Is Cuba ‘Frozen in Time’?

Visiting Cuba today reveals classic American cars and crumbling buildings – a country paused in time, but is this correct?

The Bumpy Relationship Between the United States and Cuba

It’s first important to understand the bumpy history between Cuba and the United States. For me, growing up with fairly average schooling in America, the extent of my knowledge of Cuba came from the epic failure that was Bay of Pigs. President John F. Kennedy’s feeble attempt at curbing the revolution in Cuba ended in a dark mark on his presidency. But the uneven relations between the two countries doesn’t begin with the revolution. We have to look back 100 years earlier to the 1850’s just before the Spanish-American war began.

In 1818, Cuba opened itself to world trade. Two years later, Thomas Jefferson declared the country as “the most interesting addition that could ever be made to our system of States.” Here ignites the deeply polarizing argument regarded whether the United States should adopt Cuba as one of its states or learn to recognize it as an independent nation. In 1854, a secret manifesto stemming from the then powerful ideal of Manifest Destiny was drafted and delivered to the Spanish government. It offered to buy Cuba for $130 million. In the name of Manifest Destiny, the manifesto declared that if Spain rejected the offer, a war would occur.

The plans were mistakenly revealed to the American public and received enormous backlash, forcing the government to back down. From 1868 to 1878, Cubans rose up against their Spanish rulers. The fight became known as the Ten Years’ War and unsurprisingly, earned incredible support from Americans. In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant backed the Cuban rebels. By 1877, the United States was purchasing 83% of Cuban exports and offering military support. This effectively linked the Cuban economy with their northern neighbor’s system.

When the second revolution in Cuba broke out in 1897, America offered to buy the nation from Spain for $300 million. Spain vehemently rejected the offer and sank the American battleship USS Maine in Havana Harbor. This gave way to the Spanish-American war. For Cubans, this fight between Spain and America was viewed as America’s involvement in the Cuban fight for independence. The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1989 between Spain and the United States in which Spain relinquished all rights of their possession of Cuba. From the United States’ point of view, Cuba was finally up for grabs. American investors bought up parts of the island until 1902 when Cuba was officially granted independence.

Part of the agreement in America’s withdrawal of Cuba was they would remain involved in Cuban’s foreign affairs. The Teller Amendment, signed just after the Spanish-American War ended, forbade America from exercising complete control over Cuba. However, the Platt Amendment of the early 1900s allowed that the United States remains deeply embedded in the functioning of external Cuban relations.

By 1926, companies based in the United States owned 60% of the Cuban sugar industry and imported 95% of Cuban crops. When Fulgencio Batista rose to power in the 1930s, the United States signed a Treaty of Relations and the relationship between the two governments cemented. This all changed when Fidel Castro ignited a widespread revolution that would alter the relations between America and Cuba to the modern day. The American government began refusing important exports to Cuba. After the Cuban Revolution had overthrown Batista, the United States officially recognized the Cuban government in 1959. However, the United States started enforcing trade restrictions to the island, which came with extreme concern given that a large amount of Cuba’s economic security was wrapped up in the United States.

Eventually, the United States stopped buying any Cuban exports. Cuba then formed a new bond with the Soviet Union, exporting petroleum. An attack in Havana Harbor killed 75 people and Castro blamed the United States. After this, President Eisenhower authorized CIA training to Cuban refugees, encouraging them to overthrow Castro’s government. In 1961, two Americans were arrested and deported from Cuba. That same year, the American embassy in Havana closed its doors.

When John F. Kennedy began president, he declared that President Eisenhower’s approach toward Cuba had been misled. In 1961, he induced the Bay of Pigs invasion, consisting of 1,500 armed Cuban rebels that had been trained by the CIA. After this failure, the United States government created “Operation Mongoose,” a plan to overthrow Castro’s government. It consisted of political and psychological propaganda that hoped to deplete Castro’s power. Tensions between the two countries were heightened when overhead images revealed pictures of missiles in Cuba, starting the Cuban Missle Crisis. When this resolved, the United States placed an embargo on Cuba, forbidding American trade and travel in conjunction with the island.

