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A Little Local Colour
Havana, Cuba

by Sarah Shuckburgh

A few days in Havana and Sarah Shuckburgh loses her British reserve as she dances in the street and relives her teenage love affair with a handsome revolutionary. Cuba does that to you.

I sit on a bench in a tiny park, and the colour, music and exuberance of old Havana engulf me. The air is smothering - a hot, wet blanket, heavy with humidity - but heat cannot dim the joie de vivre of the Habaneros. An intoxicating blend of Spanish guitars and African drumbeats drifts from a nearby bar, where an elderly couple is performing an afternoon salsa. Workmen repairing a stone fountain add strange syncopated rhythms with their chisels. In the shade of a tree, an old man chats to his caged birds, a smouldering cigar dangling from his lips. Three barefoot boys in tattered shorts kick a dented can over the cobbles, splashing through puddles from last night’s rain. A scrawny street-sweeper hobbles by, licking her ice cream. Another old crone squats in front of a sky-blue door, selling single cigarettes. Bare-chested men exchange jokes as they push barrows of rubble. A grizzled, toothless man approaches me and holds out his hand. I give him a few tiny coins.

As I look up, a woman leans from an ornate, rusty balcony to hang out washing, and waves down at me. Beneath her, the peeling stucco façade of the once-grand house is criss-crossed with wooden scaffolding. The old town contains incredible architecture, with colonial buildings from the 16th century onwards - many crumbling and decrepit, but others newly rescued and restored, partly as a result of UNESCO World Heritage funds. Open portals lead to vibrant art galleries and cool, leafy courtyards.

On a corner, the house where Simón Bolívar once lived now contains exhibits illustrating his life - amusing ceramic vignettes depict him being born, being breast-fed, and later having sex in a hammock, as well as liberating Latin America from colonial hegemony.

Bolívar died aged 47, disillusioned at his failure to form a unified Latin American republic - but today ‘El Libertador’ is revered as a saint. Passing his statue, I cross the street to a small café where, over a delicious guava milkshake, I ponder our own lack of equivalent heroes. Britons have nobody like Bolívar to look up to. Cubans are lucky, with several giants to worship - not light-weight media celebrities, but principled, visionary reformers.

Fidel Castro is one of them. There are few photographs of him, and no statues, but for most Cubans, Castro is a living legend who has maintained his communist ideals despite the collapse of communism elsewhere, and despite crippling sanctions and embargoes from the ‘Enemy’ to the north. The Cubans I speak to all share Il Presidente’s patriotism and his distrust of democracy, and are intensely proud of Cuba’s egalitarianism, education and health care, and world-class sporting achievements. Nobody mentions civil liberties, human rights or freedom of expression.

 I wander on through a series of beautiful 16th-century squares, cordoned from traffic with huge cannonballs. In the exquisite Plaza Vieja, a group of tiny children appear with two teachers, and start their PE lesson - the boys in a circle, doing press-ups and star-jumps, the girls running in and out of the bollards. At a flower stall, a yellow motor-scooter coco-taxi judders to a halt, and an elderly passenger clambers from under the coconut-shaped canopy, to buy gladioli and fragrant white mariposa - ‘butterfly’ flowers.

Habaneros play music, laugh and dance at every opportunity, but times are hard. Beyond Plaza Vieja, the streets are pot-holed and strewn with rubbish, and families sit on doorsteps in front of squalid, sparsely-furnished rooms. The average wage is £7 a month - food is scarce, and housing is in crisis. The Cubans I speak to hope that tourism and foreign investment will help to alleviate poverty, but admit that the tourist peso, worth twenty times the local peso, is itself creating class divisions between those with access to it, and those without.

But despite il lurchar, Cubans remain cheerfully egalitarian, and as enthralled as ever by their most famous hero. I remember my own Che Guevara poster, pinned to my bedroom wall 35 years ago. Sixth-form pupils, at the school where I teach, have an identical poster in their common room today - but nothing prepares me for Il Commandante’s iconic importance in Cuba.

Che was an Argentinian doctor, who spent only 6 years here, but his face and his slogans appear on hundreds of Havana billboards. His huge illuminated portrait covers the side of a building in Revolution Square, and his photograph hangs in every classroom, where children pledge each day to emulate him - “Seremos como El Che”.

