Saturday, January 28, 2017

Patria o Muerte!

In my research prior to our trip, I decided there was one museum we absolutely could not miss. Former president Mario García Menocal who, in a display of "let them eat cake" indifference to his country's economic woes, spent nearly four million dollars of public money to have architects design and build this lavish white granite building overlooking the harbor to house the provincial government. But it was so nice that he made it his own palace instead and moved in in 1920. It remained the presidential place until Fulgencio Batista was ousted in 1959.
In 1975, the palace became the Museo de la Revolucíon. We got there shortly after it opened for the day and so avoided waiting in a long line to get in.
The grounds are patrolled by military officers. I read that both the military and police strongly prefer that you not point a camera at them. I would often pose my husband in front and off to the side a bit to get the photos I wanted.
Outside there are Soviet tanks, delivery trucks and other vehicles used in the revolution, including this SAU-100 Tank that Fidel used in the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
And a glass encased memorial which holds the Granma, a 59-foot boat meant to hold 12 people, with a 25-person maximum. In 1956, the Castro brothers, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfeugas and 78 other revolutionaries sailed it from Mexico to Cuba to start the revolution. People on board got sick, the boat leaked, and the journey took so much longer than expected - 10 days - that rebel forces they'd planned to meet with on disembarking had given up and gone home.
A Soviet missile and the fuselage of the American U2 spy plane shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 is also on display.
Although it was a Saturday, there were groups of school kids, in their government-issued uniforms, touring the museum. If my understanding of the uniform color-coding system is correct, these kids attend Plantation Schools. I believe that is the rural version of secondary schools, but I'm not certain.
An eternal flame to fallen heroes of the revolution sits at the edge of the grounds.
I was most interested in what was inside the palace. In addition to the cost of the building itself, President Menocal had hired Louis Comfort Tiffany as the interior designer, to the tune of well over a million dollars.
And the inside is indeed spectacular, with a view four stories up.
When you enter, you are immediately directed up a Carrera marble staircase.
Much of the original Tiffany decorations have been removed, but there is still no shortage of ornate detail, including the chandeliers.
The Salón Dorado, or Golden Hall, is made of yellow marble with gold embossing. Paintings in this room are mounted on 18-carat gold sheets.
The Despacho Presidencial (Presidential Office) contains its original furniture and ornaments from the 1940's.
We were a little surprised to see this marble bust of Abraham Lincoln.
Prior to the Revolucíon, Cuba's leaders were practicing Catholics, and this marble and gold altar still sits in an alcove.
The Salón de los Espejos is an imitation of the 17th Century Hall of Mirrors commissioned by King Louis XIV at Versailles.  The room has frescoed ceilings, arched windows, and crystal Tiffany chandeliers.
There are more than 30 rooms in the museum, most of which house over 9,000 objects from different stages of the struggle for independence. Fidel's image is everywhere.
The ministry of Agrarian Reform placed this enormous metal jug in Parque Central for the citizens to place voluntary contributions. There was no indication in the signage whether the word "voluntary" was being used sarcastically.
The building wraps around an interior courtyard, with a huge flag draped from one of the balconies.
There are bullet holes in the granite and marble from the March 13, 1957 failed coup. A group of students made an attempt to assassinate Batista, but he had gone to the third floor and could not be reached. Some 40 rebels were killed by guards and police and afterwards, a wave of revenge killings of suspected revolutionaries were ordered by the regime. The dictator remained in power for another two years before he was finally overthrown.
This radio transmitter was built by a radio amateur in the provinces. He built two more and delivered them to Fidel to deliver propaganda and encouragement during the revolution.
The Cubans do like their bloody memorabilia. Blood-stained clothing and gruesome photos were everywhere. I had to frequently avert my eyes.
I thought this was an interesting artifact - this wooden box with a handle had carved spaces inside to fit a couple of pistols and ammo and had a lid. Apparently it escaped detection. I don't remember what it was designed to pass as, and a google search lead me on a wild goose chase which included the discovery that there are people who buy false-bottomed tissue boxes and picture frames to keep small firearms handy.
"Bastista Flees" and Fidel waves at the happy throng. Seriously, I get why they hated the guy - the ever-smiling Fulgencio Bastista at first ruled through puppet presidents and then was elected president himself, in 1940. He returned in 1952 to run again but, realizing he would not win, lead a military coup financially backed by yours truly. (Well, the US government. Not me personally.) His rule became increasingly corrupt and repressive, widening the gap between the rich and the poor. I will not draw an overt parallel about my fears for my own country, but this sort of "leader" deserves to be overthrown.
This display of a guerrilla warfare scene made me laugh out loud. It has life-sized wax figured of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos in the Sierra Maestra during the revolutionary war. I don't know why, but it immediately called to my mind the Planet of the Apes.
But to be honest, then main thing I wanted to see in this museum, for its pure absurdist fun, was the Rincon de los Cretinos. I couldn't remember the word for "corner" in Spanish and instead used Spantalian to ask a woman in the gift shop "Donde esta el Angolo de los Cretinos?" She was stumped at first until I wrote it down for her, then said with some amusement, "Ah! Los Cretinos!" and directed me back downstairs.
Her laughter didn't surprise me - three of the caricatures are of U.S. Presidents. Check it out - the younger George Bush is holding his book upside down. The signs by each of the "counter-revolutionaries" are in Spanish, English and French, and the English versions say:
"Fulgencio Batista. Thank you cretin for helped us TO MAKE THE REVOLUTION."
"Ronald Reagan. Thank you cretin for helped us TO STRENGTHEN THE REVOLUTION."
"George Bush Sr. Thank you cretin for helped us TO CONSOLIDATE THE REVOLUTION."
"W. Bush. Thank you cretin for helped us TO MAKE SOCIALISM IRREVOCABLE."

