By Patricia Keegan
Earlier this year, as promising news of the possible lifting of the Cuba embargo filled TV screens, a friend asked me, “Why would I want to go to Cuba? It’s just like any other Caribbean island.”
Since I have visited all the islands I felt there was no comparison to Cuba with a population of 11 million, most of the other islands are much smaller and geared mainly toward relaxation in the sun and swimming in turquoise waters. Cuba certainly offers that, but much more.
As a journalist, I was in Cuba for three short visits and was surprised and impressed by its many attributes. It was during the late 90’s, there was no glitter and glitz but looked promising with major restoration going on in Havana’s historic section where a tourist can find many art galleries and restaurants. After a few days exploring I began to see Cuba as a fine diamond with many facets, the three I was impressed by were the well-developed cultural community, the warmth of truly genuine people and the non-polluted environment.
I was surprised by Cuba’s contradictions. I expected a consistently somber face, but when the high energy work day ended, a relaxed demeanor prevailed. One Saturday night I watched people flocking toward the Malecon where they gathered near the grand, historic Hotel Nacional and danced in the street to the rhythm of a lively Latin band.
Cuban Ballet Extraordinaire
Of all I could experience or hope to see in a short time, the epitome was an evening ballet performance of ‘Swan Lake” in Teatro Nacional. Sitting in a front row seat, I was quickly immersed in Tchaikovsky’s story of the princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse. Although familiar with the ballet, I had never seen a performance that moved me so much as this. Maybe it was the energy, the dexterity, the emotional expressions on the faces of the dancers, or the delicate beauty of the lead ballerina, but I felt the dedication and the full investment of the dancers in every note and variation of the music. I marveled at the discipline required of the male dancer in performing flying leaps and spins while supporting a rigid ballerina above his head.
Seeing this facet showcasing the beauty and talent of young Cuban dancers, juxtaposed against the backdrop of an ugly embargo, I felt an overall poignancy take hold of me. When the ballet ended with a standing ovation and shouts of enthusiasm from the audience, everyone around me was smiling. Shedding all sadness I fell into a conversation with the mother of the lead ballerina who happened to be sitting next to me. As we spoke about the performance she invited me to to her apartment where she showed me a video of her daughter winning competitions in Italy and Nicaragua. It turned into a truly lovely evening of cultural exchange.
In a rapidly changing world where book stores are slowly being replaced by technology there are some remaining treasures, like classical ballet, so enriching, that it would be a sacrilege to future generations if it, too, disappeared.
The story of the Cuban National Ballet is as extraordinary as the ballet itself. It was founded on October 28, 1948, by world renowned ballerina Alicia Alonso and her husband Fernando, who then, in 1950 opened a school of ballet devoted to Classical and Romantic ballet. During Dictator Fulgencio Batista’s rule, although the ballet thrived artistically, it struggled financially.
After the Revolution in 1959, Fidel Castro, came in with a policy of making the arts available to everyone. The government gave the Cuban national Ballet $200,000, which came as a windfall for the school and offered Cuba the potential to excel and find an identity in ballet. With the new funding they set out to search the entire country to find girls and boys with the basic requirements; good body proportions, the ability to follow dance steps and a sensitivity to music. Alicia Alonso has made Cuban Ballet unique by combining a true sense of Romanticism with a Latin boldness of feeling, with the suppleness and high extensions of the Russian school, with the brilliant footwork of Italy. Over the following years she brought the Cuban National Ballet to international fame with performances around the world.
Cuba’s Other Attractions
Cuba’s flora and fauna are both unique and spectacular, and to a large extent its environment has been spared the ravages we have seen around the world in recent decades. The island has some 300 beaches surrounded by miles of reefs containing a diverse, and still healthy, variety of corals, fish and other marine life. It is home to many species of Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf fish. Bird watchers can appreciate many rare species.
There is a high standard of education on this island, where the University of Havana was founded in 1728. There are now 47 universities, and education, as well as health care, has been free since the Revolution. UNESCO reports that despite a low base, 10% of Cuba’s budget goes to education compared to 2% in the US. Many schools open early and stay open for 12 hours providing early and after school care for working parents. School uniforms and meals are free. Twenty three medical schools in Cuba train foreign students as well as nationals. Literacy is near 100%, the highest in Latin America.
No, Cuba is not perfect, nor is any other country in the world, yet no one can deny its beauty both for artists, and observant tourists. It is filled with color--- the worn down Spanish Colonial architecture, the bustling antique cars and the ever- changing sea make the capital, Havana, a dynamic destination in the Caribbean.
So when the embargo is lifted and American tourism begins in earnest, I hope we approach the island with a sensitivity we may not have thought about when compared to other established Caribbean vacation destinations. The island is like an epic poem when you consider its history, yet its people have been able to maintain their dignity, pride and values. Their cultural achievements in the arts, sports, and human kindness will create an uplifting travel experience on this unique and beautiful island.