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Tourist Profile: Cuba

Republica de Cuba, independent republic located in the Caribbean Sea, the most westerly of the Greater Antilles group, some 145 km (south of Florida (U.S.A), comprising Cuba and Isla de la Juventud, (formerly Isle of Pines), and more than 1600 small coral cays and islets. It's the largest and the lest commercialised island in the Caribbean and one of the world's last bastions of commu-nism. Cuba is surrounded by: the Straits of Florida and the Yucatán Channel and Hispaniola (Haiti and Republica Domini-cana), Jamaica, the Bahama Islands and Mexico. Say "Cuba", and think of 'Fidel Castro', 'Havana' or 'cigars' but everybody's image of Cuba is different. For some the allure is of a tropical paradise and others remember its past decadence: stories of Hemingway, cheap rum, gambling, wild dances and cigars. Then there are the revolutionaries: José Martí, Castro and Che Guevara. This is perhaps the most powerful image of them all: Cuba freeing itself from its colonial past and then daring to stand up to the most powerful country in the world. Despite (or because of) the US embargo and the state of the Cuban economy in the 1990s, Cuba remains determined to survive and will not be bullied. A tourism revolution is transforming this once isolated country with an ever-increasing range of flights and hotels opening up previously inaccessible corners.

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  • Where to go
  • When to go
  • Money & Costs
  • History
  • Culture

The island's relative political isolation has prevented it from being overrun by tourists, its old towns remain remarkably unspoilt. Havana (La Habana) is the largest city in the Caribbean and the center of all things Cuban. Despite its turbulent history, Havana suffered little damage in the country's wars and revolutions and stands today much as it was built 100 years ago or more. There's an air of faded glory about the city as big '50s and '60s American automobiles still dominate the streets, and paint and plaster peel off everywhere. The city is peppered with glorious Spanish colonial architecture, much of which is under restoration. Havana has a swinging nightlife, with historic theatres, cabarets, nightclubs and music venues. There's less traffic and less commercialisation than in the average Latin American city.

But from the rough brilliance of Old Havana to residential areas ranging from shabby to demanding demolition, the exuberant friendliness of Havana's inhabitants is what shines through. Cuba's second biggest city Santiago de Cuba is Havana's rival in literature, music and politics, and is regarded as the 'cradle of the revolution' because of the pivotal role it played in overthrowing the Batista regime. It has unlike other Cuban towns, has a noticeable Caribbean flavour due to the influence of the French planters and Haitians who settled there in the last century. The city's distinctive character is also due to its isolation from Havana, and has its own colourful history. The city houses Cuba's oldest palaces and museums including the Casa de Diego Velázquez and the Museo Municipal Bacardí. It overlooks the Bahía de Santiago de Cuba and many houses feature lacy ironwork balconies, pointed windows and narrow external staircases.

The Cementerio Santa Ifigenia is the final resting place of many famous revolutionaries, including José Martí. Trinidad is the most precious colonial town, where nothing has changed for at least a hundred years; you can walk around its cobbled streets and imagine yourself back in the 19th century when prosperity came from the sugar mills surrounding the town. It remained a backwater haven for smugglers until the late 18th century. Smugglers brought slaves and gold from British-controlled Jamaica, but all this changed in the early 19th century when a slave revolt in Haiti caused French planters to flee to Trinidad. It boomed until the Wars of Independence devastated the region's sugar plantations and the town again fell into obscurity.

The legacy of this short-lived sugar-boom wealth can be seen in the town's baroque church towers. The most impressive of all Trinidad's many museums must be Museo Histórico Municipal. Baracoa sits on a headland between two picturesque bays near Cuba's easternmost point, Cabo Maisí. Founded in 1512 by Diego Velázquez, this is Cuba's oldest European settlement. The town was accessible only by sea until the 1960s when a road finally connected it to the outside world. Things are pretty laid back in Baracoa and the abundance of palm trees along this coast give it a South Pacific feel. Go see the three impressive forts which evidence the fact that this was an important Spanish outpost: Fuerte Matachín, Fuerte de la Punta and El Castillo de Seboruco. Camagüey, in the centre of the island, was founded in the early 16th century and suffered many attacks by pirates.

