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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 Absolve Me."
        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 grave.
        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 pan.
        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.

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Copyright 1998 All Rights Reserved Dylan Foley
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