A street musician in Old Havana.
A street musician in Old Havana.

Cuba lights up to greet the world, finally

CUBA basks in a warm history of pirates, gold and intrigue, of fine rum and coffee and even finer cigars.

But its darker side spins dizzily around tales of betrayal, revolution, the CIA, the mafia, communism, 13 days that took the world to the brink of nuclear war - and, bizarrely, Australia.

When the leaders of the United States and Cuba sat down in Panama last month, they put aside more than a century of mistrust and sheer aggression.

And what they discussed is rapidly changing Cuba even now.

A stroll around the cobbled streets of its vibrant capital, Havana, shows it.

Everywhere in the centre of the city - particularly in 501-year-old UN heritage-listed Old Havana - buildings, streets and squares are being refurbished.

Every street in the old city is a postcard, lit by brightly-painted 1950s cars and filled with museums and a patchwork of art deco and classical buildings: some crumbling, many not.

Cuba is getting ready for the rest of the world.

Its busy two-storey foyer with marble staircases, wicker furniture and plush lounges every now and again carries the faint aroma of cigars.

It has the five-star flavour of times gone by. The stuff tourist dreams are made of.

History drips from every pore of Cuba like perspiration from rumba dancers.

In the countryside, evidence of slavery that kept sugar and coffee plantations rich into the 1800s has been preserved, as much as a warning as a history lesson.

Like most socialist countries, Cuba has its fair share of statues, but they have as much to do with art as they do with revolutionaries.

However, there are none of leaders Fidel Castro and his brother Raul. "Monuments are for the dead," we are told bluntly. "Fidel and (current Cuban President) Raul are very much alive."

However, every city and town has a statue of philosopher and writer Jose Marti, a largely unknown figure outside Cuba.

"He was the father of the revolution," friend and guide Otto Sanchez Alvarez explains.

"His ideas and words are still important here."

Marti was killed in 1895 during a battle with Spanish troops.

A Marti statue is in Havana's Parque Central Square, not far from the Capitol building, in which a Cuban democratic parliament is expected to sit in the next few years.

Havana is a heady mix of art and eager commerce, of socialist principles and capitalist reality, and of change and promise.

But what makes it unique is almost 60 years of communist rule, half a century of international trade embargoes that have kept it comparatively poor, and its optimistic, exuberant and open people.

For decades, Cuba's white sandy beaches by the crystal blue Caribbean to the east have been a popular destination for European tourists.

And tourism is beginning to pick up pace.

In Cuba, history and the present day swirl together like port wine and rich cigar smoke.

The little country of 11 million sits only 550km from Key West on the southern-most tip of the east coast of the US.

Cuba's native Taino indians were the first to greet Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492, but in fewer than 50 years, they had been wiped out by brutal slavery, famine and European disease.

Havana, on the coast with a huge, natural deepwater harbour, was founded by the Spanish in 1515.

It was sacked and burned by French pirate Jacques de Sores in 1555, then re-established by miffed Spaniards who built a limestone citadel and walls to deposit Spanish gold plundered from the Aztecs and Incas in Central and South America.

In 1762, eight years before James Cook mapped the east coast of Australia, the British stormed the city, taking the prize after little more than a month.

A year later, Spain swapped Florida for Havana, redoubling efforts to ensure it remained its unassailable jewel in the Caribbean.

The Spanish built more citadels and more walls, and the city never came under siege again.

The forts and parapets - and the magnificent 8km sea wall, the Malecon, that took more than 50 years to build - have helped to make Havana one of the most spectacular cities in the world.

The Malecon, which protects the Havana from the open ocean, stretches from the Old Havana docks northwards.

It has been a gathering place for Habaneros (people who live in Havana) since the first kilometre was completed in 1901.

And it is developing as a focus of the country's new economy as the country's borders start to re-open to trade. But it has been a long road.

Just before the dawn of the 20th century, Cuba threw off Spanish rule only to see the US step in. The Cubans regard the move by its former ally as betrayal.

By the 1940s and '50s, Havana had developed as a playground for the US rich.

Among those who made their way into the Caribbean sun was Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway. The writer not only spent years living in Havana and fishing its waters, he is reputed to

have invented one of Cuba's favourite drinks, the mojito.

He became larger than life in Cuba, one of the few Americans who refused to cut ties with the country when its government became socialist.

Hotel Ambos Mundos in the heart of Old Havana keeps the hotel room Hemingway lived in for seven years as a museum.

Through the '50s, the city became an opulent, bustling centre of business, gambling and mafia money-laundering.

As President Fulgencio Baptista's left-leaning government edged into a dictatorship, it set the scene for a two-year guerilla war led by a solicitor, Fidel Castro, as well as artist Camillo Cienfuegos and Argentinian internationalist Che Guevara.

When the guerillas ousted the government - and the US - in 1958, America found itself with a leftist country on its doorstep.

Paranoia in paranoid times was rife.

Within four years, the CIA became heavily involved in an attempted invasion of Cuba at Playa del Giron, which became known as the Bay of Pigs.

The plan was to land and move about 10km north to establish a capital in the sugar-growing town of Aguada de Pasajeros, renamed Australia two years beforehand.

The invasion lasted three days, with Castro directing his citizens' army from headquarters in Australia. It was an international disaster for the CIA and the US.

Though Australia's sugar mill closed years ago when international sugar prices plummeted, the town still offers steam train rides for tourists.

A two-week ramble through Cuba took us through Havana, the historic towns of Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Australia in the south, Play del Giron and Santa Clara, in central Cuba - the scene of Che Guevara's decisive 1958 battle during the revolution.

The trip, organised through Escape Travel in Kawana, was by English travel company Cox and Kings and Cuban travel agent San Cristobal.


106,440sq km in size

72 times smaller than Australia

2.5 smaller than New Zealand

11.23 million population

2.1 times smaller than Australia (23.6 million)

2.46 times larger than New Zealand (4.56 million)

$US68.23 billion Gross Domestic Product

22.9 times smaller than Australia ($US1.56 trillion)

2.7 times smaller than New Zealand ($US185.8 billion)

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