As a result, the inhabitants designed it differently. Where most colonial towns work on a grid system, in Camagüey no two roads run parallel, with the aim of confusing intruders in a maze of streets. Naturalists will love Pinar del Río Province with two UNESCO biosphere reserves with some of the country's loveliest landscapes, including parts of the Cordillera de Guaniguanico, a hiker's paradise. The province's limestone bedrock has been carved into the surreal and beautiful pincushion hills for which Viñales is famous, while the entire area is riddled with caves carved by underground rivers, some of which make for great diving. Soothe your sore muscles at San Diego de los Baños, a century-old Spanish spa and natural hot spring. After a relaxing soak, you just want to smoke a fine cigar under a palm tree. The province's pride and joy: the finest cigar tobacco in Cuba, hence the world, is grown with the sort of love and attention most people reserve for their own children.

Cuba is famous for Varadero and offshore Cayos Largo and Coco, a spit of land stretching for miles with a sandy beach all along one side, which has attracted tourists since the beginning of the 20th century. However, visitors come away with the feeling that they have not seen Cuba. Some of Cuba's finest beaches are just outside Trinidad. Try also to the places where Cubans are not excluded, such as Guanabo, near Havana, or the beaches east of Santiago de Cuba. The little-visited Zapata Peninsula or the Bahia de Naranjo Nature Park offer the chance to swim with the dolphins. The coral is in excellent condition, and there are also turtles, dolphins, grouper, whale sharks, moray eels, rays, barracuda and other large creatures to be seen Go scuba diving, deep sea fishing, bonefishing, windsurfing, sailing etc.. Wherever you go in Cuba you will be accompanied by music. There are musicians playing live in nearly every hotel or restaurant and their rhythms will leave a lasting impression. In nearly every town there is a Casa de la Trova, where you can hear the different styles of Cuban music for the price of a rum. The Cuban jazz, salsa and the son, the mamba and the rumba are internationally famous.You'll soon be swinging, swaying and a swishing to the sounds of Cuba.

There isn't a bad time to visit Cuba. The hot, rainy season runs from May to October but winter (December to April) is the island's peak tourist season, when planeloads of Canadians and Europeans arrive in pursuit of the southern sun. Cubans take their holds in July and August, so this is when the local beaches are most crowded. Christmas, Easter and the period around 26 July, when Cubans celebrate the anniversary of the revolution, are also very busy.

Currency: Cuban peso (Cu$) Meals

  • Budget: US$5-10
  • Mid-range: US$10-20
  • Top-end: US$20 and upwards
  • Budget: US$15-25
  • Mid-range: US$25-100
  • Top-end: US$100 and upwards

Cash US dollars and 'convertible pesos' (equal to US greenbacks in Cuba; worth the same as Monopoly money elsewhere) remain the currency of choice at state-owned and licensed private hotels and restaurants; bus, train and airline offices; and most other tourist-oriented enterprises. Cuban pesos, or moneda nacional, can be used at local venta libre stores, cafeterias and street stands, cinemas, and many other businesses away from popular tourist destinations. Candeca, with kiosks throughout Cuba, changes currency at fair rates. Credit cards issued by US companies may be accepted, but be aware that the US could theoretically confiscate the entire transaction, leaving you high, dry and further in debt.

A Visa or MasterCard (or two) issued by a non-US bank is the way to go. Traveler's checks denominated in US dollars, even those issued by US banks (at last report, the Banco Financiero Internacional was happily accepting American Express), can be cashed with a 2.5-4% commission. For a Caribbean destination, Cuba is still reasonably affordable, though not cheap. A double room in a medium-priced beachside resort runs US$50, US$100 all-inclusive. The same room in a state-run hotel costs around US$35, and in a private residence US$15-25. A meal in a state-run restaurant is US$10-15, while dinner for one at a paladar (privately owned restaurant) averages US$7. Taking the bus or train runs about US$4 for 100 miles (160km), while a rental car could cost as much as US$100 a day, more than in neighboring Florida. Cuban tourism workers rely on tips. People who deserve a US$1 tip include museum staff who give you a complete tour, hotel guards who watch your rental car all night, helpful bus drivers, attentive waitstaff or anyone in the service industry who goes beyond the call of duty.

