I am with my grandfather and father in a little Korean-made car, hurtling down the crumbling central highway on the way to Santa Clara, Cuba, my grandfather’s birthplace. He has not visited this home in almost 60 years, although the actual house he was raised in still stands. In his half-century of absence, his grandparents, parents, and sisters have passed away. We are going to this place so that my grandfather can finally pay his respects. We are going to meet family that I have always had, but never knew. We are going so that my father and I can finally realize our own history. We are going to find something for ourselves.
Endless fields of sugarcane and tobacco sway like calm oceans, gentle waves lapping up to the acacia- and palm-lined banks of the forests. In brilliant reds and yellows, flamboyant trees rise like islands in the midst of these green seas while cattle escape the late-morning heat and humidity by dozing in the shade. Farmers’ hovels dot the landscape. They look almost comical, with grass roofs and wooden planks that have been warped and animated by passing time, the elemental cycles of rains and droughts, highs and lows. Ancient sand dunes create natural levies along the coast, while truer mountains rise cautiously to misty heights further inland. This place is gorgeous. The old Cuban tune “Chan Chan” strums slowly away on the radio as we wind our way to my grandfather’s long-lost home.
Entering Santa Clara is like driving through a living museum. The battle of Santa Clara, the last major guerilla offensive during the Cuban revolution and the battle that made Che Guevara famous, seems written on every surface. Memorials, statues, and murals greet visitors at every corner. Bullet holes from the battle are still visible in certain areas, especially at the Santa Clara Libre hotel, where a major skirmish took place. If one didn’t know better, they might think that the revolution happened just yesterday. It’s a proud and also desperate attempt to hold on to history. The world is moving into the future; Cuba (in more ways than one) seems to be holding blindly to those early years of revolution. —Mario Machado
Driving out of Cuba’s capital city, La Havana, one immediately encounters the chaotic bustle of a developing country. Having just come from living in Paraguay for 8 months, I was much less shocked by the people and landscape than my father and grandfather seemed to be. Still, Cuba hardly fits the mold; it is a country like none other on Earth. As many Cubans will tell you, through hushed whispers and barely parted lips, this is the land of contradictions.
For those still preoccupied with Fidel Castro, I would like to offer this bit of solace, though it comes perhaps 50 years too late: Cuba is not Fidel’s island. Cuba is growing up and finding itself full of a younger generation that doesn’t remember the communist revolution of 1959. This generation is becoming increasingly tired of the intellectual and social restrictions imposed by the very state that has given them an education that is equaled by few countries in the Americas. (Cuba’s literacy rate is higher than that of even the United States.) Dissent is brewing, fueled by the regime that it will one day topple or otherwise transform deeply. Castro represents the old, tired, and variably successful politicians of communist Cuba. He and his numbers are aging, soon to be replaced by an unknown future. There is still one potent symbol for this next generation, however, and especially at this time in Cuban history, it seems both extremely appropriate but also quite ironic: Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Driving around Cuba, one thing is almost immediately evident: Che is the symbol and the martyr of the Cuban revolution. He was memorialized idealistically, like a delicate flower in amber, at a time when the guerillas were still young, progressive, and shaking up the modern world. On every available surface on the island—on the walls of aging, Soviet-era factories, on streets and dumpsters, in homes and on tourist souvenirs—the face of Che appears in defiant, immortal glory. The man whom Jean-Paul Sartre once described as “the most complete human being of our era” reigns over an island that is sauntering into an uncertain future.
It is curious to wonder what the revolutionary would think of modern day Cuba, were he alive today. As members of this young generation flex their well-educated minds (which, according to Cuban communist philosophy, are actually the property of the state), the old regime trembles. And yet, the world continues to move on. —Mario Machado