Cuba ranks as one of my favourite destinations in the world. The tropical climate, the landscape, the ornate colonial architecture, the food, the politics, the parades, the monuments – and of course, the rum – all of it adding up to make this a place like nowhere else I’ve ever been.
I visited Cuba last year and spent two weeks on the island. It was less than a month before I started getting withdrawal symptoms, and flew straight back for another visit. If you’ve been following this site, perhaps you’ve already read about my somewhat disastrous arrival in Havana… and how a week later, I went on a road trip looking for the island’s abandoned nuclear power station. But neither of these things were my reason for going to Cuba.
There’s just so much to write about Cuba, that I haven’t even got to the main focus of my visit yet: a week-long tour of the country, exploring sites associated with the Cuban Revolution and the subsequent rise of Fidel Castro’s Communist Party.
In between my various solo adventures throughout the island, I spent that week travelling around Cuba with Young Pioneer Tours – driving from coast to coast, visiting Trinidad in the south, stopping off at Che Guevara’s Mausoleum and getting back to Havana, the capital, just in time for the International Workers’ Day parade.
Rather than focussing too much on that tour though – largely, a bunch of foreigners pointing cameras out the windows of a bus – I’m going to reshuffle our destinations into their correct chronological order; to tell the story of the Cuban Revolution through the lens of these monuments, museums and mausolea.
A (Very) Concise History of Cuba
While I don’t plan to make this blog post into a comprehensive history of Cuba, it is worth knowing a little about how things came to be the way they are. I won’t simply regurgitate facts and dates from Wikipedia, though – I’ve found a much more interesting source than that.
When I was in Havana I picked up a small volume titled, A Brief History of Cuba, published on the island by the Instituto de Historia de Cuba. I’ll be using this book as my primary source. It should be no surprise that Cuban historians tell a very different story to what you’ll hear elsewhere, and what follows won’t always be the same version of events that you learned in school. That’s the beauty of travel, though – discovering new perspectives on things.
To go right back to be beginning, Cuba has been inhabited since the 4th millennium BC. The island had a population of some 100,000 people by the time Christopher Columbus stumbled across Cuba in 1492.
By 1510, the Spanish Empire began to colonise the island; sometimes converting the natives to Christianity, other times slaughtering them en masse. When the islanders resisted, they were caught and burned alive to set an example. The largest massacre reported during those years happened at Caonao, where an alleged 3000 villagers were butchered by Spanish missionaries.
By 1514 the Spanish had taken full control of the island, and they founded the city of Havana on its north coast. The population of Cuba grew with Spanish colonists, and later, with the importation of African slaves to work in gold mines and sugar cane plantations.
However, Cuba’s economic growth stagnated under the stranglehold of Spain, who barred the island from trading with foreign ships. The British briefly captured Havana in 1762, lifting the blockade to import food, horses and farming equipment – but less than a year later, they traded Cuba for Florida in negotiations with the Spanish.
At the turn of the 18th century, the revolution in nearby Haiti brought an influx of French refugees who introduced new expertise in the coffee and sugar trades. Increasingly the national mood in Cuba would lean towards reform, independence and the abolition of slavery. There were black revolts, which the Spanish suppressed with mass executions. In 1886 slavery was eventually abolished, and black Cubans joined the growing ranks of a discontented working class.
After a series of increasingly liberal and reformist governors on the island, by 1895 Cuba entered its War of Independence against Spanish rule. Meanwhile, across the water, the United States began proposing the idea of annexing Cuba for themselves. In 1881, US Secretary of State James G. Blaine entirely bypassed the concept of Cuban independence when he wrote, “If ever ceasing to be Spanish, Cuba must necessarily become American and not fall under any other European domination.”
José Martí & The Cuban War of Independence
Like bones to the human body, the axle to the wheel, the wing to the bird and the air to the wing, so is liberty the essence of life. Whatever is done without it is imperfect.”
– José Martí
Before the tour started, I had a week to myself and I spent it exploring the capital. During that time I visited two monuments dedicated to the independence of Cuba.
At the Plaza de la Revolución in downtown Havana, there stands a vast marble obelisk celebrating one of the key figures to emerge during the period of Cuban reform in the late 19th century: José Julián Martí Pérez.
