dinsdag 3 maart 2015

Mapping geographically : comparing adjacent islands Cuba and Jamaica

I have always been intrigued by geographical maps. With “always” I mean: as long as I can remember, since I was a small child. Atlases, maps, at home, at school, or in the library.. they amazed me and got my deep interest. This was largely not too specific regarding country or part of the world. I recall how the way relief was indicated through colours and other signs in atlases and maps made me dream and fantasize about those places. The same applied for the different colours in maps used for arid, semi-arid or green, cultivated or wild land. That opened an intriguing world for me. So did the relative distance between countries, land masses, islands, borders etcetera.

Then there are “political maps”, as they are formally known. These focus more on man-made, political facts about a country: the capital(s), cities, borders (provinces)… in other words how human history gave a certain meaning to natural geographical areas. While I am interested in history as well, I emotionally could not help to make a distinction between the natural landscapes and what man later made of it. In fact, I considered it unnatural and artificial how political, national categories dominated natural geographical areas, even as a child. I not only considered it artificial, it is really artificial. States, nations are political choices, stemming from power relations. National borders were often arbitrary compromises given political weight over time.


One of my areas of interest in this regard is “bordering or nearby countries”: do borders really mean a cultural and geographical change? Also borders within countries (provinces, regions, states) never seized to amaze me, especially the relation (or relative lack thereof) of a cultural, ethnic and historical difference coinciding with borders. In organically, historically developed European countries differences are often (though not totally) clear-cut. Wales is located there because the Anglo-Saxons never really reached that Western area, and Wales largely kept its Celtic identity. The Alps are also interesting. A part of the Alps are in Italy, a large part of these Alpine mountain areas are German-speaking, French-speaking, and a part in Slovenia (or with other languages/dialects and cultures). Not necessarily neatly coinciding with “political” borders, as many may know about the different languages in Switzerland, and the German-speaking South-Tyrol, bordering Austria, but in Italy. Yet anthropologists speak of an Alpine ethnic type, mostly associated with once Celtic-speaking Central-Europeans, albeit mixed with other peoples (Germanic peoples in German-speaking areas, Romans and Italic peoples in Italy and others).

The Pyrenees between France and Spain seem a more natural border, but on the sides the mountains get lower and thus Catalonia is relatively more accessible from bordering France, than Spanish parts west of it (like Aragón), which had predictable historical consequences. Not everyone knows that languages spoken in the Provence in southern France (including around Marseille) – now diminished to dialect and with less speakers – are related to the Catalan language of Catalonia. It is in that sense a linguistic and cultural continuum. On the other side of the Pyrenees the Basque people and language likewise cross borders between Spain and France. Basques used, for instance, to inhabit a larger part of south western France than what is now known as the French Basque country, including the area around the city Bordeaux, of which surnames, toponyms, and genetic studies are still evidences. To a lesser degree Basques also inhabited a somewhat larger part of Spain than what is now known as Spanish Basque country.

Even more artificial or arbitrary are of course the political borders of former colonies of European countries in Africa, Asia, the Americas and elsewhere. These were not even decided by local elites, but by foreign elites. Apart from Ethiopia and a few other areas, Europeans largely shaped the borders in Africa and elsewhere. Note Senegal and how Gambia is “cut out of it”, due to different colonizers, while the two areas have much cultural and ethnic similarities, but different colonizers. Several examples of course can be given of this. Kikongo speaking peoples inhabit former Belgian, former French, and former Portuguese colonies, and Akan-speaking peoples live in both Ghana (which was a British colony) as in Ivory Coast (which was French). Of course Frisians live also in different countries in Europe (Netherlands, Germany), Basques as said in France and Spain, and there are other examples in Europe (Italian-speakers in Switzerland, German-speakers in a part of northern Italy, Dutch-language variants in Belgium, French in Belgium etcetera etcetera), but these had more haphazard, historically developed origins, while in former colonies it was often due to the stroke of a pen by foreign colonizers, a distant and drastic decision, making it even more artificial.


All this - including my interest in maps and geography - more or less comes together in the comparison I will make now between two countries that are very close to each other in the Caribbean Sea: Cuba and Jamaica. Both countries I find culturally interesting, and I have actually visited. I even had a trip in 2006, during which I visited both Cuba for about two weeks, directly followed by Jamaica for one week.

