Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Tales of the Caribbean - Part 2

After working our way northwards from Barbados to the British Virgin Isles, visiting four former British colonies and two French overseas départements, our ship headed west towards three much larger islands – two former Spanish territories and one former British.

The first of these was the island of Hispaniola, the eastern two-thirds of which comprises the Dominican Republic while Haiti occupies the western part. The capital of the Dominican Republic is the city of Santo Domingo which proudly claims to have been the first permanent city established by European settlers in the Americas. Christopher Columbus visited Hispaniola on his first visit to the Western hemisphere in 1492 and established a small community in what is now Haiti, followed by one further east on the north coast the following year.  But it was his brother Bartholomew who founded what is now called Santo Domingo in 1496 when he led 1300 Spanish settlers to establish a permanent settlement on the south coast. Today Santo Domingo is a vibrant city of approaching 2.5 million people – the largest city in the Caribbean.

Christopher Columbus' statue dominates the main square

Like most Caribbean islands, the Dominican Republic is not a wealthy nation and the contrast between the well-kept squares and buildings in the heart of the old city and the crumbling buildings only a few blocks away is quite dramatic.

On most Caribbean islands, the income derived from tourism is critical to the country's economy, and our next port of call illustrated this even more than did Santo Domingo. Jamaica was, inevitably, also first discovered by Christopher Columbus – although not until 1494, on his second visit to the Caribbean. He seems to have been particularly captivated by the island and, despite his having originally claimed the island for the Spanish crown, it subsequently became his own personal property and his descendants still carry the honorary title of Marquis of Jamaica to this day!

Although our ship berthed in Montego Bay we travelled to Ochos Rios to visit the famous Dunn's River Falls where the river drops almost 1000 feet to the sea in a series of waterfalls and small lagoons. Thousands of tourists visit the Falls every day, many of them climbing up the Falls in groups led by experienced guides.

Climbing the Dunn's River Falls

Unfortunately, I had not realised that it would be possible to hire (or even buy) suitable footwear for climbing the Falls and so I had not worn my swimming trunks when leaving the ship.  So I was unable to join the multitudes braving the falling water and had to content myself with taking photographs!  (That's my story – and I'm sticking to it!)

The contrast between Jamaica and our final island, however, could not have been more marked.  Cuba was also discovered by Christopher Columbus – this time on his first visit in 1492 – and belonged to Spain for over 400 years until it was handed over to the USA, following the Spanish-American war of 1898 which also led to Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines being transferred to American control.  The USA granted Cuba independence four years later, but retained a naval base at the eastern end of the island known as Guantánamo Bay. Who could have guessed the role that would be played in world events by that base just over a century later?

In the years after independence Cuba had prospered and was known as THE place to go in the northern Caribbean right up to the late 1950s revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. As our ship sailed into Havana with the huge statue of Christ looking across the entrance to the harbour towards the city it was obvious that this was an altogether different type of city from any of the others that we had visited across the Caribbean.

And so it proved as we spent the next two days exploring this fascinating city. Amongst other things, of course, Havana is known as Hemmingway's city, and wherever one goes there are carefully preserved memories of his life there.

But the overwhelming impression is that Havana was once a most beautiful city, but one which is now crumbling away almost before one's eyes. Many of the wonderfully elegant buildings which line the Prado, running from the impressive Capitolio to the Castillo San Salvador de la Punta on the coast, at the eastern end of the Marcelón – a 5 mile esplanade running westwards along the shoreline – are badly in need of repair, having been largely left to their fate since Fidel Castro's revolution until very recently. But 50 years of neglect cannot easily be repaired.
The Capiolio
The Prado

Some of the buildings along the Prado
but note the weeds on the scaffolding!

Sadly, efforts by the current regime in Cuba to improve things are made much more difficult by the vindictive embargo enforced by the United States which, in effect, bars almost all forms of trade with Cuba which is in any way related to the United States. Thus American-based credit card companies will refuse to honour payments to Cuban organisations, although the USA is the largest exporter to Cuba – they just have to pay cash for all imports! And, in an apparent effort to damage tourism to Cuba, any cruise ships which call at Cuban ports are banned from entering any US ports for the next six months. Officially this embargo is to encourage Cuba to move towards "democratization and greater respect for human rights", but since the USA is more than happy to trade with many countries whose records in these areas are far worse than Cuba's it seems clear that this is not the real reason. Most Cubans believe that the strong Cuban exile community in Florida has a disproportionate influence on US policy in this area, but whatever the reason there can be little doubt that the American embargo is, in many ways, having precisely the opposite effect to that which it claims to be upholding.

But that has always, it seems, been the fate of the Caribbean islands. Since 1542 they have been fought over, colonised, liberated, conquered, and generally ill-treated by one country after another. Now most of them are free to run their countries in their own way but, as the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 and the 50-year US embargo on Cuba indicate, they are only allowed to control their own destinies as long as they broadly do what is expected of them.

And yet, despite everything, the peoples of the Caribbean, from prosperous Barbados to impoverished St Vincent, from the yachting haven of Tortola to socialist Cuba, are some of the most friendly people you will meet anywhere. Their islands are battered by hurricanes, shattered by earthquakes, and buried under the debris from volcanic eruptions, but they just pick themselves up and get on with rebuilding their lives. A visit to the Caribbean is not just the chance to bask in the warm sunshine or swim with the turtles in a clear blue sea. It is an opportunity to meet some of the friendliest, and most courageous people in the world. May it always continue thus.

Two new friends on the top of La Gran Piedra, near Santiago de Cuba

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