I stop for a mojito in a café where ten exuberant musicians are performing on guitar, 6-stringed tres, double bass, flute, bongos, maracas, and clavé s - two sticks banged together. The musicians are all men - machismo rules here - but their skins are of every shade from black to white, and they are all smiling. Their music is fantastic - long sets with false endings, rap sections, solo instrumental interludes - and the sense of fun is infectious.

To my amazement, I suddenly lose my uptight British reserve, and leap to my feet, dancing and shaking the maracas which are thrust into my hands. Che Guevara’s portrait looks down from the wall, and the musicians start playing a favourite tune - ‘Here remains the clear transparency of your dear presence, Commandante Che Guevara‘.

Havana’s Museum of the Revolution includes a life-size diorama of Che Guevara in battle, and displays his Kalashnikov and his famous beret. Images of Che, alive and dead, are accompanied by precious relics - a lock of hair, wisps of his beard, and remnants of the socks and jersey he was wearing when he was killed. The links with religious iconography are startling. He appears as a Christ-like figure, charismatic and courageous, challenging injustice, and sacrificing his life to save the oppressed. Che’s asceticism, his idealism, his disapproval of greed, his hard work and altruism, remind me of the Puritan work ethic, but with individual faith in God replaced by collectivism. Outside, like a shrine, stands a replica of the boat which brought Che, Castro and 81 other rebels to Cuba in 1956.

Later, I visit Che’s impressive, but deserted, mausoleum in Santa Clara. Beneath a vast bronze statue is a gallery of photographs and memorabilia, including his white doctor‘s coat, and another beret. As I peer at his school reports, I inadvertently touch a glass cabinet, and guards swoop. Backing to a respectful distance, I marvel at how photogenic Che was - his romantic features utterly mesmerising, from classroom to battlefield. During his brief spell as a short-haired government minister, he looked like a portly Lord Lucan, but luckily, by his death, the Heroic Guerillero had lost weight, and grown his hair and beard, and looked beautiful once more. In the crypt, Che’s body, retrieved from Bolivia in 1997, is interred with the remains of other rebels. Fresh flowers adorn every grave, and an eternal flame, lit by Castro, burns in an eerie grotto.

Che is a folk hero, but every Cuban I speak to mentions another, even greater national totem, a man whose name I barely knew. José Martí ’s memorial, the tallest building in Cuba, dominates Havana’s Revolution Square. His statue, with moustache and thick swirling hair, appears in every Cuban town. Throughout the country, main streets and boulevards are named after him. Like Bolívar, he was a visionary, passionately determined to free Latin America from foreign colonialism. Like Che, he fought for Cuban independence, but spent little of his life in Cuba. Born into poverty in 1853, he became the father of Cuban nationalism, a literary giant who wrote plays, poems and essays, a rebel who hated violence - a saintly man of peace and principle.

José Martí , everyone I speak to agrees, is Cuba’s true hero. He was born in Havana, but was exiled at the age of 16 after writing revolutionary tracts, and returned to Cuba for only a few months before his death in 1895. He devoted his life, by peaceful means, to the cause of Cuban independence, writing essays and articles in New York, Mexico and Spain. Suddenly, I notice his face and his name everywhere.

That evening, beneath a bust of Martí , I sip a pina colada, and tap my foot to another exuberant son ensemble. Yesterday’s grizzled beggar reappears, and laughing toothlessly, thanks me again, raising his hands in high fives. The musicians start to play Guajira Guantanamera - the girl from Guantanamo - Cuba’s most famous song, which includes lines by Martí .

I leave Havana after dark. A hot wind is blowing, and the dimly lit town seems impossibly exotic and romantic. The silhouette of the 16th-century Castilla de San Salvador de la Punta looms mysteriously. Waves splash against the Malecó n seawall, where couples sit kissing and cuddling. Decrepit Dodges and Cadillacs lurch up La Rampa, past coco-taxis, motorbikes with sidecars, and wobbly rickshaws. From the inky expanses of Revolution Square, the vast outline of Che Guevara’s handsome face watches over the floodlit marble statue of José Martí .

First published by the Telegraph

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