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On the streets in Habana Vieja, the austere façades exude both poise and glory, yet the remains of what once was profoundly beautiful Spanish colonial architecture are now dilapidated buildings peppered with peeling paint and plaster. American automobiles of the 1950’s line the streets. I hear music nearby. It’s live, it’s soulful, it’s alluring. I turn the corner and see a five-piece band singing and playing their hearts out on the sidewalk. People are dancing in the street so smoothly and gracefully to the rhythms of the congas, claves and guiros. I stop and watch and listen. I keep walking. I turn another corner and come upon an elderly man wearing a big straw hat. He is sitting on the ground, singing soulfully and strumming his very old guitar. The strings are about to give way, but it doesn’t matter. There’s no one dancing, but the music plays on and fills the street with a consuming sensuality. When I think of Cuba, the music, the people, and the passion that create the rhythms and voices of one of the most captivating places I have visited resonate.

The Caribbean’s largest island is well known for its hospitable people, innovative and mesmerizing music, intriguing history, complex politics, and economic struggles. With the passing of the embargo’s 45th birthday, Cuba remains the least commercial amongst its neighbors. Access and travel to Cuba continues to be an issue and there's so much to learn about this isolated island and its people.

While in Cuba, I met and traveled with folks from the Canadian-Cuban Friendship Association. We visited innumerable sites and museums, which chronicled Cuba’s complex socio-political history. Beautifully extensive memorials paid tribute to important individuals such as Che Guevara and José Martí, as well as the tumultuous revolution itself. We were invited guests at a neighborhood gathering called a CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution), which continues to be a voice of the revolution. We were also invited to various universities and libraries, where collections ranged from Russian LPs to books in many languages, most of which were published before the European fall of ‘communism’. Without the assistance of the Soviet Union, Cuba was unable to obtain materials and resources, and thus supplies such as books, were largely frozen in time. In the early 1990’s, amidst severe economic struggles, Cuba began allowing self-employment. The US dollar (USD) was then introduced into the Cuban economy. The Cuban peso/USD “dual economy” was alive and until 2004, for better or worse, until the USD was banned and all foreigners were required to use either Euros or Canadian dollars.

Regardless of allowable currencies besides the Cuban peso, food and medicine are frightfully scarce commodities in Cuba. Neither the USD nor the Euro can buy enough milk, flour or antibiotics. Even the powerful Euro cannot buy that which does not exist. The embargo coupled with changing global political forces have created a unique situation in Cuba. The complexity of it all will hopefully garner more global attention. Cuba desperately needs supplies.

What does exist in Cuba is ubiquitous music. Every morning, day and night, we were treated to phenomenal music – salsa, rumba, son, jazz, etc. Music pervaded the streets, hallways, lobbies, and parks, seducing those nearby, to dance and move with remarkable fluidity. Music and dance seemed to embody such powerful and cultural expression. Every evening, I mean every afternoon and evening…well, okay, every morning, afternoon and evening, we savored refreshing mojitos, Cuba libres, and cervezas. We visited beaches with warm water and few crowds. My favorite place was the southern city, Santiago de Cuba, the cradle of the revolution, where the flavor is
muy caribeño! With grace and heart, Cuba and her people truly intoxicate one’s mind and body.

Writing about my experiences in Cuba was far more difficult than I would have imagined. While it seems that the rest of the world, primarily the US, refers to Cuba’s decomposing ideologies, perhaps it’s the people who truly lived through Castro’s reform who can render a founded opinion. A traveler can explore a place, and engage with the people, but it’s the Cubans, who can fully understand the social, political, religious, and sexual mores of Cuba, both yesterday and today. Can one speak of a place that in some ways is indescribable? Can one describe music that words cannot? Can one truly render the heart and sensuality of a people? Perhaps not, but one can feel the essence of a proud and warm people amidst a powerfully tragic and triumphant reality. Cuba’s heart and soul speaks powerfully.

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