How beautiful it is to wake to a new country just after a night of rain. The leaves in Casa Blanca’s garden were glistening a maddening green, and in the shallow muddy puddles we spotted the symmetrical design of a tortoise shell. It clamored away from our intrusive hands and opened its mouth, but only to sigh. In the fountain, though, was where the real hazard lived – fish with teeth as menacing as crocodiles – and Yuly warned us never to dip our fingers in.
How decadent to have breakfast laid out for you in the fresh morning air! Chomping on eggs and toast and drinking the fresh fruit juice greedily, we made our resolutions for the day: to rent a car, to see more of La Habana, to eat well and be merry.
Thanks to Leo’s erratic tour of the previous day, we were able to navigate somewhat through the streets of Habana Vieja. Navigate is probably too strong a word. Vaguely recognise would be more precise. At any rate, we found ourselves back at the Museo de la Revolución, which is housed within the sprawling opulence of the former presidental palace, never again to be resided in after Fulgencio Batista was overthrown. Batista, who was an army colonel and then president elect of the country, was most recently a dictator up until the New Year’s Day 1959. His resume read like the quintessential despot, with special skills in corruption, oppression and organised crime. Outstanding achievements included suspending the constitution, and having citizens secretly or publicly tortured and executed by his personal thugs. Photos of the injuries and their causative weapons are held in the permanent exhibit on the top floor of the museum.
Interestingly, he maintained strong ties with the US during his reign, largely through big multinational companies with vested interests in Cuba, but also via dealings in shadier business ventures with the American mafioso. The relationship between the regime and the United States were solid enough to warrant economical, political and armed support from the latter up until his departure in 1959, and somehow elicited military reaction even after that, in the attack on the Bay of Pigs.
Entrance to the museum cost about 10 CUC and included a guided tour by a wonderful lady historian who took us through the parts of the building which were not undergoing refurbishment. A large part of the tour consisted of a group of Americans – as citizens of the US, they would have had to apply for a license to come here. They were a friendly and easy going bunch, eager to learn both sides of a shared story. “You haven’t mentioned the American intervention yet,” one man said gently to the guide as we moved to a different room, “Don’t be shy to talk about it, ‘cause none of us were close to Eisenhower.”
The story of the revolution is nothing short of inspiring. You could say that it started with José Martí who lived during the time of Spanish rule, and led his life with the unshakeable belief that the people can be empowered to gain their independence. He was a learned man and a prolific writer who always wore black to mourn the slavery of Cuba to the colonial forces. His features seemed to lend themselves well to busts, and he is often seen as a stone head and neck on the street corners of Havana of the in the centre of city parks.
Martí was jailed and then exiled from Cuba for his political views from the young age of 16, but his passion for an independent Cuba never let up. He spent most of his life living abroad, returning to Cuba for battle against the Spanish and dying on the field soon after. Independence would not come to the island until 1898, when the Americans and Cubans joined forces against Spain. By the 1940s and 50s, that previous oppressive power had been supplanted by the dictatorship of Colonel Batista.
And so another Revolución would rear its head, the main protagonist being a young Fidel Castro. Also once a political prisoner for daring to speak against Batista’s corrupted regime, he was subsequently released in a move by Batista to appease his political allies, a.k.a. the biggest mistake of his life.
After consolidating their philosophies, forming their plans and amassing the needed support, 82 men sailed on a yacht named Granma, running aground in difficult conditions 3 days later than they had planned. “No matter how many times I see it,” said the guide about the boat that was housed across the road from the museum, “It doesn’t fail to amaze me how 82 people could have resolved to sail for the revolution, without knowing anything about boats or sailing in the sea.” They ran aground in difficult conditions 3 days later than planned, by which time Batista’s forces had been tipped off and was able to kill many of the revolutionaries as they disembarked. The few survivors split up and isolated themselves in the mountains and countryside, and to an extent were sustained by the local farmers until they were able to reunite. When Fidel finally met his brother Raul in the mountains, he asked him, “How many men do you have and how many guns?” The response was 11 and 7. “Raul always thought Fidel was crazy,” said the guide, “Because he said, ‘Good. Now we can win the war.’”
