Havana Encore: Religion and Other National Passions
by Peter Flaherty

The eyes of the world were focused on Cuba during the summer of 2006, as speculation mounted about the island’s future in the dawning of the post-Fidel Castro era. The commandante who held the helm of Cuba’s communist revolution firmly in his grasp since he led his band of revolutionaries in triumph into the city of Havana in 1959, had fallen ill. And — temporarily — he transferred the reins of power to his younger brother, Raul.

But it appeared that the celebrations erupting in the streets of Miami’s strongly anti-Castro Cuban neighbourhoods, upon hearing of Castro’s illness, may have proved premature. The recovering lider maximo appeared on camera shortly after leaving hospital, and sporting a jaunty Adidas tracksuit. Nevertheless, uncertainty about the aging dictator’s health, and speculation about the fate of his revolution when he finally does depart from the scene, remain strong. Both inside Cuba itself and in the world at large, uncertainty about what is to come looms large.

Without a doubt, Cuba is currently in the throes of a dramatic transformation, and no one can be sure about what lies in store for this fascinating island and its warm, engaging people. For this reason, it is an especially interesting destination for those who are able to visit, as I did for the third time recently.

What I found on my latest trip to Cuba was a people struggling to make ends meet in a difficult and uncertain economic situation, but at the same time enjoying life and obsessed with a number of national passions that they are eager to share with foreign visitors.

Home Base

Among these are — in no particular order — religion, baseball, food and drink, music, humour, and history. While most Canadian and European tourists view Cuba primarily as a beach vacation destination, I prefer to base myself in the island’s beautiful and dynamic capital city when I visit. This time, I decided to stay at the legendary Hotel Nacional, a landmark property that commands a majestic site adjacent to the Malecon, Havana’s main seaside thoroughfare. From my hotel window, I could look out over the bay and take in the breathtaking views of the hotel’s spacious grounds and the glistening white façade of the Morro Castle, the Spanish fort that has commanded the entrance to Havana since colonial times.

Originally built in 1930, the Hotel Nacional was restored by a Spanish company in 1998, and is now regarded as the most prestigious accommodation in the city. Having last stayed there on my very first visit to Cuba in 1975, I was curious to discover how much it had changed since that time. The Cuban government has declared it a national monument, and it is indeed as much a museum as a hotel, since it has witnessed many of the most tumultuous events in the island’s colourful history.

Just across the Malecon from the hotel, for instance, is the monument erected to commemorate the 266 American sailors who lost their lives when their ship, the USS Maine, exploded under mysterious circumstances on February 15, 1898. This event, and the war cry it created, “Remember the Maine!” sparked the Spanish-American War, which resulted in Cuba winning its independence from its former colonial master, only to fall under the economic and political sway of the United States until Castro came to power.

Originally crowned by an iron eagle, which was removed after the 1959 revolution, the truncated monument looks out forlornly over Havana harbour, a symbol of Cuba’s long and frequently strained relationship with its North American neighbour. Some fragments of the eagle can be seen at Havana’s Museum of the Revolution, but apparently the head occupies pride of place at the Eagle Bar in the United States Special Interests Section. This is the closest thing to an American embassy in the city, and is located in a fortress-like edifice, surrounded by virulently anti-Bush propaganda posters, not far from the Hotel Nacional. Inscribed on the monument is this terse message, which the revolutionary government placed there just before the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion. “To the victims of the ‘Maine’ who were sacrificed by imperialist voraciousness in its zeal to seize the island of Cuba from February 15, 1898 to February 15, 1961.”

A more recent, and dangerous episode Cuba’s decades-long standoff with the United States is commemorated on the grounds of the hotel itself, near a huge Cuban flag that flies on a promontory overlooking the harbour. In the tense days of the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the Hotel Nacional was ground zero in a confrontation that came close to triggering a third World War.

A Close Call

Guided by Estela, a diminutive and very outgoing woman who recently retired from a career as a high school teacher, I visited the underground tunnels and bunkers where she and other members of the revolutionary militia had been based during the days of the crisis. She told me how, as a young university student at the time, she had listened anxiously to the American planes flying overhead, constantly wondering whether one of them might be poised to drop a nuclear weapon. She shared memories of meeting the revolution’s leaders, including the legendary Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Castro himself, who had visited the bunkers on morale-building trips. She also confessed to her feelings of relief when President Kennedy and Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev finally resolved the crisis peacefully, and she was able to resume her studies at Havana University.




