LET me start off by saying that Im not suggesting for a moment that Cuba is a perfect country. And after just returning from my first visit to Cuba since 2018, its pretty obvious that things have changed and not for the best.
It certainly does have a slew of serious problems right now. But name a developing country in Latin America today that doesnt. There isnt one.
Interestingly, Cuba does have something positive going for it, though. Cubans are deeply caring and compassionate people and they care about the well-being of those inside (and even outside) their country.
This was never more evident than in the aftermath of the tragic explosion of the Hotel Saratoga still under investigation and suspected of being an accidental gas leak on the morning of May 6 in Old Havana. With almost 50 dead (the numbers will likely rise as this piece is published) and some 80 injured, it was a major blow felt by Habaneros and by the island overall.
I still vividly recall seeing the five-star Hotel Saratoga building on May 2 and asking my driver, Enrique, about its status. He told me that it was being refurbished by the Cuban government and that it was almost ready to reopen in a few days. What stood out to me was its proximity to the Capitolio Building in Havana, its unique architecture and its prominent colonnade.
Built in the late 1800s, where the ground floor was once a tobacco warehouse, the Saratoga had morphed into one of Havanas most important hotels by the 1930s. It would become a tenement building after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, subsequently fell into disrepair, and then was turned into a luxury hotel in 2005.
But like many things in Cuba today, it was a victim of the ongoing pandemic and was closed in 2020. However, the Cuban military-run tourism company, Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA, had been renovating the property for a mid-May grand reopening.
Though Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel was quick to rule out a bombing or deliberate attack against the Saratoga, other Cubans werent so sure. It is worth recalling that Havana was hit by a string of hotel bombings or terror attacks in the late 1990s.
In early September of 1997, three seaside hotels in the Playa district of Havana were the target of small bomb explosions one actually killing a resident of Montreal. Earlier in July and August, three other tourist hotels in Havana were hit with small explosive devices. Evidently, the plan was to cripple Cubas burgeoning tourism industry and deny much-needed foreign exchange revenues to the Cuban government.
No individual or organized group ever took responsibility for the spate of hotel attacks in Cuba. But Cuban authorities always suspected right-wing Cuban exile groups in South Florida were the likely source of the deadly attacks.
Setting to one side the question of what caused the Saratoga blast, what most outsiders did not hear about was the swift and heartfelt response of Cubans to the life-ending tragedy. Immediately, Cubans from all walks of life be they athletes, artists, young people and seniors lined up outside various medical clinics to donate blood for the injured being tended to in local hospitals. When the call for blood initially went out, there was never any doubt or hesitation in the minds of those interviewed while entering the clinics.
To understand Cubans, Enrique carefully explained, you first have to comprehend the nature of Cuban society. First, sharing is a core value of the Cuban people, and each family teaches their children that critical value.
He went on to tell me that in Cuba, if you have something that someone else doesnt have, then you share it with them and vice versa. He pointed to an old Cuban saying (rough translation): Ill wash your hand and then you can wash mine; then well both be able to wash our faces as well.
Still, Cuba finds itself in a difficult place at this moment. There are food shortages, supply-chain issues, rising inflation and a sputtering tourism sector. And the awkward transition from the Cuban Convertible Peso (once equal to the U.S. dollar) to the seemingly unwanted Cuban peso (where one U.S. dollar is now worth approximately 116 Cuban pesos) is causing some minor headaches.
No, its not a replay of the devastating Special Period of the early 1990s, when Cubas GDP declined sharply by roughly 30 per cent. Indeed, it is worth remembering that Cubans are tremendous innovators, improvisers and consummate survivors.
So, yes, the Hotel Saratoga explosion is definitely a setback for Cuba and its struggling tourism industry. But it also highlighted the finer qualities of what it is to be truly Cuban. And no one, or no country, can ever take that from them.
Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.