October 20th 2004, Castro tripped and fell following a speech he gave in a rally , smashed a kneecap and fractured his right arm.
I called my friend Jeannie urgently " We've got to go to Cuba before Castro dies !"
Within 3 months we were in Havana .
Apart from booking a room through the internet with a family home stay for the first few days in Havana , we pre-arranged nothing else, had no itinerary and no specific plan . We were going to wing it .
We hired Peter through Melba our home stay hostess , to take us round Havana in his battered old car . Peter was a retired engineer , one of the lucky few who owned a private car in Cuba . He had to continue working because of careless family planning , which led to 5 daughters over a span of 30 years , with the result that at this time of his life 3 of the girls were still in school , the youngest just 7 years old . His oldest daughter worked for the Agricultural Dept while the second daughter's a film director . With 1/2 of one film to her credit, she had found it hard to obtain another filming licence , which meant she's basically unemployed . Poor Peter looked to having to work till he's at least 75 !
Havana reflects its history of five centuries in its buildings , from the Renaissance style fortresses , the Moorish churches, the Cuban Baroque palaces, to the 19th century Neo-classical and the 20th century Art Nouveau buildings . The US blockade prevented proper maintenance of the buildings but to me the shabbiness is part of the city's charm . The irony is if not for the blockade many of the buildings might have already been bulldozed to give way to blank modern blocks like many of the other cities in the world .
We were diligent and methodical tourists rivaling the Germans ; we wanted to see everything and more - we wanted to visit the local wet market . As we came out of the market I spotted a low building near by.
"What's this building ? " I asked and before Peter could say Aye I had already pushed through the door and rushed inside .
I found myself in a huge hall like a warehouse , with several tables dotted at intervals , each with a scale on or next to it, and bags and barrels of rice , beans, oil and other food stuff stacked against the walls . It was lunchtime so the hall was deserted .
This is the Rationing Libreta de Abastecimiento ( Supplies booklet ) distribution system , Peter explained , it was installed in March 1962 , meant initially to be a temporary relief measure but somehow is still operational today .The ration is different according to age and gender , e.g. the over 65 are entitled to different allowances , as are pregnant ladies and people with special diet- medical certificate . Children are allowed 3 different toys per child per year , and each family a certain number of clothing , shoes and home products . Thanks to this system nobody starves in Cuba , or goes barefoot . Unwittingly the US embargo has pulled the Cubans together for over 40 years !
Havana is surprisingly easy to get about on foot . Each evening after we released Peter back to his family we would start the serious business of roaming the streets looking for dinner.
The first evening we headed first to the Havana Melia Cohiba , the city's most fashionable hotel, for a Mojito : a classic Cuban cocktail made with sugar, lime, mint , white rum and club soda. From then on it became a tradition to start the evening with either a Mojito or a Daiquiri, both favourite drinks of Hemingway's , now also mine .
Since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 Cuba hit hard times, and in 1993 Castro legalized self-employment for some 150 occupations and the following year the US dollars ( fula ) , and welcomed foreign tourists with open arms . Since then all over the country people opened their homes to either take in tourists or converted their front parlour into small private restaurants ( paladares ) . This has resulted in a two-tier economy , one based on US dollars and the other on Peso, and vast different standard of living . The population is thus tourist apartheid .
I loved dinning at the paladares , and I 'd always find an excuse to wander into the rest of the house, stuffed with worn out furniture which was once the most fashionable money could buy .
We were told strict regulations are imposed on the paladares , each can seat no more than 12 people ( or 3 tables ), and can only employ family members .
Both the home stay and restaurant have to pay set monthly fees regardless of income earned . The intention is to eventually lure people back to the public sector .
Cuban cuisine is a fusion of Spanish and Caribbean cooking . Like the Chinese meal , the traditional Cuban meal has no courses and all food items are served at the same time .
The meals on offer were always the same : black beans and rice (moros y cristianos) which I loved , plantains which I hated , one meat , which was either lechon asado ( roaste pig with onions) , or chicken , as it was illegal for the locals to eat beef at the time of our visit , and it was almost impossible to get fresh sea food . For a tropical island the choice of vegetable was dismal, which were Batata ( sweet potato) , cassava , tomato and cucumber . The meal was rounded up with either some strange dessert ( e.g. a block of cheese swimming in liquid jam ) or some tropical fruit like guavas .