Do not offer money to officials to obtain preferential treatment; governmental corruption is rare in Cuba and attempted bribery will only make things worse. Paladars may or may not add 10-20% onto your bill as a 'tax' or 'service charge.' If you suspect a scam, ask to keep the bill and see what happens. All private businesses are heavily taxed to discourage competition with state-run entities, and the added costs are, of course, passed on to you. Avoid jineteros (touts) who offer to lead you to a room or restaurant, unless you don't mind having an extra US$5 or so tacked onto your bill. Refrain from handing out money or anything else to children or beggars on the street. Cubans are not allowed to beg from tourists, and plainclothes police are on duty in most places where tourists and Cubans mix. It may be gratifying to hand out trinkets to people you view as needy, but these people could be questioned as soon as you disappear from sight, and you may be personally responsible for sending someone to prison.

It's thought that humans first cruised from South America to Cuba around 3500 BC. Primarily fishers and hunter-gatherers, these original inhabitants were later joined by the agriculturalist Taino, a branch of the Arawak Indians. Christopher Columbus sighted Cuba on 27 October 1492, and by 1514, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar had conquered the island for the Spanish crown and founded seven settlements. When captured Taino chief and resistance fighter Hatuey was condemned to die at the stake, he refused baptism, saying that he never wanted to see another Spaniard again, not even in heaven.

Cattle ranching quickly became the mainstay of the Cuban economy. Large estates were established on the island under the encomienda system, enslaving the Indians under the pretext of offering instruction in Christianity. By 1542, when the system was abolished, only around 5000 Indians (of an estimated 100,000 half a century before) survived. Undaunted, the Spanish imported African slaves as replacements. Unlike in the North American slave trade, Cuba's African slaves retained their tribal groupings, and certain aspects of their culture endure. By the 17th century, other European powers were beginning to challenge Spain's grip on the Caribbean: The British took Jamaica in 1655 and Haiti fell to the French in 1697. British troops invaded Cuba in June 1762 and occupied Havana for 11 months, importing more slaves and vastly expanding Cuba's trade links. In 1817, Spain's long-standing monopoly on tobacco ended, which raised prices, encouraging the crop's expansion. Tobacco quickly became one of the islands most imoprtant products. Sugar had also become a major industry, as American independence in 1783 created new markets, and the 1791 slave uprising in Haiti eliminated Cuba's biggest sugar-producing competitor. By 1820 Cuba was the world's largest sugar producer.

After the great liberator, Simón Bolivár, led Mexico and South America to independence, Cuba and Puerto Rico were the only remaining Spanish holdings in the Western Hemisphere. Spanish loyalists fled the former colonies and arrived in Cuba in droves. Even they, however, began demanding home rule for the island, albeit under the Spanish flag. In October 1868, planter Carlos Manuel de Céspedes launched Cuba's First War of Independence. After 10 years and 200,000 deaths, the rebels were spent and a pact was signed granting them amnesty. Meanwhile, a group of Cuban rebels exiled to the USA began plotting the overthrow of the Spanish colonial government. Among their ranks was José Martí, a respected journalist and critic of US policy, as well as an important poet and the author of the best-known Cuban song of all time, Guajira guantanamera which was then made famous by the composer Jeseíto Fernandez Diaz. Martí and his military commander, General Máximo Gómez, landed on eastern Cuba in 1895; within days Martí, conspicuous on his white horse, was shot and killed in a skirmish with Spanish soldiers. His martyrdom earned him the permanent position of Cuba's national hero. Gómez and rebel leader Antonio Maceo pushed westward, burning everything in their path. Spain came down hard, forcing civilians into reconcentración camps and publicly executing rebel sympathizers. These methods effectively reestablished Spanish control, but Cuba's agriculture-based economy was in ruins. The Spaniards adopted a more conciliatory approach, offering Cuba home rule, but the embittered populace would agree to nothing short of full independence.

