After perusing the streets of Havana for an hour, we find our car.
It is a pink 1956 Ford Thunderbird convertible. According to our driver, Alejandro, it is one of only seven on the island. The Thunderbird would be our ride to Cuba’s premier beach destination situated on the Hicacos Peninsula, the resort town of Varadero.
Dakota and I had discussed taking a car like this for our trip. It was a romantic idea. Two best mates. A legendary automobile. A bottle of Havana Club. Two hours cruising top-down along the Cuban coastline. Nothing but the wind in our hair and the sun on our backs.
It was worth the premium, we told ourselves.
As the Beach Boys said, “she’ll have fun-fun-fun til her daddy takes the T-Bird away”. In our case it was not a father that took our fun away, but a mother. Indeed, mother nature decided she was not done raining that morning. Pretty soon after getting on the highway it starts dumping and we are forced to put the top up.
Figures. At least we still had our rum.
Moreover, without the wind blasting through the vehicle, I could have a proper conversation with Alejandro. This would turn out to be my first legitimate, candid discussion with a Cuban about, well, everything I wanted to learn about when I came to Cuba.
As the top closes, Alejandro opens up. I begin to pick his brain while I think back on our time in Havana. Over two days we learned much about Cuba’s complicated, fascinating, and harrowing history, more than we had ever learned in any of our school books.
When I left off in my last post, Cuba was going through a period of rapid economic development between the 1920’s-1950’s. Unfortunately, this development was passing over the majority of Cubans
In 1940 a former colonel named Fulgencio Batista was elected President. He swiftly established the 1940 Constitution of Cuba, considered progressive for its time and met with wide support from the people, including Cuba’s communist party. After finishing his term in 1944, he moved to Florida, only to return eight years later to once again seek office.
Facing electoral defeat, he orchestrated a successful military coup and installed himself once again at the helm. He took his place at the Presidential Palace, the building you see above that now serves as the Museum of the Revolution.
Dakota and I make this one of our first stops in Havana.
Walk into the museum and you’ll see the first of many depictions of Cuba’s revolutionary hero. The man who would topple a tyrant and defy a superpower.
In 1952, that young man, a lawyer at the time, would accuse Batista of corruption and tyranny, calling for his removal as president.
The long list of crimes levied on the president by that young lawyer were hardly disputable. Something changed about Batista after his eight years in Florida. No longer the progressive leader he once was, Batista began to receive financial, military, and logistical support from the United States government. In turn he awarded lucrative contracts to American companies which lead to a consolidation of wealth in Cuban and American business magnates, widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
Eventually over 70% of the sugar industry, Cuba’s flagship export, was owned by the US, while Batista and those in his circle profited. Poverty grew exponentially and the middle class suffered. He made deals with the Mafia, censored the media, and revoked most political liberties, including the right to strike. To further quell dissent, he utilized his “Bureau for the Repression of Communist Activities” to carry out wide-scale violence, torture, and public executions. Many such executions were carried out in the Plaza Vieja, a centric communal point in Havana, where many wealthy people owned homes overlooking the public killings.
So when that young lawyer was denied by Cuban courts in his attempt to overthrow an unchecked, tyrannical President, he resorted to other means to take his country back. This is how that young lawyer, Fidel Castro, began to make his name.
By the end of 1952, Fidel and his brother, Raúl, had begun a paramilitary movement consisting of other disgruntled Cubans. They carried out a series of attacks on Batista strongholds, including a failed siege on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s easternmost city, which resulted in the capture of the Castro brothers.
In court Fidel spoke for four hours and uttered his famous words, speaking not just to the men before him, but also to the rest of the world.
“Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.”
After intense political pressure, Batista agreed to release the Castro brothers into exile two years into their sentences. Setting up shop in Mexico, Fidel met the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 1955. Together they formed the July 26th Movement, named for the 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks.
Fidel, Raúl, and Che famously sailed the yacht Granma to Cuba on November 26th, 1956 (the year our T-Bird rolled off the assembly line). The yacht is featured outside the museum encased in glass.
Such were the beginnings of what would become the Cuban Revolution.
Eighty-two men arrived on the Granma that November day. At it’s lowest point the revolution’s numbers would be in the twenties. But the Castro brothers, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos, persisted, lurking in the mountains, rallying men to their cause and stockpiling weapons.
The reckonings of revolution began to spread across the country like wildfire. On March 13th, 1957, a group of students led a failed assassination attempt on Batista as he resided in the Presidential Palace. The bullet holes can still be seen on the side of the museum.
Such isolated movements became more commonplace when, in February 1958, Fidel established a pirate radio station called Radio Rebelde (“Rebel Radio”), allowing him and his comrades to broadcast their message nationwide. Thousands rallied to Fidel’s side, flocking to the mountains to join the revolution, moved by his powerful words and seasoned charisma.
The museum makes no effort to hide Cuba’s enduring romanticism of Fidel, the revolution, and its message.
“Patria o Muerte” is seen plastered on photos of Fidel throughout the displays. The iconic revolutionary is typically seen giving speeches, huddling with his comrades, or walking with the common men.
In 1957 under the Eisenhower administration, the US placed an embargo on Cuba, cutting off their arms support and weakening Batista’s army. This, coupled with rapidly growing support for the movement, began to turn the tides in the revolution’s favor. Fidel’s troops fought in the shadows, using guerilla tactics to win battles against Batista’s troops, which were often far more numerous.
After a series of defensive victories in the mountains, the revolutionaries went on the offensive and continued cutting through Batista’s weakened army. On December 31st, 1958, Che Guevara led the army to a decisive victory in Santa Clara, then continued unchecked all the way to Havana, only to find that Batista had fled to the Dominican Republic.