I'm guessing Trump will be added in soon.
Although we felt welcomed and were treated well by the Cubans we met, it was an interesting reminder that capitalism in general and America is particular is still the official enemy.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

La Habana Vieja

Given our very limited time in Cuba, we decided to focus our energies on two neighborhoods in Havana. Habana Vieja, the oldest part of the city, looked to be filled with interesting architecture. Naturally, we had to try one of the vintage car cabs at least once. We got a ride in this 1958 Chevy Impala convertible (the first model year they were produced). Personally, I like the more rounded cars better AND I'm not a fan of yellow.
But the driver took us on a scenic route along the waterfront, radio tuned to Caribbean-style pop music, before circling back to the old city. It was sunny and breezy and the ride was just fun.
Our first stop was the legendary El Floridita bar for a daiquiri. It began as La Piña del Plata (the Silver Pineapple) in 1819. In the early 30's, the owner of the bar created the frozen daiquiri. We got there just as it opened at 11 am and were lucky to get a seat at the bar - there was soon quite a crowd, drinking and listening to live music.
This was one of Ernest Hemingway's old stomping grounds. On his first visit to the Floridita, he tried a daiquiri and then said, "That's good, but I prefer it with less sugar and double rum." His version, which we had, was named for him and he was said to have stopped in daily for one. Or many, most like. Note the photo of Hemingway with El Líder on the wall behind the bronze statue.
The colonial city was once encircled by a stone muralla (wall) which was demolished beginning in 1863. Everything east of where the wall used to be, and where the Prado is now, is Habana Vieja.
The Hotel Raquel (Hebrew for Innocent) was built near the old Jewish neighborhood in 1908. It is an odd mix - art nouveau architecture with a baroque façade.
This street vender was pushing a cart filled with some sort of fried snack food down the bricked pedestrian walkway. The snacks we saw were generally either root vegetables or plantains.
The pink Spanish Colonial building is the Hotel Ambos Mundos (Both Worlds), where Hemingway lived and wrote. Just before it is the Mercería La Muñequita Azul (Blue Doll Haberdashery). I don't think they actually make hats for blue dolls.
The only working water fountain we saw was in the Plaza de San Francisco de Asís. In the center of the square was the white marble Fuentes de los Leones, carved by an Italian sculptor Gaggini in 1836, with a circle of lions endlessly spitting water. The plaza faces the harbor and was a stop in the 16th century for Spanish galleons enroute from the Indies, and a site of the slave trade. It used to be an inlet until the land was drained and the square built in 1575. It was the original site of the marketplace, but after wealthy people built their houses on the plaza in the 17th and 18th centuries. The noisy market, which included cockfights and public executions, was moved to the older Colonial square, Plaza Vieja, after complaints made by the home owners and the monks.
I assumed this was St. Frances, but  I discovered that there had been a statue of St. Franicis atop a belltower. It was destroyed in a cyclone in 1846. Instead, this is a Spanish friar, Junípero Serra.  The boy with him is of the Juaneño tribe, an indigenous people enslaved by the Spaniards. Makes the statue seem pretty sinister, right? But wait, there's more. Fray Serra was an Inquisitor who made accusations of devil worship and witchcraft. And he was into mortification of the flesh. He wore garments woven with bristles and wire under his robes, seared himself with candles, and beat himself every night and publicly during sermons with chains and rocks. A real nutjob, not to put too fine a point on it.