But we were itching to get out of Havana and see the rest of Cuba. After a hurried discussion we decided to fly to Santiago de Cuba at the other end of the country, then drive back to Havana, stopping at cities en route .
We ran into trouble right after stepping off the plane.
The home stay Melba recommended us was taken, and nobody at the airport spoke English . Jeannie, normally fairly proficient in Spanish, couldn't communicate with the locals because her Spanish is too pure ! Apparently the Cuban Spanish has weak consonants , a strange lilt of the tongue and
peculiar speech pattern and vocabulary –a result of historic influences of Canarian and African migration . So I did what I've always done in the past
traveling in parts of the world where I have no language , I pulled out my note book and drew them what we wanted : a house, a bed, a car.... and in no
time at all we were settled in with another family.
Sofia , our house hostess , spoke a little English and made the most sumptuous breakfast . As in all the other homes we've stayed in, aside from the core family members of 3 generation who were permanent residents of the address, there was a constant stream of what we assumed to be relatives flitting in and out of the house , some occasionally staying overnight . Poking around I found in a side room an emaciated semi-comatose old woman in a bed , rattling with laboured breathing. Deciphering complex convoluted broken English and gesticulations from Sophia's mother-in-law, I conjectured her to be an aunt of some sort the hospitals had given up and dispatched home to die. The Cubans have the strongest sense of family I've ever seen
We thought it'd be easy to hire a car to drive to the next city and we couldn't be more wrong . There were maybe 3-4 places one could book private transport in the whole city, and after wasted half a day trotting to and fro between them to compare prices we found in exasperation that although under different names, all the companies were in fact owned by the same boss – the Cuban Government ! For some illogical reason it was cheaper to hire a driver and the car than just the car and to drive ourselves , which was just as well, for throughout the trip I'd not seen a gas station , which must be hidden away like missile launch pads !
It was with great reluctance that we tore ourselves away from Santiago de Cuba , a beautiful city filled with sensuous music and dance clubs, and is the site of the original Barcardi Rum factory .
Cities we decided to stop at were Holguin, Camaguey , Trinidad and Santa Clara , changing vehicle at each place . Wised up, we arranged the next lodging and transport through the car company and saved ourselves a lot of hassles .
Elizebeth , our contact hostess in Trinidad, lived with her husband , a retired professor , and a small granddaughter. Her daughter died of leukaemia a couple of years back, but she had remained close to her son-in-law and showed great interest in his new courtship as if he's her son. Elizebeth herself got pregnant at 15, but was able to finish her studies because her mother took over the care of the baby, and eventually became an English teacher .
Unwanted teenage pregnancies' not uncommon given the relaxed carefree Caribbean attitude to life , but adult contraceptive use is 80% and legal abortion is free on demand , with the result birth rate in Cuba ( 11.6 births per thousand population in 2003 ) is one of the lowest in the Western Hemisphere . The Cuban government tries to encourage birth by giving one year maternity leave on full pay but to no avail.
Cubans are immensely proud of their medical services and for a reason . Cuba has the highest life-expectancy (heart disease and cancer predominate as causes of death) and lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America , and boasts the highest doctor to patient ratio ( 1 for 170 residents ) in the world after Italy . In 1986 after the Chernobyl disaster more than 20,000 children from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were sent for treatment in Cuba . Currently Cuba has about 25,000 doctors in 68 Third World nations on various medical missions , and the newest project the Mission Barrio Adentro (Mission Into the Neighborhood ) with Venezuela is for exchange of subsidized oil . Cuba also attracts many foreign paying health tourists for conditions including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's and retinitis pigmentosa , all deemed incurable in the West . At this time 3432 students from 23 nations are studying Medicine in Cuba .
But all is not well with the medical profession as appeared on the surface.
Mrs Rolando, our hostess in Santa Clara, was a paediatrician . With a doctor's monthly salary of 261 Pesos ( already 1.5 times the national mean), her purchasing power was US 15-20 dollars per month . Every morning she'd clean our room before leaving for the clinic, and in the evening rush back to
make us dinner ; she really needed her house guests to make ends meet . Her oldest son's a bright young ophthalmologist , but his biggest ambition was a visa to New York .All the medical books on her shelf were pre-70's , the newest one was an 80's edition of Harrison's , a gift from a former house guest, a Porphyria patient from France . Mrs Rolando was also sent soap, shampoo, toothbrush and toothpaste from aboard by other house guests , but what she wanted of us , after learning we were doctors, were new needles and syringes .