Cuba and Jamaica are former colonies by different colonizers (Spain and Britain) and are islands. This makes them inherently disconnected, some seem to think. Yet, the distance is small, especially at the eastern part of Cuba. The closest distance between the islands of Cuba and Jamaica is just about 140 kilometres. Eastern Cuba, which lies closest to Jamaica is mountaineous, just like a large part of Jamaica, so there is a continuum there too.

My plan for a “island-hop” vacation in 2006 combining Cuba and Jamaica, caused that some made remarks along the lines of: “that must be totally different (Cuba and Jamaica)”. This was by people who actually knew these places well, have been there, but also by others who hadn’t, and responded to common knowledge and facts (communist Cuba, Spanish-speaking, capitalist Jamaica, former British colony etcetera), they picked up here and there.

The question I would like to answer in the remainder of this post is thus this one: just how different are Cuba and Jamaica? In what ways? What are similarities? How can these be explained? All the more interesting, because the countries/islands are so close to each other: they are “bordering islands” so to speak. This way, I return to the contradiction between natural geography and man-made historical and political borders.


The Cuban-American historical scholar Antonio Benitez-Rojo once spoke of “repeating islands”, in referring to the Caribbean islands. Most of the Caribbean islands, whatever the colonizing country, followed roughly the same historical pattern, Benitez-Rojo argued: a slave-based sugar industry and plantation economy benefitting the European country, imported African labour, a white elite, a mixed race, somewhat intermediate class etcetera etcetera. Economy aimed at exports to colonizing country. As colonial constructs – essentially artificial – there are bound to be also similarities between Cuba and Jamaica, despite differences.

Indeed, both colonies knew slave-based plantation economies, with sugar being the main crop. There were also coffee and other plantations on both islands. The climate is of course similar. The development was in time quite different, though. For a period, Cuba was less focussed exclusively on sugar plantations and slaves than Jamaica (or Haiti). Throughout the 18th c. this was less developed in Cuba, but the slave-based sugar industry intensified there during the 19th c., especially after the Haitian Revolution and Haiti’s independence in 1804. Cynically, influential Cuban colonial economists advised to increase slave imports to take over the leading economic role in sugar that Haiti had before (18th c.). That Britain planned on abolishing the slave trade and slavery in the course of the early 19th c. – albeit hesitantly – further stimulated this aim. Of course at the cost of the human dignity (and lives) of many Africans, slave imports from Africa increased, especially expanding in Western and Central parts of Cuba (that were less mountainous, thus suitable for large sugar fields). Spain seemed, moreover, even more hesitant than Britain in abolishing the slave trade and slavery, and seemed to avoid the theme. Illegal slave trade by Portuguese and Spaniards to Cuba also continued, being the theme of the movie Amistad. It was not until 1886 that slavery was formally abolished in Cuba.

So, there is a difference in historical period, but one can conclude that Jamaican and Haitian slave-based plantation systems aimed at sugar, served as models for Cuban developments a bit later. They were indeed “repeated”. That transition seemed not so total, however, other economic sectors continued in Cuba, and demographically African slaves still made up proportionally less of the total population of Cuba than in Jamaica or Haiti. Racially the Cuban society was furthermore much more mixed, while the white population would increase later with Spanish immigration. This was in part a conscious policy by some Cuban politicians, to avoid an “Africanization” of Cuba, for racist reasons.

British white migration to Jamaica, on the other hand, occurred, but was never massive. Cuba became independent from Spain in 1892, after a war between Spain and the USA, much earlier than Jamaica from Britain (in 1962). Later indentured labourers came mostly from China, in the case of Cuba, but mostly from India in the case of Jamaica. Consequently, Havana’s “China Town” was once the largest in Latin America, after the one in Lima, Peru. Those are also differences, although there was Chinese migration to Jamaica as well.

Photo above: the entry gate to Havana's historical Barrio Chino (China Town). I took this photo in 2006


I like nature, but was especially interested in the musical and other cultures of Jamaica and Cuba. Being a long-time reggae fan and being interested in Rastafari, this is predictable. However, also Cuban music and culture had my interest. My travels on both islands had this culture (music and beyond) as focus, though not exclusively. Of course, I also paid attention to nature, climate, and landscapes. Politics had less of my interest, social issues a bit more, but these themes inevitably demand attention. The moment you enter a country, cross borders at the customs office, you enter by definition a certain political system.

