Cuba is one of those places everyone knows something about. And, most of the times, this something is wrong. Coming from an ex-Soviet country myself, I felt like I knew it all as well. Cold War between the West and the East, ideological battle of capitalism and socialism, Fidel, classic American cars, deficit, Cuba Libre. However, Cuba surprised me, more than once. Here are some key facts: I have collected them from the Museum of Revolution in Havana and Julia’s Sweig’s book “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know” (to counterbalance the official view of the Revolution and a rare sympathetic American reality check). The tales of Juan Carlos, our Cuban guide, spice up the facts and build a bridge between imagination and reality.
1. Cuba does not equal Fidel. For everyone Cuba means Fidel, and Fidel means Cuba. Even now, after his death, Fidel Castro remains a symbol of Cuban Revolution and the main force that has shaped up the life of 11 million Cuban people for the last 64 years. However, there are surprisingly few public images of Fidel around the country, and when there is one, it is usually to illustrate some motivational revolutionary quote. Che is, on the contrary, all over the place. My first guess was that that’s because Che is so much better looking, – but in reality, Fidel avoided self-canonization on purpose. Unlike pretty much any other powerful political leader before or after him, he was aiming at building a state which would function irrespectively of him and, eventually, without him. He was controlling every aspect of Cuban life during his period of political power from 1976 to 2008 and, de facto, even afterwards until he died. Yet Fidel’s dream was to have Cuba owned by its people and independent of anyone’s will, including his own.
2. Che Guevara, whose portrait has been going viral on all sorts of media for more than half a century, is not even Cuban. Technically speaking, he was proclaimed “a Cuban citizen by birth” in February 1959 for his instrumental role in the Cuban Revolution. However, Che, whose real name, by the way, was Ernesto, was born in Argentinian city Rosario (now a randomly bought Starbucks mug from there suddenly has a meaning!). A chronic asthmatic and a doctor by education, Che was introduced to Fidel by his brother Raoul in Mexico, where Fidel was regaining his forces after his first unsuccessful revolutionary attempt (and Che, the first blogger of his time, was just chilling on his romantic exploratory route through Latin America, which he later documented in a book). According to the legend (or Juan Carlos, in this case), Fidel and Che talked for the entire night, Fidel going strong with his revolutionary view, and at the dawn Che famously said “I am in!”. And in he was.
3. No one will ever know whether Fidel was a true Communist at heart, but it is a fact that with the U.S. around the corner he effectively had no choice. I found a great quote in the book of Sweig. It dates back to 1823 and pretty much sums up the U.S. take on the Cuban policy (and, in fact, the merely existence of the Cuban policy).
“There are laws of political as well as physical gravitation; and if an apple, severed by the tempest from its native tree, can not choose but to fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its unnatural connection with Spain and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only toward the North American Union, which, by the same law of nature can not cast her off from its bosom”.
As pronounced (proudly, I suppose) by John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the U.S. and at the time the Secretary of State, in 1823.