26 01 2011

Big Wheel at the Parque de las Diversiones, seen from Vista Alegre

As you approach Santiago de Cuba from the east, on the outskirts of the city, high on a hill, you can see a big wheel. This is the Parque de las Diversiones (Amusement Park), situated in the leafy San Juan district, not far from the city’s zoo and the hill known as the Loma de San Juan, where in 1898, 6000 US soldiers, led by Teddy Roosevelt, fought Spanish troops; a spot marked by a number of monuments erected well before the 1959 Triumph of the Revolution, in times when the relationship between the Cuban and US Governments was very different to today.

It is a pleasant 30 minute walk to the amusement park from my apartment and I have been there a couple of times, both on midweek afternoons. A number of staff are always there, not apparently doing very much. One of them informed me that only four of the rides – not including the big wheel – are now working; and that they only operate during the weekend. The rides cost 0.20 CUP – less than a halfpenny in British currency. There are also a number of kiosks selling snacks and refreshments. These seem to be used during the week by children from a nearby secondary school, during the lunch break and after classes.

In many ways, it seems to me, the story of the Parque de las Diversiones could be seen as a metaphor for the recent history of Cuba. It was built in the 1980s, at a time of hope, optimism and rising living standards, using Soviet and Czech technology. It almost collapsed, along with the USSR and Czechlosvakia, during the 1990s, but somehow, with a bit of inventiveness and improvisation, has kept going; over-staffed and under-resourced, only partially functioning and frayed around the edges, yet still providing a well-regarded service for hard-pressed Cuban families.

I very much hope that the Parque de las Diversiones, like Cuba, sees better days in the future and is able to return to something like the halcyon days of the 1980s, although without some of the malign influences that were imported from the USSR.



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