HAVANA, 2 October (By Cameron Atfield) When US-backed forces attempted to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, the Caribbean nation’s revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, orchestrated his nation’s response from Australia.
The Australia Township, an old sugar town about 140 kilometres south-east of Havana in the province of Matanzas, is a place far removed from Cuba’s tourism hotspots. And getting there isn’t easy.
We’ve been in Havana for the best part of a week and have become accustomed to the endless procession of vintage cars that are as offensive to the respiratory system as they are pleasing to the eye. With a lifetime of leaded petrol fumes in our lungs, it’s time for some fresh air.
And where else would a trio of Aussies go but Australia? Prior to arriving in Cuba via the Bahamas – it remains near-impossible to get a commercial flight to the Cuba from the United States, due to an outdated embargo – we became aware of Australia’s existence and were determined to visit our namesakes.
With the help of a Cuban tourist board staffer, we make sense of the regional bus routes required to get to Australia. A bus transfer here, a short taxi ride (availability permitting) there, piece of cake. So a deal is struck with a Havana taxi driver – 160 convertible pesos for the day – and we’re on our way out of the capital. An hour or so later on the drive along the Autopista Nacional, passing horse-drawn carriages and a seemingly endless army of roadside vegetation pruners, the “Australia” road signs appear. We’re almost “home”. And, before too long, we arrive.
Our driver insists on stopping for a coffee at a stop just outside of town – “The best coffee in Cuba,” he says – and we oblige, which he no doubt is rewarded for through a traditional Cuban kickback.
The first clue that Australia is an old sugar town is the stick of sugar cane I’m given to stir my coffee, which was nice enough, but certainly not the mindblowing caffeinated experience I had come to expect.
While the etymology of Australia is unclear, one theory goes it was established by Australian ex-pats working during the pre-revolution sugar industry. But whatever the history of the name, the town itself played a significant role in the history of Cuba. Castro arrived in Australia on the afternoon of April 17, 1961, after CIA-backed Cuban exiles launched a failed invasion of the newly formed communist state.
The tiny township, about 50 kilometres north-west of Playa Girón on the Bay of Pigs, served as Castro’s base of operations during the three-day offensive. The Bay of Pigs invasion is commemorated with a propaganda mural at the entrance of town, while steam trains, once used to transport sugar cane, still operate for the few tourists that come to town.
But, today, we seem to have missed that train. Australia is dominated by the old, out-of-service sugar factory’s chimney, with “Australia” written prominently down its length. But other than the name, the Australia Township holds little in common with the island continent 16,000 kilometres to the south-west. Australia is tiny, with unsealed dirt roads and the barest of facilities.
Children come out of their school building for their lunchbreak and seem more than a little curious as to why a trio of gringos would be walking down their main street. As Cuba continues along its slow, inexorable path to a free market – little Australia could well be in a position to capitalise on its links to its larger, affluent namesake.