From Winston Churchill to the Rolling Stones, Cuba has hosted its fair share of famous Britons over the years. But the first official royal visit by the Prince of Wales and his wife the Duchess of Cornwall in 2019 heralds an important shift in Her Majesty’s Government’s longstanding policy towards the island.
Until recently, little had changed since 1898, when the US intervened to end Spanish colonial rule in Cuba and Britain largely surrendered to growing US dominance in the Caribbean sphere. But Britain’s soft power play today indicates an alignment with Barack Obama’s 2014 diplomatic re-engagement with the island, rather than Donald Trump’s rolling back of this initiative. Obama judged the 54-year-long US trade blockade a failure, and ordered the unfreezing of Cold War-era policy.
Fidel Castro’s fiercely anti-American outlook and accommodation with Moscow were always the main issues for Washington. While Fidel and his then younger brother, Raúl Castro, were in charge, Britain could not disentangle its relations with Cuba from its much weightier “special relationship” with the United States. With Miguel Díaz-Canel now president in a post-Cold War, post-Fidel Cuba, the British government is freer to steer a more independent course.
Change in the wind
The future king and his wife are the first British royals to set foot in Cuba since the Duke of Windsor. He sailed in from West Palm Beach in 1955, following visits in 1948 and 1954 to play amateur golf. On his final trip, the US ambassador, Arthur Gardner (a non-career diplomat), hosted the former King Edward VIII – not famed for his sound political judgement – and his American wife Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.
Cuba’s dictator Fulgencio Batista granted the two friends a special audience at the Presidential Palace, now the Museum of the Revolution. Just two months later, Batista committed the grave error of granting amnesties to imprisoned brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro. This freed them to plot his revolutionary downfall just two years after their first failed uprising.
British writer Graham Greene correctly sensed pending political change, reflected in his iconic espionage satire Our Man in Havana which was published 12 weeks before the Revolution on January 1 1959. A new biographical study of Greene in Cuba reveals the backstory to his spy spoof, including the novel’s insight that “the president’s regime was creaking dangerously towards its end”.
When Greene began writing the story in Old Havana itself in late 1957, the capital was abuzz with rebel insurrection and rampant hotel construction. The Capri, Habana Riviera, and Habana Hilton hotels towered over the city’s Vedado neighbourhood. The Castro-led Revolution soon replaced free-market capitalism with Soviet-style socialism, nationalising the new hotels (the Hilton becoming the Habana Libre) and other established US businesses on the island.
A good view
Today, foreign rather than Cuban representations still dominate the way Westerners imagine Havana and its inhabitants. The city’s transformation into a visual mecca became particularly evident in the 1990s, when a stream of visual cliches in film and photography appeared in advertising, travel guides, coffee table photobooks, movies, music videos and documentaries. The highly influential film Buena Vista Social Club (1999) by Wim Wenders became the benchmark for the way outsiders came to imagine Havana. His documentary’s iconic scenes helped shape the dominant perception of a city frozen in time.
Various types of images further popularised a time capsule myth about Havana, underlining the city’s survival in the face of a relentless economic blockade. It encouraged people to make a mental link between pre-Castro Cuba and its revolutionary present. Footage of vintage American cars and crumbling buildings was accompanied by traditional Cuban songs performed by ageing musicians. Over the past two decades, this type of aesthetic has been extended through foreign representations of Havana.
The royal tour’s inclusion of a meet and greet with current Buena Vista Social Club band members indicates the way this phenomenon still shapes the tourist experience today. But the reality is quite different. For example, despite the outdated way outsiders still view the country, Cubans – especially the young – have embraced new technologies, including latest generation WiFi and 4G internet. Dynamism and modernity are in the air.
A new book reveals how different ways of seeing have shaped the way foreigners imagine Havana. The upcoming exhibition This is Cuba: Documentary photography after Fidel, featuring recent, unseen work by Cuban and foreign photographers (some of which accompanies this article), at Royal Holloway, University of London, further explores these themes.
Economic and political isolation, intensified by the aforementioned US trade embargo, reinforces outsiders’ impression that Cuba is a “unique” island of communism, surviving – come hell or high water – in a sea of global capitalism. But tourists – including both “bucket list” and repeat visitors – travel to Cuba in their millions to experience an intoxicating cocktail of cultures, set in tropical surroundings to the sound of a distinctive Afro-Cuban beat.
No golden arches
Foreigners appear in a hurry to experience a communist post-Cold War relic before either they or the revolution disappears – or before McDonald’s opens its first franchise and spawns a vista of golden arches across the island. Rather than product advertising, however, roadside billboards implore Cubans to resist their dominant northern neighbour. Big Macs remain off the local menu, and therein lies Cuba’s special appeal.
Before Fidel Castro’s death in late 2016, outsiders presumed the revolution would die alongside its leader and the island would revert to its pre-revolutionary condition of US dominance. The moment passed, yet his revolutionary project and the city’s romanticised aesthetic endure.
Cuba in the Western imagination continues to teeter doggedly but alluringly on the cusp of change, with the Revolution’s day of reckoning constantly postponed. Echoing the years preceding 1959, large foreign investment (including from France, Spain, and Qatar) is once again transforming Havana’s skyline. Recent openings of luxury hotels in the rundown capital include the Gran Hotel Manzana and the Grand Packard, with the Prado y Malecón due to complete in late 2019.
From where and from whom, therefore, should we anticipate change? The British royal visit itself signals a departure from the long-held Cuban policy of Washington’s closest ally. With other Western countries exploiting economic openings in Cuba – and Britain keen to compete with them more openly – does only Trump’s administration stand in the way?