The way the people lived their lives under such political systems, and social conditions, certainly had my interest. Along with this, music and culture had my attention. I know there exists a phenomenon called “sex tourism”, whereby Western tourists focus mostly on sex with locals, and aspects like social conditions and culture are subordinated (if useful) to this lust for sex. This has the appeal of being concrete and practical, but seemed, however, too egotistic and, well, vulgar and shallow to me. My pursuits were perhaps more intellectual.


I was already a reggae fan before going to Cuba, for the first time in 2001. I went to Cuba before I went to Jamaica. I knew some Cuban music, but got more into it when I was actually in Cuba. I liked the groove I heard of the many live performances I encountered. Towns in Cuba – large and small – tend to have central locales (music clubs) where local bands performs regularly, mostly acoustically. That’s a good network, keeping live music alive, even with state support. The Communist state’s role in culture and music has negative aspects as well, but seemed to do some good things too: musicians get paid state incomes according to skill, stimulating somehow musicians. These incomes are meagre, admittedly, but more than nothing.

The music genres played in such clubs tended to be Cuban or Cuban-influenced genres like salsa, or its main (local Cuban) precursor, called son. Also, genres like rumba, bolero, or danzón could be heard. Historically, the son genre is associated more with Eastern Cuba (with as largest city Santiago de Cuba), and the rumba more with Western Cuba (with Havana as biggest city). They assume that the origins of rumba is among Afro-Cubans in the city of Matanzas, somewhat east of Havana. What I liked about these Cuban genres were the percussive and groovy aspects of them. Bands I saw tended to include bongos, conga, shaker and other percussion players, and the songs were mostly groovy, catchy or with nice melodies, as percussion combined with guitars or bass guitars, and often also horns. That I understood Spanish helped me to understand the lyrics. It made to me clear that the lyrics had some limitations, with some themes recurring and other themes avoided, probably due to censorship. Love songs were common , or odes to revolutionary Cuban leaders, in these lyrics. That is a pity – real art develops only fully, I opine, if you can express yourself freely and honestly - , but I still heard some nice songs, and heard some great musicianship being performed.

I travelled through a large part of Cuba (sometimes day trips), and spent quite some time in Havana (at least a week in total), Cuba’s biggest city with over a million inhabitants, as well as in Santiago de Cuba in Eastern Cuba, which has over 500.000 inhabitants.

Havana is architectonically interesting and quite monumental, with remnants of the Spanish colonial baroque style, with what the French call “grandeur”, if somewhat decaying. Havana had in my experience a nice, lively, and edgy atmosphere, somehow shaping the vibe in Havana, largely due to the people’s lively spirit. Racially, it is an intensely mixed city, which was then somewhat new to me. Havana had many mulattoes (mixed European and African) people, as well as white people, mostly of Spanish descent, but also many black people, thus mostly of African descent. There were even quite some people with Chinese blood. Interestingly, parts of the African culture (of Yoruba, Congo, Calabar, or other origin) could be maintained in Cuba, among Afro-Cubans, kept alive in cultural centres.

Photo above: another view of (Old/central) Havana. I took this photo in 2006.

They say that the slavery regime under the Spanish was somewhat more mild and lenient when compared to the British or French slave regimes. This must not be exaggerated, as enslaved Africans were still largely dehumanized. Historical records show, however, that also slaves had some legal protection in Spanish colonies like Cuba, and could on free days have own cultural organizations according to their cultural heritage. Some historians describe the difference as such: in British colonies enslaved Africans were treated socially and legally as animals, in Spanish colonies as “lesser humans”. They were dehumanized a bit less, you can say. Still oppressed and at the bottom, but with some recognition of human and cultural rights. It was for instance a bit more easy for slaves to buy or obtain freedom in Cuba. Both free and enslaved blacks tended to come together on certain days in clubs aimed at shared African origins (Yoruba, Efik/Ibibio, Congo a.o.), cultivating these cultures. This had to be partly hidden still, from the Catholic powers, such as the Yoruba deities hidden behind Catholic saints in the largely Yoruba-based Santería religion, that developed in Cuba.

I encountered several Cubans who were active in such more directly African-based cultural expressions (like Santería), but also the music genres rumba and son were evidently African-influenced. I found this to be an interesting aspect of Cuban cultural life. As there was much live music, this could be practically experienced as well.


