The conundrum that is Cuba

If you ever wondered how to mourn a political icon, take a look at Cuba. The country has simply lost itself for Fidel Castro this week.  Already there have been rallies, mass eulogies, vigils and ceaseless tributes in a nine-day mourn-fest for the dictator who ruled the country for nearly 50 years.

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Ever keen to reinforce the importance of the man and his dogma, the state-run media has broadcast non-stop footage of his speeches, interviews and foreign trips, interspersed with adulatory remembrances.  There have been dignitary visits too, Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma have come in person to pay their respects.  Yesterday Castro’s coffin of ashes,  in a flower-covered trailer pulled by a green military jeep, begun a four-day journey across Cuba.  From Havana to Santiago, the route traces, in reverse, the victory tour Castro and his bearded rebels took after overthrowing the forces of strongman Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

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All very iconographical, all very reverential, religious even. In a country that was atheist.

So here’s Cuba – a country of contradictions. For this national solemnity (including draping a black flag over the drinks cabinet) is very much the anti-thesis of the Cuba of our imagination.

The Cuba, we envisage, is a vibrant country; sun-filled, joy-filled, friendly;  full of music and dancing and singing and poetry.  A country we admire for it’s rich heritage; in art and music and literature. Where, we think, food shortages, electricity blackouts, and communication breakdowns don’t get the people down.

An island of 11 million people, all hotchpotch in origin; from Spanish conquistadors, African slaves, and American immigrants to those of Aboriginal descent. But Cubans have seemingly embraced their diversity and made it part of who they are (now there’s a thing…)  An embrace seemingly spurred by a love for the arts:

It is said that the island’s inhabitants speak singing, dance while walking and woo with a love song.

On the one hand there is media suppression and censorship but then on the other, the State is the biggest supporter and developer of it’s arts. Cuba’s “Ministry of Culture” promotes and provides education in music, visual arts, ballet, dramatic arts, and modern dance, culminating in the university-level Higher Institute of Art (and a guaranteed job – now wouldn’t we like that!) In fact, for a country short of practcially everything, it is surprising to know it has more than 200 neighbourhood cultural centres (casas de cultura), approximately 2,000 libraries and 250 museums located throughout the country.

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Music and dance are quite possibly the glue of Cuban society. Music hums along the streets where people congregate to watch and take part – especially along the Malecón, Havana’s seaside promenade, in the evenings and at weekends. In a country of little importation, it has given the world the Bolero, Mambo and Cha Cha Cha.  And the catchy rhythms of the Buena Vista social Club.

And, of course, their beautiful ballet too. Synonymous with Alicia Alonso, born in 1921 – Cuba’s most famous ballerina and teacher, also founded the world renowned ballet school, Ballet Nacional de Cuba.  Where ballet is elitist in Europe, in Cuba it is for the people and is admired in almost daily performances in the capital, Havana.

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The biggest complaint Cubans say about life in Cuba, is the monotony, days that never seem to change. Born out, perhaps by the paucity of TV channels and internet access. Where we may have multiple TV platforms to entertain us, the Cubans have two.  And the schedule never changes; on Saturday-night there is a movie, on Monday telenovelas (soap operas) imported from Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, or Colombia. To escape Cubans go to the cinema.

Cuban films, some of the most respected in Latin America – are also known for their blunt, candid treatments of Cuban life and for levying the harshest criticisms against the Cuban state -see Strawberry and Chocolate (1994)Suite Habana (2003), Guantanamera (1995), Monte Rouge (2004).   And whilst political opponents may get locked up (or worse) the film industry is still primarily funded by the Cuban government.

Traditionally baseball has been revered as the national sport, for spectating. Those that prefer to play – play chess. Cubans love chess.  You’ll see them gathered at folding tables in parks for games of intensely competitive chess (and sometimes checkers). (In 2004, the largest chess competition ever recorded took place in Santa Clara. It consisted of 13,000 competitors).

But Cuba’s oldest tradition? Dissidence probably. These are a plucky people who will only take so much.  This pre-dates Castro’s revolution by a long shot – before the current dictatorship there was risings against unpopular U.S-backed leaders, and before that the Spanish who grossly exploited Cuba’s resources and native people.

Today activist groups like the Ladies in White, who have marched through the streets of their cities every Sunday since 2003. All of them female relatives of the 75 dissidents imprisoned for spying for the United States and condemned to sentences of up to twenty-eight years in what’ is now known as “The Black Spring,”

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And the art students, furious over the poor quality of their food who took over their school, in protest. The food, a kind of mush, became the basis for some performance art: one student stripped down to his swimsuit, coating himself with the goo, others cheered and filmed the event.

To those of us on the outside Cuba may have a quaint appeal and a vibrancy we admire, but for many of it’s people, it has been a tiresome slog, for 50 years. As Cuba opens up, and with it an improved internet showing them a faster, shinier world; it might not be surprising to see them want a more radical change, sometime soon.

A place of distinctions and distractions, Cuba is perhaps unsurprisingly, the setting for many interesting creative works:


The Old Man in the Sea, Earnest Hemingway. This Pulitzer Prize winner was also  instrumental in earning its author the Nobel Prize in Literature.  An elderly fisherman spends months attempting to catch a giant marlin off the coast of Florida. Many feel it captures the spirit of the country.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), Óscar Hijuelos. From another Pulitzer prize winning author this novel tells the story of Cuban brothers who move to America and pursue lost love and musical fame, reaching their pinnacle when they briefly appear on the TV show I Love Lucy. The brilliance of the writing brings much of early- and mid-20th century Cuban culture to life, and will inspire anyone hoping to explore that culture more deeply.

Three Trapped Tigers , Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Hailed as a masterpiece, this novel has been praised as a more modern, sexier, funnier, Cuban Ulysses. Centering on the recollections of a man separated from both his country and his youth, Cabrera Infante creates an enchanting vision of life and the many colourful characters found in steamy Havana’s pre-Castro cabaret society.

The Dirty Havana Trilogy, Pedro Juan Gutierrez. One of the must-read Cuban novelists, his works offer a gritty, often dark and violent view of modern life in the communist country. . These books aren’t for the faint of heart or easily shocked, but they will offer a glimpse of Cuban life you won’t see in any guidebook.

Carlos Acosa, No Way Home by Carlos Acosta. The rags-to-riches story of one of the world’s greatest dancers, from his difficult beginnings living in poverty in the backstreets of Cuba to his astronomical rise to international stardom.

And more on this list from


Buena Vista Social Club (1999) Aging Cuban musicians whose talents had been virtually forgotten following Castro’s takeover of Cuba, are brought out of retirement by Ry Cooder, and bought the musicians together, resulting in triumphant performances of extraordinary music, and resurrecting the musicians’ careers.

Brothers in Exile (2014) the true story of Livan and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who risked their lives to leave Cuba, both completing different, difficult and  unlikely journeys  to freedom and triumph.

Una Noche (2012) A gripping portrayal of modern day Havana and the perils befallen by twoteenagers desperate to escape to Miami.

Soy Cuba (1964) . Soviet/Cuban propaganda film from 1964, made to celebrate the Cuban revolution but sunk by the authorities. Lauded now as a dazzling visual poem. The black and white (and sometimes infrared) photography is startlingly beautiful, and the sound design is great as well.


Fidel Castro’s Cultural Legacy – The Cultural Frontline, BBC World Service.

Candela; The lives of Cuban Women – The Documentary, BBC Worldservice

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