A poet and philosopher, José Martí wrote prolifically on the subject of Cuban independence. He travelled extensively throughout Cuba, Latin America and the US, preaching the cause of Cuba’s liberation; he wrote for numerous international papers, even founded a few of his own; and he played a crucial role in laying the plans for a war against Spain. After his death, Martí would be celebrated as the “Apostle of Cuban Independence.”
While José Martí may have been a champion of the written word, he didn’t prove to be quite so effective on the battlefield. He was shot and killed at the Battle of Dos Ríos on 19th May 1895; his first and only experience of real warfare. Nevertheless, his death would provide the necessary springboard that brought Cuba to its feet, and sparked the onset of all-out war against the Spanish.
The José Martí Memorial was raised half a century later, completed in 1959: the year that Fidel Castro came to leadership. I paid it a visit one day, a huge towering thing that pokes up above the plaza to a height of 109 metres. The monument stands on a raised hillock, in front of the former offices of Fidel Castro.
It takes the form of a five-pointed star, layered up into a vast tower and with a statue of José Martí at its feet. In front of the memorial, meanwhile, the plaza opens up as a huge clearing amongst the buildings of Havana’s Vedado district.
This plaza had originally been called ‘Plaza Cívica’ – ‘Civic Square’ – but in the wake of the revolution it was renamed ‘Plaza de la Revolución.’ At 72,000 square metres, it’s the 31st largest city square in the world; and as I stood there, looking at the empty roads with their occasional traffic of 1950s Yank tanks – Chevys, Mustangs, Cadillacs – I couldn’t help but wonder if the grand space was an oversight. Havana is not a big city, and it hardly seemed to need a plaza of such extreme volume. As I’d later discover though, Plaza de la Revolución was not designed with automobile traffic in mind; but rather for rallies and parades, when millions of Cubans descend upon the plaza until every one of these 72,000 square metres is a constricting mass of bodies and banners.
By the end of the week, I’d see it for myself.
The Sinking of The USS Maine
José Martí hadn’t only criticised the Spanish, but also warned against future US expansionism into Cuba. Specifically, he was worried that the US imperialists would annex Cuba before the revolution had been allowed to run its course and establish an independent government. Those concerns would prove to be prophetic.
In 1896, the US offered to buy Cuba from the Spanish – but were refused. A year later Madrid began to concede defeat in the Caribbean, and by 1898 the US decided to intervene. There had already been press coverage of Spanish atrocities committed in Cuba, stirring public support for Cuban independence amongst citizens of the US; but it was the sinking of the USS Maine that provided the final motivation.
The Maine was an armoured cruiser, commissioned in 1895 – deployed largely in response to the increasing naval forces of Brazil and other Latin American countries. Due to rapid advances in technology however, and a long, drawn-out construction period, the ship was virtually obsolete by the time it launched.
The ship had been stationed in Havana Harbour, to ‘protect US interests’ during the conflict between Cuba and Spain. Then, on the night of 15th February 1898, it mysteriously exploded taking three-quarters of its crew with it. Washington blamed it on Spain and that event fuelled a heated pro-war campaign in the US; with newspapers carrying the popular rallying cry, “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain.”
In April 1898 the US declared war on Spain, and sent their armies into Cuba under the agreement that Cuba should remain independent, and that the US would withdraw immediately after the conflict. It didn’t exactly go that way though, and Cuban historians maintain that the sinking of the USS Maine was a false flag operation giving Washington the necessary pretext for intervening in the war.
Down at the Malecón, the sea wall that runs around the coastline of Havana, there stands a monument to the sailors who died aboard the USS Maine. Words inscribed on the memorial call them, “Victims sacrificed to the imperialist greed in its fervour to seize control of Cuba.”
Naval engineers have speculated that the Maine was sunk by a coal fire that ignited the ship’s ammunition stores. However, there might be something to the Cuban story after all – recently declassified documents detail proposals made by Pentagon officials to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1962. They were brainstorming methods for bringing down Cuba’s communist government, and one proposed idea was to sail a US Navy ship into Guantanamo Bay, blow it up, then blame Cuba. The stated aim would be to “place the United States in the apparent position of suffering defensible grievances,” while painting the image of “a Cuban threat to peace in the Western Hemisphere.”
