I’ve just come back from a long weekend in Cuba. Lovely, fun tropical place. Of course it is, as it has been for quite a long time, under embargo from the United States. Nonetheless, it’s doing pretty well – not perfectly, to be sure, but in many ways much better than several other Caribbean countries I’ve been to.
The US has lots of money, of course, and one might think that the absence of its tourism and trade dollars would hurt a country. Notwithstanding the value that US tourism money can bring, though, US tourism also brings a level of US control and cultural imperialism, not to mention hordes of American tourists – you can see them barging in wherever they want to go. I really wanted to get to Cuba before the embargo was lifted, so I could go to a country that was relatively free of that American presence. As you may imagine, Cuba is hugely popular with Canadian tourists. Who, it should be admitted, are not always all that different from American tourists in many ways – but there are differences, I assure you.
So while the embargo has contributed to some key elements of Cuban culture, such as the large number of very old cars somehow still running (and sometimes on the side of the road being repaired on the spot), the main flavour of embargo we had there was the bar we would go and get our drinks from. We had some truly delicious piña coladas. Almost from our disembarkation, we were imbibing bargain rum drinks (rum is stunningly inexpensive in Cuba). And we had all the sun, sand, warmth, and humidity we wanted, and then some.
The tourism business is burgeoning in Cuba, although the country does have its problems – much more tangible to those who live there than to those who visit, however. But the embargo is porous; the US actually does quite a lot of trade and aid with Cuba, and Americans do visit. It’s not entirely the blockade it can be made out to be.
Blockade? Here’s the fun linguistic thing: notwithstanding that embargo is a Spanish word meaning ‘seizure’, ‘arrest’, ‘impediment’, or – yes – ‘embargo’, in Cuba the US embargo is called el bloqueo.
I should say that embargo has another common use in Spanish: in the phrase sin embargo. Now, in English, a sin embargo might be a boycott or blockade of naughtiness. But in Spanish sin means ‘without’, and sin embargo means ‘nevertheless, notwithstanding’. Perhaps that’s one reason they call the embargo el bloqueo: Cuba goes on, sin embargo.