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Cuba Culture
Cuba Culture

Despite the best efforts of the power to its north, the sun still shines on Cuba. It's the Caribbean's largest and least commercialized island and one of the world's last bastions of communism. The island's relative political isolation has prevented it from being overrun by tourists, and locals are sincerely friendly to those who do venture in - even blockade runners from the US get a warm welcome! The Helms-Burton Act has allowed Cuba to find its place in the post-Soviet world gradually, without the sudden destabilizing shock of mass consumer tourism from the United States. It's only a matter of time before American-imposed travel and trade barriers fall. No doubt millions will come when flights from Miami resume. Clearly, the time to go is now.

Although you can't quite hear the colonial architecture peeling in the streets, even Cuba's larger towns are pretty relaxed. The most frenetic it gets is in the middle of an enthusiastic chachachá, and the loudest it gets is behind one of the huge finned American cars chugging the streets. If you want it even quieter, Cuba's backcountry and beaches are perfect chill out destinations for hikers, swimmers, spelunkers or those who just want to smoke a fine cigar under a palm tree.

Culture

African slaves brought rhythms and ritual dances to Cuba, where they were blended with Spanish guitars and melodies and then appropriated and developed throughout the Americas (the USA in the 1920s jumped to rumba rhythms, and these, fused with jazzy horn sections and drums, became the big-band sound). The conga-line dance was developed by slaves shackled together, while much of contemporary Cuban dance has important associations with Afro-Cuban Santería religion. The most popular Cuban music today is son, which developed in the hills of the Oriente before the turn of the century and incorporates guitars, tres (a small Cuban stringed instrument with three pairs of strings), double bass, bongos, claves, maracas and voice. Mambo, bolero, salsa and chachachá music also derived from this form. The most famous exponents of Cuban music were Pérez Prado and Benny Moré, but Cuban music continues to evolve and there are a great many artists still making great music.

The country's most famous literary figure is José Martí, whose life, ideas and martyr's death confirmed him as a national hero, but other Cuban literary greats include Cirilo Villaverde y de la Paz (1812-94), Alejo Carpentier (1904-80), Nicolás Guillén (1902-89) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929-). Cuba's filmmakers include Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1928-96), whose Strawberry and Chocolate was highly lauded, and Humberto Solás, whose works also received much international acclaim. Painters Wilfredo Lam (1902-82) and Marianao Rodríguez (1912-90) are amongst the most important the country has produced, and Manuel Mendive (1944-) is regarded as Cuba's foremost living painter.

After the revolution the arts were actively supported by the government many theatres, museums and arts schools were founded, musicians were guaranteed a salary and a national film industry was established. The government has sought to redress the influence of North American mass culture by subsidizing Afro-Cuban cultural groups and performing ensembles.

Historically, Roman Catholicism has been the dominant religion in Cuba and it remains so, with around 40% of Cubans at least nominally Catholic and some 4% of the population Protestant. The loose institutional organization of Santería, an afro-Cuban religion, hides the fact that a majority of Cubans are affiliated with this Afro-Catholic religious fusion in one way or another, and their numbers have grown since the government ended its official atheism in 1992. True to the country's mestizo culture, Cubans grafted Catholicism onto African religions brought over by slaves, resulting in Afro-Cuban equivalent gods for the major Catholic saints - and the occasional animal sacrifice. When Pope John Paul II crowned Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patroness, devotes of Santería swelled with pride, for they identify the Virgin of Cobre with their very own Ochun, goddess of love and abundance.

Cuban cuisine is a mix of Spanish and African techniques, using local produce. Dishes like Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christian; black beans and rice), arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) and picadillo (minced beef and rice) are common, as are soups made with plantains, chick-peas or beans. There are, however, food shortages in Cuba and eating out can mean long waits at state-run restaurants or hotel dining rooms. Cuban beer (cerveza) is excellent and the cocktails are legendary.

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