The proposal was ultimately rejected, and it certainly doesn’t prove anything – but whatever really happened to the USS Maine that night in 1898 remains open to speculation.
The Neocolonial Republic
At the end of the American-Spanish War, the US installed their own ‘United States Military Government’ in Cuba. The Cubans were prevented from representing themselves at international peace talks, and Cuban generals were excluded from the Spanish surrender ceremony held on Cuban soil. Spain simply transferred Cuba to the guardianship the United States, with no consideration for self-representation on the part of the Cubans.
Washington dissolved the island’s revolutionary party and passed the Platt Amendment, by which the US awarded itself the right to intervene in Cuba’s economy, politics and foreign relations whenever it deemed it appropriate. In the US media, the Cuban people were presented as children incapable of functioning without parental support.
In 1902 the US guided the formation of the Republic of Cuba; a period now referred to by Cuban historians as the ‘Neocolonial Republic.’ A constitution was drawn up which supported Washington’s power on the island; while the US also maintained full control over various military stations in Cuba, including the naval base at Guantánamo Bay.
The way the Cubans tell it, their island became a place where mainlanders came to do their dirty laundry. Political and administrative corruption was rife. During prohibition, some of the most notorious gangsters in America used Cuba as their refuelling depot. Crime bosses had their holiday homes here; and, much to the Cubans’ horror, Guantánamo Bay eventually grew into one of the most notorious detention centres in the world.
The culmination of this period was the dictatorial rule of Fulgencio Batista: a former military colonel who served, initially, as a Washington-approved conservative president of Cuba. When he was later voted out – and replaced by a liberal president representing the Cuban Revolutionary Party – Batista returned with a vengeance: leading a US-supported military coup and taking the presidency back by force in March 1952.
For Cuban liberals, it became clear that so long as Washington continued to manipulate politics in Cuba, democracy would remain broken. A new approach was required; and in 1953 a young lawyer named Fidel Castro led a revolutionary strike against the Batista regime. The movement failed, but the attention it drew to Castro’s cause gave him the opportunity to address the nation in his famous “History Will Absolve Me” speech. He proved himself to be an excellent orator, and by 1955 Castro had founded a growing Revolutionary Movement.
There followed more failed attempts at seizing power from Batista, until eventually Castro realised that victory was impossible without outside help. He left for Mexico, where he met the Argentinian freedom fighter Che Guevara and recruited him to the cause of Cuba’s liberation. On 2nd December 1956 Fidel Castro returned to Cuba on a yacht named Granma, leading a team of 82 guerrilla fighters – including Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and the younger Castro brother, Raúl; a handpicked rebel brigade that would ultimately overthrow the Batista regime and bring about revolution in Cuba.
The Battle of Santa Clara
There was no person more feared by the [CIA] than Che Guevara because he had the capacity and charisma necessary to direct the struggle against the political repression of the traditional hierarchies in power in the countries of Latin America.”
– Philip Agee, former CIA agent
It was about a week after my arrival in Cuba that the tour got started. I was joining a large group, a noisy group, but the itinerary couldn’t have been better – and for the sake of getting me swiftly to some of the most interesting sites and monuments around the country, I was prepared to put up with a little background chatter. One of our early stops was in the town of Santa Clara.
The 1958 Battle of Santa Clara marked a significant victory for the Cuban Revolution. As Fidel’s revolutionary troops spread out across the island, liberating towns and villages to bring more fighters to their cause, Che Guevara led a column of troops along the central highway of Las Villas, defeating one military garrison after another.
In December they arrived at Santa Clara, the provincial capital, where Guevara’s 300 men launched an offensive on the defending army. An armoured train was sent to the town carrying ammunition supplies for Batista’s troops, and it was stationed outside of Santa Clara to form a command post. The rebels were poorly equipped, engaging the military in the streets with hand grenades and Molotov cocktails; but as they approached the command post the train withdrew to safer ground, taking its weaponry with it.
Realising that the capture of the train would prove the turning point in this battle, Che Guevara directed tractors and bulldozers to destroy the tracks ahead of it. The train was derailed, its 350 military passengers were taken prisoner and the rebels were able to restock from a bountiful supply of guns and ammunition.