The close of the Cold War disemboweled the Soviet Union, leaving Cuba without its central sponsor. It sent Cuba into a difficult financial territory. Some United States companies began offering humanitarian aid. The next several years passed with rollercoaster relations. Planes were shot down in Cuban airspace, killing American passengers. The CIA remained on the ground in Cuba, sparking concern and distrust among Cuban people. President Bill Clinton worked to ease relations with the country by loosening travel restrictions. In 2002, President Jimmy Carter visited Cuba and was the first to do so since 1928. However, relations changed again when President George W. Bush declared that Cuba was one of the few “outposts of tyranny” left in the world.

Castro announced his resignation in 2008. In the years leading up to this, the American government had made some efforts to thaw the icy Cuban-American relationship. In 2009, President Barack Obama began tugging back on the tight regulations with Cuba. He signed a spending bill which allowed business between the two nations to slowly begin to repair itself. Another bill made it easier for travel between the two countries and another offered increased Internet access to parts of Cuba.

Starting in 2013, Cuban President Raul Castro and President Obama began hushed conversations overseen by the new Pope Francis. It was the beginning of a restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In 2014, embassies in Washington and Havana reopened. By 2015, Obama had removed Cuba from the “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list and a bond was officially reestablished that same year. Obama visited Cuba in March 2016, marking the first commercial flight between the two countries since the 1960s.

What the Cuban Government Looks Like

When a Cuban purchases a home, it’s a one-time payment. This is generally the cost of a month’s salary. They are responsible for the upkeep of the home and are only allowed to own one property in Cuba. Say you got a DUI. Your fee would likely be $3 and if you paid it within 3 days, it could easily be reduced to half that. Laws on prostitution, possession of firearms, and pornography are strictly enforced and come with punishments we may view as extreme. Being caught in possession of marijuana might cost you 20 years in prison.

Cuba is a communist country, but functions under a people’s democracy, which is different from the liberal democracy of most western societies.

Health care, rent, and education including college are all free. The government distributes a $40 monthly sum, but this is hardly enough to live on for most Cubans. Jobs in the service industry and tourism are huge and generally well paid. While wandering the streets of Cuba, you’ll often find people doing small favors in order to make a few pesos. A friend and I were making cubatas in the park alongside the Malecon. He was cutting a plastic water bottle in half that we were going to use for our drinks when a man with a fishing pole raced over. They spoke in quick Spanish – words I didn’t catch. Then the fisherman ran off to a cart selling water, soda, and snacks on the other side of the park. My friend told me he was going to get plastic cups. A few minutes later, he returned with two cups with ice and little red straws. My friend gave him a couple of pesos and everyone went on their way. These were complete strangers. It was merely one person doing a favor for another person in the hopes of making a small additional income. This is not uncommon.

Explaining the Old Fashioned Cars and Crumbling Buildings

When Castro seized power in the mid-1900s, one of his aims was to take from the rich and give to the poor. Most of those now iconic crumbling buildings you see lining the streets of Havana used to be homes of wealthier Cubans. They were the well-kempt and tidied homes of middle- to upper-class Cubans. Castro took their possessions, including their homes, and redistributed the wealth to lower class Cubans. However, now with larger homes, these Cubans had no means for the demanding upkeep these homes required. They fell to shambles.

Those classic American cars you see on the streets of Cuba that are so popular for tourists have been running on those streets for decades. Leading up to the 1950s, America was still importing cars into Cuba. After the revolution began, the embargo forged by the U.S. prevented car manufacturers from extending their reach into Cuba. Thus, the only cars that were somewhat available were those from the 1950s. Now, you can see more modern-looking cars on the streets of Havana, but with the popularity of classic cars with tourists, chances are they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

So Is Cuba Stuck in Time?

Most would answer ‘yes.’ Cuba is trapped somewhere before 1959. Even the prices seem to have remained – an entire bottle of white Havana Club Rum costs roughly 3.80 Cuban pesos. While externally, the city of Havana and others across the country seem to have stalled in the 1950s, internally, the mindset seems to have shifted. In my experience, Cubans I met were eager to show their country to me. For most, fierce love and pride for their homeland triumphs. Those in the tourism industry see the recent (somewhat) release on American travel to Cuba as an opportunity to show off their country and benefit them economically. As travelers, one of the best things we can do is visit Cuba and spend money, keeping in mind Americans are not permitted in government-run hotels or restaurants.

Cuba is trapped in the 1950s, but looking for forge ahead.

I urge you to visit. For the culture, the food, the people, the dancing, and everything Cuba has to offer, GO.

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