On the walls of the bunkers there are interesting displays of sensationalistic newspaper headlines, photos, and other memorabilia of that time including a note from the producers of Thirteen Days, the recent Hollywood film (starring Kevin Costner) about the crisis, acknowledging Castro’s assistance in its making. A visit to the bunkers of the Hotel Nacional gives one a powerful, first-hand impression of a tumultuous event of recent North American history, one that almost led to a nuclear holocaust.

Walk of Fame

On a much lighter note, Estela’s excellent tour of the hotel also included a visit to its renowned “Hall of Fame,” where photos of some of the famous people who have stayed there since the 1930s are prominently displayed. Among them are film stars, writers, artists, heads of state, and more than a few dubious characters from Havana’s shady criminal past. One of the most enjoyable ways to pass time at the hotel is to sip an excellent mojito on the hotel’s beautiful inner courtyard, looking out on the impressive seaside view as peacocks stroll across the well-manicured lawn. It is pleasant to think that people as different as Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Meyer Lansky, Winston Churchill, Josephine Baker, and John Wayne — to say nothing of more recent guests like Naomi Campbell, Jack Nicholson, and Oliver Stone — have all probably done the same during their stays. Inside the hotel one can view the spacious, ornately decorated meeting room that the notorious gangster Meyer Lansky had set aside for secret meetings of his criminal syndicate in the days prior to the revolution.

Upstairs, on the second floor, Estela eagerly ushered us into the Nat “King” Cole suite, where the renowned jazz singer frequently stayed during his many appearances at the Hotel’s famous nightclub, the Cabaret Parisien. It has been kept exactly as it was, and its 1950s-era period décor is particularly charming. Estela pointed out that before the “triumph” of the revolution in 1959, the hotel was strictly segregated on racial grounds, and even the pre-revolutionary Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista had been denied entry because of his mixed racial background. For this reason, Nat “King” Cole had been granted special permission not only to perform there, but also to stay in one of its rooms. As a special fan of Nat’s vocal style, Estela was undeniably proud that the great crooner had once been a regular guest at the hotel whose history she so proudly recounts to those who take her tours.

Who's On First?

The Hotel Nacional contains many upscale restaurants, cafés, and shops, but in my opinion one of its most unusual, and perhaps even unexpected venues is the small Café el Rincon del Cine, located on the lower level adjacent to the main dining hall. This café is probably the closest thing one could find in Havana to an American-style burger joint, and the hamburgers, french fries, and hotdogs on offer there are all first rate. The day I visited, the wait staff and customers were all transfixed by what was taking place on television, namely the semi-final game of the World Baseball Championship, being played in San Diego, California. Cuba was facing the Dominican Republic, a team composed of some of the best players in the American and National Leagues, and passions were running high throughout Havana and the island at large.

Shortly before game time, I had looked out my hotel window and saw practically no one on the streets. Ever since my arrival in Cuba, I had noticed how important this series was to the people’s sense of national pride and love of the game. A few days before, while strolling along the tree-lined streets of Vedado, the formerly upscale neighbourhood near the hotel, I had come across group of men of all ages engaged in a fierce and animated discussion. Thinking at first it was a political rally, I approached gingerly, only to discover that I had come across one of Havana’s two esquinas calientes, or hot corners, where passionate baseball fans meet regularly to argue about their beloved game. Everywhere I had noticed houses bedecked with flags and posters sporting the confident claim Cuba campione! (Cuba champion!), expressing people’s fervent hope that the island would emerge triumphant in the all-important series.

Service was understandably slow as I waited for my lunch, while watching the game’s drama unfold on the large-screen television set up in the café. Everyone was enthralled with the action, as a young Cuban pitcher named Marti (the same last name as Cuba’s greatest national hero of the War of Independence, José Martí) faced down the likes of “Papi” Ortiz and other major league heavy hitters, striking many of them out. After a few tense moments, Cuba eventually won the game, and as soon as the last inning was over, the Hotel Nacional and the entire city surrounding it erupted in euphoria. A Cuban flag was unfurled in the lobby, with ecstatic staff and guests alike posing for pictures. Outside, crowds flocked to the Malecon, waving flags, singing, crying, and shouting. (As a Toronto native, it reminded me of similar scenes of jubilation in my home city when the local baseball team, the Blue Jays, won the World Series in 1992 and 1993.) I took a taxi through the chaotic streets to a private dinner engagement with some Cuban friends in Cerro, a decidedly run-down, untouristy quarter of Havana where the national passion for baseball probably runs higher than in any other place on the island.

