Finally it’s the day to check out the Museum of Revolution, housed in the magnificent and almost-restored former presidential palace. Most museums charge 5 or 3 cuc but this is a hefty 8 cuc so I hope it’s worth it. I tend to look into corners – places around the back. A personal exhibition by a Cuban artist catches my eye, but it’s overtly reverential to the current government. It does, however lead me around a corner to see a set of four cartoon characters. Starting with Batista, the last president of Cuba, then three US presidents: Reagan, Bush Snr and Bush Jnr. Each are thanked (ironically) for ensuring the continuation of the revolution. It’s vicious propaganda – on the edge.
It is the case that history is always written by the victors and in the case of Cuba, they have not yet lost their struggle. They can still claim to be the victors of this fifty-year war, particularly since Obama’s decision to end the travel prohibition. I’m expecting to find out their story as to date the US has not told their side. It is as I expected, except there is no mention of the so-called Cuban missile crisis presided over by JFK. Did the know about it? Surely Fidel would have known about the Russian installations?
We have to go back to Carloss de Céspedes, the ‘Father’ of Cuba. He was a wealthy land-owner who freed his slaves, inspired by Abraham Lincoln. Cuba’s struggle for independence from the Spanish Empire shadows the American war of independence. He was in fact killed by the Spanish.
Even more important is José Martí, he was imprisoned in Isla de Pinos but escaped to found the Cuban Revolutionary Party. His writings are said to be hugely influential. He also was killed in 1895 in the struggle against Spain. There are statues and monuments to him everywhere. Somehow, with a period as a colony of the US and a series of ‘Dictators’ ending with Batista, the Revolution continues in the late 50’s. The Museum doesn’t start at the beginning of the story, choosing to jump right into a ‘History of Improvements’ post revolution. Raúl is put in charge of the armed forces; teachers and doctors are trained and sent to rural areas to improve health and education. Former army barracks and mansions abandoned by the rich (who left thinking the revolution wouldn’t last long) were converted into schools which you can still in Havana.
Foreign enterprises were nationalised ‘in the face of US economic aggression.’ Renters suddenly became home owners and peasants acquired land. It’s the usual story for newly established communist governments. The narrative continues with the lowering of phone charges – communication is affordable – explaining Alicia’s family calls from Cuba. Beaches are free to all – a situation much prized by New Zealanders. A revolutionary tribunal is set up to deal with the ‘crimes of Batista’s henchmen.’ Details of what happened to them are not mentioned. By now the US has banned all imports from Cuba so the huge sugar cane harvest goes to the USSR in return for oil.
Who take the cigars is not mentioned, but they continue to be the best in the world – so they say.
On the third of January 1961, diplomatic relations are broken off, although Guantánamo air base will remain from which to mount ‘US aggression.’ A large section of the exhibition is devoted to the so-called crimes of the CIA. Now as the CIA never admits to anything and the US has never told their part of the story, none of this can be proved. There is an astonishing list: Operation ‘Peter Pan’ where 14,000 Cuban children were kidnapped to the US put in institutions and re-educated; The blowing up of a French ship carrying arms to Cuba from Belgian; the largest department store in Habana deliberately torched, with great loss of life. By now there are stories of bandits or counter revolutionaries supported by the CIA.
These are apparently eliminated by the Cuban Army by 1965, but the claims continue until ’69. By 1975, if anyone remembers, Cuban troops are involved in Angola. Sugar production is booming until 1990 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unlikely CIA attacks in the 80’s, to my mind, include: The introduction of dengue fever, pig fever, blue moss – mould on the tobacco crops and mildew on sugar cane. Maybe some of these things happened and you can easily imagine the young jocks in the CIA sitting around thinking up dastardly schemes. On the other hand, it’s always convenient to have an enemy who can be blamed for any disaster that occurs. The US psyche also requires villains. Russia, Korea, China and Iran are currently in favourite positions for the Trump administration.
Evidence is presented for the intimidation of Cuban athletes travelling to the Central American Games. I skim over the black & white photographs of the war. Fidel Raúl and Ché figure prominently. There are also biographies and photographs of other heroes of the revolution, the women, who later became politicians with portfolios, the ones who didn’t make it.
It’s the way the language is used which is interesting. One photograph is captioned ‘the forces of tyranny captured’. It sounds very heroic as indeed it is meant to be. I’m about to collect my bag from the coat-check when the woman indicates the memorial building outside. Here is to be found the mystery of Ganma which has been worrying me for days. Without internet and trusty Google to fact check I feel I’m picking up pieces of the jigsaw in the wrong order. Granma is a province in the south named after the yacht of the same name. Castro sailed with 82 men in this dilapidated luxury yacht built for 20 passengers to re-start the revolution.
It’s confusing because the replica of the yacht has ‘Granma’ on the stern. Whatever the story, it’s a wonderful piece of subterfuge. Who would suspect such a vessel to be harbouring a revolutionary army? There are also relics of planes captured or used in the fight, along with remnants of a US bomber shot down.
The pilot’s body remained in Cuba for 19 years as officially there was no US action taken and the body was not requested until 1979, then the body was returned. I have to admit that as moving as the Cuban story is, it’s not well told, with huge gaps to be filled in. I move on towards the old part of town passing a seminary on the river bank with a cool courtyard.
I find the Cathedral and a trendy modern bar for a cheese and tomato salad. I’ve found one of those streets which have been restored and painted for the tourists. It’s time to return to Cassa Densil for siesta but an image of Trump pasted onto a corrugated iron fence surrounding a building site catches my eye.
My routine, after siesta is to go to the roof and write, then walk around the corner to La Neruda for a beer.
There’s a band playing and for some reason I’m ushered to a table outside on the pavement where I sit watching a young man fishing from the pavement of Malecon. He has no rod, just a circular plastic roll of line. He baits up and, checking that there are no pedestrians, swings the line, lasso-like into the sea, holding his roll of line to the sea as it reels out. Quickly, he makes a catch and elegantly pulls in his line, laying it carefully on the pavement to avoid tangles. His catch dealt with, he wipes his hands and baits up again. A white haired man with a, slim Cuban woman in her late 30’s or 40’s,dressed in white, in tow, asks if he can share my table. Wayne is from Niagara, the Canadian side. Taking the opportunity, I ask him why Canadians come to Cuba. ‘I’ll tell you,’ he says. ‘It’s three and a half hours flight from Toronto.’ He then goes on to tell me that he comes around three times a year, since his mother died. He’s seventy and has found a gym he can go to here. He hasn’t really answered my question, but does introduce me to his companion, who seems disinterested in him and listens to her phone via earphones. Wayne and I chat about travel and agree that this is a good time of life, the Epicurean time. I take my leave noting that the young man is still fishing and give Castropolo, along the road another try for dinner. It’s still not fantastic food, though there is enough of it.
Jean Paul is on the roof again wanting to talk. Barbara, turns on a huge fan to keep us cool. I tell him about me and he confesses that he hated his mother when she was alive, telling her that he would spit on her grave. Only when she was dead did his suddenly realise what an amazing woman she was. We agree it’s a classic case. I show him the cartoon of Trump on the prickly pear and he loves it.