Fidel arrived in the capitol on January 8th after a long victory march across the island. The revolution had triumphed.
What followed was sweeping socialist reform across the island. Hospitals, schools, roads, and houses were built. Laws were introduced to provide equality for black Cubans and greater rights for women. Private land was nationalized and redistributed for commoners to work on. A literacy campaign was carried out to teach the masses how to read. Religious property was nationalized, and the government itself was declared atheist. Casinos, brothels and other nefarious establishments were shut down. Mafia members were expropriated, the last of whom, Meyer Lansky, was sent away in 1961.
Fidel’s government made great strides toward social equality and lifted countless Cubans out of poverty and into the realm of opportunity. These are the things I never learned in school.
On the other hand, the regime also exhibited disturbing policy typical of one-party communist states across the world (the things I did learn in school).
Control of the press. Suppression of dissent. Extrajudicial killings. Che Guevara was named supreme prosecutor and ordered the deaths of hundreds of Batista sympathizers in La Cabaña fortress, where Dakota and I were a day before.
Fidel also established Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) in late September 1960. Local CDRs were tasked with keeping “vigilance against counter-revolutionary activity”, keeping detailed records of every Cuban’s spending habits, contact with foreigners, work history, and any “suspicious” behavior.
Thus began the Cuban diaspora. Many thousands left the island to escape the oppression of the new regime. Most washed up on the shores of Florida. Some even managed to stay, while others were sent back in droves.
You won’t read about any of this in the Museo de la Revolución. What you will see are countless references to the “imperial empire” that tried to eradicate communism from the little island in the Caribbean.
The “Corner of Cretins” is perhaps the most vivid, animated display of anti-US imperialism in the whole museum. Here we see Batista, the tyrant that the revolution removed, standing shoulder to shoulder with three former US presidents. The plaques next to each figure bid thanks to the four men, Batista, Reagan, H.W, and W, for, respectively “making the revolution”, “strengthening the revolution”, “consolidating the revolution”, and “making socialism irrevocable”.
Such anti-US sentiment has lingered since the US backed Batista’s forces during the revolution. Fidel’s government nationalized all US-owned property in 1960, fueling fire to the already thriving “Red Scare” sweeping across American society. Tensions would escalate to violence in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of April 17th, 1961. The US trained and backed counter-revolutionary soldiers, many of whom washed up on the shores of Florida, and flew them in from Guatemala and Nicaragua. Fidel’s army defeated the forces in three days.
So as to bolster their defensive position, Cuba developed an allegiance with the Soviet Union, whom were currently engaged in a Cold War with the US. Tensions between the three countries peaked in October 1962, when the US positioned ballistic missiles directed at the Soviet Union in Italy and Turkey to which the Soviets responded by deploying missiles to Cuba pointed at the American mainland, 90 miles from Florida’s coast. For 13 days the world sat on the brink of Nuclear war.
After intense negotiations, President John F. Kennedy came to an agreement with the Soviets. They would dismantle their missiles in Cuba and send them back to the Soviet Union, and the US would dismantle theirs in Italy and Turkey, plus publicly declare to never invade Cuba without direct provocation.
Thankfully, Cuban and US tensions would never reach that level again. But they certainly didn’t get smoother. Cuba isolated itself, especially after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The US pressured countries that traded with Cuba not to do so, lest the US cut them off as well. Cuba suffered for this, but it was a point of pride for Prime Minister, and later President, Fidel Castro.
“Our Revolution emerged where it was least expected by the empire, in a hemisphere where it was used to acting like an all-powerful master.”
“We do not need the empire to give us anything.”
From Kennedy, to Johnson, to Nixon, to Ford, to Carter, to Reagan, to Bush Sr., to Clinton, to Bush Jr, to Obama, the US went through 10 presidents while Cuba had just one. Upon his retirement in 2008, Fidel’s brother Raúl took the helm. But Fidel’s presence still looms large over Cuba. This is apparent as we cruise down the coast toward Varadero in that pink 1956 Ford Thunderbird convertible.
As we burn rubber down the Cuban highway, I think to myself “these Cuban roads are pretty good”. There are no potholes or shoddy cement work. The lanes are flat and wide. There is no trash littered on the side of the road. The grass is well kept.
Alejandro tells me that his wife and two daughters are in Matanzas near Varadero. He will get to see them after he drops us off.
“It was a blessing to meet you because I will get to see my family today”
He tells me they live well on his driver’s salary and his wife does not have to work. They are fed, clothed, healthy, and have a nice house. His daughters go to school and can already read well (Cuba as a whole boasts a 99.8% literacy rate). Alejandro does not have to worry about healthcare or college tuition.
Nice highways, a strong education system, free healthcare, virtually no homelessness (I never saw anyone sleeping on the streets). Heck, communism actually looks pretty good.
Yet I must reconcile this with the fact that I am not using our driver’s real name here. He requested this due to fear of what his government would do given what he said to me. Indeed, Fidel’s suppression of dissent still lingers today, this is the ugly side of communism that I have been force-fed my whole life.
Last year Cuba’s revolutionary hero died. Alejandro’s reaction to this is what stuck with me the most about our conversation.
“People were crying in the streets, but I did not cry. Fidel was an old man. Old men die.”
He tells me Cubans needs to stop living in the past, that the revolution did good things for Cuba, but that there is still much left to be done.
“We need a new revolution”
What exactly does this new revolution entail? After all the history we’ve covered, how do we capture its result, the current state of Cuba’s economy and society, and what’s the next step for Cuba?
Check back soon to discover how I answered these questions for myself.