Cuba, The Caribbean’s Newest Old Island

“There is a new society, a new world waiting ahead of you. A homeland that you have to build. And that new homeland, that new world, can only be built with new men.” – Operation Peter Pan

I am an island of pristine rainforests and meandering rivers, of cascading waterfalls and underground pools. My caves are mysterious, my cliffs majestic. Reefs within my crystalline waters help curb the surf from pounding my powder white beaches and sloughing my sand to sea.

Composed of continental rock from the planet’s crust and nurtured in the womb of its waters, I am surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The ever-drifting Earth nudged some of my land up and into mountains where sugar, tobacco and arabica and robusta coffee beans grow among varied soils that are my greatest source of wealth. Growers forecast crop years based on whether winds on a certain night hail from the north, which is good, or from the south, which is bad.

I am about the only place in the world inhabited by the buzzing bee hummingbird who weighs less than a penny and the blue headed quail dove that is vanishing along with the swamps and moist forests that she inhabits. The short, fast Gundlach’s hawk watches for prey from lofty nests while the fingertip sized Monte Iberia dwarf frog secretes pure poison on his skin in defense. My round Dwarf Turk’s cap cactus sprouts a wide orange lipstick from its crown, and the belly of my slender Corojo palm swells as if it’s with child.

View of the Vinales Valley, Cuba

View of the Vinales Valley, Cuba

Nurtured by Mother Nature and long guarded by a fiercely protective father, I breathe a bit easier because about 22 percent of my land is protected. Taino-Arawak Indians named me for either a great place or a place where fertile land is abundant, and my waters are equally resplendent: Shallow brackish waters provide space for the amorous black metallic livebearer to harass larger pregnant females until they miscarry. The nearby gulfstream renders acrobatic marlin who, when their ruggedness is outmatched, lead anglers to heart pounding action and catch and release records.

Men have tried to control me as they have their own kind for epochs. Spanish explorers who claimed my land from the Tainos then battled their native country for liberty from her. They shipped Africans here to replace Taino slaves who became worn from mistreatment or dead from European diseases.

Protestant missionaries had already spread Christianity among my people. Then, a treaty placed Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba and the Philippines under American control, and Rudyard Kipling in “The white man’s burden” suggested that God’s plan for white people is to bind “new caught” people to exile who are “half devil and half child,” guide them through the woods and into to the light and claim once-forbidden ports and roads with the living.

Theodore Roosevelt commented that the poem made “good sense from the expansion point of view,” but others associated it with racist imperialism based on external, rather than internal, color. In England, William Wilberforce saw injustice in men treating other men as “property,” and he turned to clergyman John Newton for advice. Newton had worked on a slave ship and recounted how men were shackled and confined to warm smelly rooms and oppressors and oppressed died from infectious diseases. After being tossed about in a violent storm at sea and crying out for mercy, he penned in the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” – “How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.”

Africans who were released from slavery during my British invasion now represent about 60 percent of my people’s ancestors. Cachao Lopez, Tito Puente, Benny Moré, Dámaso Pérez Prado, Rita Montaner and Tito Rodríguez have produced pulsating rhythms such as the legendary Peanut Vendor that launched a rumba craze. At the members-only Buena Vista Social Club, my people have gyrated their hips, thrusted their torsos and wiggled their tails to mambos and cha cha chas, delighting in their bodies and hinting at some of their most primitive desires.

Street musicians in Havana, Cuba.

Street musicians in Havana, Cuba.

I have myself seduced Ernest Hemingway and inspired the passions of fighters Jose Marti and anti-imperialists Che Guevera and Fidel Castro – and I am, because of Biblical-like reforms on the part of the latter, an island that time forgot. Suspended in the early 1960s, when my wealthier neighbor a mere 90 miles away relinquished its ties, I feature dirt roads ridden on horseback and leading to thatched roof villages.

In areas where I am paved, prehistoric American cars color the streets in pale pinks, lime greens, baby blues and faded reds, these relics of another era mixing with more sporadic rickshaws, electric cars and European imports. The vehicles parade my Malecon, or Avenida de Macio, a 5-mile coastal roadway edged by a concrete seawall that violent waters often pummel, spraying over it as if furiously marking what was once and may some day again be its territory.

When French farmers sought a safe haven during the Haitian revolution, I embraced them. But not even I could provide shelter from violent storms that develop off the coast of Africa and spin this way. The worst of these struck before Castro’s reign: An October 1926 hurricane killed 600 and cost $300 million; a November 1932 cyclone created a tidal wave, killed more than 3,000 people and cost $40 million; and Hurricane Flora in October 1963 flooded my mountains, altered a riverbed and killed more than 1,000 farmers.

