The Toronto Globe and Mail
November 1, 1998
The Revolution Remains
By Dylan Foley
In Havana on March 13, 1957,
30 communist guerrillas attacked the presidential palace in a desperate bid to assassinate the
Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Spilling out of a stolen milk truck, the guerrillas shot up
the palace. Most were killed in the ensuing battle on the palace grounds and the rest were
executed minutes later.
In the Havana of 1997, the heroes of the revolution are everywhere, in the buildings and in the
streets. An enterprising tourist can make his or her own tour of revolutionary Havana starting
from the early 1950s.
The city remains a virtual tribute to Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary who
joined Fidel Castro in the 1950s and was killed in Bolivia in 1967 while trying to start
revolution there. The tour starts at the Plaza de la Revolucion, there Guevara's face adorns
the Ministry of Interior as a 100-foot-tall steel, outline sculpture with the motto, "Always,
Everyday Revolution" underneath.
Working our way down Mao Tse Tung Street (the old spelling, mind you, for most things here are
frozen in time), we go to Havana Vieja (Old Havana). Billboards of Che Guevara pop up: "He is
Our Example and Guide," says one. We encounter a memorial to Frank Pais, a 23-year-old rebel
leader who was killed by Batista's secret police in 1957. A painting of his handsome, youthful
face is married eternally to the slogan, "Integrity. Intelligence. Character."
There are few signs of Fidel Castro, though we notice 1960s-era photo of him hangs in a police
sub-station, where young policemen stand in front.
Near the Malecon, which is the old seawall, we see El Morro, the 16th Century fortress that
used to protect Havana. "Every night, soldiers in colonial uniforms shoot off cannons at 9
p.m.," said a passerby, a woman who identified herself as a former police officer. "Che Guevara
used to have his office there," she said wistfully, though she was born a few years after he
was killed. Random citizens in Havana seem to be bent on painting a fuller picture of Che.
A block from the waterfront is the old presidential palace, where the patriotic milkmen tried
to kill Batista. The place has been converted to the Museo de la Revolucion, which is the
motherlode of all revolutionary information in Havana. At the entrance, foreigners pay three
dollars, and must pay an extra three dollars if they bring in a camera or video camera. Cubans
pay three pesos, which is worth about 15 cents.
Onto the revolution. We start with the 1953 attack on the Moncado Barracks, the first major
skirmish of the war. Visitors are treated to dioramas of the ill-fated guerrilla attack and
blood-stained uniforms of the defenders. Fidel Castro and his supporters were sentenced to long
prison terms. It is at This point where the holy artifacts start -- we get the prison jeans of
Raul Castro, brother of Fidel and the present Cuban defense minister, photos of a young Fidel
leaving prison (with just a mustache, no beard), and copies of his prison memoir, "History Will
We move on to the Granma Campaign, where Castro and his men landed on Cuban shores in a yacht
with a name that meant "Granny" and carried out a crossland campaign against the government.
More objects crop up -- the cufflinks. And spoons of guerrillas killed in the Granma Campaign
figure prominently. The visitors are mostly Cuban and South American, and the exhibits are
mostly in Spanish alone, but most objects are self explanatory.
Entering the exhibit dedicated to the Sierra Maestra, the mountains Where Castro's guerrillas
trained and fought in, we are immersed in Che Guevara memorabilia. We see the asthma inhaler
that he used, his machine gun and a life-sized model of him and a comrade charging over a clay
hill, "That is the most moving thing in the museum," says a construction worker at the exhibit.
"The model makes Che look so alive." The paraffin that makes up the face looks like beads of
sweat on his forehead and mud has been lovingly painted on his boots. Guevara's actual pack
mule and horse have been stuffed and displayed nearby.
Photos of post-revolution Guevara are shown -- Che on voluntary work detail, Che conferring
with Fidel Castro, Che wearing battered military fatigues when he meets with South American
heads of state dressed in suits. In the gift shop, we again see more of Che -- t-shirts and
pins of him are for sale.
With Havana being battered by the four-decade United States economic embargo, buildings are
collapsing for lack of construction materials and food is Still rationed. At the same time,
luxury hotels are going up for foreign tourists with hard currency. Guevara, executed by the
Bolivian Army at 39, represents the heroic, youthful hope of the revolution that has been cut
down. He is the handsome, sexy side to the revolution. The emotion invested in Guevara Has been
stronger recently because last July his body was returned to Cuba from an unmarked Bolivian
Going downstairs and outside the museum, there is a covered lot that holds the vehicles of the
Revolution --the Milk Truck of Martyrdom, full of machine-gun bullet holes which children
of all nationalities seem to love to put their fingers in. There is a boat used by
counterrevolutionaries at the Bay of Pigs, the CIA-financed Cuban exile expedition to overthrow
Castro in 1961. There is the tank that Castro used to command Cuban forces at the
counterattack. Next to the tank are the remains of a U2 spy plane shot down in 1962 and the
surface-to-air missile battery that destroyed it.
On the ground floor of the museum, there is a whole room devoted to the last year of Guevara's
life and his disastrous Bolivian adventure, where he and his comrades were hunted down and
killed in a matter of months. Photos show Guevara is disguise as a middle-aged South American
businessman as he entered Bolivia and in the hills with his guerrilla band. Guevara was in such
bad shape because of his asthma that he needed help marching up the Bolivian mountains. The
last display case shows the autopsy equipment used on Guevara the glass syringe, the specimen
Outside the museum, we stop to photograph a freshly painted, brilliant Wall painting that says,
"We Will Be Victorious." We hear "Viva la Revolucion" shouted at us and see truck full of
government workers drive off, with the men laughing good naturedly.
Copyright 1998 All Rights Reserved Dylan Foley
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