A visit to Planet Cuba

There are some ads in Cuba: this hole-in-the-wall bar borrows an international logo for a local drink. And hundreds of bars have small signs claiming that Ernest Hemingway drank there. The droll slogan at one hipster bar, however, admits ‘Hemingway never came here’.

There are some ads in Cuba: this hole-in-the-wall bar borrows an international logo for a local drink. And hundreds of bars have small signs claiming that Ernest Hemingway drank there. The droll slogan at one hipster bar, however, admits ‘Hemingway never came here’.

Phillip Frazer

It’s been six weeks since I spent 12 days in Cuba – just enough time to get why it felt more like visiting another planet than another country (and I’ve visited 32 of those).

Cuba is about 140km from Florida, but for 55 years the USA has forbidden its citizens from visiting the largest island in the Caribbean, or from spending a single cent on anything Cuban. This is in retaliation for the 1959 revolution in which the Castro brothers and a few thousand followers took back their country and sent the Yanks packing, leaving behind their fancy cars and a few hotels built by and for the American mafia.

What my trip taught me is that this blockade has defined what Cuba is today more than Karl Marx, Fidel, the Soviet Union, or any other single force has.

When I told friends I was going to Cuba they understood, on some level, how big a deal the blockade has been, because everyone said: Yes, you should go now before Obama opens it up and it gets swamped and spoiled by the Yanquis.

The assumption everyone shared was that the Cuban people are blind to the tsunami that is poised to engulf them. We all know it but they don’t.

But they do – they get it. They more than anyone know how hard it is to resist Yanqui culture, money, and power, because they did it in 1959 and again in 1961 when the US mercenary force invaded at the Bay of Pigs, and lost.

When I planned this trip for me and my daughter Zane – she’s 25 and lives in Florida – I did my usual web-surf for off-the-track lodgings and adventures, but soon realised that Cuba doesn’t have the cacophony of choices just about everywhere else has. In fact, joining a guided tour for the first time in my life looked like a top notion, specifically the tour offered by an Australian outfit called Cuban Adventures.

Cuban life stories

They drive brand-new Chinese buses, their guides are Cubans with engaging life stories, they put you up in home-stays every night, and they mix the gorgeous Caribbean beach visits with trips up the mountains to Santa Clara where Che’s army of men and women guerillas captured a trainload of weapons from the dictator Batista’s troops, and advanced on Habana for a triumphant reunion with Castro, as Batista fled the country back in 1959.

The Aussie tour team also delivered the ‘environmentally and socially responsible travel’ they promised. Over our 11 days Zane and I ate breakfasts in our families’ homes, dinners in restaurants we discovered in back alleys, and the most memorable meal on a hillside organic farm overlooking the radiant green valleys of Vinales. We talked and laughed with our fellow touristas – two Irish gals, three American women my age, and a bonzer environmental official from Wagga Wagga named Chris. We listened to our guide Diosbel (yep, beautiful god) tell stories and sing songs of revolution, carefully sidestepping political land mines all the way.

Throughout all this, in the lovingly tended houses and meticulously maintained public places that used to be private, what was most present and most compelling was what was missing.

No ads, no malls

There were no adverts, no billboards for stuff along the highways (though a few portraits of Jose Marti and Che with fearless peasants and workers), no jingles on the radio or TV about Toyotas or toothpaste, no garish signs on shopfronts or malls – no malls!

The 55-year blockade has spared Cuba and its people the plagues of obsessive consumption and accumulation. Not much recorded music pollutes public air-space either – people play music live in cafes, plazas, and on cobblestoned streets.

This is what gives the place its other-planetness. Where else are there buildings and streets, fields and rivers, airwaves and byways in which the public space is not for sale or rent to the highest bidder, to fill them with messages, images, and noises unasked-for and unwanted? You share this country with other people, not mediated by the fog of artificial relationships.

Warning: even though I ticked Cuba on my Westpac online banking and it gave the okay, they are beholden to American Express, which still enforces the US blockade, so Westpac cards are useless there.

See Phillip Frazer’s blog at


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