Category Archives: Sierra Maestras

Move Over, Motoco!

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Going into this trip, we knew the first half was going to be a little hectic. Eastern Cuba has so many specific things to see and do, and we were determined to see and do them all before making our way to the more tranquil, schedule-free West. Sara’s already mentioned the chaotic scorching excitement of the city of Santiago, but even our rural venture into the Sierra Maestras had two clear objectives: the Comandancia de la Plata (the jungle hideaway from which the Castro brothers and Che built their revolution), and Pico Turquino (Cuba’s highest peak). The Comandancia was everything we hoped it would be: mysterious, inspiring, and basically untouched since it served its purpose nearly six decades ago. As far as hikes go it was nothing too challenging, thanks largely to the fact that the heavily armed guerillas who blindfold you and carry you through the jungle have now been replaced by nicely tended paths. The next morning, however, all that would change.

Full disclosure: We did not climb Cuba’s highest peak. The trail was closed which, as we were warned, was often the case. Our host, however, recommended a different peak, one which we could actually see right from our casa. He hooked us up with an energetic young guide named Alexi who was happy to accompany these two fit Canadians on a merry little stroll up Pico Gayón.

 Our host’s recommended mountain top was one which we’d already appreciated from afar, as it stood benevolently over our casa.

Even fuller disclosure: There was nothing merry or little about it. I have previously said that Argentina’s Motoco was the most grueling experience my body has been subjected to, but after Gayón, I would get a job at the top of Motoco and make that my daily commute. Alternatively, I now have big plans (please hold me to this!!) to talk to my doctor about exercise-induced asthma. Or heat-induced asthma. Or humidity-induced asthma. Or using-venomous-plants-for-handholds-as-the-sun-chars-your-flesh-while-fire-ants-devour-your-feet-induced asthma. Any one of those really. Regardless, for some reason my heart and lungs decided at that moment to unionize and go on strike against me, while Sara and Alexi bounded up the mountain, apparently without any internal labor disputes

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About a quarter of the way up, I look back at our progress and still have no idea what I’m getting myself into.

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Sara and Alexi use a metal cable, anchored to the top of a near-vertical stretch of rock, to hoist themselves up.

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This fairly accurately portrays my feelings for most of the ascent. #NoMakeUpSelfie

I do owe some major kudos to my two companions. Sara, with her trademark compassionate hard-assery, was immensely kind and encouraging whilst refusing to give into my requests that they go on without me (her responses to those requests gradually morphed from “Think of how disappointed you’ll be if you come all this way and don’t reach the top!” to “You gotta keep moving or the fire ants will literally kill you”, both of which were true and motivating in their own way). Alexi, meanwhile, maintained the patience of a saint for the entire trek, using all the time that I was lagging behind to discuss with Sara the fascinating ecology and geography of the region.

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Alexi and Sara kindly waiting for me to catch my breath before continuing on.

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Some of the beautiful local flora.

Finally, after hearing “We’re almost there” for an overly-generous number of times, Alexi and Sara disappeared completely from view and I heard Sara shout, in Spanish, “Only 2 kilometres left!” As my heart sunk, she added, “Just kidding! We’re standing on the summit!”

With the last of my energy, I hoisted myself over the last few fallen trees and finally came to a pleasantly breezy meadow with a literal old rugged cross marking the summit. Alexi was waiting with bananas and guava juice, and the 360° view of the infamous Sierra Maestras was indeed breathtaking.

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The trek down was as treks down always are: physically easier, but more mentally challenging due to the constant reminder of how far you have to fall. Thankfully all our knees held out, and the worst injury was sustained by Sara, who took it like a champ.

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A significant portion of Sara’s heel had grown quite close with her blister-bandaid, and thus decided to accompany it as she removed her socks after the hike.

As we reached the bottom, I thought there could be no physical sensation lovelier than level ground beneath my feet. Alexi managed to top that, however, by offering that we stop in at a neighbour’s place for coffee.

It turned out that this neighbour was, in fact, the farmer that owned the forest of coffee trees we had walked through at the beginning of the hike. As chickens clucked around us, he showed us his roasting pan (conveniently located next to a pot of boiled fish heads), ground the beans with a giant mortar & pestle, scooped the grounds into a homemade filter, and percolated the coffee on his wood stove. A few minutes later we were enjoying the freshest cup of java we could ever taste while listening to him explain the ins and outs of coffee farming.

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So all’s well that ends well, I suppose, though my quads would fiercely disagree.

Fullest disclosure: Now that I’m fully recovered, I would actually quite like to do something like that again. Just don’t tell Sara, or she’ll find a way to actually make it happen before we head home.

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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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