Insights & Media

Insights & Media

7 Surprising Facts About Cuba!

January 26

By Mae McSweeney

2017 marks the 44th year of the Cal Invitational High School Speech and Debate Tournaments at Berkeley. Since 1973, the Berkeley campus has been hosting congressional, public forum and policy debates, encouraging young minds to think critically on current affairs and cultural discourse. Consider then that even when the first Cal Debate Tournament was held back in 1973, the United States Trade Embargo on Cuba had already been continuously in effect for 13 years. For most American citizens, this act is pretty much an inconsequential one, and has little perceived impact on day-to-day affairs – while for over 11 million native Cubans, the sanctions have had wide-ranging and severe economic consequences.

However, the recent death of long-term Cuban leader (and perennial thorn in the American establishment’s side) Fidel Castro, as well as allegations that Russian hackers interfered with the American presidential election, and North Korea’s sporadic threats of nuclear action, all serve as chilling reminders of old Cold War tensions. Though a return to the blacklisting and Red Scare-mongering of the McCarthy era is to be avoided at all costs, even moderate voices are wondering if it time to re-examine the relations between the premier global super power, and the remaining Soviet “rogues”. Surely now is a fitting time for the world’s most enduring and controversial trade embargo to appear as a matter of public debate at the Cal Invitational Debate Tournament, and we are sure the LearningLeaders students who tackle the topic in February will bring their record-breaking skills to the table once again.

Given the shroud of mystery which has surrounded Cuba during these 57 years of economic and cultural isolation, here are 7 things you might not have known about this Caribbean island nation:



1. Due to a mutual restriction on travel between the 2 nations, most Americans have never had the chance to savour Cuba’s famed hand-rolled cigars. However, President Barack Obama relaxed the ban on travel to the island – since 2009, Cuban-Americans are free to visit.


2. Supposedly, Fidel Castro’s impressive facial hair was grown out of necessity rather than choice, as the embargo cut off his supply of razors. However, it came to be seen as the source of his strength, as evidenced by a bizarre (and ultimately doomed) CIA-led attempt to depilate Castro of his iconic beard, by placing thallium salts in his shoes.

3. Guatanamo Bay Naval Base was built in 1898, during the Spanish-American War (and is thus still considered to be an illegally occupied territory by the Cuban Government), but the enclosed detention camp was established under the Bush administration in 2002. President Obama made promises during his election campaign to close the facility, but met with strong bipartisan opposition in congress. He did succeed in reducing the number of detainees from 245 to 41.


4. Fidel Castro survived no fewer than 634 attempts on his life during his tenure, according to his former secret servicechief. Displaying a typically irreverent stance towards covert US interferencein his governance,  the head of state once quipped, “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic Sport, I would win the gold medal.”


5. The name ‘Cuba’ is derived from the indigenous Taino language, and means “where fertile land is abundant”. Exports of lucrative crops such as coffee, sugar and tobacco form the backbone of one of the world’s largest planned economies.

6. Club Tropicana, the establishment to which Wham penned their eponymous 1983 hit single, is a salsa and cabaret venue located in Havana’s Marianao suburb. During its heyday, the “most beautiful club in the world” attracted stars such as Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway and Edith Piaf, and it is still operating today.


7. Every bartender worth his salt knows the ingredients of a “Cuba Libre” – red rum and cola. What most people don’t know is that Coca Cola is actually banned from sale or consumption on Cuba itself, and on the island, the drink is known as a “Mentirita,” literally “little lie.


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