News of the battle in Santa Clara spread, and many of the government’s soldiers abandoned their posts to join the revolution. Within 12 hours of the city’s capture Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba seeking sanctuary in the US, and Fidel Castro declared a nationwide victory for the rebels.
We made a stop at the Tren Blindado – or ‘Armoured Train’ – Memorial Park, situated close to the main station in Santa Clara.
The park is now considered a national monument, featuring carriages from the train derailed in 1958 along with a series of angular, brutalist installations by the Cuban sculptor José Delarra. On a concrete plinth beside the road, sits the bulldozer that Che Guevara’s men borrowed from the local university in order to dig up the tracks. An inscription on the plinth is dated July 1986, beneath a dedication to the fighters in the Battle of Santa Clara.
Inside the carriages meanwhile, a series of museum-style exhibits had been set up for visitors. They featured antique rifles, examples of the uniforms worn both by rebel fighters and Batista’s soldiers, and a series of black and white photographs detailing the events of 1958.
The museum experience, such as it was, left me somewhat indifferent however; I found it far more interesting to walk around the train, the tracks, and try to picture how this place had looked half a century earlier. As is so often the case when exploring Cuba, this attempt at memorialising the past in the form of a museum simply felt like a dilution of the very real history that still lives and breathes in all corners of the island.
The Bay of Pigs Invasion
When Castro stepped into the role of Prime Minister of Cuba in February 1959, he immediately began severing ties with the US. Private beaches were made public, and numerous private estates were nationalised. As a result, Washington suffered the loss of many of its economic interests in Cuba. When the US cut off Cuba’s sugar quota in 1960, Castro responded by nationalising all remaining US-owned property on the island. As it moved out from the shadow of the United States, Cuba began looking overseas to new trading partners – amongst them, the Soviet Union.
US President Dwight Eisenhower was intent on bringing Cuba back into the fold, and not least to prevent the island from further developing its friendship with Moscow.
In 1960, he allocated over $13 million to CIA projects aimed at overthrowing Castro. According to some sources there were more than 600 attempts on his life, ranging from LSD gas to exploding cigars – though one of the more overt efforts came in the form of an attempted full-scale invasion of Cuba in 1961.
‘Brigade 2506’ was a paramilitary unit trained and funded by the CIA. In April 1961 they launched their attack on Cuba, sending B-26 bombers in first to take out Cuban air defences. The next day five infantry battalions invaded by sea, numbering over 1,400 paramilitary troops.
They landed at Playa Girón on the Bay of Pigs – but the operation would not last long. Fidel Castro led the resistance himself, and within three days of fighting the local revolutionary militia forced the US brigade into surrender.
Today there is a small museum in the coastal town of Playa Girón – the Museo Girón – dedicated to the conflict.
The museum consists of a series of rooms filled with archive photos, maps and uniforms, as well as weaponry such as rocket launchers, machine guns and grenades. Most of the captions were provided solely in Spanish – though perhaps more interesting than such dates and details was the overwhelming sense of reverence, the deep, almost-religious respect with which the Cubans presented the story of this attempted take-over. One installation, decorated with personnel portraits under the title ‘Héroes de Girón,’ featured vases full of fresh flowers laid in tribute.
Outside the museum, a garden was dedicated to the larger exhibits: two Cuban T-34 tanks alongside a series of hardened landing craft; and a British-built Hawker Sea Fury aircraft sat outside the front entrance, painted up in tropical colours.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
The failed Bay of Pigs Invasion proved to be a major embarrassment for the US, who intensified their program of terrorism and sabotage against Cuba under the title, ‘Operation Mongoose.’
In the wake of the 1961 attack, Fidel Castro declared the socialist nature of the Cuban Revolution and began building stronger ties with the USSR (inevitably this would lead to the founding of the Communist Party of Cuba, in 1965). At a secret meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev the following July, Castro asked for help in defending Cuban independence from the imperial aggressors.
Khrushchev acknowledged Castro’s request, agreeing to deploy Soviet ballistic missiles in the Caribbean. The launch facilities were constructed over the summer of 1962, at a site some 90 miles south of Florida.