Cerro’s people are known for two things: their love of rum and baseball. One of Cuba’s best distilleries, which turns out the renowned Ron Legendario, a delicious dark rum, is located in the area, as is Havana’s main baseball stadium, the Estadio Latinoamericano. It is home field to Los Industriales, the New York Yankees of Cuba’s National League, the team that has won far more championships than any other on the island. That evening, all of Cerro’s inhabitants seemed to be in the streets, rapturously celebrating the national team’s victory over its Dominican rivals. It was indeed a memorable experience for me to share this moment of triumph with ordinary Cubans, for whom life is frequently a difficult struggle. While Cuba eventually lost the final game of the series a few days later against a disciplined but decidedly colourless Japanese team, the national passion for baseball remains at a fever pitch. I wondered whether one day it might be possible to see the Cuban national team in action against an AL or NL franchise, or perhaps even the very best players that the United States could field against them. It had happened once before, when the Baltimore Orioles played some exhibition games in Havana during the 1990s. But with the chilly relations between the two countries now prevailing, such an intriguing prospect seemed sadly unlikely, at least for the immediate future.

Church and State

After experiencing the championship series in Havana, one could be forgiven for thinking that baseball was Cuba’s national religion! But despite decades of communist rule, the island’s people remain devoutly religious, and their spiritual expressions take on many distinct and unique forms. Cuba is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, where church and state have coexisted in a frequently uneasy relationship since the triumph of Castro’s revolution. For many years, however, Catholicism was barely tolerated, and believers found it difficult if not impossible to advance very far in state or communist party ranks, and occasionally faced political persecution. However, with the visit of the late pope John Paul II to the island in 1998, things began to change dramatically. Many of Havana’s priceless colonial-era churches, convents, and other religious buildings are being lovingly restored and turned into museums. Fidel himself has indicated his support for progressive tendencies within the Catholic Church, such as the gospel of “liberation theology” that stresses the church’s duty to support the poor and speak out against social and political injustices. He was especially gratified when the Pope denounced the long-running U.S. economic blockade against Cuba, and called for the normalization of relations between the two countries.

Today, many younger Cubans are actually returning to the faith of their forebears, while some are even embracing the new evangelical Protestant denominations, many of them offshoots of parent churches in the United States. It is not unusual to see young Cubans wearing crosses and other religious symbols, and Havana’s main cathedral in the old part of the city is starting to attract larger crowds of worshippers at Sunday mass, both locals and tourists alike. One of Cuba’s most fascinating religious beliefs, however, is santeria, the island’s version of Voodoo, which black slaves from Africa brought to the island during the period of the great “sugar boom” in Cuba’s colonial economy that began in the 18th century. Santeria is also known as the regla de ocha, and is believed to derive from the animistic religious cults practiced by the Yoruba people of West Africa. It centres on the worship of orishas, or nature deities that represent different natural phenomena in human form. For instance Chango is the god of thunder, Yemaya the goddess of the sea and motherhood, Ochun the goddess of love and fresh water, and Elegua the god of the crossroads, destiny, and prosperity. Far more than a bundle of superstitions and magical practices, santeria is a complex, complete religious system, with its own gods, beliefs, priests, and ceremonies. It retains a strong hold over the minds of many Cubans to this day, and when Castro was hospitalized in the summer of 2006, the government invited santeria priests, called babalawos, to pray for the leader’s speedy recovery.

To fully appreciate the importance of this religious cult in contemporary Cuba, the best place to visit is the Museo de los Orishas (museum of the orishas) located in central Havana just across from the Parque Central. Unlike almost every other museum in the city, this is a privately-run institution that receives no official support from any government body, and depends solely on visitors’ donations for its maintenance. Upon entering the main exhibition room, I was met by a young man who told me in excellent English that he was training to be a babalawo. He explained to me the importance of each person’s discovering his own personal orisha, or spiritual guide who would assist him or her in dealing with life’s joys and challenges, and finding the correct path to follow. When I asked him how I could know mine, he told me to just gravitate towards the first statue that caught my interest. The room contains a great number of larger-than-live terra cotta statues of the various orisha deities, many of which were surrounded by offerings from their followers, including flowers, fruits, herbs, and even money.