The Basilica Menor de San Francisco Asís was built in 1608. It served as both church and Franciscan monastery and was remodeled in a baroque style in 1730. I have absolutely no idea what the metal thing is. It looks astronomical to me.
At first, I thought there were two bronze statues in front of the church. The one in front is El Caballero de París, a steet person in the 1950's who loved to get into conversations with strangers. His beard is shiny because people rub it for luck. Turns out, the one in back was a street performer dressed to look like a metal statue. I'm guessing no one messes with his beard.
Also in the Plaza San Francisco is the contemporary bronze sculpture, ‘La Conversación’ by French artist Etienne. It represents the need for dialogue in contemporary society.
In the Plaza de la Catedral is the beautiful La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Immaculada de La Habana. Because why settle for a succinct church name? It's a mix of Baroque and Tuscan styles. Every time I encounter the word Tuscan, I go into a bit of a reverie about my honeymoon. Anyway... it is made from blocks of coral! And the bells have gold and silver mixed into the bronze. It was built between 1748 and 1777.
I believe my photo may not have been appreciated by the subject. But had I spoken better Spanish, I bet she'd have had an interesting story to tell - she's seen incredible changes in Cuba in her lifetime.
In the Las Murallas district, we saw the Edificio Bacardi, designed in 1930 by Cuban architects Castells, Ruenes and Menendez. The façade is granite imported from Bavaria and Norway, colored brick, terracotta and Capellania stone. The best part is the bat on the top of the building, which is the logo of the Bacardi company. We had only Havana Club rum while we were there, and brought back a bottle of their 7 Años.
The plaque says "Mi padre y mi madre me arrojaron de si la caridad divina me recoje acqui."  If I'm understanding it correctly, it is saying my father and mother threw me away and divine chairty picked me up here. Something like that. It leads me to believe it was an orphanage.
We also visited the Plaza de Armas - the Square of Arms - which was a military parade ground for Spanish soldiers.
This is the only place I've ever seen that had wooden bricks as pavers. I don't know how they keep them from rotting out, but they were beautiful.
Fernando VII, Rey de España. This cararra marble statue was by a Roman sculptor in 1833, the year of King Ferdinand's death. You have to love that ruffly collar he's sporting.
Castillo de la Real Fierza, the second oldest fortress built by the Spaniards in the West Indies. This 16th century fort was designed to defend against pirates, but was too far inside the bay to be useful for that purpose. To get to it, you cross a moat using the drawbridge. I've always wanted a little moat around my house. Maybe stocked with piranhas, since alligators tend to wander. Do you think there are city ordinances against piranha-filled moats?
I do not remember the name of this guy, but we hung out for a bit. He didn't have a lot to say for himself. Kind of stand-offish, really.
Okay, I admit - sometimes we can be real tourists when it comes to photo ops.
As the afternoon was wrapping up, we ducked into this little arbored bar, El Bosquecito (little grove). When we sat down, the bartender turned to his two friends and said quietly, "Italiano o francés?" Nope, neither. And we also didn't order mojitos like the other folks who came in. Just "ron oscuro, sin hielo" - a glass of dark rum for each of us, neat.
Walking back toward Habana Centro, we saw a ship with several masts sailing by on the harbor ahead. It felt like we'd been cast back in time.