Of course, the Soviets had their own motives for sending the missiles to Cuba: in 1959, the US had deployed nuclear weapons in Italy and Turkey. These Jupiter missiles were placed with the stated intention of blocking Soviet expansionism into Europe, but from Turkey they could quite easily have reached Moscow with their nuclear payload. The way Moscow saw it, placing Soviet missiles in the Caribbean would go a long way towards levelling the playing field.
Initially the US was unaware of these events, distracted by a presidential election – but when Kennedy’s U-2 spy planes eventually sent back evidence of these medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missile facilities in Cuba, a military blockade was established to prevent further shipments arriving from the USSR.
The ensuing conversations between East and West, Khrushchev and Kennedy, would prove to be the longest 13 days of the Cold War; and the concept of ‘mutually assured destruction’ became a familiar household phrase. Eventually, by 28th October, an agreement was reached: the offensive weapons in Cuba would be dismantled, and returned immediately to the Soviet Union. The US, in return, would publicly agree to end its harassment of Cuba; and to never again invade without direct provocation.
Behind the scenes, the US also agreed to remove its Jupiter MRBMs from Italy and Turkey. The existence of these weapons had been kept secret from the public though, and so in the ensuing PR battle the Soviet Union came off worse – with Moscow appearing as the aggressor, whereas the Cuban missiles might truthfully have been considered a defensive move.
By November 1962 the missiles (or at least, most of them) had been withdrawn, the military blockade around Cuba was lifted and the Moscow–Washington hotline established. The world breathed a sigh of relief… but in Havana, the events referred to as the ‘October Crisis’ would contribute to the nation’s growing sense of frustrated impotence. Once again, Cuba had been used as a pawn in a larger game; they had provided the battleground, but when it came time for serious conversations the Cubans themselves would not be granted a seat at the negotiation table.
Che Guevara had been instrumental in securing the Soviet weapons on Cuban soil, and had strongly advocated their use against the US; claiming in later interviews that the fate of “millions of atomic war victims” was a worthwhile price to pay if it brought an end to “imperialist aggression.” After the resolution of the crisis, he was particularly outspoken about his feelings of betrayal – and he came to distrust the Soviet Union almost as much as he distrusted the United States.
Today at La Cabaña, an 18th-century fortress just across the bay from Havana, the last remaining relics of the Missile Crisis are displayed with pride.
One evening, after the end of the tour, I visited the fortress with a friend and as the sun began to set across Havana Bay, we walked over the grass amongst these weapons of would-be mass destruction: an SS-4 Sandal, the medium-range nuclear-capable missile that could have been launched from here as far as Washington DC; an FKR-1 Meteor nuclear cruise missile; an SS-N-2 Styx anti-ship missile; the broken wing of a U-2 spy plane and beside it, an example of the SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile that had brought it down.
These days the leftover missiles at Havana are long-since deactivated – but the Cubans keep them clean, well maintained, and pointed, poignantly, in the direction of the United States.
The Death of Che Guevara
Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this our battle cry may have reached some receptive ear and another hand may be extended to wield our weapons.”
– Che Guevara
Like many people, I had seen Che Guevara’s face on t-shirts long before I knew a single thing about him. That image of a man in a beret has become symbolic of rebellion and revolution, to the point of growing detached from the history behind it; it’s particularly ironic to note its popularity as an anti-authoritarian fashion statement in the US, worn by people who would likely never have been born if Guevara were allowed to push the button in 1962.
In Cuba that face appears on billboards, on clothing, on flags and on coins. He smiles out at passers-by from propaganda-heavy billboards the length and breadth of the country; a cult of personality immortalised by the fact that Guevara died a martyr’s death.
After the revolution, Guevara was made finance minister and president of the National Bank of Cuba. In the 1960s, Che Guevara would frequently represent Cuban interests overseas. He visited the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, East Germany and North Korea, to develop trade agreements with the Eastern Bloc; and in 1964 he addressed the United Nations in New York as head of the Cuban delegation. His final years though, would be devoted to advancing the cause of Marxism worldwide.