Almost instinctively and without knowing exactly why, I soon found myself standing in front of Elegua, the “master of the crossroads.” Elegua is an orisha who helps those who follow him to find new paths in life and deal with the inevitable changes one faces as time passes. This is especially important for those who have experienced difficult, painful personal transitions and transformations. The more I learned about this orisha, one of the most powerful and benificent in the Yoruba pantheon, the more he appealed to me, and the more pleased I was with my choice. But when I told the babalawo-in-training about my decision, he asked me a question that still rings in my ears: Was it I who had chosen Elegua or Elegua who had chosen me? Later I was intrigued to discover that Elegua had been the personal orisha of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the great leader of the epic slave revolt that broke out in Haiti at the close of the 18th century, a historical figure whom I had long admired!

The religion and spirituality of the Cuban people can also be appreciated in Havana’s vast, sprawling central cemetery, the Cementerio y Necropolis Colon, located in Vedado, not far from the monumental Plaza de la Revolucion. It is a fantastically ornate, baroque burial place, literally a “city of the dead,” that houses the remains of many outstanding figures in Cuban history. Originally developed in the late 19th century as the resting-place for Havana’s élite families, the impressive family plots lining the various streets of the cemetery are laid out in a strict social-class hierarchy and are all above ground level. One of the most impressive monuments is the exquisitely carved Monumento a los Bomberos, dedicated to the 28 Havana firefighters who died while battling a blaze at a downtown hardware store in 1890.

Cubans Remember

But even more moving is the sprawling memorial to the young Cuban servicemen and women of the FAR (Fuerzas armadas revolucionarias), who sacrificed their lives in the various wars the country has fought since the beginning of the revolution, both on Cuban soil and on foreign fields of battle. The day I visited, it was affecting to notice a middle-aged woman escorting a young girl, neatly dressed in her school uniform and carrying a bouquet of flowers, to the wall where the names of all the fallen are recorded. The woman carefully explained something to the girl as they paused there, and I found myself wondering who it was they were remembering that day. Was it a father, grandfather, or other family member who had died in Africa during the 1970s or 80s when Cuban forces played a key role in bringing about the fall of apartheid in South Africa? In the end, I decided it would not be appropriate for me to intrude on their private moment of mourning and commemoration. Nonetheless, it was a powerful reminder of the high price Cuba’s people have been asked to pay for the prominent global course their leaders have charted for them over the past few decades. A short distance away, I found the grave of Alejo Carpentier, the renowned Cuban novelist and diplomat who died in 1980. On his simple, elegant tombstone is inscribed the following, fitting epitaph: “ I am a man of my time, and the transcendental event of my time is the Cuban revolution.”

My last stop at the cemetery was at what is probably its most-visited site, the mysterious grave of a woman named Amelia Goryi de Hoz, who died in childbirth in 1901 and was buried with her stillborn baby at her feet. Years later, when her tomb was opened, the dead child was found lovingly cradled in its mother’s arms! After this remarkable discovery, Amelia became known as la milagrosa (the miraculous one), and her resting-place has become the site of a popular cult. The day I visited, a small group of women was laying flowers on the grave and conducting a religious ceremony, probably asking favours from the miraculous young woman buried beneath them. Because the cemetery is so vast, it is a good idea to obtain a map at the information booth to the right of the main entrance, where it is also possible to hire an excellent, English-speaking guide for a formal tour. But whenever I pay a visit to massive, historic cemeteries like the Colon, or London’s Highgate, Paris’s Père Lachaise, or New Orleans’ St. Louis for that matter, I prefer to explore them on my own. On these special occasions for personal reflection and meditation, I like to surround myself in private thoughts and speculations. I ask myself what these silent, solemn sites and those buried there might tell me about the history of the cities and countries that I am visiting at the time.

John and Vladimir

Havana is no doubt the only city in the world that has a park named after “Lenin” and another one named after “Lennon.” Lenin Park, on the outskirts of Havana, is a vast, but now sadly neglected and run-down monument to the days when Cuba was the former Soviet Union’s loyal Caribbean ally. A giant statue of Vladimir Lenin dominates this huge area of greenery and poorly maintained amusement parks and other recreational facilities. Because of the problems in maintaining the city’s creaking, dilapidated public-transit system through the years of economic crisis following the fall of communism, it is now very difficult for ordinary Havana families to visit Lenin Park, and I did not include it in my tour. But on a quiet, leafy Vedado street not far from the hotel, I did encounter the statue of the other famous “Lennon” — that being John of the Beatles, who can be found posing nonchalantly on a park bench, wearing his trademark wire-frame glasses.