I had friends in the city of Santiago de Cuba in Eastern Cuba, so I returned there more often, getting to know Santiago de Cuba thus better, during the separate travels I made to Cuba, between 2001 and 2006. Santiago de Cuba is in size the second city of Cuba. I haven’t really counted, but I can say that I spent at least a few weeks in Santiago de Cuba and surroundings. That Eastern part of Cuba is known as “el Oriente” – meaning “the East” in Spanish. It is culturally, historically, and otherwise different from other parts of Cuba, such as West Cuba with Havana. Not so odd: all countries have internal differences. The East of Cuba is more mountainous than the West, which tends to have historical consequences. The southeastern part with Santiago de Cuba is known as the “most Caribbean” part of Cuba, also among Cubans, meaning probably in part that the population is mostly black or mulatto. This is the case in the cities Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo (the latter has over 100.000 inhabitants) and the provinces these cities are capital of. The son music genre is from this area, and also the bongos as instrument (and other Cuban instruments spread globally) originate from this musically rich and varied part of Cuba. A historical Haitian influence, as well as Jamaican migration in the past to the region of Santiago de Cuba, further added to it being known as the “most Caribbean part of Cuba”. I indeed met some Cubans in Santiago de Cuba with some family ties to Haiti and Jamaica.

Also much live music in Santiago de Cuba, perhaps proportionally more so than in Havana, as there are a few active live music clubs in a city that is smaller than Havana: you notice the live music therefore more. The local, traditional son music, originated in Eastern Cuba, is the main root of what became globally known as Salsa music. I was more a reggae fan, so a “salsa pilgrimage” idea was on my mind, but not that dominant. I liked some salsa and especially son, though. I got more appreciation for the flexible instrument the bongos and other percussion instruments in Santiago de Cuba, and that has remained important in my life since then.

The city Santiago de Cuba has a comparable “baroque”, Spanish colonial style regarding architecture to Havana, but with also more French-Haitian influences (similarities with New Orleans are also there), which has an interesting vibe by itself. To be honest, from an architecture and town planning perspective: Santiago had nice parts, but seemed overall a bit less “monumental” than Havana, but perhaps because Santiago was a smaller city. Some parts of Santiago de Cuba seemed even quite chaotic. Culturally, however, I found it to be a very interesting city. I knew several people in Santiago, and that also helped me to get to know the city better over time.

Photo above: a view of central Santago de Cuba (side street Parque de Cespedes). I took this photo in 2006.

Like in Havana, many Cubans in Santiago tried to make money off tourists informally, hustling on the streets. Sometimes I found it annoying to constantly be aware of such bothering, or to have to make people leave me alone. Just walking by myself on the streets was at times impossible, such as when I got bothered – or approached - constantly. This being “bothered” had gradations of irritation, though. Sometimes I found it even funny how they tried to get my attention. Women used what they could offer and what men tend to want, men (or even boys) had other tricks. A special case: a small boy approached me and asked if I wanted a relationship with his older sister. Acting as a pimp, more or less..an example of what poverty and lack of opportunity brings people to. I declined his offer and walked on, and he did not bother me further. Many further offered cigars or rum as part of the informal sector.

As I spoke Spanish well, I could talk with people this way, being educational in some sense, even if such relations were “interested” or insincere. When I went walking with local friends, I had a bit more “protection”, when walking around the city. As a white man, and/or visually a tourist/foreigner, walking alone in a Cuban city, the assumption that you want sex with a Cuban woman seems more automatic for many Cubans, as several “sex tourists” in the past have confirmed this assumption.

In remembering my Santiago de Cuba – and broader Cuban - experiences, I recall them as educational, as I moved in a dimension whereby cynicism, self-interest, poverty, dictatorship, fake friends and tricks, but also a rich, engaging culture, good spirit of people, humour, love, and true friends came together and interchanged constantly. Beauty and ugliness, or good and bad, intertwined confusingly . A “wild suspense between heaven and hell”, as Jamaican Marcus Garvey once wrote in a poem (a poem titled ‘The tragedy of white injustice’).

I made lasting friends there, learned a lot about especially Santiago de Cuba and to a degree also Havana and other parts of Cuba, and specifically about Cuban and Afro-Cuban culture and people, and, well, life in general. My love for bongos and percussion developed there. Focussing on the positive, those are the “plus points” of my Cuban experiences, for my life.

Photo above: view of a popular, more "outer" quarter of the city Santiago de Cuba. I took this photo in 2006.


