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SEA Currents: SSV Robert C. Seamans
March 11, 2016
Cuba on the Cusp of Greater Participation in the Global Economy
Alongside at Santiago de Cuba
There was a great deal of excitement aboard the Corwith Cramer among student crew and professional crew alike as we drew near our port stop in Santiago de Cuba. In our resources on board, Santiago was highlighted as the first capital of Cuba, a significant fortified port in the era of Spanish flotillas working their way from the mineral rich Spanish colonies in Central and South America back to the Iberian Peninsula and then as the cradle of revolutionary activities from the latter part of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th century. We also devoted class time aboard in small group sessions to cover some of the basics of general Cuban history from early Spanish colonization to the rise of the sugar production in the 19th century and the revolutionary wars for independence to the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro with the assistance of Ernesto “Che” Guevera.
The arrival of the Corwith Cramer comes just 2 years after Santiago’s 500th anniversary and a few weeks before President Obama’s visit to Cuba. While there is already a sense that many things are changing for Cuba, there is also a distinct feeling that this city and Cuba in general are anxiously awaiting the full effects of thawing relations with the United States and a deeper engagement with a global, capitalist-driven economy. Some of this was confirmed in our organized tour of the city. From the moment our bus pulled away from the pier, we were treated to a frank and in-depth narration of Santiago’s unique history and urban development as a backdrop to issues facing Cubans today. Santiago was described to us as the most Caribbean of Cuba’s cities with a mix of people, many of African descent, drawn to the area in years past from all over the region. Much of the waterfront was developed and supported by French emigrants fleeing the Haitian Revolution, and the neighborhood is named Tivoli in recognition of this cultural influence. The influx of people over the years preceding the 20th century led to significant growth, and today the larger metropolitan area is home to about 600,000 people and it is the most densely populated city in Cuba. Before making our first turn through a circular intersection crowded with horse drawn carts, our guide for the day, Manuel, let us know that the waterfront area was the only flat area in the city. It was initially the center of the colonial settlement, but the seat of government was moved inland and up the first of many hills that we encountered on our travels through the city. This move was precipitated by several early attacks on the settlement by buccaneers, including the future Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, Henry Morgan. The narrow, early colonial streets sloped steeply uphill (perpendicular to the waterfront for ease of movement of goods and people in typical colonial port fashion) as we entered the center of the city with its cathedral and government buildings. In 1959, this is where Fidel Castro made his speech announcing the victory of the “real revolution” for Cuba. In this way, he meant to distinguish his movement from the outcome of the military actions of Cubans and Americans in the battle with and decisive defeat of Spanish forces on nearby San Juan Hill, our next stop on the tour.
At the remains of the Spanish fortifications, now a monument to the lives lost there, Manuel spent some time talking about the importance of the battle that took place there and the role of the Cuban freedom fighters, or “Mambises,” not just Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, in the taking of this strategic, high-ground position held by Spanish forces. The Battle of San Juan Hill marked the end of Spanish control over Cuba, and a nearby “Arbol de la Paz” marks the final negotiations for peace. For many Cubans involved in the long struggle for independence, though, the American policies that followed the victory over Spanish forces were not particularly welcomed. The subsequent Platt Amendment and the creation of the naval base at Guantanamo Bay became a sticking point in relations between Cuba and the United States well before the 20th century events drove a wedge between the two nations.
The monument to General Antonio Maceo, a leader in the independence war begun in 1895 was next on our tour. Maceo, the son of a modest merchant in Santiago, is both a local and national hero, and the monument, a giant sculpture of the beloved general on horseback preparing to charge the enemy is rather awe inspiring. The monument also acknowledges the Mambises and their role in Maceo’s victories. Symbolic, larger-than-life machete blades were prominently placed ahead of the mounted Maceo to remind viewers of how the blades were used by the ill-equipped but heroic forces under the general’s command. These fighters would charge the Spanish soldiers with no weapons aside from these blades. While this tactic brought high casualty rates, it also succeeded in overwhelming the trained imperial forces with sheer numbers and the terror of being attacked with these agricultural tools turned weapons. Manuel spoke of the deep sense of pride in Santiago for the heroism of this period, both the determination of the people to break free from oppressive imperial control and the charisma and skill of leaders like Maceo. The city contributed 32 of the 55 generals who served in the wars for independence. Resistance to tyranny and a unity of purpose are strong elements of the character of Cubans from this region of the island.