The 1960 US trade embargo was stepped up in 1992 . Under the Democracy Act all US and foreign subsidiaries of US drug and medical equipment corporations were prohibited from selling to Cuba , forcing Cuba to use more of its limited resources to buy from higher priced non-US companies . In
addition the Act forbids ships that docked in Cuban ports from docking in US ports for 6 months , increasing shipping costs some 30% . After fiercely
condemned by Lancet , BMJ and Oxfam America , in 2000 the Trade Sanctions Reform Enhancement Act was passed as appeasement . Transactions of US food and medicine are now permitted but subjected to severe restrictions and complicated procedures. Cuba is obliged to make payment in cash and in advance , but precluded from obtaining credit funding even from private sources , and transportation of goods require separate licence for each transaction. Cuba cannot use its own merchant fleet for transporting these goods, but has to make use of vessels from third countries, and the US payment had to be made through banks in third countries since banking relationships are prohibited . In 2006 both the UN Secretary – General and WHO agreed after examining the Cuban delegation report that it was virtually impossible for Cuba to purchase equipment, medicines and laboratory materials produced by the US or covered by US patents under this Act .
Santa Clara's an important industrial and university town, but is better known for its association with Che.
Che Guevara was a dermatologist turned Marxist guerrilla , he was from Argentina but made his fame in Cuba fighting alongside Castro. He was of Spanish and Irish descent which explains his good looks, and his face has become the most recognized symbol of rebellion and revolution in the world.
He was captured and executed in Bolivia in 1967 by multiple shots to the legs, to avoid maiming his face for identification purposes, and his hands
were surgically amputated by the military doctor .
Felix Rodriguez , the CIA agent who tipped off the Bolivian government and led to Che's demise, took some of his personal items after his death . Now
his Rolex watch and flashlight are on display at the CIA .
In 1997 the skeletal remains of Che's handless body was exhumed near Vallergrande , and on the 17th Oct of the same year, along with those of 17
of his fellow combatants killed during the guerrilla campaign in Bolivia, was laid to rest with full military honors in Santa Clara where he had won the decisive battle of the Cuban Revolution.
We visited the Tren Blindado (armored train derailed by Che ), the Plaza de la Revolution dominated by a bronze statue of Che and the Mausoleo del Che,
where Che's remains are inset in the wall , and the museum of photographs and mementoes that trace Che's life from childhood to his death .
The eternal flame in the mausoleum was lit by Castro and the Cuban state continued to cultivate Che's cult of personality . Children across the country begin each school day with the chant "Pioneros por el Comunismo, Seremos como el Che !" ( Pioneers for Communism, we will be like Che !)
The dark side to Che which led to his nick name "The Butcher of la Cabana”is conveniently ignored , when he was accused to have executed thousands of
people without trial or defense after the Revolution.
Since being deserted by the Soviet , Cuba has improved relationship with China which has become the main source of aid . I met quite a few Chinese college students in Cuba because there's no visa requirement and the US 4000-7000 tuition fee for foreign students is more affordable than other countries , but many simply use coming to Cuba as a stepping stone. One guy told me he'd come to Cuba to learn Spanish but his real goal was to join his girl friend and work in Spain .
The level of education and literacy in Cuba is impressive. In 1961 more than 100,000 student volunteers aged from ten to 19 joined the "literacy brigadistas" and Cuba's overall illiteracy rate reduced from over 20% in 1958 to 3.9% in 1995. There's even a scheme of Distance Education which provides regular afternoon and evening courses in rural areas for agricultural workers .
Education is free for local students through to college . School attendance is compulsory from ages 6 to 16, the color of the school uniforms denotes grade level. About 90% complete high school and 70-80% go to college.
On the last day of the trip I went to China Town ( Barrio Chino de La Habana) to look up the one and only surviving Chinese-language newspaper in
Cuba , the Kwong Wah Po. I went alone because nobody else's interested .
I ran into Fernando right away who wanted to know where I was from.
"Hong Kong " I said , and he exclaimed " I'm Chinese too ! "
"No way ! "I said, scrutinizing his Cuban face .
