As we like to do on touring days, Boris and I had breakfast on our balcony before heading out for an early tour. We were overlooking the renovated harbor area and the park there big yellow letters spell out CUBA.
I want to preface my comments for my international readers. The relationship between Cuba and the United States during my lifetime has not been an easy one to put it mildly. The difference in ideology between democracy, which I support, and communism will undoubtedly affect my view on things I hear and see and consequently my comments
Today our guide is Felix. Our first bus stop was at the Square and immediately I was concerned that we were in for a lot of duplication of what we saw yesterday. However, I noticed that the doors to the Cathedral were open. It is Palm Sunday after all. Perhaps, there would be some new experiences today.
Felix walked us to the curator’s office first. The modest façade hid the beautiful renovations within. This is a former seminary and we are in what used to be the chapel. The city curator is an architect who has been a restoration advisor for the last 40 years. We got THE expert. His presentation was fascinating. He mixed the renovation history of the area with general Cuban history.
Founded by Columbus in 1515, at 503 Santiago de Cuba is one of the oldest cities in America. It is a mix of the indigenous people, Spanish, African slaves, French Coffee Growers, and Chinese workers. The first ship with African slaves arrived in 1519 and in the 19th century there was immigration of the French, more slaves of African origin, and the Chinese. “To be a Santiagan, you need a heavy soup of African, Spanish, Asian, and French and boil it very hot” (referring the heat of the city).
He referred to Santiago as the “Musical Capital of Cuba”, the birthplace of Bolero and what we know today as Salsa, a mix of rhythms from the countryside and mountains near Santiago. These traditions are celebrated year-round, but never more prominently than in July. In the first week of the month, there is the Festival of the Caribbean and in the last week in July there is Carnivale.
The curator described three periods of Cuban history: 1515-1898 as the Colonial Period; 1898-1958 as the Republic, the American Intervention; 1959-present as the Revolutionary Period. The Colonial Period ended with what I was educated to call the Spanish-American War. Cubans take offence at that (check out the plaque at San Juan Hill pictured later in this post) as not outlining their role in the war; it is referred to locally as the Spanish-Cuban-American War. The bloodiest battle was at San Juan Hill and the adjacent Kettle Hill, which we will visit for the second time later today. El Morro Castle, a Spanish Fortress formally known as Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, sits at the entrance to the bay near Santiago where several significant naval battles took place. The curator also got the scuba diver in me interested when he mentioned the six naval vessels sunk in the bay as popular dive sites.
The revolution started with an attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, which we will also visit later today. The attempt to secure the barracks’ weapons failed and the rebels were taken prisoner. The rebels often took refuge in the Sierra Maestra Mountains surrounding Santiago.
Injected throughout the presentation were descriptions of the efforts made at historic preservation, renovation, and improvement made by the group of 1,200 people who work in the department under the curator. It is not only battles or time that ravages his city; Santiago is a city subject to earthquakes. Design and construction takes this into account; no building in Santiago de Cuba can be more than 18 stories high. Many of the older buildings are made of wood or have foundations made of wood (like the Cathedral) that “dance along with the earthquake”. The city has also been a hurricane victim. Hurricanes are not uncommon, but Sandy was unusual. This hurricane got trapped in the city by the mountains. Deaths are uncommon in hurricane-prone Cuba, but 9 people lost their lives in Sandy. In Santiago, Hurricane Sandy is referred to as the “lumberman” because it took out so many trees.
One of the questions asked of the curator had to do with funding of his department’s work. 2% of every purchase made in Santiago de Cuba goes to fund restoration and construction efforts; the government provides some funding; and the balance comes from foreign support or “donations from overseas”. Other communist nations, particularly China, have given support for specific projects.
Beyond the work we had seen in the city center, the curator spoke of: the area where the revolution monument and the theater we were at last night sit (right next to the baseball stadium; baseball is the national sport in Cuba); the coffee plantations near the mountains where buildings have been restored to their 19th century look; the harbor park we enjoyed as our view during our balcony breakfast; the cemetery where Jose Marti and Fidel Castro are buried (the last stop on today’s tour); and the monument to the runaway slave on top of the Copper mine near El Cobre, today a site used for rituals of the Afro-Cuban religion.
After the presentation, we were given 20 minutes of free time on the square. I headed straight for the Cathedral. It was wonderful timing. I was able to enjoy the end of Palm Sunday Mass and their beautiful tradition of waiving the palm leaves during the recessional from the church. I had time to snap only a few pictures after mass, arriving back in the square just as the bus pulled up to the curb. The festivities were beautiful and my faith in the health of religion in Cuba was restored.
Leaving the Square and its colonial history behind, we went to the Moncada Barracks named for Queen Mercedes of Spain in 1859. The military government was based here in 1952 and this was site of the ill-fated rebel attack by Castro and some of his supporters on July 26, 1953. At the time of the attack it was the second largest military garrison in Cuba. “This armed attack is widely accepted as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution.” The rebels’ goal was to rob the facility of its weapons to support their cause. They had inside information. Dressed in military fatigues, but lacking military-issued boots, some of the rebels made it to the entrance of the building.