These historic events and others have been captured by writers and photographers such as native Alberto Korda. I have also produced painters Tomas Sanchez, Amelia Palaez, Wilfredo Lam and others whose blend of African, South American, European and North American design reflects their multicultured heritage. Hollywood talents Desi Arnaz and Andy Garcia and pro baseball players Joses Abreau and Canseco are among my most famous people.

To Milton Hershey in January 1916, I was a country of eternal spring, a temperate place of abundant sugar. The world at the time was at war and sugar in short supply and so Hershey, the chocolate maker, purchased a sugar plantation and mill here. He built an electric railroad to service his mill as well as a nearby town for employee rental housing, health care, education, shopping and recreational facilities.

Hershey Central, Cuba. Sugar Mill and Plantation of Hershey Chocolate Co.

Hershey Central, Cuba. Sugar Mill and Plantation of Hershey Chocolate Co.

Hershey Railroad Electric Railcar in Cuba.

Hershey Railroad Electric Railcar in Cuba.

Hershey’s railroad carried his chocolate and sugar to market via my two major ports. By 1946, he had amassed 60,000 acres of land, five raw sugar mills, a peanut oil plant, a henequen plant, four electric plants, and 251 miles of railroad track with locomotives and cars – and sold them to the Cuban Atlantic Sugar Company. That same year, Santo Trafficante Jr., and other La Cosa Nostra (“this thing of ours”) crime family members gathered in my downtown and laid out a plan to distribute narcotics from Europe to Africa and through my ports on to the United States.

On Jan. 1, 1959, Castro and his militia won a six-year battle to claim me from the reign of mobsters, the United States government and Fulgencio Batista, a leader of my country who partnered with both and ousted a predecessor in similar fashion. The remnants of the fight to protect me from the vices of humanity are preserved in an impressive domed building that reflects my Spanish heritage – a museum and former presidential palace decorated by Tiffany & Co. of New York. A Soviet tank destroyer rests outside; the Granma, a yacht that he and his army traveled to win the fight for me, is encased in a glass memorial in the backyard.

The ghosts of gambling, pimping and drug dealing mobsters continue to haunt my downtown. Yet from 1960 to 1962, parents shipped more than 14,000 of their children to the US as part of Operation Peter Pan. About half were reunited with friends or relatives. Others were placed in temporary shelters in Miami before being relocated throughout the states. Participant Carlos Eire described his Peter Pan experiences in the memoir, “Waiting for Snow in Havana.” The US government commissioned a documentary film entitled “The Lost Apple,” based on a native lullaby about a little boy who cries over losing an apple his mother gave him.

The ferries that once carted people, produce and vehicles between my harbor and Palm Beach and Key West have long disappeared. The Russians, in their shift from communism to democracy, gave up on me in the 1990s. Some 30 years earlier, I was the central point of a potential nuclear conflict with the United States. The confrontation lasted 13 days until Soviet missiles here were dismantled in exchange for dismantling US weapons in Turkey and Italy and promising to never invade me without being provoked.

I am a mere 90 miles away from the United States, and yet efforts to invade me and assassinate Castro have consistently failed. Guarding my harbor entrance is a 16th century fortress with lighthouse exhibit that reflects its former use as a school for lighthouse keepers. The imposing El Morro, or Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, is named for the three wise men who traveled to Bethlehem bearing gifts for the baby Jesus.

Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, an El Morro to the east, is a former prison that repeatedly housed one of those repressed by Castro infusing the most rigid of Biblical interpretations into his rule. Reinaldo Arenas was sentenced to a sugar plantation labor camp for being homosexual and was imprisoned for smuggling his novels overseas for publication. In 1980, when my economy plunged and Castro and President Jimmy Carter agreed to allow my people to legally flee to the United States, Arenas joined some 125,000 others in a six-month exodus to the US, where cocaine wars erupted in Miami.

The famous fortress and lighthouse of El Morro in the entrance of Havana bay, Cuba

The famous fortress and lighthouse of El Morro in the entrance of Havana bay, Cuba

Arenas ventured to New York City where, some 10 years later, he became ravaged by AIDs and killed himself. He had by that time penned Farewell to the Sea, detailing that one of his great adventures shared with friends was to drive through the US, “for the first time. . . able to enjoy the sense of freedom and the thrill of adventure without feeling persecuted; in short, the pleasure of being alive.” In Before Night Falls, completed shortly before he died, he recounted dreaming that he was “in Cuba, flying over the palm trees; it was easy, you only had to believe you could do it. . . the scenery was beautiful to behold while I, joyful and radiant, flew above it, over the crowns of the palm trees.”

Finca La Vigia, the home where Hemingway retreated between casting lines for big gamefish in the gulfstream and sipping daiquiris at my Floridita restaurant and bar is now a museum, and my historic village of Trinidad and my fertile agricultural ranges world heritage sites. My Tropicana Club has long produced wildly colorful cabarets. My Hotel Nacional, formerly owned by Batista and mobster Meyer Lansky, is a historic landmark.

