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Travel Story - Cuba

Castro, Cuba still writing their histories

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"History will absolve me" — Fidel Castro, 1953

After visiting the dramatic memorials to Carlos Manuel Cespedes, and Jose Marti we spent the afternoon wandering the pebbled streets of Santiago de Cuba. Once the capital, and now the second largest city in Cuba, Santiago de Cuba is known as "Ciudad Heroe" (Heroic City).

Carlos Cespedes, "The Father of the country," is credited with starting the first war of independence from Spain. Jose Marti, who is buried here, was a Cuban intellectual and writer turned revolutionary who was martyred in his attempt to free Cuba from American domination during the 1880s. Known as the "spiritual leader of the Cuban people" his plaster likeness is displayed in front of every Cuban school, and he is undoubtedly the intellectual author of Castro's revolution.

Of the memorials to Castro himself, perhaps the most poignant is a squat masonry structure now used as a primary school. The front of the building is pockmarked with bullet holes from a machinegun burst fired on the 26th of July 1953. The intended target was Fidel Castro and the 120 armed men attempting to seize what was then the military barracks. The attack was a disaster. Six of the rebels were killed on the spot and 55 others were captured and executed. Castro, then a 27-year-old lawyer, was captured and brought to trial several days later. He prepared his own defence and announced to the court, and to the world, that "History will absolve me." And so began the "Movimiento 26 de Julio."

We had been longer than planned in Santiago de Cuba and by the time our bus ground its way up the steep switchbacks to La Gran Piedra Hotel the sun was already low in the sky. From our cabana, perched 1,000 metres above sea level on Cuba's largest ridge, I followed a trail up to the summit to watch the sunset. At the top, a ladder led to a small lookout where I met a middle aged Cuban man, a wood carver, who was waiting hopefully for a tourist to buy one of his creations. I was the only one there that evening, he spoke good English and when he learned I was from Canada we talked until sunset. He had worked for an export company until the collapse of the Soviet trading block in 1989 and was now one of Cuba's slowly emerging free market entrepreneurs.

Off to our west the mountains of the Sierra Maestra were silhouetted against a darkening yellow-orange sky. Those same steep ridges, covered with dense, often impenetrable tropical vegetation that provided cover for Castro's rebel army, were the site of fierce battles during the revolutionary struggles in the 1950s. To the east the last rays of the sun reflected off Guantanomo Bay, the American naval base and prison camp that symbolizes Cuba’s struggle to survive decades of economic blockade. As we talked, the hands of the Cuban wood carver were busy with a long strand of greenery and as I turned to leave he presented me with the palm-leaf cricket he had just made.

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