I have always felt a deeper connection with places that have a complex history. Cuba was no exception. In fact, with Cuba, everything is much more vivid since what I relegate to history is actually a part of Cuba’s present contemporary life.
As a diehard Ayn Rand fan, I have never subscribed to any economic ideology other than capitalism as celebrated in its pure form in Atlas Shrugged. The many failures of Nehruvian socialism in my own country have only strengthened my beliefs over the years. So my view of Cuba is not coloured by any romantic notions around communism. But I looked at every revolution story with an open mind.
Having prepped myself about the Cuban revolution prior to the trip through a rather voluminous book (“Che Guevara: A revolutionary life” by Jon Lee Anderson), I knew enough to expect a different version of history than what I previously knew from largely American sources.
The revolution certainly seems to be “Hasta la Victoria, Siempre!” – alive and kicking in Cuba. The propaganda billboards dotted across cities and villages making the government the only advertiser. The boards announcing CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) on house doors keeping alive neighbourhood committees originally meant to be the ground force to fight against an inevitable American invasion. Cemetery maps pointing out the tombs of dead heroes. The revolution squares which are a necessity in every Cuban city and which are meant to celebrate the most loved revolutionary son of the city – Jose Marti in Havana, Antonio Maceo in Santiago de cuba, Che Guevara in Santa Clara etc. And of course, the ubiquitous images and quotes of Che Guevara that covered building facades, school compounds, postage stamps, T-shirts and artworks. All these speak of a contemporary story.
I did the quintessential pilgrimage route of all the revolution shrines.
My first stop in the revolution trail was rather appropriate – Santiago de Cuba. Designated as “the city of heroes” by Fidel Castro (as the santiagueros loved to remind everyone), the city has always been at the forefront of the revolution. And not just Fidel’s revolution. But even the first Cuban revolution – the wars of independence bitterly fought by Cubans such as Antonio Maceo and José Marti against the Spanish who colonialised and terrorised Cuba for nearly 5 centuries to the point of totally decimating its indigenous population ( barely a few thousands of the native Taino tribe live today). As I wandered around the Antonio Maceo Revolution Square, I heard the story of Maceo, called the “Father of all Cubans” for he willingly sacrificed his young son, but refused to negotiate with the Spanish.
The ongoing angst of the Cubans against the USA also finds its roots in Santiago de Cuba. The Cuban war of independence against Spain started around 1868 and carried on till 1898, a full 30 years. Strangely enough, in 1898, as the Cubans met with great success having captured most of Eastern Cuba, the Americans started evaluating how to get their hands into Cuba. An intense propaganda war commenced in the US, raising demands for US intervention in Cuba in the name of democracy! Eerily similar to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Gautemala……….And then in a funny coincidence that was to mimic the trigger for US’s entry into World War II, a U.S battleship (USS Maine) exploded in the Havana Harbour for reasons best known to the US. With the perfect excuse to now intervene in Cuba, the Americans entered the Cuban war against the Spanish. In any case, the war was at its last mile. The Cuban Mambies (guerrillas) led by the Cuban General Calixto Garcia along with American troops laid siege of Santiago De Cuba. The Spanish soon surrendered. It was at this point that the American deception became clear. The Cubans were not allowed by the American troops to enter Santiago under the excuse of preventing any clashes with the Spanish. I walked around San Juan Hill, where this decisive battle was fought and where the war memorials that stand till date are testimony to how the American officers were glorified and how the Cuban effort was trivialised. The Americans hijacked the Cuban victory in their 3 month engagement in Cuba, out of a 30 year war! So ridiculous! Given that the Spanish and the Americans negotiated the terms of surrender independent of Cuba, Cuba now ended up merely as a protectorate of the US with dummy heads of states appointed by the US. What a tragic end!
Nearly 55 years later, in 1953, a young Fidel Castro would attempt to shake off the shackles of Batista and his American friends. Again in Santiago de Cuba, by launching the Julio 26 attacks on multiple points of the city. However, the revolutionaries ended up being prematurely caught at the Moncada barracks and were either shot dead or imprisoned. Fidel and Raul Castro were both imprisoned and later exiled to Mexico. Today, Moncada is a school with just a tiny part preserved as a museum. The school walls are still wounded by gun shots. A daily reminder to the students of the price that their predecessors paid for independence. I happened to be in Santiago on July 26, one of the biggest public holidays in Cuba. Interesting that Fidel wants to celebrate what was essentially a day of defeat!
It was also in Santiago de Cuba out of the balcony of the Town Hall that Fidel Castro made his victory speech in 1959 after having successfully overthrown the Batista regime. Santiago has indeed seem some heroic and historic moments!
My next pit-stop was the Museo de la Revolución in Havana, occupying a lovely colonial palace that housed the erstwhile Dictator, General Batista. The museum provided a good introduction to the atrocities of the dictator that led to the uprising, the failed revolution attempt of Julio 26, 1953 as well as the long years of planning by Fidel Castro and his team while in exile in Mexico that led to the actual revolution in 1959. It was extremely interesting to learn that Fidel in fact is a trained lawyer and Che was a practicing doctor. The western media merely paints a picture of illiterate guerrillas! And that several women actively participated in the revolution. From senior revolutionaries like Celia Sanchez, Haydée Santamaría and Tamara Bunke, the infamous East German spy who got killed in an ambush by the CIA in Bolivia, female revolutionaries fought with arms and explosives, raised monies, organised underground resistance and led demonstrations. Gender parity was taken for granted. But the piece de resistance in the museum is an outdoor exhibit of the actual boat, “Granma”, that was used by a group of 82 revolutionaries including Fidel, Raul and Che to sneak into Cuba from Mexico in 1956 to kick-start the guerrilla war from the Sierra Maestra mountains against Batista’s regime. The boat is protected by armed guards like a priceless treasure!