The aromas of citrus, raisins, olives, capers, onion, garlic, vinegar, peppers, tomato and white wine and beer perfume my streets, a sign that someone is preparing dishes such as black bean soup, puerco asada, bistec de palomilla, ropa vieja, arroz con pollo and frijoles and yuca, malanga, potato and plantains in their kitchens.

Diners wash these blends of Spanish, African, Caribbean and Taino cuisine down with beverages that include my minty mojito. For more casual fare, they opt for lard bread slathered in butter and yellow mustard and stuffed with roast pork, ham, swiss cheese and dill pickles and pressed in a plancha. This same sandwich on egg bread becomes the popular midnightsnack medianoche. Also popular is the Elena Ruz, named for a debutante patron of my El Carmelo restaurant who fancied a sandwich of turkey breast, cream cheese and strawberry jam.

I am no longer the large sugar producer that I was in the days when people such as Julio Lobo controlled a good amount of those interests. When Lobo declined Che Guevara’s offer to serve as sugar minister in the Castro era of government-owned and operated industry, he lost everything and, with others like him, fled to Florida. Many who survived the treacherous journey by sea settled in Miami. Many others plunged to watery graves somewhere in between.

Despite what some people say, I have been guided by the purest of principles, an aspect that has enhanced my intrigue and that of the people who have been forced to abide by them. Most are Catholic, but a Sephardic temple in my downtown area is near the baroque and art-nouveau Hotel Raquel (Hebrew for innocent).

Economically, I am among the least free of countries, but my inhabitants make up for in loving, close-knit communities what they lack in material riches and personal liberties. Most live rent-free and receive free education and health care. Who owns the land upon which they reside, after all, and did they come to inhabit it from the days of New World explorers through Biblically condoned means? And if the greatest of God’s commandments are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and love others as you do yourself, how is my leader different from those who condone wars?

Cuban people on street in Havana.

Cuban people on street in Havana.

Persecution in my country has changed since the days of Reinaldo Arenas, when artists and hippies were also considered criminal. Homosexuality is legal except for when “publicly manifested” or when persistently bothering “others with homosexual amorous advances.” Castro’s niece Mariela, daughter of his brother and my current leader Raúl, directs a National Center for Sex Education and is my LGBT community’s leading voice. My people do not yet have Internet service, but they are allowed to purchase cellular phones, stay at hotels, sell property and travel overseas where they once were not.

On Wednesday, Dec. 17, church bells in Havana signaled a historic milestone: The United States is renewing diplomatic relations with my leaders for the first time since a Feb. 8, 1962 economic embargo began crippling my inhabitants financially.

What this means to my people and my landscape is anyone’s guess. My racial divide, which has already widened, could become more akin to the US, where dark-skinned blacks have a lower socioeconomic status and a higher rate of criminal infractions, their racial identity often more important than the internal hierarchy of skin tone and, like people from other races, their freedom valued more than God’s or man’s laws.

My historic structures, my open, rugged landscape and the wildlife that thrives in my near-unadulterated surroundings is, with my development, at the hands of my government and those who either cultivate or ravage me.

We are each of us on this Earth for a very short time. I have in my time been spoiled like my royal visitors and mistreated like my slaves. I have been mined for gold as I have been farmed and used for high stakes poker games. Like a small sailboat, I have been thrashed by conflicting winds in a sea depleted of love as an aging Castro relinquished some of his godliness to a Higher Power in a changing world. In seeking love from others, I have seen eyes illuminate like the soft comfort of a springtime sun and contract to fire a piercing laser.

Gaia, the Earth mother, tends to rear her head in the wake of human chaos, battering my shores, flooding my roads, shedding my muddy mountains and blowing my buildings to toothpick piles. Like Noah and his ark, she cleanses and renews, reminding my people that love and community are at the heart of a fulfilling life so that they might find their balance in their lives once more.

I have for centuries accepted all sorts of people as I have turned some away, holed myself up in silence as I have ridden the wind. I am for now a precious gem, an object of beauty admired for centuries, enjoyed by a relative few and taken advantage of by several. Because I am natural, I am also rare and highly esteemed. As I gain my own voice and take firmer charge of my course, I become increasingly akin to the 1848 red, white and blue symbol that reflects my three divisions, the purity of the cause and blood shed to free me and, at long last, my independence from Spain.

I am Cuba, pearl of the Caribbean, and these are my tears of the sea.

Map of Cuba

Share This Post

About Author: Michelle Sheldone

Michelle Sheldone is an award-winning writer and the author of "Historic Walking Guides: Florida Keys." She launched her career at Family Circle magazine, where she worked as an entertainment editor. She has since contributed to newspapers, magazines and travel guides and handled marketing for government, education, travel, hospitality, fashion and conservation interests.