Fidel Castro himself opened Lennon Park personally in December 2000, on the 20th anniversary of Lennon’s shooting in New York. On that occasion, he declared that “there are vindications that are just.” In making this gesture of commemoration to a great artist, he was actually acknowledging one of his Revolution’s many mistakes, that being the crackdown on rock music that the régime conducted during the 1960s. For years it was almost impossible for young Cubans to obtain recordings of the Beatles and other popular groups, but all this has changed completely today. The UNEAC, the Cuban National Union of Writers and Artists, has convened numerous seminars and conferences on the importance of rock music at its beautiful nearby headquarters. In addition, the younger generation of Cuban artists is turning to American-inspired rap and hip-hop as an avant-garde form of musical expression and social commentary.

It is possible to sit posed beside the statue of Lennon on the park bench, and have the guard on duty take your photo, as I did that day. I later learned that the guard’s main role is to prevent anyone from stealing the eyeglasses, which apparently was a serious problem shortly after the park was opened. At the foot of the statue the following message is inscribed, from John Lennon’s famous song “Imagine”: “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” While reading it, I found myself wondering whether another aging dreamer, who continues to pursue a revolutionary path for his country against all odds, finds any personal meaning in these words. To me, they seem even more timely than ever as he approaches what undoubtedly will be the final stage of his remarkable political career on the world stage, and leaves behind a mixed legacy for the people he has led for so many decades.

À la Carte Cubaine

While no one would claim that Havana is a world-class culinary destination, the city does offer some intriguing opportunities to savour the best of Cuban cuisine. One of my favourite stops in the city is the Coppelia, the huge ice-cream parlour designed to resemble a flying saucer, that takes up an entire city block in the centre of Vedado, a short walk from the Hotel Nacional. There it is possible to sit at a table or park bench and to share a delicious ice cream with ordinary Cubans and tourists alike. In fact, the famous 1993 film Strawberry and Chocolate, whose main figures were two young Cuban men — one gay and the other straight — began at the Coppelia. This film probably did more than anything else to bring an end to another of Castro’s mistaken policies, the harsh and punitive measures the régime imposed on gay and lesbian Cubans and HIV/AIDS sufferers, which are now happily a thing of the past. The film’s title says it all, for while the Coppelia may not be Baskin and Robbins, with a very small number of flavours on offer, it makes up in quality for what it lacks in quantity. Cuban ice cream is world-famous, and the day I was there I enjoyed a dish of with two delicious scoops — not strawberry and chocolate this time, but mango and coconut, topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce!

One short block away from the Coppelia is a small, family-run restaurant known appropriately as Las tres Bs (The three Bs); the B’s standing for bueno, bonito and barato, (good, pretty and cheap). This is just one of the many paladares, or small eating-houses that have sprung up all over Havana in the most unexpected locations, as the régime continues to make its reluctant but inevitable concessions to small-scale private enterprise. Without a guide it is almost impossible to find places like Las Tres Bs, since strict government advertising restrictions prevent them from posting large signs indicating their locations to passersby. But neighbourhood locals are more than happy to point out the stairway to the small, unpretentious apartment. Here the friendly members of the Alfonso family are happy to provide the hungry visitor with heaping plates of fried chicken, beans and rice, fresh salads, and a delicate flan pudding for dessert. They also have cold Cristal or Buccanero beer on hand to accompany the meal.

Havana’s paladares run the gamut from small, homey places like Las Tres Bs to somewhat more upscale dining houses. Two of these I had the opportunity to visit during my last visit were Las Mercedes and Aries, both of which are also located in Vedado. Las Mercedes has a very romantic atmosphere, since one enters its main, private, subtly-lit dining room through a lush tropical mini-garden, complete with a fishpond and a wooden bridge. Here the fare on offer is more imaginative than the usual chicken, pork, beans, and rice staples found at less fancy establishments, and it is possible to dine on seafood kebabs or deliciously grilled swordfish, and imaginatively-served vegetables. Aries, another small paladar near the University of Havana, is also a good bet for a well-prepared meal that can be enjoyed in the exquisite 19th-century surroundings of a former Vedado mansion. The night I visited, I tried a famous Cuban dish with the unusual name of ropa vieja (old clothes). This certainly tastes much better than it sounds, for it is a stew of shredded beef, subtly flavoured with local herbs and spices, served over rice. An after-dinner digestif and coffee can also be savoured here, as one enjoys the comfort of what one must have been a very prestigious home.

