Though Cuba’s history began much like other Caribbean nations – discovered by Columbus and colonized by the Spanish – it has taken a strange path ever since. The Spanish-American War transformed Cuba into the Republic of Cuba, but the U.S. still intervened in Cuban affairs. Before 1929, Cuba saw a tourism boom, with American hotels, restaurants, and businesses popping up all over the island.
For being such a small island nation, Cuba has quite a big story to tell — historically. The 1929 Wall Street crash led to a drop in the price of Cuba’s exports, and plummeted the country into turmoil. Huge economic disparities led to revolts, strikes, and bloodshed. In 1959 Fidel Castro and Che Guevara led a rebel movement to overthrow the dictatorship. In its place, they instituted a Communist government, which brought its own set of challenges to both Cuba's political scene and economy.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving Cuba without its main trading partner and support system. The collapse happened during an already austere period for Cuba, and the 1990s proved one of the most difficult decades for Cuba in the 20th century. In the past decade, however, the Cuban government has made strides to improve quality of life, including allowing Cuban nationals to travel outside of the country, though it should be noted that Cuban passports are extremely expensive.
Though employment is guaranteed by the communist government, there is still considerable poverty in Cuba. Citizens have access to healthcare and education, but often lack material items considered necessary in first world countries. In Havana, for example, of the 2.6 million housing units in the city, 1 million of those are in substandard condition. Though citizens often own their apartments, the apartment buildings are often dilapidated. Literacy in Cuba is at almost 100 percent, an incredible feat that is attributed to Fidel’s literacy program. Though free education in Cuba is a boon, and students are able to study most topics and earn advanced degrees, there is a lack of opportunity after higher education that frustrates many young Cubans.
It should be noted, however, that The Human Development Index of Cuba still ranks higher than most other Latin American countries. As of 2012, the life expectancy in Cuba was 79 years, which is half a year longer than that of the average U.S. citizen.
People are required to work in Cuba, regardless of gender, but this does not stop traditional gender roles from persisting amongst the nation's people and culture. While women earn the same amount as men, men lead the fields of science and technology, and women dominate teaching positions for school-age children. Women are much better represented in the fields of medicine and law.
Domestic violence is not considered a distinct type of violent crime in Cuba, though threatening or inflicting harm are obviously illegal. Consequently, cases of domestic abuse are rarely brought to justice. Women’s issues are beginning to gain traction in the Cuban socio-cultural discussion.
The 1959 revolution promised 100 percent employment for Cuban people of working age. State Owned Enterprises (SOE) are the largest employers of Cuban citizens, but there are now 201 categories of jobs that people can hold in the private sector. These trabajadores cuenta propia (TCP), or “employees of private businesses,” range from barbers to restaurant servers to children’s entertainers.
Children legally must stay in school until 9th grade, but after that they are eligible for employment. All students over age 11 must work 30-45 days of their summer vacations on state farms, which can involve 8 hours of labor a day.
Cuba has experienced problems with prostitution, though the government claims to have eliminated it in the 1960s. Child prostitution is particularly troublesome for Cuba, and is perpetrated mainly by sex tourists from Canada and the U.S. Rarely are there publicized consequences for these crimes, and the police tend to turn a blind eye toward prostitution in general.
Government-owned restaurants have gotten a bad rap in Cuba, and a more popular choice for visitors today are the newly opened paladares, or private restaurants. These dining venues are often run by families, and seem to be bringing new life to Havana’s culinary scene. Still, restaurant owners and chefs can’t always be as creative as they’d like: some complain that exotic ingredients are impossible to get in Cuba, and basics such as salt are sometimes absent from grocery store rations.
All of the hotels in Cuba are essentially run by the state, but today, visitors are choosing to stay in casa particulares, private houses that have been fashioned into bed and breakfasts. Staying at casa particulares directly supports the Cuban citizens who run them, and gives travelers a more authentic taste of Cuba. Religious practices remain under scrutiny, so there will not be many religious holidays or festivals on the cultural calendar.
Due to Cuba’s relative isolation throughout much of the 20th century, the ecosystem of the island has been well preserved. This is also attributed to the government’s conservation programs, which include some successful reforestation efforts. Though Cuba’s natural resources will be threatened by a swell in tourism and the ensuing building of infrastructure, the government has standards in place that require a check on the land before a building can be erected. If the construction is proven to harm native plants or animal habitat, Cuba’s scientists can sometimes persuade the government to halt building.
One of the most striking sights for travelers to Cuba, particularly in Havana, is the seeming museum of classic cars from bygone decades, rolling smoggily through the streets. Though they are attractive anachronisms, these cars exist because Cuba has its own oil reserves, including three offshore crude oil fields. This has been necessary for Cuba, given its lack of trade with other oil-producing countries. But this industry poses a threat to coral reefs in the Caribbean, and Cuba is unprepared to handle a major oil spill.
The 2015 change in the U.S. policy for travel to Cuba will bring more tourism to the nation. There is speculation that this softened relationship could ease the way for democracy and free enterprise in Cuba. Hopefully Cuba and its visitors can find ways to preserve the amazing cultural and natural wonders of the country while expanding its economic viability, and improving the lives of the Cuban people.
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