Taking an aerial view of the Cuban capital Havana reminds me of a stale old wedding cake, the bride and groom long since devoiced and departed leaving behind this faded relic of their nuptials. The elegant facades of the once beautiful buildings now crumble like icing sugar around the ears of the occupants, who in turn retaliate with brightly coloured washing lines, like little flags of defiance against this grim and desperate backdrop.
Down below along the cool tree-lined avenues and tight dusty alleyways, the world spins to a salsa rhythm of orderly confusion as a throbbing population intertwine with the mobile museum of auto memorabilia.The pride of a General Motor’s, ironically a long departed slice of iconic American history, Chevrolets and Cadillacs (that Hemingway would have recognised and maybe even rode in) still grind out their daily battle against rust and pot holed roads, their brakes whining like scolded cats at each turn of a corner. The clock stopped in Havana 60 years ago but its heart keeps beating.
Cuba like the building of its capital is a bit of a conundrum. After 60 years of trade embargoes by the US and the withdrawal of cash support from the then USSR in 1993, you would expect to find this little country with its 11 million seemingly impoverished people in disarray and like so many of its Latin neighbours, in a state of social civil war with its government, a state of chaos. Yet nothing could be further from the truth,in fact statistically Cuba is an amazing success.
In the space of 21 years from the collapse of the centrally planned economy of the Soviet Union that impacted on Cuba, resulting in a loss of 80% of its trade and subsides, which in turn lead to a famine referred to now as the Special period in Cuban history. It is said that during that period of serious food shortages people were reduced to eating domestic pets and even animals in the Havana zoo. But today Cuba is a world leader in medical research and has the kind of medical care that so impressed President Obama. It also boast a booming tourist industry and has done all of this in isolation of a world now itself in a recession and decline and regardless of Obama suggestions of open trade links is still largely ignored.
But quite apart from Cuba’s social and economic history, where does all this leave the children of the revolution. Walk down any city street and you get a strange unnerving feeling something very large and important is missing, the name of this monster is of course consumerism,the cultural accessories we drape around ourselves like a hookers jewellery, the phones, pads and all the other toys we have learnt not to be able to live without and their absence in the busy streets screams at you.Where is the advertising, brand-name shops,fast food restaurants or chain super markets. We have travelled so far down the gadget road,that not seeing a single person staring down at a phone is unnerving, a place where if you want to talk to a friend, you physically have to talk to them face to face, the only music played is live.This country is in fact unique in its isolation of both modern Americanization and consumerism, although strangely retro American in so many ways. Nowhere else in the world is there such a blank canvas, a living museum, an uncomfortable insight into our own not so distant past, a world before the process of augmentation began. With trade links opening up again to the outside world things will change for better and worst in the near future, but who knows perhaps the people may look back to the Cuba of today with nostalgia at the things they never realized they had.
Words Pictures David Coomber TheFitz
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