Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Santiago de Cuba part 1 - an introduction to Cuba's history

Santa Ifigenia Cemetary

After three days in Cienfuegos, our cruise moved on to the Bahía de Santiago de Cuba. Here we stopped to visit the city of Santiago de Cuba. I chose to not take the included tour, but instead, went on a tour designed for photographers.

An old diesel engine, still in service

Santiago de Cuba, in the southeast corner of the island, is Cuba’s second largest city. Santiago was founded in 1515 and served as the capital from 1522 until 1589. The city became a major port and industrial center for sugar cane and aluminum mining.
General Antonio Maceo

Our tour started with a stop at the Plaza de la Revolución. The plaza, which opened in 1991, has two parts. One is a large open space that can hold up to 150,000 people for large rallies. Across Avenida de los Desfiles is a building with space for cultural event and conferences. This structure is topped with a tribute to Lt. General Antonio Maceo y Grajales, a general during Cuba’s war for independence in the 1890’s. He served in the Cuban Army from 1868 until his death in battle in 1896. The statute is 16m (50 ft) tall and is joined by twenty-three metallic shafts thrust into the ground. These are meant to represent machetes. The instillation was built to celebrate the rebel spirit of the Cuban people.
Classic Car

Public Transportation

From the plaza we traveled into the center of the city, to the ArteSantiago gallery, for a meeting with a local photographer. Dr. C. Vicente Gonzalez Díaz, an archeologist and underwater photographer gave us a short lecture on the places we were going to visit and tips for taking the best photos when we got there.
Dr. Vicente Gonzalez

After our lecture, it was on to the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia. This is the burial site for many of Cuba’s most famous residents. The two main attractions are the mausoleum of José Martí and the grave site of Fidel Castro. José Martí (1853-1895) was a poet, author and revolutionary philosopher. He wrote about, and fought for an end to Spanish colonialism in Cuba and through out the Americas. Martí and his wife lie in rest in a beautiful mausoleum. It is guarded by soldiers of the Cuban Army day and night, with an eternal flame in front. We were lucky enough to arrive in time to see the changing of the guard.

Tomb of the Bacardi family
Changing of the Guard

José Martí Mausoleum

Fidel Castro (1926-2016) was a leader of the Cuban Revolution and the Cuban Communist Party. When he died, his brother Raul, declared that Fidel had wanted no monuments or roads named after him, who “strongly opposed any manifestation of cult of personality.” Fidel’s ashes are interred in a single boulder, meant to resemble a kernel of corn, in honor of a poem by José Martí. 

While he did not want a memorial, in fact, that is what his grave has become. Next to it is a part of a speech he wrote for the May Day celebration in 2000. I believe it is a wonderful declaration and description of the base ideas of what he fought for:

Revolución by Fidel Castro Ruz May 1, 2000
Es sentído momento histórico
Es cambiar todo lo que debe ser cambiado
Es iqualidad y libertad plenas
Es ser tratado y tartar a los demás como ser humanos
Es emanciparnos por nostoros mismos y con nuestros propios esfuerzos
Es desafiar ponderosas fuerzas dominantes dentro y fuera del ámbito social y nacional
Es defender valores en los que se cree al precicide caulquier sacrificio
Es modestia desinterés altruism, solidaridad y heroism
Es luchar con audacia, inteligencia y realismo
Es no mentir jamás ni volar pricipios éticos
Es conviccion profunda de que no existe fuerza de los verdad ys las ideas
es unidad, es independencia
Es luchar por nuestros sueños de justiciar para Cuba y para el mundo
Que es la base de nuestro patriotism
Nuestro Socialismo
Y nuestro Internacionlismo

REVOLUTION (Translation by Peter W Davies)
Is the sense of the historic moment;
is to change all which must be changed
is complete equality and liberty
is to be treated and to treat others as human beings
is to emancipate ourselves by ourselves and with our own efforts
is to challenge dominant powerful forces within the social and national scope and realm;
is to defend values in which we believe at the price of any sacrifice;
is modesty, unselfishness, altruism, solidarity and heroism;
is to fight with audacity, intelligence and realism;
is to never lie nor violate ethical principles;
is the profound conviction that exists no force in the world capable of confounding truth and ideas
is unity, is independence, is to fight for our dreams of justice for Cuba and for the world
which is the base of our patriotism, our socialism and our internationalism

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Playa Giron - Site of the Bay of Pigs Invasion

On our cruise to Cuba, with Viking Cruise Lines, we spent three days docked in Cienfuegos. One of the tours available there is titled “The Cold War.” It is a trip to Playa Girón, where the Bay of Pigs invasion took place. This is a fascinating trip for those who are interested in history and who are willing to look events through the eyes of another country, especially one with whose politics they might disagree.