However, the attack was not the surprise they expected. The alarm went off before the barracks had been infiltrated. Once it was clear that they would not be successful, Castro ordered a retreat. Word did not make it to all of the supporters. Most were unfamiliar with the city and were captured either on site or shortly after. Castro and his brother, familiar with the area near Santiago de Cuba, were able to get away, but were caught later in the countryside. Many were also killed during the attack. Castro was eventually captured; due to the support of a doctor who recommended they keep him rather than shoot him on site as Batista had ordered, he was imprisoned. After 22 months in prison, Castro was released under an amnesty program.
This is a very large facility with many wings that you can’t even see from the front of the building. The large field in front was being enjoyed by soccer (I’m American, to many of you this would be football) players. The building was later used as a school. The part where the arms were stored and the area of the rebel attack is now a museum that we visited. On the façade are lots of bullet holes. After snapping many pictures, Felix told us these were fakes. They had filled in the holes when the facility became a school. Only a few on the marble door frame and on the medal handrail are original.
They added to fake ones to create the look when the museum was opened.
The museum glorifies the rebels and does not shy away from detailing the brutal treatment of the rebels by Batista’s soldiers. Photographs and instruments of torture are displayed. The written documents and descriptions are all in Spanish, so I had to rely on Felix’s statements regarding what the documents said. Boris recommended I not pay the photography fee and I am glad I didn’t. Other than the vehicle used to bring Fidel Castro into custody, there was not anything I wanted to photograph. Most of the pictures were pretty gruesome.
Across the street from the barracks, Felix pointed out where wooden homes had been destroyed by Sandy. They were restored to their original look 8 months after the hurricane. He used the occasion to answer questions about property and citizens rights for those that leave/left the country. Ownership of anything previously abandoned when the communists took over will not be restored. However, if a citizen leaves (the property under the protection of a caretaker and leaves) the country now and comes back within two years, he can retain ownership of his property. Cuban citizens who abandoned the country can come back and get their citizenship restored. They are free to purchase new property in the country.
A random observation made by Felix was the signs related to rooms for rent in a private home. This is a new concept in Cuba. Blue signs designate rooms available to foreign tourists. Red signs are related to rooms available to locals.
On our way to lunch at the new Melia hotel, we saw a street fair with brightly colored tents set up for blocks and blocks. Felix told us these kiosks have become quiet popular. We saw small groups of them in many parts of town, but in this case they barricaded off several blocks of a city street for the entire weekend.
Our first stop after lunch was San Juan Hill. The city itself is very hilly. You find yourself often on the top of a hill when touring the city. San Juan Hill is one such. Nearby is the San Juan Hotel, now used to educate students interested in the tourism industry. The Peace tree is also here; it was next to the city zoo, a very popular destination on this Sunday afternoon. There is also an amusement park nearby.
Boris, our son Rocky, and I are all students of history. I have to take exception with our first guide’s interpretation of the way Americans record the history of this battle. Our guide said that because Theodore Roosevelt was “rich and later became President that he was given all the credit” for San Juan Hill. However, Roosevelt and his troops actually fought at nearby Kettle Hill where a small obelisk marks the spot.
Simply because Roosevelt was/became a famous American does mean that history records him as getting all the credit. Actually, Roosevelt credited the success on Kettle Hill to Lt. John H. Parker. Additionally, at a time when the American Civil Was was not long in our past, American history records the contribution of “[w]hite regiments, black regiments, regulars and Rough Riders [i.e. volunteers]…[who] fought shoulder to shoulder, unmindful of race or color, unmindful of whether commanded by ex-Confederate or not, and mindful of only their common duty as Americans.”
Our guide’s comments were just another example of twisting history to suit the communist rhetoric. Modern American history gives the credit where it is due. The guide said that there was a statute of Teddy Roosevelt in one of the plazas in town, but that is was down for renovation. Right; I wonder how long it has been “under renovation”. I found only one marker that mentions Roosevelt and that one only mentions his last name.
Leaving San Juan Hill, we made a photo stop at the Plaza de Revolution and the monument honoring Antonio Maceo, a 19th century military hero. Maceo appears on horseback in a position that makes it clear he was killed while riding. What I found most fascinating were the many metal spikes representing machetes that appear as part of the memorial, they are meant to acknowledge the contributions of the farmers who used their own tools to be part of the revolution.
The monument is part of the larger Plaza Antonio Maceo, the site of many political rallies. Adjacent to the plaza is the Teatro Heredia. “The theatre was inaugurated in 1991 and named after Jose Maria Heredia – the national poet of Cuba.” This was the site of our Azamazing Evening our first night in Santiago. Next to the theater is the baseball stadium; baseball is the national sport in Cuba.
Our final stop was the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, opened in 1868. Here are the preserved graves of the wealthy and military heroes. Soldiers guard the the large mausoleum of Jose Marti and the large stone marking the grave of Fidel Castro. Every 30 minutes, there is a changing of the guard, employing pristine marching in the goose-step style.
In addition to the military personnel there are security guards who watched our every movement. They did move away during the changing of the guard. We were only allowed to view the main graves in front and had to stay on certain pathways. A visitor who ventured onto the grass was abruptly called out.
I took photographs during the changing of the guard and of those stationed at their posts. It was later when I found out that you are not allowed to photograph military personnel. Perhaps they make an exception at the cemetery; perhaps they just chose not to say anything.
We returned to the ship and Boris spent time on the pier using up his remaining convertible pesos. We bid Cuba goodby this evening with our departure from Santiago de Cuba. It has been a memorable visit.