While in Cuba, we were shown several very interesting documentaries. While I’m sure there was a certain level of bias, I must say I found them very compelling (or maybe I’m just susceptible to propaganda? Maybe everyone is? Maybe that’s what propaganda is all about?).
Anyhoo, as someone who knew remarkably little about the history of Cuba, I found it all utterly fascinating, and will attempt to re-create the magic right here on this blog post, but please bear in mind I am repeating the story as I heard it, and therefore it will be extremely biased and I cannot be held responsible for anything that may not be factually correct. (Although one could argue there are no truly factual versions of history, only whoever remembered their version of events and wrote it down….). Also bear in mind that when I think something is interesting, I tend to waffle on in great detail (I know, shock horror!) so this will be a long one….
Learning about the incredible lives of both Fidel Castro and Che Guevera was interesting, and so was understanding the background to what happened in Cuba.
First let’s start with Che. He was born Ernesto something-or-other Guevera to a wealthy, aristocratic family in Argentina, and he suffered from severe asthma. He trained to be a doctor, and during his university years, he travelled around South America with his friend (read the Motorcycle Diaries or watch the movie, both are excellent). It was in Bolivia when he was first struck by the extreme poverty of the miners, and the appalling conditions they worked in under oppression. It was also on this trip where he got his nickname, Che. This was when he first started to develop some socialist-type views about the yoke of the oppressors.
Meanwhile in Cuba….
During the colonial years, Cuba was settled by both French and Spanish, and it became a massive stopover for slaves en route from West Africa to the US. At the turn of the century, Americans were spending more and more time in Cuba, both on holidays, and gradually buying up most of the land, tobacco farms and sugar plantations, including a US mega-corporation called United Fruit.
By the 20’s and 30’s, while prohibition raged in the US, the rich and wealthy elite were drinking rum and gambling at the many casinos that sprang up, and Cuba became America’s playground.
During the 40’s and 50’s, things escalated and Cuba became drunken, debauched, and extremely corrupt. The rich elite drank and danced and gambled and enjoyed themselves, while the gap between them and the poor widened significantly. People were mostly living in extreme poverty, Cubans had a national literacy rate of under 40%, and Americans owned 70% of the land, the companies, and the wealth in Cuba. The Americans gambled and drank and partied while a large number of Cubans starved. This was the landscape when Batista was made President. He was a candidate rumoured to be helped into post by the Americans, most sympathetic to their needs, and extremely corrupt, happy to skim off the top and continue with the status quo.
Fidel grew up the son of farmer, sharply intelligent with a knack for remembering things (his school teacher described it almost as if he had a photographic memory). He went on to become a lawyer, and in 1953 was involved in a failed attempt to overthrow the government on 26th July, and was imprisoned for a year (or possibly two). On his release, he went to Mexico, and spent a year or so gathering support to overthrow Batista. They later became known as the 26th of July movement. It was in Mexico where he met Che Guevera. They spent the whole night talking, and by morning Che had joined Fidel’s cause to liberate Cuba.
They gathered some men, got on an old, rubbish boat called the Granma (it has also been graciously described as “a decrepit yacht”). The journey from Mexico to Cuba was arduous, they were 81 men, and most were very seasick. Someone fell overboard at one point and they lost 2 days looking for him. There was supposed to be a coordinated attack, with some additional men on the ground, but as the boat landed 2 days late, the men on the ground had already been defeated and most had been killed or captured. By the time they ran the boat aground, they were under heavy attack and the men dispersed quickly. Only 19 of the rebels in total made it to the rendezvous point, including Fidel, his brother Raoul, and Che. It was up there in the mountains that Fidel made Che his first Commandante of the rebel army.
The guerillas stayed up in the mountains and slowly gained the trust of the local peasants. Their numbers grew, until in 1957 there were a range of coordinated attacks, gaining them further success and they started printing their own magazine to get the news of the rebel forces out there. Manifestos were written and printed secretly, passed around from village to village etc. Cuban press was censored but they managed successfully to make contact with the foreign press, who picked up the story with gusto and Fidel became a bit of a celebrity.
Batista responded with heavy force, but the guerillas were gaining strength in numbers, and quite a few of Batista’s men defected and changed sides. By 31st December 1958, Batista fled to the US with a shedload of the government’s money, and on the 2nd January, Che led the victorious rebel army into Havana.
As luck would have it, Castro was an accomplished public speaker, and his training as a lawyer must have helped there too no doubt. At one of his inaugural speeches in Havana on 8th January, they released a group of white doves at a key moment of his speech, and one of the doves flew up and landed on his shoulder. The incredibly superstitious, catholic crowd went wild, as doves are harbingers of peace and symbols of the saints etc.
He also knew how to handle the press, and shortly after taking power, he went on a charm offensive, delivering tons of interviews to the foreign press, and at one point, when asked if he was planning to shave off his beard now that he was a leader, he declared that he would not shave off his beard until he had fulfilled his promises to the people of Cuba.
Immediately after becoming President, he visited the US, and several other countries, and he implemented a major agrarian reform and education plan. Essentially, he banned foreigners from owning land, taking back huge swathes of the country and re-distributing ownership of it to poor farmers. He also sent thousands of teachers out into the rural areas, setting up schools and educating children, farmers, and everyone. He believed that the best way to lift Cuba out of poverty was to improve the literacy and numeracy rates across the country, and he did it. Cuba today has 100% literacy rate, and free healthcare and education for all, including university, which is completely free for all Cubans.