“We have to remind ourselves of this at every moment: that we are in a war, a cold war as they call it; a war where there is no front line, no continuous bombardment, but where the two adversaries — this tiny champion of the Caribbean and the immense imperialist hyena — are face to face and aware that one of them is going to end up dead in the fight.” – Che Guevara “Mobilising the Masses for the Invasion” speech given to sugar workers in Santa Clara, Cuba 20 days before the Bay of Pigs Invasion (28 March 1961)
A very poignant stop for me was Playa Giron or “Bay of Pigs” as we know it through American references. In 1961, Playa Giron was the center stage of an American invasion orchestrated by President John F Kennedy and the CIA, who trained Cuban dissidents / exiles in the U.S and dropped them off on the Cuban shores at Playa Giron. This ground invasion of over 1500 troops was supported by air strikes all over the Cuban countryside. What was exceptional about this whole episode was that a tiny island like Cuba with a newly formed government was able to thwart the largest and most powerful country in the world in less than 72 hours. With no outside support or intervention at all. A classic David vs Goliath match with a surprise winner. This attempted invasion turned out to be the first setback faced by the otherwise perfect presidency story of JFK. Unfortunately, for the rest of their lives, both JFK and Robert Kennedy were obsessed with tiny Cuba and authorised the CIA to plan various assassination attempts on the Castro brothers as well as Che. This ego-powered obsession ultimately brought Cuba closer to the USSR and brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war in the form of the “Cuban missile crisis”. I was just amazed to hear the Cuban side of all these events, having been fascinated with JFK and his princely life all these years and with how he saved the world during the Cuban missile crisis by reaching out to Nikita Khrushchev. What I had been taught to be a result of JFK’s desire for peace and Robert Kennedy’s negotiating capabilities merely turned out to be the US being forced to back off from yet another Cuban invasion by Soviet missiles stock-piled in the Cuba, with a firing range that included Washington DC and San Francisco. Cuba was willing to be completely decimated if it meant stopping the Americans once and for all. If the missiles had been actually used, imagine what the world map and the United Nations would look like today?
Today, a fairly comprehensive museum stands at the site of Playa Giron. The displays of the captures aircrafts and tanks, the blood splattered uniforms and graphic images paint a detailed picture of what transpired. A crackly black and white film shows the scenes of American bombings on the Cuban airports, military installations and the villages and ends with the triumphant victory speeches of the Cubans. When I asked my guide why the Cuban regime, which was considered to be hardliners, had released over 1200 captured soldiers who had participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion, the guide replied that they were released to the U.S. in exchange of approx. USD 53 mn in food and medicines. What a pragmatic approach by a supposedly dictatorial government! Interestingly, the U.S responded to their repeated failed invasions by imposing a trade embargo on Cuba which lasts even at this point. A case of a thief punishing the house owner who he couldn’t rob:-)
“Thanks for Playa Girón. Before the invasion, the (Cuban) revolution was weak. Now it’s stronger than ever.” – Che Guevara, in a note passed on to one of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s secretaries at the Organization of the American States conference in Uruguay (August 1961)
I also made a quick stop in Santa Clara to pay my respects at the Mausoleum of Che Guevara and his guerrillas who were killed by the CIA in Bolivia. Che was an exceptional individual for his times. An Argentine by birth, who dedicated his life for the freedom on another country. An avid writer. A trained doctor who was passionate about working on medical research. A self-trained military commander, who made guerrilla warfare fashionable for posterity. A socialist who created the roadmap for Cuba’s land and agricultural reforms and later perhaps created the much-needed links between Fidel and Khrushchev. Che had a strong vision of a world free of imperialism. In the rather turbulent times of the Cold War, when Cuban freedom itself was at its infancy, Che fearlessly used international forums to speak up against the Neo imperialism that seemed to be threatening the developing world. He was openly supportive of countries like Algeria, Congo, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Bolivia etc where the people were fighting a desperate war against western forces. He was happy to supply both arms and men to augment these countries and even lead from the front. In one such revolutionary attempt in Bolivia in 1967, the CIA killed him and his comrades and while his death was advertised through photos, his actual burial-place was not revealed until 1997. 30 years after his death, Che’s remains were brought back to Cuba and to his final resting place in Santa Clara. Yet, Che lives on in Cuba in his words and deeds. And in the rest of the world, sadly, merely as a pop icon.
“I don’t care if I fall, as long as someone else picks up my gun and keeps on shooting.” – Che Guevara
As I complete my revolutionary circuit, I feel a strong desire to applaud and to cheer the Cuban Revolution. I see lessons for my country too in the Cuban example – the mobilisation of the masses in protecting the country’s territorial rights is imperative; the army alone cannot carry the day. And expecting any help from the UN is foolhardy. It’s best to treat wars as bilateral issues and not go begging for help.
To borrow Fidel’s words, I do believe that in the history will absolve the Cubans. For the statesmanship displayed disproportionate to their size, strategic or otherwise. For creating a Latin-American vision free of the US , free of dependence. And for supporting this vision with men, arms and money – with no strings attached. Contrary to the harsh rules of diplomacy.
Hasta la Victoria, Siempre!