Our next stop was focused on the most recent revolution that began with the July 26, 1953, attack on the Moncada barracks complex. Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionaries hoped that this would be the successful start of an armed uprising against the brutal dictatorship of Batista, but a series of mistakes, everything from the bad luck of Castro running into a army patrol well outside of the city and non-resident fighters getting lost on their way to the barracks, prevented the revolutionary forces from taking control of the arsenal inside the barracks. Somewhat miraculously, when Castro was captured a short time later, he was not summarily executed because a sergeant in Batista’s forces, Rolando Sarría, felt that Castro should receive fair treatment. This would allow Castro, after a period of imprisonment, to regroup during a period of exile and return to Cuba and build support for his revolutionary movement while sheltering in the nearby Sierra Maestra mountains, a region with rugged terrain and a long history of providing shelter for runaway slaves and others looking to escape from oppression.
The barracks buildings themselves are now used as primary schools, and there is a small museum dedicated to the failed attack. Our time there prompted a series of questions from students ranging from how Cuba ended up so alienated from the United States to how the people of Cuba were affected by the political and economic policies of the two nations. Earlier in our tour, Manuel had pointed out a number of examples of how the Cuban people, and, to a certain degree, the Cuban government have historically responded in creative ways to the challenges of living under an embargo from the United States. For example, some vehicle owners had secured private ownership and the right to use their trucks as private transport for pay. Along similar lines, government policies secured health care and the distribution of food in particularly dire times, but also periodically opened up (and sometimes subsequently closed off) private enterprise to bring in and circulate needed currency. This discussion of financial circumstances tied in well with a brief stop for students wanting to exchange currency. Manuel offered an explanation for the creation of the Cuban Convertible Peso (the CUC that tourists use for purchases in Cuba), with its fixed relation to the US dollar and the 25:1 ratio with the Cuban peso. This is yet another example of government policy intended to ease economic circumstances.
Our final scheduled stop for the day was at the fort, Castillo de San Pedro del Morro, which stands at the entrance to the harbor. This was also our lunch stop and we were treated to both a fantastic view of the Caribbean Sea stretching out to the south beneath our balcony tables and some delicious traditional food including a beef-based “ropa vieja,” rice, mashed plátano, or plantains, fried fish and fresh cut vegetables. Despite the distractions of fresh brewed coffee and ice cream at the end of the meal, we were easily drawn in by the history of the well-preserved and UNESCO-designated fort right next door. We learned that it was initially constructed in 1638 to deal with pirates and enemy nations, and the fort, once it was finally completed, served as an effective deterrent to attacks on Santiago. Within this context, there is a great deal of pride in this fort among the people of Santiago as the residents of the early colonial city helped to build and defend it. From the 19th century onward, however, the fort takes on a more negative or notorious character. During the wars for independence it was used as a prison and there are accounts of torture and considerable inhumane treatment of inmates. Despite this troubling aspect of its use El Morro, with its five levels and dizzyingly high natural and man-made bastions, is easily in the running for the most impressive fort in the Caribbean. Significantly, the protection of Santiago by “El Morro” played prominently in the American, Cuban, Spanish War, by effectively preventing American warships from entering the harbor in the 1898 conflict. Unfortunately for Spain, their fleet was trapped in the harbor, and when they left the protection of the fort behind in an attempt to escape the US naval blockade, all of the Spanish ships were sunk or captured.
As our tour concluded and we descended back down to the waterfront, we, rather fittingly passed by the old Bacardi rum factory. While the Bacardi family abandoned both Santiago and Cuba in the aftermath of Castro’s rise to power, the facilities and the knowledge of rum distilling remain. Now under the brand name of Ron de Santiago, the people in this city, with their limited resources and isolated status continue their efforts to make a living and hold onto what they value from the revolution. As major changes loom on the horizon, Cubans are anxious about what will come next. As Manuel put it, Cubans have been living in a bubble, and now they must look for ways to fit into the global economy without losing what they value in terms of their culture, their economy and their social structure. I, for one, am hopeful that Cubans in general and the people of Santiago in particular will find a path that brings them the future Manuel seeks. We will see what 12 months of change brings for Santiago when the Corwith Cramer returns to this port city.