Two Faces of Cuba
I am almost out of things to write about my most recent trip to Cuba. A good thing, too, because I only have one more set of photographs about which I want to write. I love it when synchronicity just happens...
Cuba has a long tradition of honoring its heroes, beginning with Hatuey, a chief of the Taino tribe, who was the first opponent of Spanish colonialism in the New World in the early 16th century. 400 years later, Antonio Maceo earned hero status for his role in fighting for Cuba's independence from Spain. As one might imagine, many of Cuba's “heroes” such as Camilo Cienfuegos (who I swear is Ansel Adams' doppelganger) participated in the overthrow of the corrupt Batista government. Leonid Brezhnev, ruler of the Soviet Union during a time when Cuba depended heavily on its communist patron state for survival, earned the distinction. Ernest Hemingway, who spent many years living, writing, and drinking rum in Cuba is probably as close to a hero there as any US citizen has ever come. The most recent heroes are the Cuban Five, who were sent to Miami by Fidel Castro to spy on exile groups bent on deposing “El Commandante,” were caught, convicted, and spent years in a US prison before being repatriated on December 17, 2014.
But the two most venerated heroes in Cuba are Jose Marti and Che Guevara. As I travel around the island I am amazed by the sheer number and variety of memorials to these men. I am also fascinated with the dearth of monuments to the person who has figured most prominently in Cuba: Fidel. There are billboards that picture him accompanied by Che and Hugo Chavez, and his name is attributed to many slogans painted on buildings that extol the virtues of the revolution. But, his other faults aside, he has not infested his country with his likeness as did, for example, Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Instead, I see busts of Marti in public parks and in little shrines that people have set up in front of their houses. I find murals of Che, both as formal, state-sponsored installations and as spontaneously-created folk art on the sides of many buildings. Countless streets, airports, parks, and other public places bear their names. I visit the Plaza de la Revolución and find a gigantic metal sculpture of Che staring across the plaza at a statue of Marti, who sits in the shade of an obelisk nearly as tall as the Washington Monument. I decide to use the eccentricities of my Holga camera to create montages of some of the tributes to Marti and Guevara that I find, and to compare and contrast the two men.
Jose Marti was born in a Cuba that was still a colony of Spain. He began agitating for his country's independence while still a teenager through poems and essays. He was arrested and convicted of treason for his dissension, sentenced to six years in prison, and was eventually exiled to Spain. He spent the next 24 years as a man without a country, prohibited from returning to Cuba and living in France, Mexico, Central America, and the United States, where he continued to write, speak, and raise money for the cause of Cuban independence. In 1895 Marti returned to Cuba to participate in an armed uprising against Spanish rule, where he was killed in battle after only two weeks back in his native land.
Marti's most well known poem is entitled Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca, which, along with other verses from Marti, became Cuba's unofficial national anthem, the song Guantanamera.
Cultivo una rosa blanca,
En julio como en enero,
Para el amigo sincero
Que me da su mano franca.
Y para el cruel que me arranca
El corazón con que vivo,
Cardo ni oruga cultivo:
Cultivo la rosa blanca.
I have a white rose to tend
In July as in January;
I give it to the true friend
Who offers his frank hand to me.
And for the cruel one whose blows
Break the heart by which I live,
Thistle nor thorn do I give:
For him, too, I have a white rose.
Cubans rightfully consider Jose Marti their premier national hero. He devoted his entire life to and died for a noble cause: independence for his countrymen. Hero status for Che Guevara, on the other hand, is not so clear cut. He was born in Argentina, and trained to be a physician. While still a student he traveled throughout Latin America, witnessed the abject poverty in which many people lived, and used his medical skills in a leper colony in Venezuela. These experiences led him to believe that socialism, attained through armed conflict, was the only way to help poor and exploited people rise from their plight.
While in Mexico he met Fidel and Raul Castro, and joined their 26th of July Movement aimed at overthrowing the Batista regime in Cuba. Following the success of the revolution, Che became part of the new government, first supervising the executions of suspected enemies of the Castro regime. He later became president of Cuba's national bank and then the country's minister of industry. But Che's vision was for a Latin America unified under a single, socialistic government, and to that end he left Cuba in 1965. He and a small band of fellow revolutionaries were killed in Bolivia in 1967 while attempting to overthrow that country's government. Che may have had noble aspirations in wanting to help impoverished people, but his means of doing so – implementing totalitarian governments that imprisoned, tortured, and killed those who opposed them – does not, in my opinion, meet the test of heroism.
One cannot, however, deny the iconic status he has attained. In 1960, Cuban photographer Alberto Korda made a candid photograph of Che, wearing his signature black beret and communist star, as he listened to Fidel speak at a memorial service for 136 people killed in a ship explosion in Havana harbor. Korda never published the photograph, but the same year that Che was killed, an Italian publisher named Feltrinelli contacted him, asking for a portrait of the dead guerrilla leader. Korda gave the publisher a print of his image, Feltrinelli printed and sold 1,000 posters, and the image went on to become the most reproduced photograph in history. Korda has never received a centavo for its use.
As I walk down the streets of Havana, Santiago de Cuba, or any other city on the island, I see countless tiny shops filled to overflowing with Che berets, t-shirts, shopping bags, books, posters, calendars, and anything else upon which the image can be applied. Most are purchased by young foreigners who, I suspect, are oblivious to Guevara's human rights record. But I am always amused that this paragon of communism is the most visible representation of capitalism in Cuba today. What Would Che Think?
It is Saturday, March 19, 2016 as I finish writing. This week President Obama further eased travel restrictions to Cuba, making it even easier for US citizens to go there legally. And tomorrow he will travel to Cuba himself, the first time a US President has visited the island since the revolution. A couple of days later the Rolling Stones will play a free concert in the country where Fidel Castro once condemned rock music as “deviant.” It is a bittersweet day for me. I am glad for my Cuban friends that the country is becoming more a part of the world, but sad at some of the changes I fear are coming. Perhaps a fitting time for me to end this blog.