The image of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna is everywhere in Havana. He was called Che because like other Argentinians, he used the word all the time. Che means either "Hey" or "mate" depending on the context. But Che stuck, and Cuban school children chant "Pioneers for communism, we will be like Che." Except, you know, in Spanish.
Prior to our trip we watched "The Motorcycle Diaries," based on Guevara's journal as he and his friend traveled through South America to volunteer in a leper colony. At that time, Guevara's nickname was "Fuser," a shortened form of furibondo (wildman) Serna, from his rugby days. We also watched a multi-episode documentary about Cuba's history which included Che's involvement in the Revolution and his assassination at the age of 39 by U.S.-backed Bolivian soldiers.
As a martyred hero, his image sells T-shirts, bags, artwork, hats - you name it.
But it seems to me that people who see Che Guevara only as an ideal of revolutionary fervor are missing the bigger picture. Dedicated to socialist revolution around the world, yes. But also someone who commanded the death squads and who was able to execute people in a detached way. Che himself said, “A revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.”
This struck me as a rather poor version of the iconic image. We also saw a billboard that said "Gracias Che para tu ejemple." (Thank you Che for your example.)
He would seem to be a much beloved figure in Cuba. But I'm not sure what love means when the penalty for not idealizing him is persecution or even death.
And although I got fewer photos, there were no shortage of pictures of El Commandante, the recently deceased Fidel Castro.
Windows bore old posters from his birthday last August celebrating "90 años y más (90 years and more)." Nowhere did I see an image of Raúl, who is apparently a more behind-the-scenes kind of guy.
Propaganda is often painted on walls: "We continue to defend the revolution." If you google clips of Fidel speaking, you'll hear that he has a distinctive speaking style. A somewhat high, sibilant voice, with r's that roll on forever. And unceasing passion for his cause.
"We continue in combat," or "We continue to fight." And it's never stopped being a fight. Party loyalists see themselves as an embattled group, constantly at war with the decadence of the capitalist countries. And it's easy to understand what drove them initially. Batista was purely evil and the U.S. profited from his reign. What right-thinking poor person in Cuba wouldn't have wanted him ousted?
"To struggle for the Social Revolution in America is not a utopia of crazies and fanatics. It is a struggle for the next step forward in history." Except ... Cubans live in poverty under the Castro brothers (while Fidel himself had a pretty cushy set-up), and dissent is largely squelched.
But not everyone seems to feel positively about the communist state. Graffitists abound, and we saw this masked figure frequently.
I did a little research when I got home and discovered they were the work of Fabián Hernández. He goes by the nickname 2+2=5, a nod to a George Orwell reference from the book 1984. It indicates the sort of illogical dogma people are forced to espouse in a totalitarian regime.
This is the work of Yulier Rodriguez, who has paintings all over the city.
I wonder how Fidel felt about the protest of the street artists? Maybe it's only been possible since he handed control (mostly) to his brother? Depending on what happens next on our end - whether we continue to trade with Cuba and allow money to flow into the struggling country - Cuba might be on the edge of a change. I have to admit that now that I've visited, I'll be following the news on that country with interest.
With an itinerary geared toward architecture and culture, one of the first places we hit was the Paseo de Martí, known locally as the Prado.
From our neighborhood, it was a few blocks walk along Neptuno to Parque Central, which anchors down the southern end of the boulevard. Parque Central, where we caught the bus out to the beach on our first afternoon, was built in 1905.
The Prado was the first paved street in Havana, and runs for a kilometer out to the mouth of the harbor. It was begun in 1772, along the area which used to hold the city walls during colonial times. It was remodeled by French landscape architect Forestier in 1924, with the addition of trees and benches.
There are eight bronze lions guarding the promenade,
and lamps on metal posts in the shape of griffins.
The pedestrian walk divides Habana Centro and Habana Viejo, the old part of the city.
Across from the Parque is the Hotel Ingleterra. Built in 1856, it is the oldest remaining hotel in Havana. The sidewalk in front of the Ingleterra was a focal point for rebellion against Spain.
Next to the Ingelterra is the former Centro Gallego (Gallician social club built around the old Teatro Tacón). It has a baroque façade and was built in 1915 by Belgian architect Paul Belau. Today the building holds the Gran Teatro de la Habana, home of Modern Dance Companies. On its roof is the Winged goddess Nike.
A little farther along there is the triangular Hotel Plaza, built in 1909.
We passed the Palacio de Matrimonio, built in 1914, with its neo-baroque façade, and ornate interior.
The Union Arabe de Cuba has a colorful mosaic on the front of its second floor.
On the west side, the Casa del los Cientificos, former home of President José Miguel Goméz, is now a hotel.
I'm not sure what is in this building, but I liked the metal creature (bird? dragon? phoenix?) on the front of this ornate blue and white building.
On several occasions, I just stopped to admire the beautiful colors of the buildings.
We'd planned to have a drink on the terrace of the Hotel Mercure Sevilla, but ended up going to another place in Centro, that I'll cover later. It was an interesting building, though - opened in 1908 and Moorish-inspired, the structure was modeled after the Patio of Lions at Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Apparently it was run by Uruguyan mobsters in the 1940's.
At the end, you come to the harbor.
There is a Grecian-style temple, the Monumento de Estudiantes de Medicina, with remains of a firing squad wall. Eight medical students were falsely accused of descreting a loyalist’s tomb and then found innocent. However, loyalist troops took matters into their own hands, held a speedy trial and executed the students here in 1871.
Across the street along the water's edge is the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta.
The castle was begun in 1589 and guards the entrance to Havana’s harbor. It was built across the harbor from Morro Castle so the two sets of cannons could catch invading ships in the cross-fire.
Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro was named after one of the three magi in the Bible and was built by the Spanish.
On our side of the harbor was the Malecón, the famous seawall that runs five miles along the ocean front from the mouth of the harbor all the way out to the wealthy neighborhood of Vedado.
Eventually it was time to make our way back down the Prado.
As night approached, the promenade continued to bustle with local people and tourists.
At night, the lamps of the Prado cast a soft light on the promenade. It made for a lovely walk home.
As I organize my photos, I thought I'd start with the cars we saw on the island. I was aware that Cuba was known for having 1950's American cars that were brought over before the trade embargo in 1960. But I had no idea how ubiquitous they are. There are plenty of Russian Ladas, of course, and a fair number of others such as Polish-built Fiats and Argentinian Fords. But people hold onto those lumbering American sedans and lovingly maintain them with re-built parts from other cars or smuggled-in original parts. This is just a colorful sampling of ones we saw in the city - Ford Fairlanes, Chevy Bel Airs, old Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles (with a Soviet model or two thrown in for variety). If big classic American cars are your thing, Havana is your city.