In 1965 Guevara travelled to Africa to join the conflict in the Congo. His plan was to advise and support a revolt against the military dictator Mobutu, though the mission ultimately ended in failure. “We can’t liberate by ourselves a country that does not want to fight,” he would later comment.
In November 1966, Che Guevara flew to La Paz, Bolivia, disguised as a middle-aged Uruguayan businessman. There he began forming a guerrilla army of 50 men – the ‘National Liberation Army of Bolivia’ – with the intention of inciting a Marxist revolution. It didn’t go well, though. The Bolivian Army was bolstered by CIA commandos, and Guevara noted in his diary that little support came from the locals. “The peasants do not give us any help, and they are turning into informers,” he wrote.
In October 1967, one of those informers revealed the location of Guevara to Bolivian Special Forces; and the next morning 1,800 soldiers surrounded the guerrilla camp. In the ensuing fight, Che Guevara was wounded and taken prisoner.
He was interrogated, but refused to speak; he even turned violent when one guard tried to steal his tobacco pipe. Fearful that Guevara might escape – and dreading the public drama of a long and drawn-out trial – the Bolivian president ordered that the prisoner be executed immediately; against the wishes of the US government, who had hoped to interrogate him further.
One Bolivian volunteered himself as executioner, but initially he hesitated to pull the trigger. According to the story Guevara’s last words were, “Shoot me, you coward! You are only going to kill a man!”
Bolivian authorities ordered that Guevara was not to be shot in the head, but rather in a manner that might suggest he had been killed in action. The executioner shot him nine times: in his legs, in the shoulder, in the chest and another shot to the throat. At just past 1pm on 9th October 1967, Che Guevara was pronounced dead.
The next day his body was flown to Vallegrande, where it was displayed for the world’s press in the laundry house of a hospital. Art critics would later comment on the ‘Christ-like’ appearance of the corpse, surrounded by soldiers and journalists. Guevara’s hands were cut off, and sent to Buenos Aires for fingerprint identification. Later they flew on to Cuba, where Fidel Castro gave a sorrowful speech to packed-out crowds in Plaza de la Revolución.
It wasn’t until decades later that Che Guevara’s body reappeared. It had vanished after identification, and many assumed that it was cremated in Vallegrande; but following a tip-off from a retired Bolivian general, in 1997 a team of Cuban and Argentinian forensic experts discovered the corpse along with six others in an unmarked mass grave. One of the bodies was missing its hands, and had a familiar tobacco pouch tucked into a hidden jacket pocket.
Later that year Guevara’s remains were transported to Cuba, along with his those of his fellow soldiers, and laid to rest inside a mausoleum at Santa Clara.
The ‘Ernesto Guevara Sculptural Complex’ was designed by José Delarra – the same artist responsible for the train memorial – and it was originally opened in 1988 as a memorial to Che. It featured scenes from his life, tributes to his achievements and was decorated with the full text of his farewell letter to Fidel Castro; all of it presided over by a 6-metre bronze statue of the man himself. It wasn’t until 1997, on the discovery of the mass grave in Bolivia, that the sculptural complex became a mausoleum.
Visiting the Che Guevara Mausoleum felt like making the pilgrimage to some holy site. Guards stood at the entrance, ensuring that visitors wore appropriately respectful clothing. Some of the pilgrims had tears in their eyes as they entered. Candles burned inside the tomb, illuminating the sculpted faces of those freedom fighters executed in Bolivia; and in the centre Che’s own portrait peered out from a dense bouquet of funerary flowers, the details of his face wearing smooth from the touch of countless tear-stained fingers.
Elián González & The Anti-Imperialist Platform
After the death of Che Guevara, the US and Cuba would continue to sink into increasingly entrenched positions. It was clear that Fidel Castro and his Communist Party were there to stay, and as the Soviet Union continued to pour funding into Cuban projects a frosty silence was maintained between Washington and Havana.
The US hadn’t operated an embassy in Havana since Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations in 1961, but in 1977 Washington would make a new effort to undermine Cuban independence: with the opening of a ‘United States Interests Section’ within the diplomatic neutrality of the Swiss Embassy.
