Visitors are welcome again in Cuba, although their freedom to move around is still limited. When I was there during a brief thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, we were allowed to explore most of the island, as long as we were careful and followed the rules.
The cities, such as Havana and Santiago de Cuba (where the revolutionaries declared victory over dictator Fulgencio Batista and his Mafia pals), were fascinating, but in some ways the rural areas revealed more about the lives of most Cubans. Through its long history, Cuba has been mostly agricultural, producing whatever the foreigners in power demanded.
One memorable day, we drove from Havana to the Sierra del Rosario Reserva de la Biosfera – a protected ecological area. En route, we passed on the city’s outskirts once luxurious mansions that had been owned by government officials, local Mafia lords, and foreign businessmen. Eventually, we came to mango orchards, coffee plantations, hillsides of hibiscus, and sugar cane plantations. Although smaller than it once was, the sugar cane industry still employs more than 300,000 people.
Passing through rich farmlands, we came to the colonial town of Remedios. At one time, Remedios boasted 72 sugar mills, but most have closed because of a reduced market for cane sugar. The town was founded in 1513 by a Spanish grandee, Vasco Porcallo de Figueroa, a pious Catholic who made the native people into slaves, but was regularly absolved for his cruelty by his personal priest. The growing sugar economy transformed Remedios into a showplace of colonial architecture. However, when the sugar mills closed, the town was forgotten, caught in the spider web of the past.
In February, 1899, a representative from U.S. President McKinley met here with General Maximo Gomez to work out a settlement of the Spanish-Cuban-American war. The result was the establishment of a puppet government in Cuba, run from the United States.
On another day, we visited the remains of the once great Iznaga Sugar Cane Plantation, which in the 17th and 18th centuries was virtually an independent empire. From a centrally positioned seven floor tower, Spanish overseers could make sure that the employees and slaves were always working. For three centuries, vast plantations produced sugar for external export, so, although the soil was rich enough for Cuba to grow its own food, increasingly a great deal had to be imported.
The United States became a guaranteed market for cane sugar. Money flowed in and out of Cuba, eventually much of it through the Mafia, and Havana became a corrupt playground for the rich from the U.S.A. Very little of the money reached the people. After Batista was overthrown in 1959, an effort was made to end the dependency on sugar cane, but the U.S. embargo – known as the “blockade” in Cuba – drove the country to rely on sugar exports again. This time, it was the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block who were buying the sugar and sending food, fuel, and other necessities to the island. When the Soviet Union and Eastern Block collapsed in 1989, their economic support of Cuba also collapsed.
We visited a sugar cooperative in the famous Valley of Sugar Cane Mills. Because of the drastically changed demand for cane sugar, they were trying to diversify, raising cattle, pigs, goats, bananas, vegetables, and rice. Many sugar cane fields were being changed to food production. Much rice still was being imported from China and Vietnam, but Cuba’s goal was to become self-sufficient.
Life remains difficult in these rural areas. Passing mile after mile of sugar cane fields and farms, we had to maneuver around antique tractors and farm machines, old trucks, carts and horse-drawn wagons, even bicycles. Many farmers used oxen for plowing. Because of the fuel shortage since of the fall of the Soviet Union, the use of animals had grown. What we did not see anywhere on the roads were billboards urging people to buy commercial products.
A beautiful island with a diverse, integrated population of every hue, a land blessed by nature, and yet also a country that has been dominated by foreign powers for most of its history: if we look beyond the bright flowers and lively rhythms of the salsa music, we can see the suffering that was caused as powers across the sea sought their own enrichment at the sacrifice of the local people. Of course, Cuba is not the only country where this has happened. In the Middle East, oil instead of sugar cane brought the foreign powers. Sometimes, it’s the soil itself that causes others to appropriate land from the people who have lived there for generations, even centuries.
Delphine, in my latest book, discovered that this was true as she traveled through the towns, villages, and farming communities of the Middle East. Despite the promises made by treaties decades before, families were being driven from their olive and orange groves, from their farms, even from the homes they’d lived in for decades. Where was the justice, Delphine wanted to know. Justice? Was it matter of viewpoint? Don’t judge, people told her, yet how could she help it? The day would come when she, too, would fight for justice, as the people of Cuba did in 1959, but there was no way of knowing how this struggle would end.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press.
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