Category Archives: :Location: Cuba

Yesterday Rebellious

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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”
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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.

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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.

Castro’s bullet holes riddle the entrance to the Moncada. Though the invasion was unsuccessful, the act of defiance inspired the people of Santiago to support the revolution.
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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.

Sara gazes out at the jungle from the camp’s kitchen/dining area.
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Looking out from Fidel’s spartan bedroom. Its height is due to network of trapdoors and ladders below it, so attackers would never know which door he was going to come out of.
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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.
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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.

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First Impressions 

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We arrived in Cuba after a seemingly impossibly short flight… well, an impossibly short flight preceded by a classic Josh and Sara route involving a 16 hour road trip with our roommates to the Traverse City Film Festival, a Real Madrid vs. Chelsea football match in Ann Arbor, Michigan, some intense archery and cake auctions and Gravitron shenanigans with Josh’s siblings at the Alma County Fair, and a quick road trip to Toronto with my wonderful mother in law.

Pasties in the Yoopee
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Josh and his mom… alias the Pres-B-Rapperz (please, please ask Josh for a repeat performance!)
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¡Hola Cuba!
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With our only direct flight option being to fly into Varadero, our plan was to arrive there at 1:30PM and get out of there as fast as possible. As previously mentioned, there are a lot of opinions surrounding Cuba, and we were no exception. We had placed Varadero firmly into the category of tourist kitsch, brimming with resorts, overpriced key chains, and restaurants proudly advertising English-speaking servers. However, the vagaries of buying Cuban bus tickets online meant that the only bus that would bring us directly to Santiago de Cuba had us spending the next nine hours in Kitschityville Horror.

Resigned to our fate, we found a friendly Swiss guy to share a cab to the bus station from the airport (he was actually on his way to visit a friend in Vancouver, but as a flight with a 12 hour layover in Cuba was the same price, he had decided to hang out in Cuba for the day), found a guarda-equipaje for our bags (in other words, for $2CUC, we stood them behind the chair of friendly cleaning lady in the bus station), and then we ventured onto the streets of Varadero…

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…And two blocks behind the bus station, found the most glorious white sand beach, sprinkled with only a few sunbathing bodies and a generous serving of reggaeton. Up the street from the water was a neighbourhood dotted with restaurants, where we received our inauguration to Cuba’s frustratingly charming habit of handing you a hefty menu while rapidly reciting the few choices that are actually available. (Side note: My favourite game while dining is now witnessing Josh’s unfailing optimism/denial* as he asks about a different dish that the waiter didn’t mention but perhaps may still be available, and then watching both the waiter’s and Josh’s faces fall into bemusement as the available menu options are repeated.)

Our unexpected welcome to Varadero
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Our resolve to consume only bottled water products lasted exactly how long it took us to realize that all cocktails contained ice cubes. So far, so good! 😉
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Ron de 3 años y Añejo de 7 años. 0.70 cents and $1.20 respectively
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While “No hay!” (We don’t have it!) is indeed ubiquitous in Cuban restaurants, the promises of apathetic service and bland food simply do not deliver. Avocados, spiced tomatoes, tender beef, fresh seafood, tropical fruit, and of course, the classic (and classically named) rice-and-bean dish “Cristianos y Moros” — literally Christians and Muslims — are served in huge quantities by generally smiling waitstaff

So what have we gathered so far? That some sections of Varadero are undeniably kitschy and removed from Cuban reality, while others are definitely not. That some food and certain sabores are lacking in Cuban restaurants, while others are most definitely not. And that some Cubans work in jobs they are not suited for and could care less about, while others (…following me yet?) definitely do not.

When there is a single and controversial political ideal that unites a country, it can be tempting to assign all responsibility for the small faults and annoyances in a country to that ideal. But with excruciating honesty, we admit that in our own country there is merchandise that is occasionally unavailable (I worked at Blockbuster on Friday nights, I saw the madness that ensued when we were out of Little Man!) and service that is occasionally the absolute worst (anyone else remember the terrifying Sub Zero lady?)

Yes, la Revolución has caused some difficulties, as further days of travel and future blog posts will uncover. But in our first few hours in Cuba, we happily discovered that first impressions can make a big impression on unfounded opinions.

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*Editor’s note: While Sara has indeed derived much entertainment from my interaction with waitstaff, optimism/denial are not entirely accurate. Example 1: when you order pizza on the side of the road and the guy asks “cheese?”, it is not unreasonable to ask “oh, what else is there?” If he had simply said “cheese” — full stop — I would have accepted that that was the singular option and that, for some reason, he felt the need to state that. Example 2: when the waitress takes your order for pork, then asks if you want rice with a side of pork, I can not be alone in thinking that clarification is needed, amiright??**

**(Turns out no clarification was needed. I was, in fact, being offered pork with a side of rice and pork.)