By Marcia Forbes, PhD
A Country in Transition
I first visited Havana, Cuba at the end of the 1980s. It was a country in transition, with the “Cold War’” beginning to thaw. That “war,” driven by mighty rhetoric, political alliances and tensions, was mainly fought on the grounds of ideology — capitalism versus communism. The USA and the USSR competed aggressively in the Space Race and the Arms Race. Their satellite supporting countries watched, cheered, participated or worried about the future of us all under the threat of Nuclear War. The Cold War, which started about 1945 ended in 1991.
At the time of that first visit, Russia did not seem to be lending as much financial support to Cuba as before. Things were tight. The always-smiling children in Havana asked for chiclets and pens. Tourists willingly responded to these inexpensive requests. I was impressed by the warm, friendly spirit of the people and their sense of discipline and order. It was a festival of the arts. Live music and dancing in the streets was everywhere. And Cubans can dance!
President Castro addressed the huge crowd close to the Habana Libre Hotel. Speaking hardly any Spanish, I had little idea what he said, but the people seemed happy to have heard whatever it was. There were many incantations of “Long Live Cuba,” “Long Live the Revolution,” and “The Struggle Continues,” coupled with strong military/police presence in the streets. We three women walked for hours into the night taking in the sights, sounds and smells of Havana. The latter was mainly of horse poo quickly washed away by the many water trucks. We felt safe walking unescorted, even into the wee hours.
Some years later I visited Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second city. It seemed to have been having an especially hard time, with dry season and scarce food. The poverty was palpable. After that visit I was convinced that Cuba definitely had the worst food of any of the countries I had ever visited. Santiago was more Caribbean and didn’t quite hold the magic I felt in Havana. That trip left me sad about the fate of Cubans and their capacity to survive in the new world dispensation, post-Cold War and arms race.
Che, Castro, Cuba
Last week, a group of us decided to make it Havana for Easter. None of the others had been before so they wanted to see it all. This was now my third visit to that city, but not since the repainting of many of its buildings. What a treat! Cuba seems to have come into its own, with an even more confident sense of branding evident throughout the city. Anyone who has been there will immediately recognize paintings of brightly coloured antique cars from the 1950s as representative of that country.
These iconic cars come in a cacophony of colours that would rival any rainbow. Shades from pink to purple, mint to emerald green, baby blue to deep navy and even bright gold abound. Every one of them is branded “Cuba” above the licence plate. We, all six of us, had the opportunity to experience what I describe as the “sardine sandwich,” as we travelled in a 1950s Plymouth, beaming brightly in burgundy and driven by a young man in his 20s. It was his grandfather’s car, with the original upholstery, and likely the original spring, since I could feel it close to my coccyx.
In Havana, you never have to wonder which city you’re in. They do a great job at branding not only the city but also the country. As soon as one exits the airport building, the walls along the driveway talk of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution. On departure, the “chequeo de trafico,” (check-in counter) boasts images of “authentic Cuba.” Che, the Argentinian Marxist who fought alongside Fidel, is the revolutionary with perhaps the most marketed image. His decidedly handsome face is on just about everything, caps, mugs, T-shirts, walls. Name it, Che is on it. His face brands Cuba and its revolution.
Tourism – Cuba versus Jamaica
Tourism is booming in Havana. The profile of the average tourist I saw is a mature European with disposable income and time to enjoy and spend it. The almost-500-room Hotel Nacional de Cuba was full. Only days ago the Pope was there. We witnessed the arrival of the Vietnamese President and his entourage. That’s who they told us the strong contingent of Asian men who I believe alighted from the shining Black Benzes were. The food at that hotel was the best I had ever had in Cuba. My group was immensely impressed with the fare — and they are foodies.
On the night of dinner at La Bodeguita Del Medio (the restaurant and bar where Ernest Hemingway frequented and drank copious quantities of Cuban rum when he wasn’t at El Floridita) the middle-aged Italian couple, on a three week jaunt, told us they had often thought of visiting Jamaica but were advised that it’s dangerous. They chose Cuba instead. As we worked hard to convince them to make it Jamaica next time and promised them a wonderful time in the city of Kingston, I mused our passion for our country even as I contemplated how far wrong this country has gone.
Jamaica is now well-branded as a country of crime and corruption, while our close cousin Cuba is revered for its old-world charm as much as it is for Castro and Che.
Dr Marcia Forbes is a media specialist, the co-owner of multimedia production company Phase 3 Productions Ltd and former Permanent Secretary in Jamaica’s Ministry of Mining and Telecommunications and later the Ministry of Energy and Mining. She is the author of Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica and the upcoming Streaming: Social Media, Mobile Lifestyles.
Follow Dr Marcia Forbes on Twitter: @marciaforbes