As you may have heard, Cuba and the United States are taking steps to normalize relations. The press is filled with speculation about Cubans flooding American tourist destinations and American companies setting up shop in Cuba. This week also marks the 56th anniversary of the culmination of the July 26th Movement, led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara – the week of their successful coup d’etat over the Batista dictatorship.
It seems like a good time to recall my March 2001 trip to Cuba, organized through Global Exchange, a weeklong package called “Following Che’s Footsteps.” The itinerary traced the route that the 26th of July Movement took through Cuba.
Our time in Cuba actually began in Havana, that being the only city where international flights can land. The moment we left the plane, Havana began to work on our senses, the lilting tropical winds combining their scents with roasting meat and the ethanol stink of old cars from the 1950s. The moment you look at Havana, you know you’re not in the Bahamas or Bermuda or Hawaii; there are just too many centuries-old Spanish churches and landmarks for that.
We rented bikes and rolled around the streets of Havana as though settling into a dream. The bikes were one-speed, where you brake by un-rotating your feet, and we wouldn’t have had them any other way. We saw lots of murals and posters of Communist heroes like Lenin, Marx, Mao, and of course the local boys. Many buildings read “HASTA LA VICTORIA SIEMPRE” (until the victory, always) or “CUBA LIBRE” (Free Cuba). Along the waterfront, there stood a brand-new statue of Elian Gonzalez seen not with his father, but instead held aloft by Jose Marti, the 19th-century “Apostle of Cuban Independence.” (More than once, I was told that Marti wrote “Guantanamera,” which would have been like George Washington writing The Star-Spangled Banner. More than once, heard this.) Europeans were everywhere, surprised as the Cubanos that us yanquis had made the excursion.
I had lived a year in Spain four years before this trip, and I thought I’d forgotten most of my Spanish. One thing I learned in Cuba is that Californian Spanish-speakers are too good at English. When I’m talking to someone who really doesn’t speak English, my Spanish becomes increible. This happened again and again on the streets of Havana, and in our Hotel Deauville. I was intoxicated before the mojitos and cigars.
Our group was taken to some kind of official government building for some kind of official government-sponsored briefing. The Cuban man who lectured us called it an Economic Overview, a bit of a primer on Cuban politics and economics heading into that week. He tried to explain why Cuba had devalued its currency, why we would pay more than locals for the same goods, and why Cuba was temporarily permitting U.S. dollars as currency. Everything was fascinating, including how they managed to maintain old American 1950s cars. The minute you get to Cuba, it’s hard not to root for the Cuban people, up to and including their rivalry with the U.S.A. In some ways, it’s not unlike rooting for a plucky African squad during the World Cup against Germany or Brazil or Italy. How could you not pull for the underdog? You’ve got a laptop; look at what they can do with 1950s technology!
Anyway, the next day we boarded a far more modern puddle-jumper of an airplane to fly to Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city and the one on its south coast closest to where Fidel, Che, and their fellow guerrillas first landed their little boat of rebellion from Mexico. Santiago is itself breathtaking, a well-preserved old colonial city, something like Quito or La Paz or Oaxaca in its colorful 16th-century Spanish architecture. And yes, we enjoyed mojitos and cigars in the town square. We stayed at a seaside resort, complete with cabanas. We visited a nearby castle whose conquistadora-era ramparts overlooked the Caribbean.
We traveled to the beach where Fidel and Che landed on a night where Bautista-loyal Cuban soldiers killed dozens of their party. We hiked up into the mountains to their outlaw outpost in Sierra Maestra. We walked for almost two hours up a steep, muddy hill to arrive at their formerly secret radio station, where the 26th of July Movement spent years broadcasting messages to incite workers and common people to revolt against Batista. Their broadcasts were more populist than Communist, at least back then; they did suggest more worker control of industries, but not strict patterning after the U.S.S.R. And eventually, they went on to inspire everyone who later attempted “guerrilla warfare” (for good and for bad).
We traveled to a school that was a key battleground for an early phase of the revolution; the school had preserved the bullet holes as commemoration. Making our way inland, our bus following the country’s main road that eventually ends in Havana, we met with a veteran of the Movement, a man who had fought alongside Fidel and Che. By now, he was old and stooped, his face pinched. He told us he was proud (orgulloso) to live no better than the least of Cubans, in a small house without many amenities. He guessed that American generals lived with far more conspicuous wealth. For dinner we almost always ate fried plantanos (bananas), beans, rice, and sometimes another meat, and it never tasted less than outstanding.
We also visited a private home that was somewhat larger, looking a lot like the plantation home in a film like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But as we sat outside in the sizable backyard, under a massive willow tree, a Cuban explained to us that legacy homes like these were apportioned to particularly large families; they were never held by just a few people.
Everywhere we went, Cubanos extolled the revolution. It was like we were on the receiving end of a propaganda campaign, as we may well have been. Nowhere was this case made better than during a hospital visit. We were given reams of impressive information and statistics regarding Cuba’s health care system. We were told that Cuban hospitals were the envy of the Latin American world. In the emergency ward, everything was open-air. We could and did say hello to many patients and doctors. We were also informed that reports of Cuban human-rights abuses were pure propaganda – they hadn’t ever happened.
The case for Cuban-style Communism weakened when we needed specific groceries or certain little items – say, nail clippers or stamps or shoelaces – that you can get in any American drugstore. When we ventured into town for such things, we would enter bathroom-sized markets full of empty shelves, some of the shelves marked with cards. (A card might say “100 Tylenol = 10 dolares.”) As long as we stayed on Global Exchange’s plan – get on buses from site to site, check into hotel, party with mojitos all night – the country seemed great!
On the other hand, Cuba is an absolutely spectacular place. I’d never seen cities look more organically diverse, with the possible exception of New York City. One can’t help but marvel at rugged mountains in a tropical climate, sweetening that thinning air. And you don’t see poverty the way you do in, say, Jamaica and Panama. No one panhandles and you don’t see street people living with deformations, as you do in parts of the Third World.
After days of visiting various museums, churches, monuments, and trekking through tropical mountain hikes, we finally came to Santa Clara, to the site of the Tren Blindado, translated as Armored Train. We had been hearing lots of revolutionary stories, but this was the natural culmination, for us and for the 1958 guerrillas. On December 28th, Che Guevara’s forces rolled into the area. After days of skirmishes, on December 31st, Batista sent a train car full of weaponry to reinforce his beleaguered forces. Well, Che’s “suicide squad” lit up that train with Molotov cocktails, turning it into, as Che said, a “veritable oven for the soldiers.” The city surrendered immediately, and Che declared victory on Radio Rebelde. Movement loyalists cheered and ran rampant through the streets of Havana, and within hours Batista fled the nation, never to return. On January 1, 1959, Cuba ended what it perceived as more than six decades of imperialismo norteamericano, installing a populist government that only became strictly Communist after about a year. The Castro government has held power ever since, right up through the latest news of detente.
For those of us that glimpsed the warm beating Corazon Cubana that lurked under Communist repression during the Castro years, it’s a little hard to imagine a Cuba that becomes another Puerto Rico. This is nothing against Puerto Rico, but Cuba has a contrarian, rebellious streak that lives and breathes in all its artists, musicians, writers, dancers, and chefs, and the last thing anyone should want is to squelch the spirit of the nation that invented the mojito and the cha-cha-cha. When I think of those hospitals and those still-running 1950s cars, I think those people can handle any adversity. I have to believe we can learn from and teach other without reducing the other. I have to believe that this change means a new, improved Cuba libre.