In 2006 I went for the first time to Jamaica. Like I said before, after two weeks in Cuba. At least theoretically, this was in my mind more of a “pilgrimage” for me personally, as a reggae fan. Reggae music originated in Jamaica. I was not naïve to think that I would enter a paradise of marijuana, skanking on a reggae groove, and peace and love in a tropical setting. I have read a lot about Jamaica: social problems, poverty, social and cultural inequality. And criminality. That this crime was known to be more prevalent and violent – including guns and gangs – in Jamaica, was also known in Cuba. Some Cubans warned me because of this image: “there you have to be more careful”. Such a negative image spreads internationally. I cannot remember that I was full of fear, maybe I had some fears, but I thought it all to be relative. Some Cubans tried to rip me off too, even without weapons (that I did see, anyway). Besides, you have to use common sense when in Jamaica, and avoid certain areas or surroundings, I Imagined. I booked a hotel room in a relatively cheap, but decent hotel in uptown Kingston (that doubled as a pool and entertainment centre). Kingston is the capital of Jamaica, with about 800.000 inhabitants, somewhat bigger than Santiago de Cuba.

Photo above: view from my hotel in uptown/central Kingston (on more expensive hotels a.o.). I took this photo in 2006.

It was a new experience, but in an odd context. Memories about an intense, eventful two weeks were still very fresh in my mind, and now I was off to another Caribbean island, for one week. It was November and relatively rainy, by the way.

To return to the theme of this post: what are differences between Cuba and Jamaica, even if being close to each other? Cuba was, as a Communist state, in 2006 still very isolated from a globalized, US-dominated economic system. This had practical consequences. You had nowhere “pinning machines” to get money, as I was meanwhile accustomed in capitalist societies. You had no advertising, commercialism, or billboards, other than celebrating the Cuban Revolution. There was indeed “advertising” or “political propaganda”, or what someone called: “state graffiti” in Cuba, with political slogans (“Viva el Che”, “Viva la Revolución”), including often the painted images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Advertising or signs of former business stores in Cuba were remnants from older times, just never removed. That is, from before the 1959 Revolution in Cuba, that brought Fidel Castro to power.

Jamaica, by contrast, was clearly a capitalist, commercialist society, with many banks, billboards for companies who want to sell you things. The wealthier areas of Kingston (“uptown”), sometimes had US-style malls, and in other ways seemed to copy Miami or Florida. That was a main difference I noted. Poorer parts of Kingston had a more “Caribbean”, popular atmosphere: colourful, but also poverty, much less cars, smaller and/or deficient housing, small-scale and informal markets and trade on the streets. As I rented a car, I could travel to several parts of Jamaica, even in one week. My return flight was from Montego Bay, on Jamaica’s northwest coast, while I arrived from Cuba in Kingston. That I had to consider too..

Photo above: view on a street near to my hotel (uptown/central Kingston). I took this photo in 2006.

In Cuba I enjoyed much live music, by actual musicians and live bands, specifically also in Santiago de Cuba. In Jamaica, I got to know some people in the music industry in Kingston (“via-via” you can say… it’s a long and complicated story..), and Buju Banton’s Gargamel studio in a part of Kingston (northwest, not very close to my hotel, which was more in the east and northeast) became an appreciated “hang-out” spot for me.. I asked about live music to Kingstonians and Jamaicans I met, so I actually sought it, but apparently live music was not so common in Jamaica, as it was in Cuba. There are many recording studios for music in Kingston, but live music did not present itself to one automatically in public life, as in Santiago de Cuba, and I went to different parts of Kingston, also “going out” at evening and nights. Another difference, apparently: vivid music scenes, but developed in different ways..

Photo above: Buju Banton's Gargamel studio in Kingston. I took this photo in 2006. A few renovations have been done since.

What Kingston, Jamaica on the other hand did have were many reggae parties with “sound systems” (a type of mobile discotheques, with large speakers, mostly outdoors). So there was much music, but in another way. A Jamaican friend, who drove us in the rental car sometimes, told me there was such a sound system party every night, somewhere in Kingston. A real “sound system culture”. I went to a few of these parties, and especially have good memories of the Sunday night “retro” party, focussed on “older” reggae music with therefore for a change more reggae than dancehall, in downtown Rae Town, a ghetto area in Kingston. The atmosphere was pleasant, with sound systems spread over different locales and bars, stands with food and drinks on the streets, quite some people in the places and on the streets. Some people approached me for money, and many women directly asked me to buy them a drink. Especially when in some locales I was the only white person. This was kind of funny. Some daring females, that I just met, touched parts of my body that can from some perspective be considered intimate/private – even one that was distinctive for my manhood - , but even this I found funny, because it was not too overwhelming. Good music and nice vibes, overall though, and I remember Black Uhuru’s great song “General Penitentiary” blazing through the large, piled-up speakers, there in Rae Town. Those are THE experiences.“Real reggae party dat!”, a Jamaican who accompanied me, said afterwards about that party.