Located by the Malecón in Vedado, the embassy building stands beside a plaza known as the ‘José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform.’ This was the scene of protests, in 2000, over the fate of Elián González – a six-year old Cuban boy whose mother drowned on the journey to Florida. Elián was placed into US custody, despite his father’s wishes that he be returned to family in Cuba. There were impassioned protests along the Malecón and outside the US Interests Section that summer, until the boy was returned. Ever since then the plaza has been a popular site for political (and particularly, anti-US) rallies.
The famous ‘Wall of Flags’ appeared in 2006. An electronic billboard had been affixed to the fifth floor of the US Interests building, which displayed anti-communist propaganda to the Cuban people. It was particularly distracting during a speech that Fidel Castro gave from the platform that January – with a ticker message positioned behind him that contradicted many of the things he said.
And so on 6th February, a wall of 138 flags was raised on 20m poles: tall enough to hide the US Interests Section from anyone stood in the Anti-Imperialist Plaza.
These days the plaza is a popular and well-maintained social hub. They even have bands perform there from time to time, and in 2005 an estimated 60,000 Cubans gathered around the Anti-Imperialist Platform to watch Audioslave; the first US rock band to perform on Cuban soil.
At the time of my visit, the building still existed as a controversial, diplomatic loophole. Armed guards stood positioned around the Swiss Embassy then, and right along the Malecón. Walking past one day, I decided to take a closer look – I began to cross the road, from the seaside towards the embassy, but immediately one of the guards left his post and marched in my direction. I stopped, stepped back, and he returned to his post. When I took out my camera and tried to photograph the building from there, the soldier sprang into life once again; this time raising his rifle to point the business end at me. I took the hint, put my camera away and walked on.
Since Raúl Castro met with Barack Obama in July 2015 however, the building behind the flags has once again resumed its role as a US embassy – the first US embassy in Havana for 54 years, and a bold move towards repairing relations between the two countries. Cuba is changing so fast these days that already, my own experience at the plaza belongs to another era.
Plaza de la Revolution
At the end of the week, the tour brought me back to where I had started: Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución. This time around though, it was a chaos of flags and noise.
In 1961, Fidel Castro became First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba – in addition to serving first as Prime Minister, then later, as President of Cuba – and he would go on to become the longest-standing non-royal national leader in the world. In 2008 though, Fidel eventually passed the presidency to his brother Raúl.
On 1st May, a date celebrated across Cuba (and indeed, the rest of the socialist world) as International Workers’ Day, Fidel Castro would traditionally make his address to the millions of Cubans gathered in parades around Plaza de la Revolución. On the year of my visit though, Fidel was absent from the celebrations – and instead it was Raúl Castro I saw, stood on a podium at the foot of the José Martí Memorial and waving to the crowds.
Across the square meanwhile, over the heads of a million Cuban socialists with their drums and whistles and colourful banners, two faces were drawn in steel across the side of the far buildings. On the right Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the revolutionaries who had boarded the Granma yacht from Mexico and led rebel forces against Batista in the 1950s; and on the left, drawn five storeys high across the Ministry of the Interior building where he had once held office, the face of Che Guevara accompanied by his famous motto: “Hasta la Victoria Siempre.”
Until the Everlasting Victory, Always.
The Cuban Revolutionary Party, against all odds, has certainly lived a long and eventful life. Though Guevara himself may have met a martyr’s end in the 1960s, Fidel Castro went on to outlast ten US presidents. He outlived the Soviet Union, and survived numerous assassination plots along the way; but sooner or later, change becomes inevitable.
Cuba cannot continue to exist forever in a bubble. Right now, as things stand, it is a bizarre, socialist time warp; an anachronistic would-be utopia, a unique glimpse into a world that, anywhere else, could never have survived this long. But with the Castro brothers getting well on into their eighties, with US relations improving and a whole new generation of Cubans growing up with increasing access to the Internet and social media, it’s hard to imagine such isolationism lasting more than a few more years… before the dam eventually breaks, and Cuba is forever changed by a tidal wave of technology and tourism, banks and businesses, music, games and TV shows, Starbucks and McDonalds, drugs and religion and renewable energy and political correctness and all the other myriad pros and cons that come as part and parcel of a modern capitalist society.
Contrary to whatever Che Guevara might have believed, nothing is Everlasting.
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