John Dew, Former British Ambassador to Cuba and Colombia, will be joining Aegean Odyssey this winter on several of her Cuba and Caribbean sailings, so we thought he was the ideal person to give us more insight into this vibrant land. John started his diplomatic career in Venezuela in 1975. After postings to Paris, Dublin and Madrid, with intervals in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, he headed the Latin American and Caribbean Department of the FCO from 2000 – 2003. After a secondment to Lehman Brothers bank in London he was Ambassador to Cuba from 2004 to 2008 and to Colombia from 2008 to 2012.
Cuba has always captivated visitors. Columbus thought it was “the most beautiful island that eyes have ever seen”. You will find the enchantment just as powerful today, as you see Cuba’s extraordinary heritage and unique way of life at first hand.
Cuba has never done things by halves. From the British capture and brief occupation of Havana from the Spaniards in in 1762, which first opened Cuba to trade with North America, it has always swung between dynamic change and deep conservatism.
For years before the 1959 revolution world demand for sugar meant that it was one of the most advanced and prosperous countries in the Americas, and Havana one of the most modern cities, rapidly expanding every few years. Not everyone shared this prosperity, and the US – only 90 miles away – called most of the shots. Few know that the dictator Batista left in January 1959, allowing Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries to take over, after the US Ambassador told him to go. Nonetheless the prosperity and pace of life were striking, all achieved in the sixty odd years from Cuba’s late independence from Spain in 1898.
The revolution, especially early on, brought massive changes. But over time it cut Cuba off from even bigger changes taking place in the world outside. Isolation from the US, constant economic stress and a stubborn determination to keep going its own way, meant that much was preserved which elsewhere would have disappeared. Nowhere else I know still looks and feels so closely like it did sixty years ago. This is not just about the architecture, or the still limited internet, but shows up in social behaviour too – for example in many people’s instinctive old style courtesy. A time traveller from 1958 would feel immediately at home but wonder why things were so much quieter, with so much less traffic, so few shops, zero advertising and an even deeper peace in its totally unspoilt countryside.
Everyone wants to know what will happen next. Fidel Castro died in 2016, after the significant but still limited thaw in US/Cuba relations which his brother Raul achieved with Barack Obama. The controversial US economic embargo is still in place. Donald Trump has so far said little about Cuba. Raul, who is 85, has pushed through pragmatic economic reforms since 2008. To his generation, the changes so far seem daring, but nobody doubts more needs to be done. He has said he will stand down in 2018, having had ten years at the top.
There are plenty of questions about Cuba’s future, but few clear answers yet. Whatever happens, I am confident Cuba will always surprise and delight those lucky enough to visit.