These observations are simply that: my observations. As the title of my blog indicates, this is “As I See It.” If I am offensive in anything I say, I apologize. That is not my intent. If I am incorrect in any information, I also apologize. I am not an expert, simply a traveler who visited the country for a few days. I hope you enjoy my views.
Each day I will tell you what we did on one day of the trip, but I will also give some observations about other topics that span the length of the whole trip.
I advise you to start at Day 1 and work your way through. As I go along I will refer back to things I’ve pointed out and discussed on earlier days.
Much of this day was spent in travel, so I’ll give you a few pieces of information about Cuba before I start telling about what we saw.
As I mentioned yesterday, doctors often go overseas. In fact, Cuba is one of the first places to send doctors and other help to international emergencies such as the Ebola outbreak, hurricanes, etc. This is a way for The Revolution to be seen in a positive light internationally. After working overseas for 2 years they can often buy a car and set themselves up for a good life. In Cuba you can work for 20 years, even as a doctor, and not be able to buy a bike. I have heard of some doctors who stopped practicing to get involved in the tourist business. They can make a better living cooking food and doing laundry for tourists than they can employed by the State as a doctor.
According to the Cubans, people want to leave Cuba, and they find various ways to do so. Some leave to study and stay, some marry someone in Europe to get European citizenship which they then use to get US citizenship. The great desire is to move to the US. The US is the promised land. What the Cubans we talked to didn’t seem to know is that (at the point we visited, though it has changed since we arrived home) if they could get to American soil, even at an embassy in Venezuela or the base at Guantanamo or such, our government would allow them to stay. And if they stayed on American soil for 366 days they were eligible for a green card and then citizenship. Their medical professionals were even more welcome and catered to. Since we arrived home to the US, Obama changed the policy to match that of other Latin American countries.
On the way to Santiago we stopped in Bayamo, one of the 7 oldest cities in Cuba, founded in 1513.
Here Perucho Figueredo composed the Cuban national anthem, El Himno de Bayamo, in 1868 during a battle with Spain. The original song has 6 verses, but only the first 2 are included in the anthem. The last 4 were insulting to the Spanish and are not considered part of the national anthem. Our guide sang it for us.
Here are the lyrics:
¡Al combate, corred, Bayameses!,
Que la patria os contempla orgullosa;
No temáis una muerte gloriosa,
Que morir por la patria es vivir.
Run to battle, people of Bayamo!
For the motherland looks proudly to you;
Do not fear a glorious death,
For to die for the motherland is to live.
En cadenas vivir es vivir
En afrenta y oprobio sumidos,
Del clarín escuchad el sonido;
¡A las armas, valientes, corred!
Living in chains is to live
Mired in shame and disgrace,
Hear the sound of the bugle;
Run, brave ones, to battle!
While our guide made a few arrangements he left us to listen to some music, and some of our group joined them in dancing the Salsa. This is an example of all Cuban music. The tempo, rhythm, and style is very consistent between songs.
Since our guide was not with us, they used Vince as their interpreter when they wanted to talk to us. They kept calling him Louie, and we couldn’t figure out why. Then, toward the end of the day, our clever guide made the connection between his “Louisiana, Crawfish Capital” shirt and realized that’s why they thought his name was Louie.
We saw a lot of countryside on this day of travel. In the countryside the farm animals often wander around free: chickens, horses, cows, goats. I did see a few tied up (including a pig on a leash) or penned in, but mostly they roam free. On this day we saw many sugar fields, lots of fallow land, and only one small herd of mixed horses and cattle.
These 2 lane roads we traveled, highways I believe they call them, were very rough. Much of the road was more patches than pavement. In a couple of spots there was only gravel and no pavement at all.
After a long day of these rough roads, we arrived in Santiago de Cuba. It is the second biggest city in Cuba with a population of a little more than 431,000 inhabitants.
We first visited the Plaza de la Revolution with its gigantic 16 meters tall (52.5 feet) statue of General Antonio Maceo, a native son of Santiago. He was a general in the 10 Years’ War (fighting from 1868-1878 to end slavery) and the Cuban War for Independence (fighting from 1895-1898 for Independence from Spain). This monument was erected in 1991. It consists of 23 “machetes” coming out of the earth to symbolize March 23, 1878 when he issued his “Protest of Baraguá” protesting his disagreement with the Pact of Zanjón because it didn’t end slavery. The statue of his body is intentionally positioned with his back in the direction of the USA, even though he didn’t seem to have a problem with the USA and in his Protest he stated “The great spirit of Washington, Lafayette and Bolívar, liberators of oppressed peoples, accompanies us, and is one with us, and we believe that we will accomplish our work of regeneration.” And I never did figure out why Fidel’s picture is there, except that in Cuba Fidel’s picture is EVERYWHERE.
