In some ways, Cuba wears the guise of a land lost in time. The massively finned 1950s automobiles lumbering down its boulevards and the lingering Spanish colonial influences in its historic architecture exist beside the eclectic and sometimes stern symbols of 20th-century socialism. Together, they create a puzzling landscape that can make Cuba seem mystifying, often quaint and sometimes alarming to the outside observer.
Cuba is a country of contrasts. Centuries of Spanish colonialism are evident in the architecture, cuisine and some of the customs of modern Cuba, but over 30 years of socialism -- under the auspices of the Partido Comunista de Cuba, the Communist Party in Cuba -- have had a huge impact on the people and culture. Cuban traditions are made up of layers that reflect Spanish conventions, the residual influences and resentments of America's relatively brief occupation and later embargo and decades of socialist austerity.
Cuba's art, music and food have also been influenced by a diverse population that now exceeds 11 million residents. African, French, Portuguese, Haitian, Jamaican and Chinese immigrants helped to shape a musical and culinary heritage that's distinctly Cuban. At first glance, the ingredients in Cuban cuisine may lack drama, but ultimately, they work together in perfectly spiced dishes that bring out new flavor notes in common ingredients. Cuba's music is special, too. It's arguably one of the most prized exports of this island nation. Cuban music exhibits an insistent beat, complexity and intensity that make it immediately recognizable around the world. Like its people, it's diverse, vibrant and adaptable.
On the next pages, we'll take a look at Cuban customs and traditions. You can learn a lot about the heart of a nation from its food, dress, customs and celebrations.
Cuban cuisine is simple but robust. One of its most popular home-cooking styles is called criollo in deference to its Spanish origins. The main ingredients in criollo are chicken, beef, pork, eggs, beans, rice and vegetables like tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, cassava (yucca) and plantain (a starchy fruit similar to a banana). This is peasant food at its best when spiced with the king and queen of Cuban seasonings: ajo (garlic) and onion.
Criollo has a European influenced offshoot, too, thanks to the contributions made by international travelers visiting Havana, Cuba's capital. They collectively helped to develop Cuban-fusion cuisine back when blending food cultures was just called creative experimentation. Western criollo adds a few ingredients like flour, raisins, capers and olives, and uses them in new or expanded ways. There are also Asian influences in sweet and sour and rice dishes. In the 1800s, Cuba had a small influx of Chinese laborers whose descendants make up about one percent of the population [source: Live In Cuba].
For a relatively small country Cuba has lots of culinary abundance, even if the vagaries of rationing and state-run restaurants can obscure its dynamic potential. A good example is the cuisine of Eastern Cuba, which borrows generously from Caribbean and African culinary traditions in its use of coconut, chocolate, honey, annatto seeds and other spices.
Cuban food uses fresh ingredients prepared simply, often in stews, soups and sandwiches. Meats are slow roasted until they're falling-off-the-bone tender.
Beyond the ever-popular garlic and onions, other common spices used in Cuban cooking are bay laurel, oregano, coriander, cumin and pepper. Many sauces have a tomato base. Sofrito is one example. Think of it as a flavor roux made without flour. Instead it combines aromatic ingredients like tomatoes, garlic, green bell pepper, chorizo and onion with olive oil over low heat. Sofrito is often used to add depth and complexity to rice and bean dishes, soups and stews.
Here are some other traditional Cuban favorites:
- Empanadas (empanadillas) and Pastelitos: meat-stuffed, fried or baked turnovers similar to Italian calzones.
- Arroz con pollo - chicken and rice
- Boliche - stuffed pot roast
- Boniato con mojo - sweet potatoes in a garlic citrus sauce
- Cocido de garbanzos - chickpea stew
- Congri - red beans and rice
- Dulce de leche - caramel sauce from sweet milk used to flavor cookies, cakes and candy
- Flan - a pie or tart, often with a custard base, used as both a sweet and savory dish
- Huevos habaneros - eggs Havana-style with tomatoes, peppers and cumin
- La Caldosa - Chicken soup
- Maduros - fried sweet plantains
- Moros y cristianos - black beans and rice
- Pan con bistec - a steak sandwich on pressed cuban bread
- Pan con lechón - a roasted pork sandwich on pressed cuban bread
- Pulpeta - meatloaf
- Rabo encendido - oxtail stew
- Ropa vieja - shredded flank steak or other meat in a rich sauce.
Although traditional Western dress has been worn in Cuba for decades, the semi-tropical climate lends itself well to casual, loose clothing. Island temperatures seldom fall below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius), and natural fabrics like cotton and linen have always been popular because they're breathable and lightweight.
Recognizably Latin styles like tiered ruffled skirts, exaggerated sleeves and brightly colored, embroidered shirts and blouses have had their place in Cuban fashion, but as Cuba struggled to exercise its independent spirit, Afro-Cuban influences like the African head wrap, or bandana, began to surface, creating an individualized look and a fusion of cultures that's uniquely Cuban. Remnants of these fancy rumba-style dresses are more often worn today as costumes to entertain tourists or stylized into formal wear like wedding gowns. An average wardrobe in Cuba today is likely to consist of casual slacks or jeans, shorts, skirts (for women) and T-shirts or loose-fitting tops.