Also uptown, predictably near the hotels, there were several Jamaicans trying to sell things or services to , or “hustle”, tourists. Like in Cuba, offering to be a “guide” was a common entry line in approaching tourists. Like in Cuba, walking alone as visibly not from there and/or white, was sometimes “tricky”, though not everywhere, not even in downtown Kingston. There is an ethnic/racial difference between Jamaica and Cuba, though less so with Santiago de Cuba (as it was located in the “blackest” region of Cuba). Anyway, Cuba has a much higher percentage of mixed-raced, “Mulatto” people, and Whites, than Jamaica, where at least 85% is mainly of African origin, and of the rest most are “brown” (mixed European and African). As a white European you tend to stand out, also in uptown Kingston. A bit less in more tourist areas, such as on the North Coast.

Photo above: view of the town Linstead, about 25 kilometres north west of Kingston. I took this photo in 2006.

I had expected this, and actually respected that it got “out in the open”, and that the difference was discussed with sincere interest, and not without humour. If you show respect, you get respect, that principle. Many times in my life people (other white people, mostly) assumed what I was, when they just could have asked. Dutch? Italian? Spanish? Or from another country? I consider that somewhat humiliating and dehumanizing, and mistrust it often, especially when combined with a preferred lack of communication. I could, in talking with Jamaicans, tell that I lived in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and could speak Spanish because of my Spanish mother, for instance (having just come from Cuba). I really got to appreciate the open mind, and good verbal culture and skills in Jamaica. Many Jamaicans have a healthy attitude in favouring real dialogue (and verbal interaction), that in my experience is not that common in all cultures. In Cuba, I found that overall a bit less common, especially with relative strangers. In Jamaica I at times talked “deeper” even with someone I just met. There is something positive in that.. Or maybe it was just because of the dictatorship and political repression in Cuba.

I went again to Jamaica in late 2008, now for two weeks. I linked up with the friends and contacts I made in 2006, around Buju Banton’s Gargamel studio, that also in 2008 became an appreciated “hang-out” spot for me..

Photo above: at Buju Banton's Gargamel studio in Kingston. I took this photo in 2008.

I travelled in 2008 even more on the island, and visited reggae and Rastafari-related places, different towns and parishes, and different landscapes, including the beautiful mountains of the Eastern parish of St Thomas. Like during my Cuban trips, good and bad mixed confusingly. There were also some unforgettable moments (in a positive sense, mainly) during my Jamaican trips, some of which influenced me to this day, both socially and spiritually..

Photo above: view of the town Falmouth, on the north coast of Jamaica, known for its Georgian colonial architecture. I took this photo in 2008.


I aimed for this post to compare these two Caribbean islands/countries, that are only about 150 kilometres from each other. The flora and fauna, the mountains and other landscapes, were very similar in both countries. Mountain landscapes in Eastern Jamaica reminded me of the mountains around Santiago de Cuba (Eastern Cuba). Mango and guava, palm trees, bananas, avocado, rice and beans are very common as food and beverage in both Cuba and Jamaica. There were some culinary differences, as Jamaica developed an own “jerk” cuisine (“jerk chicken” for instance). The Jamaican food I ate was spicier (and often better) than what I mostly ate in Cuba, but that can be due to scarcity. Good fruit and fruit juices (I like mango, avocado, and guava) I ate on both islands, though. The weather and climate are of course similar.

Differences can be discerned in things relating to politics, economy, and human history. Man’s influence, so to speak. That Cuba is communist, and Jamaica capitalist is a clear, yet in my opinion not decisive difference: politics is not all that life is. Neither is economics, though some would want you to believe that: there is more to life than politics and economics.

