As relations between the U.S. and the Republic of Cuba soften and the possibility for business between the two countries looms, there may be a flight to Havana in your future. Viva la Revolución — and welcome to the Cuban time warp.
Hard to believe, but as of this year, the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba has been in place for exactly a half century.
An artifact of the Cold War, the embargo was thrown up three years after the 1958 Cuban Revolution, led by former law student Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, and the iconic Argentinean Che Guevara — Marxists all — was officially declared communist-socialist, and Fidel, by then prime minister, signed an economic and military pact with the former Soviet Union, effectively converting Cuba to a satellite nation. The so-called “July 26 Movement,” which overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista, confiscating the property of those deemed to be Batista's supporters and sending thousands into exile in South Florida, set the stage for 50 years of contentious relations between the island nation situated only 90 sm off the Florida coast and the U.S government.
While the embargo's purpose was primarily economic — to prevent business activity and technology transfer between U.S. and Cuban entities that could benefit the Castro regime or support the country's relationship with the USSR — it shut off almost all travel to Cuba by American citizens, including for tourism, and deepened the Castro regime's dependence on the Russians.
Abetted by the embargo — especially the lack of trade with the U.S. — and ensuing developments like the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961 and Cuban Missile Crisis a year later in which Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev challenged U.S. President John Kennedy by moving IRBMs onto the islands, Cuba's increasing isolation as a Soviet foothold in North America effectively captured the Caribbean nation in what author and Cuba expert Christopher Baker terms “a 1950s time warp.” Now more than 20 years after the dissolution of the USSR, the embargo still stands, and the Republic of Cuba remains locked in the past.
What makes Cuba “unique,” Baker mused when contacted for this article, is that time warp and the fact that the island nation sits next door. “Leaving the airport,” he said, “the first thing you notice on the street are a few modern cars, like Volvo taxicabs and newer buses, but in the background are all these 1950s U.S. cars. So in that regard, it's definitely a trip back to the '50s. The Hotpoint and Singer Sewing Machine signs are still up on the buildings. But as you get deeper into Havana, you eventually get to the old city, and you're back into the [Spanish] Colonial period. Out in the countryside, the ox-driven plow is still the beast of burden on the farms, and the horse is still used for personal transportation.”