What a guy.
Meanwhile, all this socialist reform was worrying for the rich and wealthy elite, who started to flee from Cuba and resettle in the US and other places.
There was an odd moment when Fidel was visiting the US a second time, at some point in the early 60’s and the tide had turned against him, and the hostility in the press heated up. The owner of the hotel he was staying at suddenly said he had to leave, worried there would be protests or riots at the hotel. Fidel found himself evicted in New York and unsure what a foreign leader is to do in such a situation without causing an international incident. The manager of a hotel in Harlem invited him to come and stay, and gave him safe harbour. Fidel subsequently had a unique and close relationship with the people of Harlem – fascinating fun fact!
Soon after that, as many of you will know, there was a series of events, which annoyingly I can’t remember the exact order of. The Bay of Pigs, as far as I can recall was in either 1961 or 1962. Kennedy inherited a plan to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro from Eisenhower. he wasn’t keen on it, and would only allow it to involve exiled Cubans and not many actual US military people. Their plan was to paint some planes in Cuban colours, use Cuban pilots and fly in and bomb key Cuban military bases, while 2 boats brought in 1400 soldiers to land at the bay of pigs and invade on foot. Sadly they vastly underestimated Fidel’s intelligence network, which had infiltrated the CIA and therefore they knew all about the planned attack. While the Americans were bombing empty bases, the Cubans waited until they had landed their troops, and then sunk the 2 ships, leaving the soldiers stranded on the beach, completely surrounded. After a brief battle, around 112 men were killed and the rest were captured. They were released a year later in exchange for around $53 million of food rations and other essentials. It was a total disaster for Kennedy, and Fidel became even more of a hero to the people of Cuba, having defeated not only Batista, but also the enormous American oppressor. It was all very David and Goliath, and you know how I love an underdog…
There was also the embargo. I don’t remember when it started, or if it was before or after the Bay of Pigs, but basically, Fidel, when he implemented his Agrarian Reform and took back the land from the Americans, caused them to retaliate by refusing to buy Cuban Sugar, somehow that escalated, and the US decided to embargo all Cuban products. This was a problem, as Cuba needed an income and an economy, so they turned to a more sympathetic superpower, the USSR. They were more than happy to start buying Cuban sugar, cigars and rum, and established an economic link. Then there was the whole missile crisis, (I wanna say 1962?) when the Russians tried to put some missiles on Cuba, Fidel said yes, but the US negotiated the Russians down, and it was all a bit awkward afterwards.
Meanwhile, Che the Commandante became Governor of the Central Bank and later Minister of Industries in Cuba. He held various positions here and there, and advised on things (and yes, as I saw in the museum Che’s signature was on the official money printed at the mint – and yes, he signed the actual banknotes with his nickname, Che, not Ernesto). FACT.
Much later, in the early 90’s, after the fall of the USSR, and the Berlin wall, and the end of the cold war, Cuba went into a major recession, known as the “special period”, because with the end of their crucial trading relationship with USSR, they didn’t have anyone to sell their exports to. Instead, Fidel instructed them to focus on tourism, and they constructed hotels, and started restoring parts of old Havana. Tourism today is Cuba’s biggest industry, having overtaken sugar, rum and cigars. (and totally worth it – it’s awesome).
A truly interesting fact I learned was about Cuba’s political influence overseas – Cuba sent 36,000 troops to Angola to help liberate them from their colonial oppressors, and also played a pivotal role in the liberation of the Congo from the Belgians. They were also supportive of Nelson Mandela and the struggle in South Africa during apartheid. Che was there in the Congo leading the troops (they have published his Congo diaries if you want to know more) and he went on to Bolivia in the 60’s to support their fledgling rebel movement, where sadly he was captured and killed in 1967.
Fidel and Che promoted socialist values all around the world, and what’s more, put their money where their mouth was. They believed in it so deeply, and instead of resting on their laurels after they won the fight for Cuba, they continued to support other countries that wanted to do the same. I found this part of the story deeply moving, as it has been a long time since I last felt that passionate about a politician or his/her vision. And to think that such a tiny Caribbean island had such a huge influence in 20th Century politics, around the globe, is really quite astonishing.
In other words, while in Cuba, I think I turned into a little bit of a socialist, and also slightly fell in love with Fidel. I also massively fell in love with Che, who was GORGEOUS, but is sadly also dead, which makes it a bit complicated.
Here are some pictures of Fidel and Che back in the early days of the revolution, Fidel in his trademark military cap, and Che sporting a very fetching military beret.
And here are some pictures of Che being all gorgeous and handsome and smiley and adorable. He’s got such a cheeky smile! And those lovely crinkly eyes!
And may I also add that he is WEARING that beret. Phwoar.
Here is the iconic picture that graces flags on student walls around the land…
Sadly, despite being completely besotted with the adorable, cheeky, smiley Che and his glorious crinkly eyes, I also read some excepts from his revolution diaries, which involved a few executions he was involved in, and I am forced to admit he was a tiny bit murdery, which does make me fancy him a bit less. But then again nobody’s perfect.
and also *Swoon*