"Yes way ! " he got very excited " I'm 1/4 Chinese, my grandfather came from Guangdong ! He gave me a Chinese name " He proceeded to scribble some
rickety Chinese words which was his name , then pulled a man from behind a shop and said "This is my uncle, he looks more Chinese as he's 1/2
Unfortunately to my untrained eye neither of them looked remotely Cantonese. ( see photo )
Chinese immigration to Cuba started in 1847 when the Spanish settlers brought in Cantonese and Hakka workers from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan to
work the fields, and replace the blacks after the abolishment of slavery . Most stayed on after their contract and married into the larger Spanish, mulatto and Afro-Cuban population . The valiant participation of the Chinese in the Spanish-American War won them respect in Cuban society , and Havana's China Town was one of the earliest and largest in Latin America.
The proximity to the US has powerful influence on the history of Cuba .
There was real fear of annexation by the increasingly expansionist US throughout the years of pro-independence movement against the Spanish rule. In1898 the McKinley administration placed Cuba under a 20-year US trusteeship after kicking out the Spanish in the Spanish-American War. Although Theodore Roosevelt abandoned the trusteeship when he became President in1901 and the Republic of Cuba gained formal independence on 20thMay 1902 , the US retained the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and to supervise its finances and foreign relations , until Castro's Revolution. Under the Platt Amendment , Cuba was made to lease to the US the naval base at Guantanamo Bay which has gained notoriety as the center of unlawful detention and torture of prisoners .
Castro became Prime Minister of Cuba in 1959 and is the world's longest-ruling current head of Government .
It is easy to see why the US hates Castro , not lest because of the humiliation of the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 , the Missile Crisis in 1962 ; his affiliation to the Soviet Union and socialist ideology, but also because of the show of courage and defiance of a small island state against a powerful giant nation at its door and could still hold its own , for over 40 years . The bully at the playground's met his match ! There are on record over 600 attempts on Castro's life by the CIA ( the Cuban Project ) and he's still here !
Unlike all the other leaders of socialist and communist countries, Castro does not promote personal cult , I was surprised to find there are no streets in Cuba named after him , no statues or peso bills bearing his image .
I'm glad to have visited Castro's Cuba while he's still alive , there's no telling what would happen to the country when he's gone . Cuba might end up just another Caribbean island , worse still , another Caribbean island in America's pocket .
The Alberto Korda photo of Che Guevara was proclaimed by The Maryland College of Art to be " the most famous photograph in the world and a symbol of the 20th century ". The image transformed into a monochrome graphic is reproduced endlessly on a vast array of merchandise : t-shirts, posters, coffee mugs, baseball caps ……… Che must be turning in his grave
In 1980 ( April – June ) Castro granted permission for anyone who desired to leave the country to do so through the Port of Mariel , and over 125,000
Cubans left for Miami via private boats in what is known as the Mariel Boatlift . For a while the joke was the Cuban national anthem had been changed to " Row, Row, Row your boat"
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw another unregulated exodus of asylum seekers to US. Seeking to normalize migration between the two countries , in 1994 the Clinton-Castro accords was set up, whereby the US grants a specific number of visas to those wishing to emigrate, while those
caught at sea without a visa are returned to Cuba . But the number of Cubans leaving illegally by sea is still 2,000 a year .
Since the Carter era, US policy has evolved into the current " wet feet, dry feet " rule: any Cuban picked up at sea or caught while walking towards shore ( wet feet ) would be repatriated by force , but if he/she is caught on shore ( dry feet ) , he/she is permitted to make a case for political asylum .
It was under this absurd rule that the saga of Elian Gonzalez was played out in 1999.
After the Revolution many Chinese left for the States , and there're just a few hundred "pure" Chinese left in Cuba , most of them came to Cuban in the 1950's , and all over 75 years old .The Cuban government launched a Chinese Cultural Center with language and martial arts classes so as to preserve
Chinese culture and history in Cuba . They also made attempts to attract investment from Mainland China and overseas Chinese, particularly Chinese
Jose Marti ( 1853-1895 ) is considered the National Hero of Cuba. He was a leader of the Cuban independence movement against Spanish rule as well as
a renowned poet and writer . He was also a staunch opposer to the US annexation of Cuba.
Cuba is the happiest socialist country I'd been to : the land of rum and cigars.
Tropicana Club, launched in 1939, is an outdoor cabaret still performing nightly in the tropical gardens of Villa Mina . With tickets selling at US 90 each ( front seats ) they're definitely making a capitalist killing .
We also saw the Buena Vista Social Club at the Hotel National, and drank at the bar where Clark Gable and Winston Churchill lingered half a century