The USA, the USSR, and Cuba

Two of the most striking buildings in Havana are the embassies of Russia and the USA. Immediately after Castro’s victory in 1960, there was hope of a friendly relationship between Cuba and the United States. But after a battle of wills over issues of Cuban independence, neither party blinked, and Cuba saw little choice but to jump into the USSR’s sphere of influence.

Russian embassy

Soviet aid came with pressure to become more communist, and Cuba became both radicalized and addicted to Moscow’s support. When the USSR fell apart, Cuba was abandoned economically.

In the 1990s, with no help from Russia and the USA hell-bent on Cuba’s economic ruin, Cuba entered an era of extreme austerity called the “Special Period.” A lack of fuel made many forms of farming impossible. Locals survived mostly on basic produce — with almost no access to protein or sugar (some people resorted to eating cats). Today people recall how there was no traffic in the streets of Havana…just starving people walking like aimless skeletons down empty, unlit lanes.

Cuban woman

While the Cuban people have little money, I sensed no angry edge to the poverty and felt safe on the streets. While Havana is as poor as other Latin American capitals, after dark I’d much rather be walking there than in Guatemala City, Managua, or San Salvador (where I felt very unsafe).

There was something strikingly proud and dignified about the Cuban people I met. They earn about $30 a month beyond all of their government entitlements (subsidized housing, utilities, food, education, and health care), and they seem to accept that. Communism has trained them to look to the state for handouts…and has demoralized any interest in working hard to get ahead. As I’ve noted, rather than compare their lot to workers in the USA, it seems fair to compare Cuba to other Central American countries where workers are just as poor (but in dangerous worlds without health care or education). The situation depressed me (as all of Latin America does in this regard), but it was clearly different. It was confusing and perplexing…and maddening.

Hugo Chavez poster

Hugo Chávez is a hero to the Cuban people. The late leader of oil-rich Venezuela kept the Cuban economy afloat with cheap oil and financial aid. Cuba would return the favor as best it could with its most valuable resource: well-trained doctors and nurses. To this day, you see lots of billboards expressing gratitude for Venezuelan aid.

American embassy

Photo: The Travelphile

Strolling along Havana’s harborfront promenade, the Malecón, you reach the new US Embassy (formerly known as the US Interests Section). It opened in 2015 with President Obama’s softening of relations. The finest (and seemingly most fortified) building in town flies the Stars and Stripes and faces a plaza of flagpoles. When I was there, of the dozens of poles, only one sported a flag: Cuba’s, with the same red, white, and blue…but just one big star. The symbolism is clear: Cuba stands alone. (Depending on your view, they’ve either opted out of the global rat race, or have been excluded by the American embargo.) It’s as if the two flags just don’t know what to do: Is this a showdown at the OK Corral? Or perhaps two awkward potential partners on a dance floor?

American embassy worker

On the plaza facing the US embassy, the wall read Patria o Muerte (“Fatherland or Death”) and Venceremos (“We will overcome”). As in other Latin American countries, the shiny new embassy is designed to instill fear and respect among locals. (My local guide waited with our taxi four blocks away while I went up to chat with the embassy guard.)


9 Replies to “The USA, the USSR, and Cuba”

  1. I was in Cuba in December on an Intrepid Travel trip. Wonderful! Delightful people! I can’t wait to go back when things open up a bit more and the US State Department doesn’t limit our itinerary so much. I love photographing graffiti wherever I go and my favorite from the trip was a very simple–almost primitive–one that, translated into English, said “self-censored artist.” No art accompanying it; just stark and distilled political comment.

  2. Thanks, Steve, for posting all of this information on Cuba. This country has long been such a mystery to us, especially us Baby Boomers. I am looking forward to more posts about this fascinating country.

  3. Well, well, well. The Americans are discovering a place that the Canadians have known for many, many years. We have been going there from all over Canada and enjoying the lovely hospitable and caring Cubans so much. Rick has found the same things we have known for a long long time and wish we could keep to ourselves. The lesser known areas like the Bay of Pigs are so interesting and so rural. And the water supplies over most of Cuba are quite good thanks to the Russian legacy (one of their few good leftovers). The beer is based on the spanish recipes and is wonderful. The food is fine, but not outstanding as they seem to forget there is a big ocean nearby and seafood is not very common. But it is a visit never to be forgotten. Likely won’t go back if it becomes too “americanized”. Off to other untouched areas instead…..

  4. Rick, Thank you so much for traveling to Cuba and sharing your experience! I have wanted to go for such a long time, and hope to get there before there is a Starbucks on every corner.

  5. So excited that you might be considering Cuba tours. we are going with Roads Scholar in November. We choose them because they will tour the national parks(2) and some agriculture sites. It is my passion to be not only in Havana but in the undisturbed natural spots of Cuba before it becomes Miami #2. So please consider looking into their unique flora fauna and agricultural methods. Organic because of the inability to get the chemicals our modern US farmers use. Have a wonderful trip. Will be avidly reading your blog.

  6. Like the old cars, the US Embassy is a 1953 building, not brand new. It has served other purposes until recently.

  7. Yes, Cuba is confusing and perplexing…and maddening.

    Chavez, like the Soviet Union, was a sugar daddy.

    The story behind the empty flag poles is quite interesting. Under President George Bush, the building currently housing the US Embassy,then known the US Interests Section, hung an electronic sign that ran “news of the world” for Cuban consumption. Fidel Castro erected all the now empty flag poles from which black flags were flown to block the “US propaganda” from view of Cubans.

  8. We have visited Cuba a dozen times enjoying its weather, its beautiful beaches and the kind disposition of its people. We admire Cuba’s fortitude for surviving the blockade without falling to its knees and making tourism work for them, for training excellent doctors and for educating its children. Incidentally,the Infant Mortality Rate is lower in Cuba than in many developed countries, including Canada and the USA.

    Hopefully Cuba will be able to keep its unspoiled charm now that America has re-discovered it!

  9. Enjoyed a lovely week exploring the island and small towns this past January. Staying in local homes and taking the bus every where. Met lots of great travellers from Europe and Canada and without doubt we were all there to experience the country before the Americans come back. Rick please stick to Europe and leave Cuba for the nations who have supported Cuba’s tourism all these years.

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