Cuba Libre! (Or Cuba’s history of being not so libre)

Itinerary:

  • Days 1-3: Miami, FL
  • Days 3-9: Cuba (Havana, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba)

Dates: October 13-23, 2016

Our Odyssey:

If you had asked me just a few
years ago if I thought that I, as an American citizen without dual citizenship,
would legally travel to Cuba in the near future, I would have naturally
thought, of course not! While only 90 miles from Key West, Florida, the island
nation of Cuba has been off-limits to Americans since the early 1960s in the
heat of the Cold War. And naturally don’t we all want what is forbidden? So
when US and Cuba diplomatic relations were restored in 2014, Tim and I started
to look out for an announcement for legal travel to Cuba for US citizens.

That time has come, and now US
citizens can travel to Cuba for a number of legal reasons, the most general
being “people to people” cultural immersion. Up until May of this
year, these cultural immersion trips had to be coordinated by a certified tour
company whose itinerary has met a certain amount of cultural and interpersonal
interaction between Cubans and Americans. Now, Americans can do a self-guided
people to people tour, meaning we can travel to Cuba independently so long as
we keep daily journals documenting at least 6 hours of daily cultural
activities and save receipts, ticket stubs and other items that indicate how
you spent your time. These documents must be kept for five years after the
trip. Easy enough.

When the people to people option
was announced in 2015, I began researching legal Cuba tours. Unfortunately
everything I found was at least $3500 for a week, which Tim and I agreed was
well outside of our budget. Then, in January of this year, I read in Travel +
Leisure magazine about a new company called Fathom, under the parent company of
Carnival cruises, which was offering legal Cuba cruises visiting Havana,
Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba starting from $1499. In February, we made our
booking for mid-October.

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Our itinerary with Fathom for our week-long cruise. 

Before our trip I’ll admit my
knowledge of Cuba was limited to certain buzzwords. Communism. Castro. Cuban
Missile Crisis. Bay of Pigs. Elian Gonzalez. None of it with a particularly
positive connotation. Knowing I had so much to learn and understand about this
mysterious neighbor of ours made me all the more excited for this adventure-
not to mention the joy of a week off from work.

Before jumping in to our
experience, I want to share what we learned about Cuba’s history – because it
puts everything else into context, and it’s actually really interesting.

Before Christopher Columbus set
out for the “New World” in 1492, the Taínos (indigenous people) had
been living in Cuba since 1050 AD, having migrated from mainland South America
over the course of several centuries. They were a peace-loving people who
migrated to Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. While Columbus certainly did not
discover Cuba, he did come across it on his voyage and, no surprises here, his
arrival on behalf of the Spanish changed everything for the worse for these
people. The Spanish enslaved the Taínos (under the guise of teaching them about
Christianity, since Catholicism forbade slavery) in a quest for silver and
gold. Within 50 years, the Taínos were extinct from disease and poor treatment.

With no more natives to enslave,
the Spanish needed to import them – from Africa, of course. Because of Cuba’s
location, it was a perfect stopover point on the trade route between Europe and
the Americas. Spain capitalized on this by charging a heavy tax for ships
passing through this area. England declared war on Spain in the 1760s in
protest of these taxes, and the English won and occupied Cuba very briefly.
During this time they lifted the trade restrictions, which fostered the growth
of Cuba as a whole.

In 1763, the English traded Cuba
back to the Spanish in exchange for Florida, and King Charles III of Spain
opted to not reinstate Spain’s former taxes. During this time, Havana was
bigger than New York City and growing, but the Spanish still ruled with a
brutal slave system. By the 1840s, 45% of the Cuban population was enslaved.
Unlike in North America, distinct ethnic groups from Africa were not separated
as part of their enslavement. As a result, Afro-Cuban culture thrived. This
also lead to the birth of Santeria. Slaves were required to abandon their
traditional religions and practice Catholicism instead. In order to preserve
their traditional beliefs, slaves would dress their traditional deities in
Catholic saint’s clothing, so they could practice their own religion secretly
while appearing to comply with Catholic practices. In this way, Catholicism and
traditional African religions blended together over time to create Santeria,
which is still largely practiced in Cuba today.

Cuba’s flag flying outside of a home in Havana

In the early 1800s many uprisings
through the colonies were overthrowing their colonial rulers, and by the
mid-1800s Spain only had Cuba and Puerto Rico (recall that they used to rule
nearly all of South America). When the news of the American Civil War hit Cuba,
the Cubans were inspired to revolt against the Spanish for their freedom and
abolishment of slavery. This began the several Wars of Independence.

The US got involved when they
sent a ship, the USS Maine, to Havana’s harbor to protect and look after
American citizens living in Havana. The ship mysteriously exploded and over 200
were killed. The US blamed Spain and entered Cuba’s war with Spain on Cuba’s
side. The last land battle of this war was fought on San Juan Hill in Santiago
de Cuba (a spot we visited on our trip) and the US won. Two weeks later Spain
surrendered and Cuba was “free” – but not really because now the US
decided to rule Cuba instead.

In 1902, the US grants Cuba more
legitimate “independence” but still ran a puppet government there.
Cuban presidents made a lot of money doing the US’s bidding and organized crime
thrived. Wealthy mobsters built up gleaming beautiful buildings, creating an
appearance of success in the cities, but in reality the people were suffering
under mafia rule. Batista, a former president of Cuba who had retired, decided
to re-enter the scene and stage a coup in 1952 to take power. Meanwhile, Fidel
Castro’s revolution is beginning to percolate. Batista imprisoned Castro for storming
military barracks in an attempt to steal weapons, but later set him free but
exiled him to Mexico due to Castro’s popularity among the people. While in
Mexico, Castro met Che Guevara and others who later all came to Cuba in 1958 to
storm the presidential palace, causing Batista to flee and Castro to take over.
January 1, 1959 is considered the day the revolution triumphed under Castro and
“continues to do so today.”

So there’s that.

Che Guevera overlooks the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana. 

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