When we first started ignoring and ultimately fighting with Cuba in the early 1960s, there was Russia. Remember that one? Within a couple years of the Cuban Revolution, the next thing Key Westers knew there was barbed wire and heavy guns pointing out to sea on Smathers Beach.
Well, as we all know, history has a tendency to repeat, perhaps not exactly, but it's not too difficult to imagine. Take a spin through the TV channels in Havana and you will see an inordinate amount of Chinese television programs. Why? I don't really know. Are there that many Chinese viewers in Havana? Sure, if you're brave enough to run the gauntlet of highly-aggressive restaurant hawkers in Havana's "Chinatown," you'll see your fair share of Sino-Cubans (I think that's a word), but beyond that, I've always wondered who was watching this stuff, other than me.
Anyway, 10 or 15 years ago, with transportation still regarded as one of the biggest problems, the government began retiring their nightmarish "camel" buses. With a capacity of 300, the homemade, double-humped cabins were made by welding two bus shells together and hauled by a tractor-trailer semi cab. By most accounts, they were pretty brutal, but yet another example of Cuban ingenuity born out of the country's "Special Period" following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Personally, I never had the need nor nerve to ride one.
So, with the country at a near standstill, the government had to get people moving again. Enter the Chinese. Since 2005, commercial manufacturer Yutong has sold roughly 7,000 buses to Cuba, comprising about 80% of the fleet across the island. But they've not stopped there. With 2,700 miles of railroad tracks crisscrossing the island, the next obvious step was shiny, new trains, right?
Having just learned about this new train stuff at 9 p.m. Monday night, I don't have any photos of the Chinese railroad cars, so this old beast passing through Cuba's colonial town of Trinidad will have to do for a train photo.
With transportation still one of Cuba's biggest problems, aging railroad equipment has hampered the efficiency of light rail travel, and the condition of the tracks is another major issue. That's probably why most, if not all guidebooks say that train "schedules" in Cuba are more of an idea, a "best-case scenario," more of an optimistic forecast than something to which one can set one's watch.
Cuba's railway system, the first in Latin America, was commissioned by the Queen of Spain in 1837 to move sugar and tobacco from the fields to the ports, passengers weren't even a consideration for many decades later. Today, particularly with the United States' recent ban on flights landing at Cuban airports other than Havana, countless Cubans are now dumped up to 500 miles from their destinations across the country. That'll show 'em.
Once again, with limited options to move the Cuban people, the Chinese government's offer to provide new railcars was happily received. The first 80 cars arrived last summer and another 160 will be online by 2021.
Not to be outdone, the Russian government, according to Reuters, delivered dozens of locomotives last year, with more on the way, and is also planning up to a $2-billion railroad restoration project, which could also include a high-speed train between Havana and Cuba's answer to Cancun, Varadero.
While ignorance may be bliss, it might be a good idea to get over to Smathers Beach sooner than later.