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Appreciating Cuba's Clichés: Che Guevara is Everywhere, Everything

Where: Cuba
February 25, 2011 at 11:01 AM | by | ()

With President Obama working to lessen Cuba Travel restrictions, the island risks getting caught up in a hurricane of clichés. Thinking travelers aren’t generally fooled by the shiny veneer of places plugged in a Lonely Planet, but don’t discard Cuba’s clichés. They’re what make this intriguing country so exotic, so vibrant and so darned colorful. A Jaunted special secret correspondent discovers the best of each, all this week.

They tell you Communists and religion don’t mix, but Cuba has a God. His name is Ernesto Che Guevara and he is omnipresent: on walls, doors, museums, shrines, monuments, galleries, billboards, t-shirts, caps, postcards, on people’s lips. Strange that Fidel, who has never been a shrinking violet, is almost nowhere to be seen.

Che’s arrival in Cuba in December 1956 was less than godly, crashing into the coast on the rickety yacht Granma and stumbling onto land half seasick with the Castro brothers. 60 of the 82 men squeezed on board that 12-person cruiser were immediately caught and killed, while Che ran off wheezing (he had chronic asthma) to hide in the Sierra Maestra mountains, near present-day Guantánamo Bay. There he bumped into the Cuban army, who promptly shot him.

It’s a decidedly unheroic start to a story that ends, post-revolution, in unsuccessful attempts to foment revolution in the wilds of the Congo and then Bolivia. But such is Che’s fame in Cuba that expressing any doubts about the guerrillero heróico’s exploits is met with blank incomprehension or outright rage.

So it’s best to fall into line and play the Che Guevara game. Here’s how:

1. Pick up a Che Guevara t-shirt or beret from the Feria de la Artesanía, one of the mercifully few tourist-tat markets in the center of Old Havana. Don’t be shy to wear it—you’ll be in good company.

2. Admire the scary life-size wax statue of Che in Havana’s Revolution Museum—no rival for Madame Tussauds. There’s also an exhibit of some dirty old clothes that may once have been worn by him (next to Castro’s old boots, of all things). Outside is the restored and repainted Granma, glorified in a gleaming glass enclosure.

3. Take a cab to Havana’s Revolution Square. Che’s image—yes, a copy of that famous photo by Alberto Korda—is plastered 100 foot high on the side of the drab Ministry of the Interior office block. It's so large that no doubt you can see it from space. Smile at the po-faced guards and pose for a photo in a suitably revolutionary stance.

4. Make the 185-mile (300-km) pilgrimage east to Santa Clara, a small industrial town whose biggest merit is that it is conveniently off the main highway. It turns out Che was mortal after all, and his remains were buried here in 1997 after being recovered from an unbefitting, unidentified Bolivian mass grave. At the Monumento Ernesto Che Guevara—a stupendous mausoleum topped by a 23-foot bronze statue of Che à la Emperor Nero, a large billboard quotes Fidel: “Queremos que sean como Che” (“We want you to be like Che”). Having made the trek here, you may as well check out his PVC jacket, pistol and trademark beret in the museum below.

5. Know the reason Che is buried in Santa Clara. It was here, on New Year’s Eve of 1958, that he and his gang gathered together enough revolutionary nous to derail an armored train. The train was carrying supplies and ammo to support president Fulgencio Batista’s flailing efforts to keep the communist rebels at bay. Its derailment—and the town’s subsequent capture by Che and his teenage army—are described as “el último reducto de la tiranía Batistiana” (the final bastion of the Batista tyranny”). There's now a small museum marking the spot.

If it wasn’t for Che Guevara, then, it’s likely Fidel and Raúl Castro would either be rattling their chains in a deep, dark dungeon or pushing up daisies. Whether we ought to be thankful to him for helping the brothers gain their sticky seat in power is a decidedly moot point.

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