February 26th, 2010
We returned on February 12, 2010 from a 17 day holiday in Cuba staying with Cuban families in Habana, Trinidad, Bayamo, Santiago and Baracoa. It was self-planned and wonderful. It has taken me two weeks to mull over the experience before writing about it, other than to put the photos up on Facebook. Cuba makes you think.
Travelling in Cuba you are bombarded with slogans, exhortations and heroes. In countries like ours we are accustomed to billboards telling us to “Just Do It,” or making us feel guilty that we have so little regard for our friends or our time that we don’t have the latest cell phone. In Cuba, billboards encourage both sacrifice and bravery, the values of the (continuing, yet precarious) revolution, and praise past heroes like Che, Frank País, Camilo Cienfuegos and, endlessly, José Martí. Every town there has a Parque Céspedes, honouring the first plantation owner to free his slaves and begin Cuba’s struggle for independence in 1868. Just how much blood has been shed so that Cuba could write its own history hit me like a machete when we visited the most important cemetery in Cuba: the Cementario de Santa Ifigenia in Santiago. It is a place filled with the ghosts and the stories of Cuba’s greatest heroes. The simple guard at José Martí’s magnificent mausoleum is changed every hour in a dignified ceremony.
Castro’s eloquent wish that all revolutionaries be buried near each other is immortalized in a stone tablet. Fidel himself will lie nearby when the time comes, but José Martí, the spiritual father of Cuba, will remain the most important figure. Women heroes play a major role. Our guide was careful to point out the grave of Mariana Grajales, the mother of The Bronze Titan, Antonio Macéo, the greatest Cuban general who fought in both the 1868 and 1895 wars for independence. Macéo earned his nickname by being wounded 24 times.
Mariana Grajales operated field hospitals during the wars and sacrificed ten sons, two daughters and her husband to the cause. José Martí said of her
It is easy to be heroes with women such as these.
By contrast, my country’s relatively peaceful transition from colony of England to an independent monarchy to a colonial consumer society seems tepid and timid. Our current Prime Minister behaves treasonously as he prorogues parliament and then, while everyone is watching Canada’s attempt to “own” the Olympic podium and parliamentary opposition is suspended, enacts a quiet trade deal with the U.S. that will simply kill many of the best jobs left in Canada. Maybe if we had fought harder for our “democracy” we wouldn’t allow it to disappear. Maybe, in fact, we would actually possess enduring values that are worth something you can’t buy – worth fighting for.
Cuba, with all it faults, somehow “owns” a curious, tangible purity. You can taste it. This is what I will remember.