My name is Tony Martin. I recently had the opportunity to visit Cuba.
I wrote down my impressions in a short piece, which I have titled: “A
Journey to the Forbidden Isle.” Hopefully, this travelogue will provide an
insight into the history, politics, economics, and the people of an incredibly
diverse and complicated country. The opinions expressed are my own.
Part III: Guantanamera and The Chocolate Man:
On the top floor of the Casa Grande Hotel, the view of the bay was
reminiscent of San Francisco with the surrounding narrow, hilly streets.
The evening light was serene with a wave cloud creating a grey mist over
the Sierra Maestra Mountains while leaving blue skies over the sea. At one
side of the square below was the oldest colonial house in the Americas,
that of Diego Velasquez , the first Governor of Cuba. (Text continues after photos).
Santiago, also the name of the city, was the battle cry of the Spanish
Conquistadors who set out in search of Eldorado and the Golden Man.
Cortez to Mexico, Balboa to the Pacific, Pizzarro to Peru, de Soto to
Next came the Pirates and Corsairs, like Henry Morgan, who leveled the
Fortress Moro that guarded the harbor. Then the French migration from
Hati. Below in the Plaza Cespedes, children were playing futbol and a
band was setting up to play in the park. Behind the hotel lay the San Juan
Hill. There were no memorials to Teddy Roosevelt, but there was a
commanding one to freedom fighter Antonio Maceo. A few blocks away
were the Moncado Baracks where Fidel began his revolution and across
the bay lay the rugged terrain where he fought his war with radio
broadcasts and guns. At one side of the square was the balcony where
Fidel gave his victory speech in 1959. Jose Marti, was buried in a beautiful
cemetery not too far away. My drink, a ‘havana especial’ was expertly
mixed. My thoughts were: 50 years of an embargo will not negate a Cuban
identity forged by 500 years of passionate history.
Guantanamera is probably the most often played song in Cuba. Heading
towards Baracoa at the eastern tip of the island, the people-bus stopped at
the village of Guantanamo at the head of the bay of the same name. At the
mouth, lay Gitmo, a US Naval Base and prison camp.The base occupies
about .004% of the land mass of Cuba. The lease is due to expire in
2034 . An objective was to see the 17 mile long fence surrounding the
installation, but our route provided no viewpoints as we skirted the dry hilly
terrain. Driving along the coastal part of the La Farola, the road along the
Caribbean, there came an awareness that there was no need to see an
archaic fence surrounding a plot of land that was no more in Cuba than
was Anchorage, Alaska. Without Soviet missiles, Cuba was not a threat,
but the danger of a nuclear holocaust still existed somewhere on this
planet. And the struggle for human rights against the forces of oppression
seems to be a never ending one.
Acutely, my eyes began focusing on what those on the other side of the
fence could not see. My thoughts were questioning premises that those
behind the fence don’t confront. What exactly does the USA represent?
What exactly are USA interests overseas? Why does this country have 900
bases worldwide? How are human rights advanced with torture and
drones? Why does Cuba export doctors around the world and the US
exports F-35s that don’t work?
The US citizens behind the fence do not feel the rhythm of Cuba, uno, dos,
tres, the beat is infectious, uno, dos, tres. They can’t dance the salsa, drink
Cuban rum, sip Cuban coffee, eat Cuban chocolate, smoke a Cuban cigar,
listen to the sounds of the streets , or appreciate the genuine warmth and
hospitality of the average Cuban. If the servicemen and women could
experience these things, they would need no orders to dismantle an old
fence. By definition, Gitmo is a detention camp for all behind the fence
In the main square of Baracoa the first city established in Cuba, there is a
small monument to Chief Hatuey, a Taino Indian and Cuba’s first national
hero. Hatuey fought the Spanish, was captured, and burned alive in 1512.
The countenance on the bust is fierce as Hatuey stares at a church, 100
feet away, which houses the only surviving cross of those which
Christopher Columbus brought with him from Europe. Symbolically, this
spot, the juxtaposition of church, square, and memorial, might as well mark
the place and manner in which the modern world was born 500 years ago.
Baracoa, has a natural charm , the feel of a tropical paradise. The people
are without affectations. On the roof of the home-stay, the view to the east
was the water and a straight shot to Europe. Other buildings rose around
like tiers in a stadium, so it was possible for neighbors to see and be seen.
One afternoon; on every rooftop, laundry was drying in the breeze. Across
the street, an old woman was sewing, a mother was rocking a baby, in the
street, men were playing chess, children were kicking a ball in the street,
vendors were selling their wares. The noise was like a playground:
children shouting, music blaring, dogs barking, roosters cock a doodle
doing. Andreas , the owner of the home-stay, was supervising some
young carpenters as he was planning a minor expansion He was beaming
with pride like a master on a sailing ship under full sail. The next day, on
the slopes of flat topped, El Yunque, our park guide, Manuel , with his wife
and two children, shared a cup of chocolate at their humble cottage. A
beautiful and well tended garden led to the door.
On a day tour, at a homestead, the owners demonstrated the process of
hand making chocolate to be edible and drinkable. Their crops were
systemically organized in a miniature ecosystem. Ricardo, our local guide,
extolled the virtues of chocolate, but not of rum, for the skin, for the
complexion, for the blood, for the internal organs, and as an aphrodisiac.
Near Boca de Yumuri, at a small fishing village, an old man expertly played
Spanish ballads and school kids in a simple schoolroom broke out into
laughter at my paper airplane. Community, family, and dignity are the
virtues of a society that doesn’t have too many things. Katrina, 20 years
old, an assistant guide, asked how a camera function on her cell phone
worked. She added: “The revolution was important, but it was fifty years
ago.” The words, under my breath, were ” the times, they are a changing.”
Back in Havana, after an airplane ride in sweaty Russian-made AN-26, our
city guide, Loren informed us, in unaccented English, that high speed
ferries were being authorized to travel to and from Miami and that there will
be a direct flight from New York to Havana later this summer.
Her expectations were high. My sense was that a new generation of young
people was fueling a tsunami. Cuba was not as regimented as expected,
not as militarized as expected, The committee for the defense of the
revolution (CDR) was not as strong, twittering was not yet practiced by the
masses. The moment is now. Capitalism will be meeting socialism, and no
doubt there will be an amalgamation, Cuban style, and two nation’s
governments will have to adjust.
My cab driver to the airport had small & equal sized flags, a Cuban and a
US, hanging from his mirror. Below was a small statue of the Virgin Mary.
In her hands was a glass filled with a dark liquid, probably a cuba
libre…uno, dos, tres…” the men are for the women, the women are for the
men, and the music is for everyone”. The song could have been: From
Cuba, with Love.
This concludes Part III of “Journey to the Forbidden Isle”. Once again, I’d
like to thank KTNA for providing this opportunity to share my story.
Journey to the forbidden Isle,
By Anthony Martin