Edited by Christie Chu
Santa Clara, Cuba
On the road to Santa Clara, as I’m overtaking a tractor or a horse-pulled cart, I can make out rows of billboards freshly repainted for the 50th anniversary of the Revolution.
“A new world is possible… It will happen.”
“A new world is possible…It will happen:” a sort of Cuban “yes, we can.” The promise of change is as old as Castro’s (and his brother’s) government.
“For an effective and productive socialism” suggests another board while I’m overtaking in my rented jeep an old Ford truck from the ’50s carrying a sugar cane shipment. Ahead of us is a brand new Chinese coach bus driving tourists (like me) to a resort on some reef.
Today is the day following Barack Obama’s inaugural speech and if this historical event is reverberating through Cuba, everyone is hiding it very well.
Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, has devoted a small article to the event on page four. It mainly deals with the exceptional safety measures, but it notes that the international community is optimistic about Obama and hopes for a new era based on dialogue.
The public show Mesa Redonda (Round Table) on national T.V. has pointed out the huge problems that the president has to face.
There’s no real excitement in the streets. “We have seen so many American presidents, some tougher ones, some softer ones, but the embargo’s still there…” Juan tells me with a shrug.
“It will be better than with Bush though, that’s for sure, he was the worst one. In Cuba, people like clever politicians, so Bush…”
Although Juan criticizes the Cuban political regime, he’s proud to live in a country whose inhabitants are among the most educated ones and where illiteracy is almost unknown.
I’m losing myself in the narrow and sad streets of Santa Clara. There are small lines standing in front of poorly stocked grocery stores. The town has lost its bright colors but painters are refreshing a school’s wall with ocher.
Some children, wearing uniforms with a red scarf tied around their neck, are running in the streets. They look like the ones who are painted on the poster that announced “a new world is possible.”
I’m getting to the Guevara place, an immense Stalinist space overlooking Santa Clara. The revolutionary’s statue has a proud place at the top of a giant base. Pieces of speeches, along with these famous words: “Hasta la victoria siempre” – until the everlasting victory, are chiseled in a stone that has been blackened by years.
Awaiting that final triumph, some workers are busy with another building site, surrounded by blocks of concrete.
“They’re enlarging the plaza,” a man wearing a yellow fluorescent outfit tells me. He’s getting out of a 1955 Buick that has been freshly repainted an apple green color. These giants, U.S. industrial remnants of the post-war era, are still present everywhere in Cuba, where they are passed from father to son. “My grandfather bought it, and I equipped it with a Toyota motor.” The few Cubans who can buy a new car drive Korean, French, or Japanese models. A few Ladas remind us of the time when the USSR had a positive impact on the Cuban economy.
Isn’t the plaza big enough? “Nothing’s too big for the Che!” The man with the fluorescent clothing is sarcastic.
Under the giant statue, the Che’s weapons, chess game, diploma of medicine, and clothing are on display in a museum. Then you can go into a dark vault lit with candles, where visitors are requested to take off their hats.
The Che died in 1967 in Bolivia, and his remains lie in this museum. The hero and his brothers in arms’ memories are carefully watched over.
The flame of a breathless revolution flickers there.
Choosing this little town located in the center of Cuba to bury Guevara (who was an Argentinian native) was not done at random. The decisive military victory of the guerrilla war led by Fidel Castro, on December 28, 1958, took place right there. Guevara had blown up the armored train of Dictator Batista’s army – some wagons are displayed on another place, in another and lower part of the town. Three days later, the Batista escaped and Castro came to power.
Here we are, 50 years later, and apparently nobody has the heart to celebrate. Two hurricanes devastated the country in 2008, catastrophes that arrived on top of an economical and political impasse. In Cuba, too, they’d appreciate a change they can believe in.
“I come from a very revolutionary family,” Miguel tells me. “My father fought for communism in Angola (Cuba sent there more than 300,000 soldiers in the ’80s). We traveled by night on the train in 1997, when they brought back the Che’s remains from Bolivia. There were thousands of people, and Fidel was there. I know the positive results the Revolution had on education, health (they have a life expectancy comparable to the developed countries), etc. However, I know what was missed. We have fairly good doctors, but my cousin is a student of medicine. She works hard, and when her studies are over, she’ll have the same salary as me, and I’m just a mechanic. My sister is a teacher, but she wants to go and work at a hotel for tourists. Even if she’s in charge of cleaning the bedrooms, she’ll be much better paid. Look at my shoes (Nike brand). They were given to me. They are worth four months’ salary, when you manage to find some work. Nobody’s starving but everyone’s surviving,” he tells me.
Ernesto, age 21, has no real illusions but is hoping for the end to the embargo. “Maybe the government would be embarrassed, it couldn’t blame the Americans for what’s going wrong any more.”
“The other day, a friend who’s studying computer science (one of the few that have access to a computer) showed me an assembly where a farmer started criticizing the government. “Why can’t I sell my vegetables anywhere else? Why can’t I travel to another country?”
He tells me that when “everybody knows it,” the State won’t arrest you for voicing your opinion. All the same, his voice has lowered as he says this. The DVD of the farmer’s assembly is an underground one as well. Around sixty non-violent opponents are in prison, according to Amnesty International, and there are preventative imprisonments, people who are sent to jail under the pretext of “social dangerousness.”
What do you dream of, Ernesto? “My dream’s to visit Rome, the pyramids, and Argentina, but that’s all I want as far as I’m concerned. Some people dream of a house or a car. Others want to leave. They talk about it all the time but they don’t do anything to change their lives. In Santa Clara (220,000 inhabitants), almost everyone has a relative in Florida. I’m personally not interested. My family’s here, it’s my country. I’d like this entire situation to change, but honestly, even if he wanted to, I don’t think Obama would be able to succeed all by himself.”
I’m leaving town, and again those billboards are rolling past.
“He (Che) is our example…Socialism or death…Principles are non-negotiable…For a better world…”