Alvaro, my second son seems to have developed an admiration for Che Guevara. As a part of this trip to Cuba, I have been sharing her history with the boys. A fascinating story, but given her proximity to Mexico, there are some marked differences. While in Mexico, the Maya are still alive and well, in Cuba the natives never made it past Spanish genocide and the imported ravages of European diseases. However, the additional injection to the ethnic mix that Mexico didn’t have were the slaves brought over to Cuba by the Spaniards from Africa. Their emancipation came early, and their integration with the Spanish descendants seems more complete here than in the US.
As a consequence, last night we listened to some fantastic Afro-cuban music in a bar on a staircase in trinidad (Cuba, not Tobago). Mixed with salsa. A late night, which the boys loved, though Alvaro was a little uncomfortable when a random Cuban tried to get him to join in the dance. Paola didn’t join in the salsa, which is a shame as she’d have put most of the women to shame there, and the boys would have seen some talents they didn’t know their mum has. The tribal beats somehow seemed to have some Latin attitude, and you wouldn’t have thought the integration of African and Spanish music to be odd at all.
Back to the top, though, and clearly some of the most interesting parts of Cuban history have been during the last century. Cuba has more independence heroes who nearly succeeded than any other place I know. Marti, Cespedes, Maceo, … And then Batista, whom I hadn’t realised actually had a pretty good spell first time round before selling his soul and country with it to American and Mafia cash. And so the door opened to Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and the revolution.
Che has been a hero of mine for maybe 25 years. But never as viscerally as he is to the people here. Every Cuban who expressed an opinion (and they all did when asked) sees him as a very real role model. He is also dissociated from any of their current woes (again, opinions expressed when asked – usually) and communism. He was just a man of the revolution for the people, who gave his all repeatedly for them. And they all want to live up to his ideal. And nearly unanimously from the people we talked to, there was a wish that either Camilo Cienfuegos, who died ‘mysteriously’, or Guevara had been the ones taking the country forward rather than the Castros.
There is more of Che than Fidel here. In the books, the paintings, the postcards, the grafitti. I was intrigued by why this should be – in all authoritarian states I’ve been to, the current dictator’s image is by some margin the most publicised. The first and most convenient (and quite rational) answer I got to this was that it was for the tourists. Che is clearly an icon globally in a way that Fidel isn’t. And so, eager to please the tourists, Che is the one that adorns more fridge magnets.
But as with so many things here, nothing is either as it seems, or is the first answer you get. The current frustrations that people feel with the system, their impoverishment, their inability to move forward, is caused by a system umbilically tied to Fidel. By dying early while taking the revolution to Bolivia, Che escaped a prolonged mire of running a state. And his drive for man to do the moral thing rather than just the thing that pays, which he led by example, never took hold. I can’t help but think that if Che Guevara was unable to make it stick, David Cameron hasn’t got a hope in hell with the Big Society. (blimey. Cameron and Guevara in the same sentence. That must be a first. And hopefully the last. Can’t see a t-shirt industry spawned by the face of Cameron.)
All of which brings me back to my son, Alvaro. He has bought the t-shirt, the fridge magnet, and tonight, the painting and has sent his school friends the postcard. But he is also obsessing about writing Che’s story in his blog. And he got there 9 or 10 years younger than I did. And in a vicarious way, that makes me feel quite proud, really.