One traditional Cuban garment is in widespread use on the island, though. It's called a guayabera shirt, Havana shirt, Mexican wedding shirt or cigar shirt. It's the Cuban answer to laid-back male chic. The guayabera shirt has two (or four) front pockets, and two groups of closely spaced pleats on the front and back. It has a dress-style collar and buttons, and is worn loose and long with slits a few inches up the sides. The story goes that the originator of the design was a woman who added pockets to her husband's shirt so he could stow a few guavas for the trip home [source: Puerto Rico.com].
Cubans claim the guayabera shirt as their own, but so do most of the countries in Latin America. Where early styles were probably white or off-white and somewhat plain, 21st-century versions come in anything from silk to satin and with sport-embroidered designs, beads, rick-rack and other embellishments. They're worn on casual and even some formal and work-related occasions. An offshoot of the guayabera shirt is the feminine version, the guayabera dress. Long, loose, and lightweight, it can be dressed up or down depending on the occasion.
After centuries of Spanish domination and a stint as the Western playground of the rich and infamous, the impact of the political and social revolution of 1959 helped create a Cuba intent on finding an independent identity.
Castilian Spanish is still the official and overwhelmingly predominant language in Cuba, but the strong Christian influences found elsewhere in South American are less powerful here. In 1969, Fidel Castro had Christmas stricken from the official calendar, and it didn't resurface until Pope John Paul II visited the island in 1996. Many Spanish and American cultural traditions suffered a similar fate, either falling out of favor officially or as a result of pervasive social pressure [source: Hispanic Culture Online].
Remnants of the past still manage to linger, though. Headwear is one example: Panama hats and Spanish sombreros are popular head gear, but so are baseball caps (baseball, the great American pastime, is still a hugely popular sport in Cuba).
Socialism has ushered in changes for the better, too, particularly in the areas of literacy, education and healthcare. According to the 1999 Human Development Index (HDI), which evaluates longevity, knowledge and standard of living in countries around the globe, Cuba's adult literacy rate is 95.9 percent, and life expectancy at birth is 75.7 years. Both of these favorable factors helped place Cuba 58th on the list of 174 countries surveyed [source: PBS].
At least half the doctors in Cuba are women, and women constitute a substantial portion of the workforce. Daycare is free and birth control is widely available, as are legal abortions for any woman over the age of 16 [source: Every Culture].
The shortages and rationing in Cuba that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in changes in the laws governing foreign ownership of Cuban businesses. That and a loosening of the limitations on free enterprise have led to a growth in tourism on the island and a resurgence of native crafts and family farms.
Beyond the statistics, you can learn a lot about a country from its holidays. Let's take a look at a list of Cuba's popular celebrations. Birthdays and weddings are big family celebrations, of course, and the following holidays and festivals are also big island events.
Official and Semi-Official Cuban Holidays:
- Jan. 1 - Liberation Day (victory in the 1959 Castro led revolution against Fulgencio Batista)
- Jan. 28 - Birthday of Jose Marti (Cuban national hero and the father of Cuban independence)
- Feb. 24 - 1895 War of Independence anniversary
- March 8 - International Women's Day (a celebration of the social, economic and political triumphs of women)
- April 19 - Anniversary of The Bay of Pigs (a Cuban 4th of July)
- May 1 - Labor Day
- July 26 - Day of National Rebelliousness (Revolution Day)
- July 30 - Day of the Martyrs of the Revolution
- Oct. 10 - 1868 War of Independence anniversary
- Oct. 28 - Anniversary of the death of Che Guevara (Argentine Marxist revolutionary, 1928 - 1967)
- Dec. 7 - Anniversary of the death of Antonio Maceo (Cuban leader and statesman, 1845 - 1896)
- Dec. 25 - Christmas Day
Now let's explore a few fun and unexpected facts about Cuba:
- Cuba has two state-run television stations.
- The area codes across Cuba are one and two digits long.
- Cuba has a large black and mixed-race population, and the many African cultural influences in Cuba are referred to as Afro-Cuban.
- In Cuba, cigars are called puros or habanos. The official cigar company of Cuba, Habanos S.A., markets all the premium cigar brands for the island [source: Habanos].
- Cuba has a world renowned ballet company called the Ballet Nacional De Cuba (the Cuban national ballet).
- Residents of Cuba often refer to their country as El Cocodrilo, because the island is shaped somewhat like a crocodile (if you squint).
- Topless sunbathing is not allowed in Cuba.
- Cuba is in the Eastern Standard (GMT-5) time zone.
- Although agriculture (sugarcane, tobacco and coffee) constitutes a significant portion of the Cuban economy, three-quarters of the population live in urban areas.
- Cuba's national flower is the Butterfly Jasmine (Hedychium Coronarium Koenig). known as La Mariposa, and the national bird is the elegant red-breasted Trogon (Priotelus temnurus) or El Tocororo.
- Dominos is the most popular game in Cuba.
- After the 1959 revolution, the correct form of polite address shifted from senor (sir) or senora (madam), to companero (comrade, masculine) or companera (comrade, feminine) [source: Sainsbury].
- Cuba's coolest month is January, and its warmest month is typically July.
- Cuban weddings are civil rather than religious ceremonies.
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