On the Town

Cubans tend to dine late, but after dinner the city’s exciting and varied nigh life is only just beginning to get under way. Cuba’s musical scene is second to none in the world, and there are many venues where all the different styles of music — salsa, jazz, rumba, boleros, or son can be enjoyed. And whenever Cubans play music, one can almost certainly expect that dancing will quickly ensue. On my last visit, I was taken to La Maison, an upscale club in the fashionable Havana suburb of Miramar, which is probably the best glimpse a visitor may have of the new Cuba that is emerging in the early 21st century. La Maison sports an exclusive restaurant, some fancy shops, and an upstairs bar where an energetic group of young musicians and singers was performing a medley of Latin-pop hits. The second act of the show involved audience participation, as a number of people tried their skills at karaoke to some famous tunes. Finally, a comedian took the stage and delivered a rapid-fire monologue touching on just about every aspect of contemporary life in Cuba, much of which was unintelligible to me despite my moderate command of Spanish. His jokes certainly touched a chord with the receptive local audience, however, who laughed riotously after every one.

On another evening I accompanied a group of Cubans and a visitor from Spain to another one of Havana’s famous comedy venues, the TV Café, just around the corner from my hotel. This is a cavernous room where an extremely popular and apparently quite famous young comedian was working the audience like a Las Vegas stand-up veteran. Again, much of his humour was lost on me, but I took some comfort in the fact that my Spanish companion admitted that he only understood about half of it, since most of the comedian’s schtick was delivered in broad Havana slang. I asked my Cuban friends later whether there were any restrictions on the subjects that comedians could deal with in their performances. The reply was that just about any aspect of life on the island today, including the many frustrations and difficulties they face, was fair game. The only topic that was strictly off-limits, and taboo, was anything directly reflecting on the lider maximo — Fidel himself. But I did notice that the comedians even found their way around this particular prohibition by making a hand gesture that mimicked the stroking of an imaginary beard on their face, whenever they wanted to make a veiled reference to the commandante! As one of the few non-Cubans in the audience, I quickly became the target of the comedian’s good-natured jibes, as he welcomed me to the stage with a boisterous “Oh my God!” when he found out I was from Canada. After his act was over, he gladly posed for a photo opportunity with me.

If one wants a sense of how the younger generation of Cubans enjoys an evening out, there are two attractive outdoor nightspots that offer music, dining, dancing and some beautiful views of the city. The Salon el Chevere is an open-air disco set amidst the vine-draped rocks facing the Rio Almendares, in the Bosque de la Habana district near Vedado. This complex offers two different spots for dancing, and a huge swimming pool. The night I went there, the predominantly young and extremely well turned out audience was dancing enthusiastically to a Latin beat. I asked who these people were, and how they were able to afford an evening out in such a place when one takes into account the low level of average Cuban salaries. The answer I was given was that these were the younger members of an emerging privileged class, whose parents were most likely (by Cuban standards) highly paid government or business officials. I wondered what effect such newly emerging social and economic distinctions were having on the core beliefs of Fidel’s socialist revolution and its commitment to equality of all its citizens. Will the new Cuba be able to reconcile the understandable demands of its younger people for greater personal freedom and material possessions with the revolution’s fundamental promise of social justice and an equitable sharing of the country’s resources?

Whither Cuba?

My very last evening in Cuba found me in a magical place, where I was able to reflect on my visit and all that I had experienced and wondered about in such a brief time on this evolving, fascinating island. It was the night Cuba had won the semi-final baseball game, and I travelled by taxi across the tunnel linking the old city to its newer eastern suburbs. My destination was the Morro Castle, the gleaming white colonial era fort that I had admired so many times from the window of my hotel room. That evening, as the lights of old Havana glistened from across the bay, I enjoyed some tranquil moments as a few couples around me swayed to the music of a small band. Downstairs, at the historic restaurant known as Los XII Apostoles (The Twelve Apostles), others dined on the succulent dishes of roast chicken or beef for which it is famous.

As I looked around, impressed with the vitality and joie de vivre of the young Cubans enjoying themselves on such an unforgettable night, I silently hoped for the best, both for them and for all of this remarkable island’s people. Much is changing, and indeed much needs to change, as Cuba enters a new era in its history, with perhaps a greater degree of personal freedom and more openness to the rest of the world. But I also hope that whatever changes may come, Cubans will be able to preserve the best of their island’s unique culture, history, traditions, and the undeniable accomplishments of their revolution, including a system of public health care and education that is the second to none in Latin America.

And even more, I wished that Cuba’s extremely friendly and outgoing people would be able to continue enjoying the various national passions — religion, baseball, food and drink, music, humour, and history — that I had been so grateful to share with them during my trip.