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The Island That Dared by Dervla Murphy

How does a small island nation maintain cultural independence and political-economic dignity whilst living in close proximity to the world's superpower? This is a question as familiar to Britons and their relationship with the United States as it is to Cubans - even if the contexts and answers are very different. 

On our recent honeymoon trip to Cuba with my new wife, a trip that was naturally much more about relaxation than education, we agreed a deal - we would spend our first 5 days immersing ourselves in Havana and Cuban life, doing the heritage and cultural trail thing we love so much and which has taken us tramping across the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia to the Great Wall of China over the past few years -  but then we would do what we've done very little of before, go to a luxury resort and try to switch off completely from the outside world for 10 days.

As well as the standard Lonely Planet guide to assist with the first stage of our trip, before flying out to Havana I decided to buy a further book on Cuba to help develop my understanding of the country's unique political situation. Having studied the history of Latin American politics at university, with a partial focus on Cuba and Che Guevara, I knew a little of why and how the 26th of July Movement and subsequent revolution emerged - and that the Castro government was not your classical dictatorship which we now see toppling like dominoes across the Middle East. Growing up in left-leaning political circles, I'd also often heard Cuba casually cited as an example of a country where socialism works - usually with reference to its enviable record on education and health care.

I was tempted to buy Fidel Castro's 'My Life', having read excerpts and found it a real page-turner, but felt this maybe a little too one-sided! I'm aware it's easy to get caught up in a romantic view of a country like Cuba, particularly when there on holiday, and so tried to seek out a more balanced viewpoint. This search eventually lead me to Dervla Murphy's 'The Island That Dared'.

Dervla Murphy is a famed Irish travel writer known for her skill of blending historical and political commentary with observations of people at grassroots level. The Island That Dared is no exception, a 400+ page journal of her several visits to Cuba - initially on holiday with her daughter and grandchildren, and from there, travelling alone to roam around the country faraway from the well-worn tourist tracks, as is her style.

The travelogue is particularly powerful in bringing to life the vibrant, hopeful nature of the Cuban people, which in our own interactions, was confirmed time and time again. Cubans appear as a diverse bunch - a kaleidoscope of descendants from European settlers, African slaves and Taino indigenous farmers. Yet in a relatively short time, as a 'new world' society, they have developed a distinct shared identity based around community life, music and the arts. Cubans, despite their isolation, are also surprisingly worldly approaching foreigners with open arms (albeit sometimes with a view to making a quick Tourist Peso in the process - another interesting Cuban quirk), genuinely wanting to share their country, and to engage with the outside world. 

On the surface, by Western standards, Cubans appear to possess very little and to have lost a lot - Havana is striking in its beauty as a historic transatlantic port with all the architectural features of your classical European city - yet appears locked in a process of widespread, seemingly unstoppable decay. The term 'faded jewel' continuously sprung to mind as we spent our days wandering the city, yet this also felt like an understatement on repeat. The gleaming classic American cars buzzing up and down Havana's otherwise quiet highways seem to be the only aspect immune to the rot. That and the Cuban demeanour - generally presenting as naturally attractive, bright-eyed, well-dressed, with an easygoing temperament and air of confidence. Perhaps walking around Cuba without a Dervla Murphy to provide commentary would leave you with the impression that this is yet another Communist experiment gone wrong, and that another Berlin Wall moment is needed in this tiny corner of the Americas. Instead, through her regular reference to and re-telling of Cuba's recent history - in particular, its relations with the United States situated just 90 miles away - it becomes clear that this country is yes, an experiment, but no, not a failed state and no, not your typical Soviet outpost (it was hard to shake this preconception, having seen the grey monolithic blocks in East Berlin and the Prague outskirts).  

What you are left with, as a Western tourist looking in, is a changing of perspective of what prosperity really is - does owning (a large mortgage on) a hi-spec apartment, having the latest designer clothes and phone technology, possessing hundreds of followers on your Twitter of Facebook, and so on, meet the definition of prosperity? Should our collective prosperity be measured solely by GDP and economic growth or by other more human measures such as how peaceful our society is, how communal our society is, how educated people are in general (not just in terms of university graduation statistics), how healthy people are physically - and mentally?

Certainly Dervla Murphy makes a very good argument that Cuba has rapidly evolved from banana republic status over the previous five decades, although in her passionate defence of the revolution (which there is much evidence to suggest was, and in many ways still is, a popular movement) - coming from an already deep-rooted leftist political stance - she tends to sweep over too much of the darker side of the Castro years. And in turn, tends to instead spend great time detailing the alleged crimes of Cuban Americans and drifts towards simply presenting Cuba as a socialist utopia in comparison to The West as a capitalist dystopia. As the book progresses, this theme appears to become more and more laboured, and certainly towards the end I found myself slipping into skim-reading and wondering what Nick Cohen would have to say about it.

In particular, Dervla Murphy offers no real answer to the question of what happens if Cubans decide en masse they've had enough of their paternalistic, predominantly white old-school leaders and want something radically different? She also pays no attention to the question of whether Cubans, for all their achievements in music and arts, and science, are intellectually stifled in the sphere of philosophy and what implications this has for the future when Castroism inevitably ends. (This is not just a question for Cuba, our visit to China last year raised this particular question also). 

Dervla Murphy also seemingly misses a glaring fact - as a visiting travel writer, she has to break laws to wander around Cuba and speak to Cubans freely. And were she to be a Cuban-born writer, she would be unable to leave her country without passing through a politicised bureaucracy - and may even face exile or imprisonment. The case of Yoani Sánchez, author of the Generación Y blog, and other persecuted Cuban writers documented on the Reporters Without Borders site bear testimony to this.

Ultimately through, we left Cuba - apart from being incredibly relaxed and re-energised - with a greater awareness of how many 'Majority World' countries have had to, and are still having to, bravely engage in post-imperial recovery and re-alignment - and with our black-and-white views of the world (which we are all prone to if we spend too long in one place or with one group of people) both challenged and enriched. And Dervla Murphy's work contributed greatly to this.

It seems obvious that Cuba will not stay as it is forever. With the passing of time it slowly edges towards a crossroads. Interestingly, Fidel Castro has built no cult of personality - instead actively cultivating the long-dead Che Guevara, José Marti and Simón Bolivar as national icons - and has not opposed his brother-turned-comrade-turned-president, Raúl Castro, who is taking a much less hesitant, stop-start approach to reform than he did during his final decade of power. From a top-down viewpoint, the question is when the time of the Castro brothers inevitably comes to pass, whether Cuba will transition to a democracy - perhaps in a similar model to its Latin American neighbours - or will enter a period of less benevolent dictatorship enacted by Marxist remnants or possibly worst still, new Batista-types from across the Gulf of Mexico. 

From a bottom-up viewpoint, the question is whether Cubans - should they embrace Western-style capitalism - can maintain their status as a diverse-yet-united, uniquely-cultured, peaceful and non-consumerist-minded people? Not just for their own well-being, but as a postive alternative (of sorts) to what we often see in Europe, North America, Australasia, and increasingly so, in Asia. Particularly if their relationship with their neighbour to the north changes and multi-nationals enter the scene (think golden M's and the like). It is unlikely we will return to Cuba anytime soon because there is so much else of the world we wish to see - but I do hope Dervla Murphy is around long enough to write a sequel documenting post-Castro Cuba, and one as equally glowing.

For a few more photos from the trip, follow the link:

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