What exactly is the allure of Cuba? Why has it become such a draw for American visitors in the last decade?
The obvious answer is the attraction of forbidden fruit, beginning with the travel ban imposed by President Kennedy in 1963. Until President Obama permitted Americans to travel to Cuba for “people to people” exchanges in 2011, it was almost impossible for average Americans to legally visit the island nation. But Cuba is embedded deeper in the American imagination than that. At one time all American school children learned about the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, and Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders later that year. Since World War II, other images that come to mind include the casino nightlife of 1950s Havana (immortalized in a sequence of scenes from “The Godfather: Part II”), the Communist Revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Mariel boatlift and the persistent presence of Cuba as a third rail of American politics.
But Cuba’s rich history and culture deserves to be viewed independently of the American lens. This six-minute animated video gives a quick overview of Cuban history – the sad story of how the island’s residents died from infectious diseases brought by Columbus and other European explorers has echoes in the world today.
During the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War), Britain invaded and occupied Cuba because it was a colony of Spain, France’s ally. In the treaty that concluded the war, Britain gave up its right to Cuba in exchange for Florida. It’s interesting to contemplate what might have happened if they had made the opposite deal – would Florida be the independent Communist nation and Cuba the Sunshine State today?
Eventually Cubans sought independence from Spain. The leader of that fight was Jose Marti, a poet and dissident who formed the Cuban Revolutionary Party. In 1895, Marti died in a battle against Spanish troops. One of his many legacies is a poem that was adapted into the popular song “Guantanamera.” This song has been covered by many artists, from Pete Seeger and Jose Feliciano to The Sandpipers, for whom it became a top 10 hit in 1966. My favorite version of “Guantanamera” is from the “Playing for Change” series, where 75 Cuban musicians from around the world join in to sing together. This brief essay explains why a simple song continues to stir the souls of Cubans and justice seekers everywhere! If you’re not moved by this version, I fear you may have a heart of stone!
The United States entered Cuba’s fight for independence on the side of the revolutionaries in what became known as the Spanish-American War. Cuba found itself ensnared in a geopolitical web, in which it traded the Spanish colonial yoke for American economic and cultural dominance. Even as Cuba became an independent nation in 1902, it largely ceded control of its economic policies and foreign affairs to the United States.
During the 20th century, the Cuban economy evolved to include immense concentrations of wealth, strong labor unions, the desperately impoverished and a middle class that saw shrinking opportunities. It was a society ripe for upheaval. Fidel Castro formed an organization called “The Movement” that steadily gained adherents throughout the 1950s, eventually transforming into a guerilla campaign. Whether you understand Spanish or not, you’ll get a good feel for Castro’s rugged hideaway at La Plata in the Sierra Maestra Mountains by watching this 11-minute video. Castro’s guerilla campaign succeeded and he became Prime Minister of Cuba in 1959.
While Cubans today point to evidence that their country has made great strides in social justice since Castro took power, in other ways the country feels frozen in time. The middle class of the late 1950s had in more prosperous times, for example, demonstrated a predilection for American cars. Most of the cars in Cuba today still date from that period. A driving tour of Havana is considered a must for all visitors.
While visitors to Cuba learn about Cuban history, society, dance, music and, of course, food – check out this visitor’s thoughts on Havana’s five best restaurants – Cuba is also full of natural wonders. Did you know that Cuba is home to the world’s smallest bird, the bee hummingbird? Female bee hummingbirds weigh in at a scant 1/10 of an ounce! See them feeding and nesting in this short video from PBS’s “Nature” series.
I promised to give you a view of Cuba beyond the American lens, but we’ll conclude by looking through that lens once more. There are nearly two million Americans of Cuban descent, and two thirds of them live in Florida. Read this short article to understand why Cuban-American relations continue to be a hot button in American politics. Lastly, end your armchair exploration of Cuba with a more lighthearted take from comedian and late night host Conan O’Brian.
Road Scholar has been leading educational trips to Cuba since 1997. We hope to see you there soon! Until then, you can browse our collection of learning adventures.
About the Author Peter Spiers is the Senior Vice President of Strategic Outreach at Road Scholar. He is the author of “Master Class: Living Longer, Strong, and Happier,” recently selected by The Washington Post as one of the best books to read at every age, 1 to 100 (Peter’s book was selected for age 70). Spiers holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard University, an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and a master of science from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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