Travel

Cuba: A society on the brink of change?

Cuba is a state practically untouched by Western capitalism. With only ninety miles separating this strictly communist state from the archetype of world capitalism, the United States, it’s not surprising that this region has been the focus of political tensions in the past. There, you’ll find no McDonalds, Wal-marts or any other multi-national companies that have infiltrated the global markets. The U.S embargo that was imposed on Cuba in 1960, and strengthened by Kennedy in 1962, undoubtedly was a major factor of this cultural polarisation. If this embargo is lifted, vast changes may take place in Cuba. Current talks in the White House show that President Obama is almost certainly considering lifting the embargo – a move that would allow the Americans into Cuba.

Stepping into Cuba is like stepping back in time. It is a country shrouded in ‘revolutionary mystique’, with a political structure unique to 21st century society. Few modern cars can be found in the dilapidated colonial streets, relying on the restoration of old American cars and those imported from the old Eastern European communist bloc. Being a Caribbean island, Cuba also has an abundance of stunning beaches. Until 2008, Cubans were forbidden entry to these areas, not because Cuba is dangerous (it is in fact one of the safest places in Latin America) but out of fear that Western tourists will influence Cuban ideas. Until 1997 when contact with tourists was legalised, Cubans had little exposure to the outside world, and they are still forbidden to leave the island.

Year upon year Cuba is changing. In recent years, Cuba has seen the restoration of many of its exquisite colonial buildings, and the introduction of a modern bus system in the capital. However, the transport of choice still remains the little ‘tuk-tuks’ – famous for their yellow coconut-style shells. The centre of Havana has also seen the creation of many restaurants and bars aimed at the tourist sector. Unfortunately, the only Cubans found here will be the ones taking your order. The monthly allowance of a Cuban is barely enough to buy a block of soap, let alone a three course meal. The unprecedented difference between the value of Cuba’s two currencies, the one used by the tourists and the other by the locals, make it impossible for locals to enjoy the tourist hotspots.

What really makes this island special are the people. Their relaxed and nonchalant attitude to life is a quality that few Britons possess. Laughter and music echoes through the streets as the locals enjoy a beer or roll up cigars ready to sell (don’t buy the street cigars – it’s illegal!). The best way to experience a slice of Cuban life is to stay a few nights in a ‘Casa Particular’ – Cuba’s equivalent of a bed and breakfast. Many of the mainstream hotels simply live up to the Western stereotype of Cuba of nothing but ‘mojitos’ and ‘cigars’. Although the future of Cuba is still uncertain, it is possible that major changes are on the horizon. As Castro’s health deteriorates and its borders are opened up more and more to outside influences, many of the unique features of this country may be lost forever. However, the unique charm of the Cuban people and extensive revolutionary history of this great country is one aspect that will certainly be present for generations to come.

Richard Magennis

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Travel

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