Takeaway

Walking down the revolutionary road

Charukesi Ramadurai | Updated on December 14, 2018

Hop in and ride: Vintage cars parade down the Plaza de la Revolución or Revolution Square, ferrying tourists   -  CHARUKESI RAMADURAI

Cuba is a land of contradictions, where plush hotels and gleaming vintage cars coexist with dilapidated buildings and modest bodegas

The façade is impressive, more like a palace than a museum. And the interiors are even more spectacular, with winding staircases of Carrara marble, ornate chandeliers and plush furniture, and stunning works by major Cuban artists — all put together by New York’s Tiffany Studios. It is not surprising, given that the Museum of the Revolution in Havana, where I am standing and staring at some of the most significant chunks of Cuba’s contemporary history, was once the Presidential Palace. It is where the all-powerful and corrupt leaders of this small island would meet their important guests, and also where they lived and governed from.

It took seven years to build the palace that was home to several Cuban Presidents from the 1920, until Fulgencio Batista was overthrown in 1959. This palace — with its grand Despacho Presidencial or President’s Office — was also where Fidel Castro took oath in 1959, and lived in until it was converted into a museum in 1974. Converting the palace to the Museo de la Revolución to showcase the struggle that changed Cuba’s fortunes forever was part of the then regime’s efforts to rebuild the nation.

Call them freedom fighters or guerilla warriors, depending on which part of the world you come from, but Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and their band of merry men (and women) are still Cuba’s favourite heroes. My local guide Karen Calvino takes me on a Revolution Tour of Havana, in which this museum is perhaps the most important stop. Located near the sprawling and green Parque Central, the museum welcomes visitors with an exhibit of an old military tank used by Castro during the war. In the space of an hour, I get a brief glimpse of the changes the island has witnessed in the last few decades.

As travel writer Pico Iyer recently said in an interview to the BBC, “Cuba is, without question, the most complex, contradictory, confounding place I’ve ever visited, a riddle that only grows deeper the more I look at it.” These contradictions are visible everywhere on the streets — plush hotels and gleaming vintage cars right next to dilapidated buildings desperately in need of a lick of paint or fundamental repairs.

Vintage cars rumble down the streets of Havana, but at the Plaza de la Revolución or Revolution Square, there is a veritable parade of these beauties, many of them ferrying tourists around town. This central plaza is the administrative hub of Cuba, with stern-looking government buildings lining an entire side. The façades of the most important ones each have a giant image of the revolution’s three leaders — Che, Fidel and Camilo Cienfuegos.

One of the most obvious signs of Cuba’s Communist leanings is the fact that there are no glitzy supermarkets or shopping malls in sight; in fact, not a single hoarding obstructs the city’s fascinating skyline. People shop when and where stocks are available. Supplies are scarce — from lipsticks to antacids, everything is rare and expensive.

As part of the tour, Calvino takes me to a bodega, a government store where Cubans go for their daily supplies of eggs and bread, and the occasional rice and milk. The bodega reminds me of the ration stores in Chennai, or Madras as it was called when I was growing up there in the 1980s. The long lines from those days are missing, but the vibe is similar — hopeful and vacuous at the same time. These bodegas are present in every neighbourhood, catering only to the residents registered there. As far as I can see, the women, carrying their coupon books and shopping bags, are there at the bodega as much to catch up with friends and neighbours as to try their luck at procuring some butter.

There are many things that the revolution set on the right path, including freeing Cubans from the oppression of despotic leaders, and promising equality for all. After relations with the country’s nearest and most influential neighbour, the US, soured with the blooming of the Castro era, much of the dream was sustained and propelled by the USSR. Things took a beating with the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, and Cuba was left without powerful friends or allies.

With the recent thawing of relations with the western world, particularly Barack Obama’s America, things are looking up, but the state of the bodega is also a reminder of the fact that it has a long way to go.

Yet, in the midst of want, despair and silence, there is also music and hope and joy in today’s Cuba.

Charukesi Ramadurai is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer and photographer

Travel log

Getting there

  • Fly to Havana from India via US or a European city such as Paris or Frankfurt

Stay

  • Splurge on the luxurious Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, located close to the main tourist sights

Tip

  • Make your visa and travel process easy with the efficient Cuba Private Travel (https://www.cubaprivatetravel.com/)

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Published on December 14, 2018
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