Once the rooms in the palace were exhausted, we walked across a central courtyard whose walls were pocked by the attempted assassination of Batista which was carried out by a group of university students in 1957. Exiting the palace, we walked over to an open air extension of the museum, which held the Granma, fighter jets, missiles, and the delivery van that was used as a decoy during the assassination attempt. There were also relics from the American attack on the Bay of Pigs, which they attempted to do incognito, so much so that the body of an American soldier who was gunned down in the fight was not reclaimed for 16 years.
What a twisted world we live in. Things are no clearer today than they have been in the past when men endeavor to talk about allies, liberty, ethics and justice.
If I had a child of my own, I wonder what his bright mind would make of it all, while still untouched by the world’s sticky hands of avarice. Would he wonder why a power like the United States could deplore socialism to the extent of rendering international ties acrimonious, while previously being very much at ease with the cold-blooded deeds of a dictator? In the news is it not usual to see the Western powers cherry-picking their heroes from their villains while spinning a yarn of excuses that we now call politics? It would seem that the non-capitalist spirit of communists should be condemned while crime and extortion, if profitable, may run rampant. It is evident that invisible weapons of mass destruction can warrant the violent takeover of a nation while the undeclared yet certain nuclear powers of friends may pass without as much as a rap on the knuckles. It’s sad that while certain wars are denounced as evils, there are others being carried out to which one looks the other way.
What a twisted world we live in, I would have to tell my child. If he asked me why, I would have to concede, red-faced from anger and shame, that it happens because of greed. Then I would have to spend the rest of my life teaching him how NOT to live that way.
“I believe that there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will even go further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.”
— U.S. President John F. Kennedy, interview with Jean Daniel, 24 October 1963
After the guided tour, we circled the permanent exhibition on the top floor. It occurred to me that we have no real idea of what it means to be free. For we have never been called upon to settle accounts when the price of freedom was being issued. Martí once wrote, “Those who have thee, oh Liberty! know thee not.”
Back on the streets, our heads were ablaze with contemplation, but our gaze soon turned to the potholes on the dusty roads, the chipped façades of the majority of the buildings, the diesel engine smoke that rattles through old cars. Has the Revolution attained its goals? There is freedom from colonial powers and dictatorship, but though elections are run, there has been no change of government since Fidel came into power. Indeed, there aren’t even oppositions. There is free education for the masses, and so what makes it valuable? What yokes you to the table to prepare for every exam? There is free healthcare, and Cuban doctors are sent to provide service to poor African and Micronesian nations, and in this regard, I can think of no other rival health system other than the NHS. From Margarita, an immunologist as well as a casa particular proprietor, we learned that Cuba manufactures a great deal of its own pharmaceuticals, including immunomodulators like rotuximab which cost up to $20,000 per dose in other countries. But the hospitals are not modern or well-equipped, nor are those free schools or other government offices. The economy is failing to provide maintenance of the very structures to uphold their socialist ideals.
I raised my camera again and again to take pictures of the beautiful buildings all around Havana, keeping to Margarita’s advice of looking beyond the ‘principal door’ to what it could be. In the most run down of establishments, with scaffolds mounted from eave to eave, clotheslines strung across the balconies were the tell tale signs of habitation in places which were decidedly dangerous to live in.
The Revolution was glorious. The Revolution freed the people. But now, what? “La historia me absolverá,” Fidel famously stated when he was tried in 1953, 100 years after the birth of José Martí – a poetic twist that the scholar would have enjoyed. Perhaps with absolution in the bag, we should speak now of progress…
“For him who enjoys you not, Liberty, it is difficult to speak of thee. His anger is as great as that of a wild beast forced to bend his knees before his tamer. He knows the depths of hell while glancing up toward the man who lives arrogantly in the sun. He bites the air as a hyena bites the bars of his cage. Spirit writhes within his body as though it were poisoned.” – José Martí