In Old Havana, there are lots of little time capsules you can explore. One of them is the old train used by the Presidents of Cuba before the Revolution. Cuba was a colony of Spain until the war between the United States and Spain, fought in Cuba and the Philippines between 1898-1902. At that time, both colonies passed out of Spanish control with the US victory in the war. Cuba became a republic in 1902. Each of the subsequent Cuban presidents were upheld by US military support – any popular uprisings were swiftly put down with US military intervention until 1959 when Fidel Castro’s revolution would successfully unseat the US-backed Cuban dictator. Some of the Cuban presidents between 1903-1959 were better than others; some, like Batista, were dictators happy to revel in corruption without thought for the poverty and inequality that ran rampant in the country.
Aside from the geographic importance of Cuba, 90 miles from the coast of Florida, it represented an important source of sugar for the US. And as a one-commodity economy, Cuba was heavily dependent on the trade agreements with the US as the US economy was the only one big enough to absorb Cuban sugar at good prices. But the sugar industry took a heavy toll on the Cuban people. The sugar industry only provides employment a few months out of the year, and prosperity was heavily dependent on sugar prices determined by the markets. Good years were good, but bad years were catastrophic.
These were some of the things that went through my mind as I wandered through the opulent interior of the president’s train in Havana. Its elaborate Art Deco furnishings represent a different time on the island, much of which was typified by the underpinnings of the difficult US-Cuban relations today.
Title quote: President William McKinley