The city of Santiago de Cuba’s motto was coined by its native son, rum distiller extraordinaire, and beloved mayor Emilio Bacardi: Rebelde ayer, hopsitalaria hoy, heroica siempre. Rebellious yesterday, hospitable today, heroic forever. Kinda makes Winnipeg’s One Great City feel a whole new kind of inadequate.
More than an inspiring motto, however, these words provide a vey necessary framework on which to hang the tapestry of Cuban politics. It’s a complicated tapestry, and even the bit we’ve seen on this trip is full of holes, but I hope it at least gives an impression of the reality here and the unique lessons it offers. Of course, critique and discussion are always welcome.
And so let’s begin this narratively-convenient trilogy with Cuba’s rebellious yesteryears:
Nearly every Latin American nation follows the same story arc: colonization by brutal Spanish conquistadores, revolution and independence from these arbitrary powers, and finally (and presently) decades of instability brought on by ruthless U.S. political/military intervention. Examples of this include Pinochet in Chile, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and of course the Zapatistas in Mexico.
America wasted no time in meddling with Cuba, even getting involved in their war for independence from Spain. Cuba’s struggle for independence has become widely known internationally as part of the Spanish-American War, even though it was instigated by a heroic anti-slavery act by a Cuban farmer and fought almost entirely by Cuban soldiers. When Cuba finally won its nationhood and began writing its constitution, America refused to withdraw their troops until the fledgling Cuban government included the infamous Platt Amendment, which essentially granted America the right to intervene in Cuban politics whenever it deemed necessary. Thus began the cycle, typified by so many Latin American countries, of coups and rigged elections that favored leaders who would serve Washington’s interest.
The spark that finally ignited Cuba’s war for independence was provided by Manuel de Cespedes, a wealthy farmer who freed his slaves, telling them “You are free regardless, but if you want true freedom, you should take up arms with me against the Spanish Empire”
Cuba’s cycle was dramatically broken, however, by a few scruffy idealists who would later become some of the most controversial political figures in the world. It was to find the courageous roots of this now-complex revolution that Sara and I followed the footsteps of Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl, and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara into the jungled mountains of eastern Cuba, to an abandoned guerilla camp known as La Comandancia de la Plata.
Castro’s movement against the brutal American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista had already gained some popular momentum after he lead an ill-fated attack on the Moncada in Santiago de Cuba. Batista had turned these former military barracks into a prison for political dissidents, and the artifacts and photos now housed in its museum are a testament to the horrific torture and execution that was commonplace here throughout the 1950s.
But I digress. The revolution truly put down its roots here in the Sierra Maestras, where the rebels spent nearly a year training, recruiting more soldiers from local communities, and sending representatives to garner financial and public support from Mexico, Venezuela, and even pockets of the U.S. From their camp under the jungle canopy, they frequently saw Batista’s planes blindly bombing the mountains in hopes of smoking the rebels out.
Radio Rebelde. At the very top of the mountain sits a little hut, still filled with dusty, antiquated radio equipment. It was from here that news of the struggle was broadcasted to the masses, preparing them for the insurrection that was to come. As a result, Castro’s revolution had the people’s support throughout the country, making it possible for them to sweep the country from east to west once they had the manpower to take on Batista’s army. This objective was completed on January 1, 1959.
Perhaps the most interesting part of La Comandancia de la Plata, however, is the reason it was built in the first place. The original plan did not include camping for nearly a year while training an army in mountain enclaves with literally no infrastructure except that which could be made from palm trees (though it certainly adds to the romanticism that now surrounds the story!). The original plan was for Fidel to invade Batista’s strongholds in Sanitago at the exact moment that rebel sympathizers in the city took up arms on the inside. Santiago would have become a rebel-controlled city, a well-equipped base from which to launch a nation-wide attack.
But that’s not what happened. The rebels were to arrive in Santiago from Mexico (where the Castro brothers had been exiled after the Moncada incident) in a yacht, but they were several hours late because a man had fallen overboard during the night. According to first-hand accounts of Fidel’s own fighters on the yacht, they started pressuring Fidel to leave the man for dead, knowing that timing was crucial for the invasion to succeed. Fidel insisted, however, that their revolution would not begin by abandoning one of their own, and ordered them to drive the yacht in circles for hours until, miraculously, the man was rescued.
As a result, the rebel sympathizers in Santiago launched their attack from the inside at the prearranged time, but didn’t stand a chance without the support they were expecting. Batista was alerted to the plan, and had heavily armed troops waiting on the beach when the yacht finally arrived. Of the 81 men that Fidel brought with him on his yacht, over half were killed. The survivors fled into the mountains, where they did the only thing they could: build a camp and start over.
Ultimately, through sheer determination and strength of character, La Revolución did succeed. And it did so with its ideological integrity intact, as Fidel promised it would that night in the yacht as they searched for a single drowning soldier. In hindsight, though, I wonder what the survivors of the ensuing massacre (Fidel among them) felt as they counted the number of lives that those hours spent searching had cost.
That, it seems, is the theme of La Revolución: heroic idealism versus pragmatic results. Every step towards justice requires sacrifice, but at what point does the sacrifice become a whole new form of injustice? Cuba offers no easy answers.