Then we visited the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, created in 1868 as a place to bury the victims of the War of Independence.
This cemetery is very old with many wealthy families buried there, mostly before The Revolution. According to Lonely Planet, “Names to look out for include
Tomás Estrada Palma (1835–1908), Cuba’s now disgraced first president;
Emilio Bacardí y Moreau (1844–1922) of the famous rum dynasty;
María Grajales, the widow of independence hero Antonio Maceo;
and Mariana Grajales, Maceo’s mother;
11 of the 31 generals of the independence struggles; the Spanish soldiers who died in the battles of San Juan Hill and Caney;
the ‘martyrs’ of the 1953 Moncada Barracks attack;
M-26-7 activists Frank and Josué País;
father of Cuban independence, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (1819–74);
and international celebrity-cum-popular-musical-rake, Compay Segundo (1907–2003) of Buena Vista Social Club fame.”
The biggest attractions, though, are not any of these. You see, this graveyard is the resting place of both José Martí and Fidel Castro.
José Marti was a poet, philosopher, and revolutionary who lived in the 1800’s and helped Cuba become independent from Spain. His name is used all over Cuba by the government. Every town we went to seemed to have a José Marti street. The airport in Havana is the José Marti International Airport. Every 30 minutes the guard is changed in front of his grave. We were allowed here (and only here) to take pictures and video of the soldiers. Here is a video of that ceremony. (Note in the background the big rock. We’ll come to that in a minute.)
Fidel Castro is buried within 50 yards of José Marti, his ashes beneath a huge stone with a simple “Fidel” lettered on it.
We were there 26 days after Fidel’s ashes were buried there on Dec 4, 2016. He died on Nov 25, 2016 and there were 9 days of mourning, 4 days of which his ashes traveled in a caravan from Havana to Santiago.
Reportedly, Raúl Castro is respected but not “loved and popular” like his brother was. More likely, he just doesn’t control the narrative as much. Fidel was charismatic and gave many long speeches. He was also a micromanager who surrounded himself with people who wouldn’t disagree with him. He was very powerful and, as often happens with powerful men, he had many many mistresses along with two wives.
From what I can gather, Fidel originally did some good things for the country such as in the areas of health care and education. (He also had many people executed at the same time.) Not much has been done to continue improving, though, and much of the rest of Latin America has caught up, even in these areas of education and medicine. People in Cuba generally look well-fed. Between all the smoking and people carrying extra weight, I imagine they have a high prevalence of heart disease.
After visiting the cemetery, we saw the Moncada Barracks that Fidel and Company attacked on July 26, 1953. They badly lost the battle, but it is still presented as a great place because it was the first engagement of The Revolution. The 26 of July Movement (Movimiento 26 de Julio) is another name for The Revolution, and the number 26 is on many things throughout Santiago.
We also visited the San Pedro de la Roca Castle that has guarded the entrance to Santiago de Cuba Bay since 1638. We were there just as the sun hit the horizon, and we watched them fire a cannon which they do at this point every night. This castle is very high an d has a beautiful view of the water and the Sierra Maestra mountains where The Revolution started.
Are you getting tired of hearing about The Revolution? Yeah, after a few days (hours?) we were too. Sorry about that. I’ve tried to represent how it is presented in the rhetoric.There are museums all over, about 98% of which celebrate some component of The Revolution. That’s part of the whole experience and that’s what the Cuban people live with day in and day out. It is especially prevalent in Santiago where Fidel attended Jesuit school as a boy and where he declared The Revolution victorious from the City Hall balcony there. They are quite proud to call him their own and have him buried there. For an American like me, though, it all got very tiring.
We checked into our casa which had a nice upstairs room with a private patio and eating area. However, there were no blankets, only sheets, so we kept the A/C turned to low. It was January but quite warm, even at night.
The man of the house was a doctor, but besides renting rooms he was also a taxi driver with an old 50-something beat-up Chevy functioning as his taxi.
Then we went to eat. The food here wasn’t very good, but it was food and we were hungry.