History from a Bicycle Seat

We were eager to learn more about the history and politics of Cuba. We were thinking mainly of the revolution of the 1950's and its aftermath, but we found that the heroes and events of Cuba's independence struggle against Spain are still prominent in people's consciousness. This is the old Spanish castle that guards the entrance to Santiago bay. For one who is interested in Cuban history, Santiago de Cuba is a great place to start.

Here is the site of a battle that took place just outside Santiago -- in what Americans arrogantly call the Spanish-American War. In fact, Teddy Roosevelt and his troops dropped in at the last minute, after Cubans had fought Spain for decades and very nearly won. Cubans rightfully think of the conflict as their War of Independence. Still, they honor Roosevelt as a hero, and we saw statues of him and of Abraham Lincoln as well.

We were most interested in the 1959 revolution and subsequent developments. This is the old Moncada Garrison in Santiago de Cuba. Now a school, it was once Batista's strongest fortress in eastern Cuba, and it was here that Castro and over 100 comrades made the opening strike in their revolution. Over half the attackers were killed outright or captured and tortured to death. Many of the rest were imprisoned -- including Fidel and his brother Raul. This event was on July 26, 1953.

This farmhouse near Santiago de Cuba is where the young rebels assembled before the pre-dawn attack. It is now a museum, and something of a shrine. Displayed on the walls are comments by Castro and other participants as they waited through the night to strike out for the city. Whatever you may think of Castro and his government, when you read the words that he and the others spoke that night, you can't help but be impressed by their idealism and their courage.

The date of the attack on the Moncada barracks, the 26th of July, became the name of Castro's movement and an important revolutionary symbol. You still see it everywhere.

As we traveled west, we saw more history. Remember that Playa Giron is where CIA-backed Cuban exiles attempted an invasion in 1960. They were defeated, and over 1000 members of the exile brigade were captured. This is the museum on the site.

This sign appears just outside the village. It says "Playa Giron, the first great defeat of imperialism in Latin America." The road north from Playa Giron is lined with small monuments, one for each of the 161 Cubans who died in the battle. Most of them were practically kids -- 20 or younger.

Around the time of the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban government suspected that an invasion was imminent, but they didn't know where it would come. They took Che Guevara away from his job as minister of industry to command the western army. This cave was where Che's army command post was established, deep in the mountains of Pinar del Rio. Che missed out on the action, which took place hundreds of miles to the east.

Soon Che was back in the same cave to lead the western army during the Cuban missile crisis. Barb is standing at the desk where he wrote the daily entries in his diaries.

Billboards featuring Che appear all over the country. This one quotes him saying, "Cuba, a real, tangible example for Latin America, and for other people as well." Though there are many memorials to Che and a few other heroes of the 1950's revolution, we saw no billboards or street names celebrating Castro or other current leaders.

Apart from many photos of Fidel with the Pope, this was the only likeness of Castro that we ever saw in public, and it is kind of a joke. It's in a village named Fidel Claro, at the entrance to a plantation. The little figure of the cane cutter is wearing Fidel's trademark beard.