José Martí had long warned of US interest in Cuba, and in 1898 he was proved right. After years of reading lurid (and often inaccurate) tabloids tales about Cuba's Second War for Independence, the American public was fascinated with the island. Although everything was quiet, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst told his illustrator not to come home just yet: 'You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war.' In January 1898 the US warship Maine, anchored outside Havana harbor, exploded mysteriously. All but two of its officers were off the ship at the time. The Spanish-American war had begun. Spain, weakened by conflict elsewhere, limped to battle, trying to preserve some dignity in the Caribbean. They nearly beat future US president Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders (though they'd had to leave their horses on the mainland) in the Battle of San Juan Hill. The USA's vastly superior forces eventually prevailed, however, and on December 12, 1898, a peace treaty ending the war was signed. The Cubans, including General Calixto García, whose largely black army had inflicted dozens of defeats on the Spanish, were not invited. The USA, hobbled by a law requiring its own government to respect Cuban self-determination, could not annex Cuba outright, as it did Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Instead, they installed a governor, General John Brooke, and began a series of public works projects, building schools and improving public health, that further tied Cuba to the USA.

US leaders did retain the legal right to intervene militarily in Cuba's domestic affairs: In 1903, the USA built a naval base at Guantánamo Bay that is still in operation today. By the 1920s US companies owned two-thirds of Cuba's farmland, imposing tariffs that crippled Cuba's own manufacturing industries.

Discrimination against blacks was institutionalized. Tourism based on drinking, gambling and prostitution flourished. The hardships of the Great Depression led to civil unrest, which was violently quelled by President Gerado Machado y Morales. In 1933 Morales was overthrown in a coup, and army sergeant Fulgencio Batista seized power. Over the next 20 years Cuba crumbled, and its assets were increasingly placed into foreign hands. On January 1, 1959, Batista's dictatorship was overthrown after a three-year guerilla campaign led by young lawyer Fidel Castro. Batista fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic, taking with him US$40 million of government funds. Castro was named prime minister and began reforming the nation's economy, cutting rents and nationalizing landholdings larger than 400 hectares. Relations with the USA, already shaky, deteriorated when he nationalized US-owned petroleum refineries that had refused to process Venezuelan oil. The Americans retaliated by cutting Cuban sugar imports, crippling the Cuban economy, and the CIA began plotting devious ways to overthrow the revolutionary government. Desperate for cash, Castro turned to the Soviet Union, which promptly paid top dollar for Cuba's sugar surplus.

In 1961, 1400 CIA-trained Cuban expats, mainly upper-middle-class Batista supporters who had fled to Miami after the revolution, attacked the island at the Bay of Pigs. They were promptly captured and ransomed back to the US for medical supplies. The following week, Castro announced the 'socialist nature' of the revolutionary government, something he'd always denied. The Soviet Union, always eager to help a struggling socialist nation (particularly one so strategically located) sent much-needed food, technical support and, of course, nuclear weapons. The October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is said to be the closest the world has ever come to nuclear conflict.

The missiles were shipped back to the USSR, and the USA declared an embargo on Cuba.

Castro and his Minister of Economics, Che Guevara, began actively supporting guerilla groups in South America and Africa, sending troops and advisers to assist socialist insurgencies in Zaire, Angola, Mozambique, Bolivia (where Guevara was killed) and Ethiopia. The US response was to support dictators in many of those countries. By the 1970s, Cuba had limited itself to sending doctors and technicians abroad; there were problems enough at home.

