Cuba has been in the news a lot recently what with it strengthening ties with the USA for the first time in over 50 years and then the death of its iconic former leader and revolutionary figurehead, Fidel Castro. But what does this all mean and why is the tiny Island nation on the pages of every major media outlet?
Here we look at the beauty of the country and talk a little about its past and how it will affect its future.
1. Fidel Castro
So you may have been hearing a lot about this man in the news recently as he passed away at the age of 90, but what makes him so important? Well, this man is Fidel Castro, who, in 1959, overthrew the American-backed dictator of Cuba, General Fulgencio Batista who had implemented policies that meant land owners and wealthy casino and brothel operators benefited from the labor of the poor and so, largely, his toppling was seen as a good thing.
Initially, even America reached out to Castro but soon he implemented policies nationalizing industry and throwing out American interests which led to the USA to turn on him. As Cuba became a one-party Communist state that aligned itself with the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war and being so close to America, Castro became increasingly divisive as sweeping reforms to help out the poor laborers were put in place but opposition and objection were quelled swiftly and brutally.
America refused to trade with the Communist nation and put pressure on other countries to do so as well which meant the country suffered severe economic problems. Cuba began exiling those who it considered against its revolutionary policies and sent boatloads of refugees to Florida. Strangely enough, despite being shown as clamping down on freedoms largely championed in the West, Castro strongly opposed apartheid in Africa and wanted to see an end to colonialization around the world.
It was these contrasting images of the man that made him a hero to some and a villain to others and it wasn't until late in the Obama administration that America began to open its doors to Cuba a little more, offering a few trade deals here and there. With Castro now gone, the iconic figurehead of their Communist revolution no longer holds sway and with America changing its tack to influencing the Island nation, things may be about to change.
2. Classic Cars
Because America stopped trading with Cuba in 1960 and wouldn't begin again until 2011, Cubans lost the imports of the American car industry and other foreign importers were just too expensive to afford. Because of this, Cubans became proficient in maintaining their classic American cars of the 1950s and 60s and they became an icon of the nation.
So much so, in fact, that the streets of Havana, the Cuban capital, are still filled with these beautifully kept and functioning cars and they have been protected by law as a national icon.
3. Colonial Rule
Cuba has not had a great history for its people as it as came under Spanish colonial rule, been a major stop off on route for slave traders and then dealt with Batista. Castro wanted to alleviate that dark past but whether he did that or added to it is up for interpretation. The history, however, comes alive in the buildings and architecture of the cities.
Havana is filled with colonial buildings with grand facades and towering spires of Spanish rule.
4. Communist Rule
Communist rule has also had its effect on the architecture and cityscapes as, although money has been lacking since Castro came to power, murals and depictions of heroes of the revolution, such as Castro and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, are often on display around the cities and urban areas.
Statues of other thinkers and leaders of history who share the Communist ideals have also cropped up such as Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.
5. Che Guevara
Ernesto Guevara was a doctor who traveled South America as a young man and saw the poverty and desolation wrought upon the continent's people by corrupt and wayward governments, often propped up by US policy. After a failed attempt to overthrow Batista in 1953, Fidel Castro spent a year in prison before fleeing to Mexico where he gathered a group of revolutionaries together to try and topple the regime again.
It was here where he met Ernesto, who had been dubbed 'Che' (meaning friend) by many of the people whom he met on his travels due to his willingness to help anybody and provide medical attention to even those without money. Inspired by what he had seen Che Guevara agreed to join Castro's forces.
Guevara also became a controversial figure in his time and he left Cuba after the revolution to inspire similar acts across South America. He was eventually captured and killed by American agents but is still often championed by many as a force of revolutionary change.
Despite it being a Communist nation, the ruling party of the country has had a rather different approach to religious freedoms to that of other countries under Communist rule. With around 90% of the population being Catholic before the revolution, in 1962, the government of Fidel Castro seized and shut down more than 400 Catholic schools, charging that they spread dangerous beliefs among the people. In 1991, however, the Communist Party lifted its prohibition against religious believers seeking membership, and a year later the constitution was amended to characterize the state as secular instead of atheist.
Castro himself was a Catholic and so successive Popes have tried to leverage their influence to increase religious freedoms in the country with varying degrees of success. Catholicism remains an integral part of the Cuban way of life and identity and often Saints and religious figures are also depicted in murals and paintings in public places.
Afro-Cuban religious ideals are also very prevalent as when African slaves were brought to Cuba to work on the sugar plantations, they brought their religious beliefs with them. These largely became syncretized with Catholicism and gave a unique religious practice to the islands.
As you may have guessed, murals and public art are a big part of Cuban culture where religious and political heroes are painted on walls as well as scenes from the country's history, iconography and rich folklore which are spelled out in the paint with the diverse and vivid imagery splashed everywhere about the place.
It is not just socio-political happenings that get daubed, though, and sometimes it is not just the buildings that get this treatment. The picture below is of a cliff face depicting the evolution of man and ancient animals that no longer exist, painted on the side of a mountain.
8. Unique Transport
The streets of Havana, Cuba's capital, are used to seeing all sorts of odd vehicles. Still teeming with immaculately kept American cars from the 1950s and until recently they were home to the camel bus, which was part truck, part bus, the Coco taxis are shaped like hollowed out coconuts or NFL players helmets and whizz around the city looking for fares.
With yellow ones designated for tourists and black ones for the locals these small but nippy vehicles are a common site on the Carribean island.
Given that it is a Carribean island with a tropical climate, the landscape of Cuba is absolutely stunning, shaped by the temperature, sea and storms of the region. Its rugged coastline gives rise to amazing swelling waves that batter the coves and bays of the island, as well as lending to a small but devout following of surfers.
These fearsome waves have led to some stunning, white, sandy beached to relax on and traders can often be found there selling trinkets, crafts and even food as tourists stroll along the amazing beauty spots and lap up the rays and rhythms of Cuba.
Away from the coastline, swathes of tropical forests dominate the rolling hills of the countryside and in amongst them can be found waterfalls, pools and lagoons of spectacular beauty. It may take a rugged adventurer to find them but it is well worth delving into their depths.
With a lack of trading opportunities and embargoes from many countries around the world, Cuba has not had a lot of money to maintain their aging infrastructure and this only got worse with the collapse of their close ally, the Soviet Union. As such, Cubans have become experts at maintenance but even this is not enough to stop the crumbling of many of the ancient buildings and infrastructure.
This contrasts quite starkly with the bright colors and beautifully maintained vehicles of the place and can create quite an eerie effect to those not used to seeing this in a day to day setting. That being said, areas of greater interest to tourists or ones often shown by the media receive far more funding to be refurbished.
With the death of their iconic leader and visits from President Obama signaling a softening in the US approach to Cuba, a great change could well be on the way to the island with the possibility of it being opened up to tourism and more foreign industry coming in, the infrastructure and economy could be irrevocably changed.
That being said, the Communist government is unlikely to allow anything too dramatic to happen too quickly whilst the recent election of Donald Trump could see a return to an all-out blanking of America's nearby neighbors. Whatever the case, we will have to wait and see but the country may soon, never be the same again with change looming on the horizon.