Cuba’s independence from Spain came after years of bloody conflict; though the extent of that bloodshed is a matter of debate. Tales of atrocities reported in American newspapers of the time may well have been exaggerated or completely fabricated with the intention of drawing the US into the conflict on the side of those who sought to throw off Spanish control.
Whilst that might be seen as a natural echo of America’s own fight for independence from a distant ruler, the motivation was probably less idealistic. Many saw Cuba becoming part of the US as a key strategic element in gaining control of the Gulf of Mexico and for a brief period after independence the Stars and Stripes flew over Havana.
Of course all of that happened in the 19th Century so it’s hardly relevant today. Is it?
Well despite the 1959 revolution the US still has a strategic foothold on Cuba. Originally agreed under the terms of a lease signed in the years immediately after independence, and then strongly objected to Castro as an illegal occupation, the US maintains a naval base on Cuba, in much the same way as the UK maintains Gibraltar on mainland Spain. That base is Guantanamo Bay.
And over a century since the Spanish were defeated, what role do they have in modern Cuba? There is still evidence of cultural influence, though to be fair an impressive statue of Cervantes may well be a pre-independence relic. The same is true of architecture, a historic influence. Food? Difficult to say, Cuba’s poverty has limited the development of any strong food culture; if you can’t guarantee the supply of any ingredients you tend to work with whatever’s available rather than pursuing any particular style.
You do still see Spanish flags dotted about in Havana and there is one Spanish artefact that is highly prized. A passport. Most Cubans don’t have freedom of movement, but with dual nationality you can travel.
Which is why the place with the most orderly queues I saw in Havana wasn’t the national telephone provider with a limited supply of sim cards that everyone wants. Nor was it the ice cream retailer Coppelia, which allows tourists to jump the line but employs security guards to manage the flow of locals.
It was the Spanish Embassy.