Despite massive Soviet aid, the Cuban command economy was in ruins, and the country's plight worsened in 1989 when Russia withdrew its aid as Eastern Europe collapsed. In December 1991, the Cuban Constitution was amended to remove all references to Marxism-Leninism, and economic reforms began. In 1993, laws passed allowing Cubans to own and use US dollars, be self-employed and open farmers' markets. Taxes on dollar incomes and profits were levied in 1994, and in September 1996 foreign companies were allowed to wholly own and operate businesses and purchase real estate. These measures gradually brought the economy out of its post-Soviet tailspin. The US responded by stiffening its embargo with the Helms-Burton Act, ironically solidifying Castro's position as defender of Cuba against the evil empire. The Cuban government has long been criticized for its human rights record; at least 500 people are 'prisoners of conscience' for criticizing Cuba's present leadership or for attempting to organize political opposition. When Pope John Paul II visited the island in January 1998, he condemned both the Cuban government's heavy hand and the US government's embargo. Each year, hundreds of Cubans brave the shark-infested waters separating Cuba from the USA, hoping to make a landfall that guarantees US citizenship and support from the wealthy Cuban exile community in Miami, Florida.

In November 1999, six-year-old Elián González, whose mother died during that dangerous trip, made it to Miami by clinging to an innertube. This prompted an unusual custody battle between the boy's great uncle, a Cuban exile living in the US, and Elián's father, a Communist Party member who wanted his son returned to Cuba. Surprisingly, US officials enforced a court order returning Elián to his father. In addition, bills that would relax the embargo, particularly food and medicine, as well as travel restrictions between the countries have a great deal of support in the US congress. While no one expects US-Cuba relations to normalize anytime soon, these events may well be a step toward reconciliation, something that might make the day-to-day life of the average Cuban a little bit easier.

African slaves brought rhythms and ritual dances to Cuba, where they were blended with Spanish guitars and melodies and then appropriated and developed throughout the Americas (the USA in the 1920s jumped to rumba rhythms, and these, fused with jazzy horn sections and drums, became the big-band sound). The conga-line dance was developed by slaves shackled together, while much of contemporary Cuban dance has important associations with Afro-Cuban Santería religion. The most popular Cuban music today is son, which developed in the hills of the Oriente before the turn of the century and incorporates guitars, tres (a small Cuban stringed instrument with three pairs of strings), double bass, bongos, claves, maracas and voice. Mambo, bolero, salsa and chachachá music also derived from this form. The most famous exponents of Cuban music were Pérez Prado and Benny Moré, but Cuban music continues to evolve and there are a great many artists still making great music.

The country's most famous literary figure is José Martí, whose life, ideas and martyr's death confirmed him as a national hero, but other Cuban literary greats include Cirilo Villaverde y de la Paz (1812-94), Alejo Carpentier (1904-80), Nicolás Guillén (1902-89) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929-). Cuba's filmmakers include Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1928-96), whose Strawberry and Chocolate was highly lauded, and Humberto Solás, whose works also received much international acclaim. Painters Wilfredo Lam (1902-82) and Marianao Rodríguez (1912-90) are amongst the most important the country has produced, and Manuel Mendive (1944-) is regarded as Cuba's foremost living painter.

After the revolution the arts were actively supported by the government: many theatres, museums and arts schools were founded, musicians were guaranteed a salary and a national film industry was established. The government has sought to redress the influence of North American mass culture by subsidizing Afro-Cuban cultural groups and performing ensembles. Historically, Roman Catholicism has been the dominant religion in Cuba and it remains so, with around 40% of Cubans at least nominally Catholic and some 4% of the population Protestan. The loose institutional organization of Santería, an afro-Cuban religion, hides the fact that a majority of Cubans are affiliated with this Afro-Catholic religious fusion in one way or another, and their numbers have grown since the government ended its official atheism in 1992. True to the country's mestizo culture, Cubans grafted Catholicism onto African religions brought over by slaves, resulting in Afro-Cuban equivalent gods for the major Catholic saints - and the occasional animal sacrifice. When Pope John Paul II crowned Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patroness, devotes of Santería swelled with pride, for they identify the Virgin of Cobre with their very own Ochun, goddess of love and abundance.

Cuban cuisine is a mix of Spanish and African techniques, using local produce. Dishes like Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christian; black beans and rice), arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) and picadillo (minced beef and rice) are common, as are soups made with plantains, chick-peas or beans. There are, however, food shortages in Cuba and eating out can mean long waits at state-run restaurants or hotel dining rooms. Cuban beer (cerveza) is excellent and the cocktails are legendary.