales rise to frame a monochrome outline of last night’s perfect Cuban sunset. I turn the other way and run towards the sunrise.
The Cuban Revolution started somewhere like this, in the Sierra Maestra above Santiago. The 82 men who sailed from Mexico in December 1956 on the yacht Granma were swiftly cut down to twelve when they landed on Cuba’s swampy southeastern shores.
The survivors, among them a charismatic Argentinian doctor named Che Guevara, fled for the refuge of the mountains where they could regroup and recruit fresh rebels for their cause.
Their ideals then were simple — to oust the corrupt and decadent regime of President Fulgencio Batista, and instal a people’s government run simply for the benefit of the people.
It took three years, but with perseverance, courage and inspiration, finally the revolution succeeded in its journey from a slow dawn in the rainforest to taking power in Havana in the very first days of 1960.
There’s been a lot of history since then. Growing tensions with the US led to the Bay of Pigs invasion on Cuba’s southern coast in April 1961, ultimately setting the stage for the Cuban Missiles Crisis in October of the following year, when the Soviet Union stationed nuclear weapons on America’s southern doorstep and it seemed the future of the world lay on a knife-edge.
Both sides backed away, leaving Cuba to live three uncertain decades propped up by the Communist bloc. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the withdrawal of Soviet aid in 1990 left the national economy in disarray, leading to a renewal of the emigration which had begun with the Mariel boatlift ten years before.
Once more thousands of balseros risked everything as they set out in makeshift rafts across the Florida Straits. Finally, in recent years, Cuba has gained another kind of notoriety through the enforced detainment and torture of Al Q’aida suspects in the US base at Guantánamo on the island’s eastern tip.
These events have helped to shape our modern world and the conflicts which still rage upon it. And yet it’s here in Cuba, unexpectedly perhaps, that the world has changed least of all. Five decades on, the same once-idealistic government is still in power.
Such limited and relative promise of prosperity which the arrival of non-US tourism brought since 2000 has proved transient in the face of a global financial crash, and once again now Cuba faces economic challenge on a massive scale.
Yet despite this, the achievements of the revolution were many. Not just in enduring — although given the trauma of invasion, international isolation and half a century of crippling trade embargo, arguably endurance was the greatest of them all. But beyond this, Cuba’s new revolutionary rulers set an agenda to stamp out corruption, to banish poverty and provide health and education services for everyone. And to a large extent they succeeded.
You won’t find shanty towns in Cuba. The people might not be wealthy (far from it) but the bleak bottom tier of deprivation, which blights the lives of so many in South and Central America, has been effectively eradicated here.
The Cuban universities offer free education — a precious gift we surrendered some years ago in Britain — and there are more excellently-qualified doctors per head of population than in almost any other country.
Given the backdrop to these achievements through fifty years of economic strangulation, during a period when trade and humanitarian support from the United States were banned, it’s remarkable that such progress could be made. Who needs wealth and materialism, when a different quality of life is assured?
It makes for vivid discussion between us — as always, the views of a new country proving as important in the way they reflect sharply on a different life at home.
Across these days and as we travel, we collect Cubans along our way. With access to cars a rarity here, we drive open and often completely unsignposted roads in the welcome company of a hitch-hiker or two.
That’s simply how it’s done in Cuba. On the way out of town and underneath any motorway bridge, you’ll find a gaggle of patient people waiting hopefully for a lift. It’s efficient use of the available resources, and an effective way to get around since drivers will happily stop to pick people up.
For us, it’s a good way to get to know the people. The Rough Guide suggests we don’t ask about politics, but after a few minutes of introductions, Emma still has time enough to get there. Qué piensas del gobierno, y de Fidel Castro? she asks. What do you think about the government, and its long-time leader?
The answers say so much we can’t read in any guidebook. Driving to a village in the south, one lady puts it well. Yo soy Fidelista, pero no soy comunista, she says, quietly — respecting the charismatic leader of the revolution, but with no time for Raúl Castro, who deputised for his ill brother in 2006 before becoming President in 2008. It’s a view we hear repeatedly.
One day we deliver a medical student to her training post in Pinar del Rio. She’s a strong advocate of the revolution, but then we learn from another passenger how university places are only awarded to supporters of the party.
At the hospital, the staff and director are very welcoming as we deliver a few simple supplies we’ve brought from home. The place is full of doctors, but it needs a lick of paint and some post-1950s equipment would surely help as well.
In the hotel, a complimentary copy of Granma is given to every guest. It’s the government’s newspaper — and the only one allowed. And while we can travel here to read it, the vast majority of Cubans aren’t allowed passports.
* * * * *
And so it proves — as a few steps through the bush reward me with an unforgettable view of sunrise across the Embalse de Salto — a hidden beauty of water which neither I nor the guidebook ever knew was there.
There’s so much to ponder about Cuba. How have colonial Spanish and modern revolutionary history fashioned the vibrantly cultural and yet politically contradictory place she is today — so full of charm, so firm in noble ideology and yet so poor in basic freedoms, too? How did a revolution with such overwhelming popular support come to leave its moral right behind?
And so I turn my back to the rainforest and the sunrise, and run towards another Cuban day.
212. Cuba 1: Just imagine
5. La vida latina – from Houston to Mexico
129. Tenerife – 1: the light at the end of the world
178. Full fathom five – on Elbow Beach, Bermuda
98. Off the shoulder of Orion – Costa de la Luz