Back in 1997 Marion was asked to write an educational book comparing the lives of children in Havana and the lives of those living in República de Chile a small farming settlement in the western end of the island. Marion travelled with Tony and it was her first visit to Cuba. "When help from the USSR [Soviet Russia] was withdrawn in 1989, many people thought that the Revolutionary Government would collapse. But the Cuban people kept the country going "
Her book Cuba for the Country Insights series took her to many parts of the main island, to the cities and rural areas.
|Havana The capital was our starting point. Founded by the Spaniards in 1514 it was an ideal stop-over for Spanish ships moving between the Americas and Europe. The inner harbour is well hidden and in Spanish times was protected by two large forts, one on each side of the entrance. El Castillo de la Punta (more correctly San Salvador de la Punta) or Castle of the Point is on the city or southern side, while the Morro Castle or El Castillo de Los Tres Santos Reyes Magos del Morro is on the northern shore. A translation of morro means 'headland or promontory' and indeed the castle is higher than the city so with that advantage it was a vital part of the defences. (More about this will be told in the story of the British Siege of Havannah on Nonesuchinfo). Nearer to the old city itself is the Castillo de la Real Fuerza.1558-77. It was not a great fortress as it was easily dominated by the Morro across the harbour entrance.|
After those early Spanish days came the introduction of black slaves from Africa and apart from raids by pirates or foreign fleets colonial life was luxurious . Then followed the movements towards independence from Spain, the close ties with the USA in the early 20th century, the now famous yet almost forgotten Revolution of 1959, and ultimately in recent years the Cuban struggle to survive in severe economic isolation.
Central Havana is not so modern as some of the outskirts. The main features are many well cared-for tourist attractions including museums. Some parts of the old city built in the 19th century are being lovingly restored but in 1997 large areas were seriously negelected. What were once magnificent buildings from the 19th century and early 20th were used for housing with many families living in one large space. Sometimes there was apparently too much space leaving rooms light and airy while sometimes a room would be split into two levels. Cooking facilities were usually simple and food was rationed. Bottled gas was the most usual form of heating a stove.
Like many visitors we were surprised at the working condition of some of the classic cars - mostly North American from the 1950's. Few other countries in Latin America have so many fine examples of classic cars and perhaps only Uruguay can boast as many. Often those in Uruguay are from European manufacturers. Some of the Cuban cars are in a PORTFOLIO by our associate Brian Usher. One proud owner explained "We find plenty of spare parts from the Russian built Ladas. They were a contemporary design."
República de Chile It is perhaps a curious name for a village and it was given in honour of the South American country Chile, the Chilean Republic at the time of the Marxist President, Salvador Allende, democratically elected President of Chile in September 1970. It is about 10kms from Viñales in the tobacco growing region noted for its scenery and tourism. The relatively modern village comprising concrete apartment blocks, a school, health centre and a couple of stores is set amongst a more rural scene of traditional bohíos - literally meaning 'shacks' - though far from that as they are thatched country style homes. We arrived at the tail-end of the rainy season in late October, not long after Hurricane Lili had swept across the centre of the island. The farmers in Viñales who grow tobacco for the world famous cigars were not so seriously affected as those in the island's heartland.
We also travelled extensively in other parts of the island, visitng many schools, and hospitals as well as the well supported circulos infantiles, or super-crêches. There the young children are attended by nurses and special teachers while their parents are working . Education was everywhere with schools, universities and colleges with different courses. At every stop we were asked about education in 'our country' and inevitably comparisons were drawn. The sheer dedication of the Cuban students to learn was impressive. Doctors and technical specialists were graduating by the score and knowledge seemed to be bursting from anyone met on the street. At every stop there was tremendous warmth in the welcome we received and we were soon invited to eat or have a can of beer while chatting about almost anything. In one town we met an historian who knew the history of Cuba almost end to end, year by year.
Family life A close family life is the trademark of Latin America and nowhere is it more obvious than in Cuba. Possibly the pressure on housing keeps the people together and the family unit was clearly a support in the hard times following the withdrawal of the Soviet help.
The cover picture for Marion's book by our associate, Cuban photographer Rolando Pujol, was taken in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana with a group of primary school children. The image of the revolutionary hero Che Guevara looks out from the side of a government building.
For the photography we relied heavily on the work of Rolando Pujol and more of his images will be presented in the Image Archive guide. Altogether we spent about two months working on the background for the book. Once back in Havana we took time off to visit the famous spots of which the Tropicana is the most glamourous 'show' in the capital. The performances are well staged to satisfy the new era of tourism. The high kicking girl dancers, the rum filled mojitos with their rich aroma of fresh lime and the dollar bills seemed far removed from the simple life in the country
Here and there traces remain of the days when this city was the playground of the Caribbean. Ernest Hemingway's favourite bars La Bodeguita del Medio and La Floridita are still open but others such as the much loved 'Sloppy Joe's' have long since closed. Sloppys' was derelict and only a mosaic on the pavement gave a clue to the past colourful history that has given a name to bars in the USA and an list of cocktails inside.
|By the time we had finished we had travelled almost length of the island to Santiago de Cuba, famous for its festivals and found a day or two to enjoy the pristine and virtually empty beaches. Cuba is a place where it is simply too easy to stray from the theme of the book|