Cuba: Authoritarian hell or socialist heaven?

Striking a pose, drinking a Cuba Libre

I have socialist friends who tell me that Cuba is utopia and a Cuban friend who tells me it is a fascist state. I also know many people who have gone there on holiday, and all of them seem to love it, some for the old cars, streets, culture and slogans, others for the all you can eat and drink seaside hotels. Everyone has an opinion, but I start this week feeling confused. Should I read the speeches of Fidel Castro, or a take-down of the terrors his regime have inflicted. In the end I plumped for reading two books and watching three films in the hope that I’d finally know what to think. I also decided to pair each book and film with cocktails, because if there is one thing that Cubafiles and Cubaphobes agree on it is that Cubans know how to drink and party, rather like Ernest Hemingway, the author of this week’s first novel “The old man and the sea”. Ostensibly the story of an old Cuban and his final battle with a giant Marlin, I guess it is really the story of Hemingway’s final battle with life.

Drinking a Hemingway, whilst taking down Hemingway

It feels a little presumptuous for a blogger to take down a man considered to be one of the best writers ever born, but although I was taken by his first novel “The sun also rises (fiesta)”, I have, since then, found it hard to understand our collective obsession with the “master of the sentence.” To me he reads like a grumpy gun-toting hunter with little respect for the cultures he spends time in. And this book is little different (though he is at least a little aware that killing a giant Marlin isn’t the heroic act he hopes for). The main protagonist ends up feeling “sorry for the fish” and tells the tale of killing a female Marlin only to have her male partner swim alongside and jump up to see what had happened to his partner.

The Mary Pickford. I wonder if one day there will be a cocktail named after me?

I recommend pairing this book with the Hemingway Special.

Hemingway also appears in this week’s second book, Before Night Falls, written by Reinaldo Arenas, a man who passionately hates Castro and the Cuban regime. He grew up poor and gay in a revolutionary state willing to persecute him for his beliefs, loves and lusts — of which he had many, for Arenas was a man with a huge sexual appetite and a seemingly unerring ability to get laid. Many of his conquests are hard for a prude like me to believe, but I guess that when a government cracks down on love between consenting couples, they break hearts and minds and force people into undertaking dangerous and hidden couplings wherever they can.

I loved the Mohito from the get go

I recommend pairing this book with a Cuba Libre, as Arenas’ main hope was that Cuba would one day be free.


Our first film Strawberry and Chocolate is an interesting match for Before Night Falls as it also tells the story of a gay man in Cuba — where being homosexual is an anti-authoritarian statement. It was filmed in Cuba despite being clearly and overtly against the worst parts of the government. This fact reveals a rather more lenient society than the one portrayed by Arenas (he makes it sound impossible to even ask questions). In contrast to this, the second film “Memories of underdevelopment” is just one long question, a black and white epic in which a rich man’s family escapes the revolution, leaving him behind to ask whether life is better in the new regime. If you like Jean-Luc Goddard, you’ll probably enjoy this, and you’ll love “I am Cuba”, a ground-breaking film made thanks to the generosity of the Soviets. Apparently the Cubans were not particularly keen on this “love-letter” to their country, but it is now considered a classic. It also includes a scene about the United Fruit company which filled me with as much rage as Arenas had for Castro.

I also made this Cuban breakfast but don’t have enough space to tell you about it!

So, in conclusion, I’m going to have to quote Bakunin! “Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.” And Cuba for sure needs more freedom.

…and this Cuban coffee which was damn fine, damn, damn fine

But I haven’t even talked about Cuba’s amazing music yet, and that is an essential part of the story, for one of the great things about socialism is that instead of being about stars and money, music can be about dancing and fun. There are therefore hundreds of bands across Cuba playing live in most bars you visit. Only a few of them ever become well known or make records, but those that do all have a very Cuban sound as is shown by this week’s playlist.

Cuban lunch in the office

So that just leaves food, the home-made elements of which were delightfully simple as this is a country that LOVES a sandwich. First we have pan con timba, basically a cheese and guava toastie which I made for my colleagues one lunchtime.

The frita hit the spot

Second we have frita, basically a burger in which you add the chips to the roll along with the burger!

Vegan paella, fellah

But the main meal was made not by me, but by the Cuban Embassy a pub that is walking distance from my home. They treated us to vegan paella, fries, refried black beans and patatas bravas, all washed down with mojitos and our final cocktail, the Mary Pickford. What a week, what a country, I hope one day to get to visit for real, but for now I pack up and head to Cyprus.




Zero carbon lockdown travel through books, drinks, food, films, music and the magic of living in multicultural #Birmingham.

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