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Trinidad, Cuba: a post-9/11 view

Photo used with permission from Adam-m.ca


Under a backlit street of penetrating sun, residents in Trinidad, Cuba appear and disappear within the shadows of open doorways in a silent prelude to darkness.


It is mid-October 2001, barely a month after 9/11. At this seemingly post-apocalyptic time, most world travelers are too afraid to fly here. In this south-central town of 50,000, my friends and I see almost no other tourists. We feel grateful for this reprieve: no belching tour buses, no jarring crowds, no kamikaze camera hounds.


The town’s languid feel, in the steamy heat of hurricane season, is a welcome sanctuary from the fear and frenzy of CNN. The television news, available here via satellite at our oceanfront hotel, has positioned the United States on a metaphorical abyss, following the fiery demise of the World Trade Center and its 3,000 dead. Engulfed in the search for Osama bin laden, Wolf Blitzer warns of the impending anthrax crisis. His tiny image and impassioned coverage on my hotel-room screen appear oddly surreal in this land of smiles and siestas.  


Yet, beneath its perfect-holiday atmosphere, Cuba bears a collective pain of its own. Sure, this island nation, rich with salsa and jazz, offers the calendar gloss of white-sand beaches, delectable mojitos, Hemingway nostalgia, and photo-pretty 1950s sedans in gleaming colours. But the first Spanish invaders brutalized and enslaved Cuban people, even feeding some live to their dogs.


Cuba continues to suffer under the U.S. embargo imposed in 1962, resulting in a lack of medical, educational, and mundane supplies like soap, notebooks, and guitar strings. The country bears the highest suicide rate in the Western Hemisphere, and inaccessibility to food at various periods has resulted in needless deaths, bringing many past urban residents to near-starvation. (Our informal group received government permission to import and transport medical supplies for distribution in remote clinics.)


Understandably, with few tourists present, the locals in Trinidad are desperate for our business. In Trinidad’s main town square, a genteel enclave of colonial homes and palm trees, street vendors display homemade wares: toy cameras and planes made of pop and beer cans, open-weaved tops and tablecloths of lace, lively street scenes painted in a flourish of colour.


Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988, Trinidad remains a living museum of its heyday in the mid-1800s, when the surrounding area produced a third of the country’s sugar. Founded in 1514 by Cuba’s first governor, Diego Velasquez, Trinidad was the third settlement ever formed in this fiercely independent Caribbean nation. An early haven for smugglers, the town and its region later became a focus for the importation of slaves and goods, shifting to cattle ranching and tobacco-growing for its wealth. When 50 small sugar mills started northeast of the downtown core in the early 19th century, sugar cane became the area’s crop of prosperity.


The 2000 Lonely Planet edition of Cuba describes modern Trinidad this way: “Its baroque church towers, Carrera marble floors, wrought-iron grills, red-tile roofs, and cobblestone streets have changed little in a century and a half.”


The must-see building off the town’s main plaza is Museo Historico Municipal, a mansion that wound up in the hands of a German sugar plantation owner in the 19th century. He reportedly gained control of huge sugar estates by poisoning an old slave trader and marrying his widow, who also died mysteriously. The building’s neoclassical décor and its outstanding view of Trinidad readily evoke the power and privilege of Cuba’s former ruling class. Today, in Castro’s economy of agrarian collectives and nationalized companies, this refurbished symbol of colonial grandeur remains an antiquated testament to comparative wealth.

Click here for a published account of my Cuba trip.


Here are a few travel books on Cuba:

Cuba (Lonely Planet Guide), by David Stanley, 2000

Cuba: A Concise History for Travellers by Alan Twigg 2000

The Reader’s Companion to Cuba, edited by Alan Ryan, 1997

The Rough Guide to Cuban Music by Philip Sweeney, 2001

Travelers’ Tales Cuba, edited by Tom Miller, 2001

July 21, 2010 at 12:01 pm
1 comment »
  • November 24, 2010 at 8:13 pmAdam

    That’s cool.

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