Cuba on the cusp of change


TRAVEL: The Island That Dared: Journeys in CubaBy Dervla MurphyEland, 421pp, £16.99

THERE IS NO stopping Dervla Murphy. Now in her late 70s, we find her travelling in Cuba in her latest book. Slightly uncomfortable in the sub-tropical heat (she prefers the Arctic), Murphy seems to subsist merely on an occasional handful of raisins, and copious amounts of Bucanero - her preferred local beer.

The Island that Dared comes as a result of three separate visits to Cuba, comprising four months' exploration in total: the first, accompanied by her daughter and trio of young granddaughters in late 2005; the second, from January 2006; the third in the autumn of 2007. During these travels Murphy is attacked by cave-dwelling ticks, narrowly escapes falling down a cliff, and just staves off a fatal form of sunstroke.

She also nearly drops through the bathroom floor of an unlit Bayamo night-train to what she terms "not exactly a premature death"; this episode, and the disabling knee injury sustained on a Siberian train in 2002, might lead her to reconsider her future modes of transport. But I doubt it.

Aside from these dangers Murphy successfully overcomes asphyxiation in the bureaucratic yards of politburo-style red tape familiar to anyone who has travelled on the island. As she finds out, it is not easy to travel independently in Cuba; lone foreign travellers in out of the way areas are viewed with suspicion, especially in rural parts. In characteristic fashion, these are the areas where Murphy spends most of her time, even though she has to dodge biosphere park rangers and is continually being reported to, and then hampered by, the local leaders of the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR).

Members of the CDR are all-powerful within their local remit and, ever-watchful, they make sure things run in accordance to party regulations. Murphy says of them: "most are genuinely public-spirited, do their snooping as discreetly as possible and are accepted as an integral part of Castroism". This is conjecture; out of the country's population of 11 million, up to three million are rumoured to be in the CDR.

I was in Havana in 2004 when Hurricane Charley struck the city. Walking around among the rubble the next morning, and travelling later in the flattened Pinar del Rio province, I was surprised to read in Granma, the state newspaper, that only four deaths were recorded. Even this is unusual: reportedly most hurricanes seem to pass through Cuba without any loss of life. Although she is right to praise the early-warning systems and evacuation programs preceding the many hurricanes that habitually sweep the island, there are times when Murphy is credulous of information that could only have come from the state.

Arriving as a supporter of the revolution, she leaves Cuba "somewhat less starry-eyed, though still a staunch supporter of Castroism as it has been evolving since 1990". It has recently been widely reported how Raúl Castro has passed certain liberalising measures - such as allowing Cubans to purchase mobile phones - and it is correct to point out that changes have been taking place since the early 1990s.

For example, the 1995 Foreign Investment Act was symbolic of the direction the revolution has been moving since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its subsequent withdrawal of aid. More changes are to be expected during the run-up to the Sixth Party Congress in late 2009.

There are rumours that large US fast-food chains have already earmarked addresses on Havana's seafront; seeing the Golden Arches above the Malecón would be a truly depressing spectacle.

Murphy likens the revolution to a child "handicapped but legitimate"; she feels "Castroism has protected Cuba's population from the moral degradation promoted by Capitalism Rampant - admittedly at the cost of certain fundamental human rights". The writer who leaves Che Guevara's mausoleum "with a lump in her throat" can seem rather unswerving in her defence of "Fidel's experiment", although she states she is "ambiguous".

She is dismissive of the privations suffered during the "Special Period" in the early 1990s, when Cubans resorted to eating dogs, rats and seabirds (she mentions those persistent rumours of body parts "going missing" from Havana morgues): "Like many of his generation, Alberto could not 'think positive' about the Special Period."

Not being a "city person" she does not spend much time in Havana, where things have traditionally been a lot harder due to the relative successes of Castro's agrarian reforms having less impact. This may explain why she only heard el comandante "named in a sentence implying censure" twice in four months. Of human-rights (usually written between inverted commas) abuse she says: "'Human Rights' (denial of) is the anti-Castroists' biggest stick. Obviously it's a real stick, but how big is it?"

Overall, The Island That Dared is a unique record of "Cuba on the cusp"; well researched, it is crammed with fascinating information, such as Bacardi's interests in the Cuban American National Foundation - an organisation that promotes acts that "destabilise" Castroism.

Murphy writes memorably on the beautiful scenery of the Sierras of Rosario, Escambray and Maestra, on her visit to the farm near Biran where the Castros grew up, and on spending a night at the Bay of Pigs.

She observes elections in Manzanillo; there is an interesting interlude mixing with the exiles in Miami's Little Havana; earlier, she even gets a glimpse of the travesty of human justice that is Guantánamo Bay. Murphy's well-loved blend of honesty and intrepid individuality is as apparent here as in any of her previous work.

• JS Tennant works as a ghost writer and editor in Geneva. He has travelled extensively in Cuba