In fact, from a human perspective, I would argue that there is really more of a similarity between Cuba and Jamaica in this regard. A tragic similarity. Once communism seemed for some poorer Cuban folks an outcome, and seemed to offer opportunities, including for many poorer black Cubans. The spread of wealth seemed to decrease inequality in Cuba, in the first stages after 1959 (the Cuban Revolution). Educational opportunities became free and accessible for all. Also positive were the banning of racial segregation and discrimination in certain areas. Over time, however, even if a part of the poorer Afro-Cubans got higher education, had/owned houses, and inequality between classes partly diminished, there came a deception, especially after the stop of USSR economic aid after 1990, made many products scarce in Cuba. Perhaps the deception is essentially due to the dictatorship/authoritarian rule that Communist leaders – including Fidel Castro – favour, and the inherent fact of communism outlawing (most) ownership or market economics by citizens. The lack of freedom, repression, and poverty and scarcity in daily life – and what people said and acted out - gave me the impression that the massive support for Cuba’s Communist state among relatively poorer black Cubans, and other Cubans from the poorer classes, has largely disappeared.

Likewise, many poorer Jamaicans feel excluded from society in their capitalist society, having limited possibilities to break the cycle of poverty, living moreover often in crime-ridden ghetto’s. You can theoretically buy more things in stores in Jamaica, travel more easily, and wages are on paper higher than in Cuba, but in order to have enough money and such a “middle-class lifestyle”, you have to of course actually acquire a job, and unemployment is high. People with darker skin and from poor areas have difficulties getting hired for jobs in Jamaica, explaining in part the strongly developed informal sectors (both in Cuba and Jamaica). Class differences are more rigid in Jamaica, including more than in Cuba differences in educational level, but the sense of limited possibilities, poverty, and exclusion among a large of the population, is essentially comparable.

There are further historical parallels in plantation slavery, but also differences. The architecture in Jamaica, especially from colonial times, is Protestant and sober, and to be honest not always very gracious, pretty, or monumental. Grandeur but without grace. Cuban cities, Havana, but also several other cities and towns, looked (in my opinion) more picturesque and graceful.

The strong Rastafari influence in Jamaica, especially among the popular classes, made however that the colourful, red-gold-and green, Lion of Judah symbols appeared on many buildings, as I also saw throughout Jamaica. This made buildings not only a bit more colourful, but also in a sense graceful. This popular culture is an important “beauty” as well as “positive power” within Jamaica. The resiliency of African culture and an own identity, despite slavery and attempted deracination, in popular music, other cultural expressions and customs. And in consciousness, to which the Africa-centered movement called Rastafari – that originated in Jamaica in the 1930s - attests. Creatively reworking culture, but from African roots.

That is another similarity with Cuba, and this time a beautiful one. This strength of popular (Afro-Cuban) culture. Also in Cuba, African culture survived, kept being cultivated, and sometimes reworked to other forms, still considering the African origins. Internationally spread contributions from Cuba and Jamaica, include music genres like salsa/son, reggae, Rastafari, several more specific musical aspects or instruments. There are cultural differences in modern times between the islands, of course. Also historically, there are differences in specific African heritages, although in both cases slaves came from different parts of Africa. In Jamaica, the Akan-speaking peoples were a bit more represented relatively among African slaves, and in Cuba relatively more Yoruba, but slaves from the Congo area were for instance quite strongly represented in both colonies. Likewise, the colonizing European countries, Spain and Britain, were also different . There were and are, nonetheless, shared African cultural values throughout expressions on both islands, and with rhythm and percussion often important in them.

Capitalist and communist oppression and exclusion of poorer people brought sometimes different types of limitations in the two countries, that were however fought against or overcome creatively. At times by using elements of the communist or the capitalist system in their favour, while in other ways subverting and avoiding them. This is the power of culture, or perhaps the natural, human spirit aimed at survival and edification, despite adversities and oppression.

Not unimportant, finally, and on a personal note: I made (true) friends easily in both Cuba and Jamaica, and I experienced both countries as relatively “hospitable”, when compared to some parts of Europe.


At its closest, the distance between Cuba and Jamaica is about 140 kilometres. That’s why in 2006, when I came to Cuba, I asked for a flight from Santiago de Cuba (which of course has an international airport) to Kingston, that southeastern part of Cuba being relatively closer to Jamaica. At a travel agency they told me they could arrange a place on a small plane. Some promises later, this seemed after all not possible, and I had to go to Havana to catch the plane to Kingston, Jamaica. I did not plan that, but had to do that, costing me time and money, although I saved because I could stay in Havana with an acquaintance. The difference between physical/natural geography and political geography struck again..