Cuba: The Caribbean island is so strange

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Cayos – more than 4000 Caribbean islands

Kuba has all kinds of islands to offer, from the simple coral reef that just emerges from the sea to islands reserved exclusively for tourism. Nobody has counted them exactly, some sometimes like to disappear into the sea again, others are somehow connected by mangrove forests and some are simply nothing more than a dab of sand in the wide sea.

But numerous islands around Cuba are unique in the Caribbean, whether towards the Atlantic or the Caribbean Sea. Among them is a larger one, the Island of Youth (Isla de la Juventud, formerly Isla de Pinos) with 85,000 inhabitants and a well-known diving area.

On the east coast of Cuba, towards the Atlantic Ocean, there is an archipelago stretching over 250 kilometers, a collection of flat islands with mangrove forests and lagoons. Many of the extensive sandy beaches are used exclusively for tourism.

For this purpose, some dams were built from the mainland to the islands, sometimes for miles, so that tourists can easily reach their hotels. However, this also destroyed the natural lagoon world, with negative consequences for marine animals.

However, most of the islands around Cuba are still unused. Its nature has not changed for thousands of years, it is only affected by the hurricanes. This island world is a hidden part of the natural wealth of Cuba, which could also be economically enhanced through careful tourist development.

Edificios de Micro – prefabricated buildings like in the GDR

They are not architectural beauty, they are not beauty at all, but people live in them in all parts of the country. The five-storey prefabricated buildings, which many of the European visitors from East German and Eastern European cities know, are ironically called “Russian constructivism” in Cuba. However, their construction goes back to an invention of the GDR, which also built the then largest cement factory in Cuba for its most important building material.

Five-storey prefabricated buildings from before 1990

Source: Jitsy Santana Gómez

For hundreds of thousands of Cuban families, they were a relief from their housing shortages. They were built wherever there was a building site in the middle of or on the edges of cities, with easy access to water supply and the disposal of industrial water and electricity.

In the suburbs of Havana, numerous streets were lined with small parks, in their place are now prefabricated buildings. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the GDR, no new ones were built. Every visitor who drives through Cuba will see them; however, very few will experience one of the apartments in them.

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While numerous old houses and entire streets of the old town have been restored in Havana, the prefabricated buildings can be seen from their 40 to 50 years. Black-gray mold runs along its facades and its balconies are barred.

The windows have been clad with metal slats since they were built, without glass and without air conditioning. In the heat and on the lower floors, also because of the mosquitos, they have to remain closed almost constantly. Only a little daylight penetrates, so that the electric light must almost always remain switched on. They are not tourist sights, but they are Cuban reality.

Golf – new courses planned in Cuba

In terms of the number of courses, golf has almost become a popular sport for us. Cuba has missed this international development. It is now trying to catch up under the pressure of tourists.

Before the revolution, golf in Cuba was a leisure activity for the upper class, as was the case everywhere in western countries with the exception of Scotland, but the sport was already practiced by American tourists. At that time there were eight places available, four in Havana and four in other cities. That was a lot for Latin American standards.

Cuba: After the revolution, golf went out of fashion; several golf courses are now being planned

After the revolution, golf went out of fashion; several greens are now being planned

Source: Getty Images

Today there are only two left. One is on the outskirts of Havana, near the airport. It is mostly used by diplomats from the capital who insult it as a field.

The other is located in Varadero, impressively situated between the Atlantic and the Bay of Matanzas. From the street, tourists can watch where the golf balls fly. Cuba is probably the only country in the world where the number of golf courses has been drastically reduced.

This was once evidence of the achievements of the revolution. The people should not pay homage to aristocratic sport, but rather to a popular one, above all, they should play baseball.

Today, the measly number of golf courses is lagging behind in the competition for tourists, for example compared to DomRep, where extensive golf resorts attract. The government has recognized that, several golf courses are planned, including one in Pinar del Río and another at Cienfuegos, but it will take time because who should pay for it?

La Libreta – the food menu

The time when all Germans also bought with a grocery menu goes back so far that only a few have personal memories of it. The opposite is true for Cuba. The memories of a free purchase are no longer there. All generations of today’s Cubans have been accompanied by the libreta in their lives.

When food had to be rationed in early 1962, Fidel Castro announced that everything would be back to normal by December. It was the last time the government announced a time for the abolition of the libreta. The distribution of food on a map was the admission that Cuba was bankrupt after the nationalization of the largest companies and agriculture.

Cuba: There are still food cards for a number of staple foods

Grocery cards are still available for a number of staple foods

Source: Jitsy Santana Gómez

With the Libreta you can only buy in the so-called “Bodega”, because products are not simply distributed free of charge via the Libreta. However, the prices were and still are extremely low, for example a kilo of rice costs around 30 cents in a bodega, but in a normal shop it costs around EUR 1.50.

The number of products distributed via Libreta fluctuated depending on the Cuban economic situation, at times including cigarettes, washing powder and clothing. To date, however, the staple foods rice, beans, pasta, oil, frozen chicken, salt and sugar are standard products.

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At the end of the year, the Libreta will be reissued. It is a small booklet in which the number of members of a household is entered, so not every Cuban receives a libreta directly. The so-called head of household manages the booklet, which can only be used to buy in the bodega responsible for it.

The Libreta is so self-evident for the Cubans that I am sometimes even asked what products are included in my German Libreta, how much we get and what we have to pay for it.

Zona Cero – where Fidel Castro lived in Havana

In Havana’s La Coronela district, wealthy Cubans had built secretive country houses on extensive plots of land before the revolution. The leaders of the revolution later moved into these.

According to legend, for many years the American secret service was unable to find out exactly where Fidel Castro lived in Havana. In a way, this will also be true because he changed his sleeping area. However, an area in Havana that has been hermetically sealed off for decades is unofficially called the former zero zone.

It is located in the Coronela district of the La Lisa district, and the residential area of ​​the top revolutionary leaders is roughly delimited by streets 32 and 222. Even when the CIA was looking for this area back then, it was easy to make out. For example, the access roads were always well paved.

Havanna's zero zone: Cuba's nomenclature lives in a self-sufficient, isolated world with its own greenhouses

Havanna’s zero zone: Cuba’s nomenclature lives in a self-sufficient, isolated world with its own greenhouses

Source: Jitsy Santana Gómez

Today you can easily drive past it with the car, but you shouldn’t take pictures. It can be recognized from afar by the extensive greenhouses, which are not made of glass, however, but are covered with plastic and white gauze. The vegetables for the superiors of the superiors are grown in them.

It is still not known exactly who lives in the area from the party leadership and the government. Dense green hedges, fences and metal towers are still supposed to shield against unwanted glances. In any case, the new Cuban president, Díaz-Canel, does not live there. Later this area could become one of the tourist attractions of Havana.

The text is an extract from the book “Kuba 151. Portrait of the largest and most unusual Caribbean island” by Klaus D. Leciejewski, Conbook-Verlag, 288 pages, 16.95 euros

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