In 1952, the government of the United States backed a coup in Cuba. General Batista overthrew to elected government of President Carlo Piro. This move, backed by the United Fruit Company and ALCOA, the two major U.S. companies present in Cuba at the time brought about a terrible dictatorship, one that was brutal to most of the people who lived in the country. In response to Bautista’s fascism, The Movimiento de 26 de Julio (The July 26th Movement) rose and took up arms. Led by Fidel Castro, this movement successfully expelled Batista and his dictatorship on Dec. 31, 1958.
Fidel's Tank

After the revolution many Cubans, especially those who were rich, or who been connected to the Batista regime, fled the country. These expats, with help of the CIA and Eisenhower’s government, made plans to invade Cuba and take control of the country back from the Cuban Communist Party. They believed that, with U.S. military aid and support from Cubans on the island, they would be successful. However, both of these assumptions proved incorrect.

In 1960, John F Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the election for president of the U.S. Kennedy was much more cautious in his view of intervention in Cuba and dealing with Russia. This led the U.S. to cut the military support of the invasion. More importantly, those who had left the island greatly underestimated the support that The Communist Party had among the people of Cuba.

Those who had supported Batista in Cuba chose to ignore the widespread poverty and brutality that his dictatorship brought to the poor and working class on the island. When the Communists came to power, they immediately put in policies to support working people. They provided food, and health care. They also trained thousands of young people to go out into countryside and educate the masses. These policies created a tremendous amount of support for Communist government. 

On April 17, 1961, a force of 1400 exiled Cubans, who had been training in Guatemala, landed along the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). The anticipated aid of U.S. bombers had been ineffective, at best, and gave warning to the Cuban Government that something was afoot. When the invasion force landed, they were met by both heavy fire from local militias and by bombing and strafing runs by the Cuban air force. The Cuban forces were aided by local campesinos, who joined in the fight against the invasion. Within 24 hours, Castro ordered 20,000 troops to area, and the invasion, was effectively quashed in three days. 
The mercenaries who tried to invade Cuba had ties to families who controlled major portions of the economy under Batista's dictatorship

Today, in Playa Girón, there is a museum that commemorates this battle. It is a small tribute, given the significance of the site. With a good guide or a knowledge of Spanish, it is a wonderful source of information and an excellent tribute to the Cuban patriots who died defending their country. The exhibit begins with photographs and information boards that describe the conditions that existed in the area under the Batista regime. Our tour spoke passionately in her description of how difficult life was before the revolution, and how much it improved afterwards. She was passionate because this was the life of her grandmother and mother. Our guide explained that her grandmother was illiterate at the age of 36, until Cuba’s Ejercito de Alfabetizadores (Literacy Brigade) came to Cienfuegos. In the span of two years the country’s illiteracy rate fell from around 50% to 4%, lower than any country in the Western Hemisphere. 

When the invasion took place in 1961, the expats entered a country that was significantly different than the one the left, just two years earlier. So, when it was time to choose side, the locals strongly supported the Communist government. Half of the museum is dedicated to those who fought and lost their lives during the fight to defend their country. 

After exploring the museum, we walked down to the beach of Playa Girón. Today there is a hotel built there, but you can still look out to Caribbean Sea. From the beach we boarded the bus and headed up the bay to Playa Larga for lunch. We ate at the rooftop restaurant of the Enrique Hostal. The food was fresh, delicious and plentiful. Then it was back on the bus for the ride back to Cienfuegos.
Playa Girón
Seen in Playa Larga

Enrique's Rooftop restuarant

The trip to Playa Girón was a fascinating journey back into a key moment in the history of the island, and of the United States. But it one that should be taken with an open mind. Be ready to understand the point of view of Cuba. Be ready to question some of the beliefs that you might be carrying when you visit.