A May Day in Havana

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It was early, too early, when we heard people milling about in the streets of Vedado, a usually quiet neighbourhood in Central Havana. The night had been long and it was still dark as the hum of an overworked air-conditioner competed with the fan to keep us cool but also wide-awake.

The sounds mingled with the periodic roar of a thousand all-night street parties everywhere across the city. It was May Day in Cuba and a million campaneros and campaneras were on the march before dawn.

At that time, my daughter and I had just seen The Motorcycle Diaries, a film about Che Guevara’s youthful adventures around South America, and we had decided to see for ourselves whether the most celebrated hero of the Cuban Revolution was still in evidence in the Cuban capital.

During the week we had visited the Museo de la Revolucion. Housed in an old Spanish building that was liberated when Che marched triumphantly into town more than 45 years earlier. As we turned a corner inside, two bearded figures dressed in guerrilla battle greens emerged from behind a bush. One was Che, armed and ready, wearing the black beret with a single red star that was to become a symbol of defiance.

In another corner we read about Fulgencio Batista, the man who turned his country into a Babylon-style fleshpot for the likes of mobster Meyer Lansky and other underworld figures. Batista was a Yankee collaborator, explained the wordy panels in English and Spanish, and, therefore, the Revolution’s Enemy No. 1. He and his collaborators got rich while Cuban peasants and workers lived in poverty.

Not far from the museum sits the Hotel Sevilla, the setting for Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana and once a hangout for Batista’s Mob buddies. Al “Scarface” Capone stared menacingly at us from a photo hung in the lobby. A life-sized photo of ‘Old Blue Eyes’ greeted us at the hotel restaurant. But that was before the Revolution, before Che took over the Havana Hilton, changing its name to the Havana Libre. Postcards of him now are on sale in the hotel shop.

***

When we finally got out of bed at 7 a.m., the TV was already filming the multitudes as they amassed, street by street, in the expansive Plaza de la Revolucion. No one had slept, including us. Street organizers had told people to be outside at 5 a.m., so why sleep?

TV commentators said Fidel had already arrived. We dressed quickly and hustled out to the street. Our B & B host, an elderly woman who remembered the early days of the Revolution, looked at us like we were nuts: a pair of gringos racing to see Fidel and maybe pick up some Che mementos. She locked the door behind us. Good riddance. It seemed that not every Cuban was a revolutionary.

Lining the darkened streets were big trucks, old American cars and pink transport semis welded together to create buses. All were parked three deep along La Rampa, a main street leading to the old town (La Vieja) where gringo tourists congregated to see another side of Cuba.

A Third World city, Havana tries hard to please the hundreds of thousands of Canadians and Europeans who visit here every northern winter. The majority come to improve their tans, buy their year’s supply of coveted Cuban cigars and pump back rum punches. When they drive to Havana from Veradero and dozens of other high-class beach resorts along the coast, they stay for only a day or two.

As they arrive, they may be met by an old woman with a fat 10-inch-long cigar dangling from her lips. She’s a photo op for every turista. One peso, please. And that’s a tourist peso worth as much as a greenback. An old man dressed dapperly in a white suit and bowtie is just down the street. Another peso, please. They could be in business together, these two. 

A young man may approach the wandering tourist in one of the busy downtown markets. He’ll offer them “Cohibas for sale” in a whisper because he isn’t supposed to sell one of Cuba’s most precious exports. A bicycle taxi driver will negotiate a price to peddle them along the Malecon where the crumbling buildings are a reminder of the Spanish colonial past. There they might see a fisher with his fresh catch held high -- an old man and the sea.

Most of them are unlikely to partake of the celebrations on May Day. It may be a well-respected workers’ holiday here, but most North Americans have been taught that it is a communist holiday and therefore to be shunned even now.

***

We marched with the other sleepy stragglers, arriving at the plaza as it overflowed with party-weary patriots and resonated with the garbled sound of speeches echoing off nearby buildings. The 15-meter-high rod-iron image of a bereted Che, silent but defiant as ever, watched over the gathering from one of the buildings. Thousands of little paper flags flapped in what little breeze there was.

As we weaved through the crowd to get as close as possible to Fidel, we noticed that many revellers wore red T-shirts with a quote from the Cuban leader imprinted on the back. Some had what is perhaps Che’s most famous slogan: 'Hasta la victoria, siempre!' It literally means ‘Until the victory, always,’ but the Spanish phrasing still has the power to inspire.

The labour leaders on the podium with Fidel were hitting their full-blown oratory when we finally found standing room. The little flags flapped noisily at various junctures. Fidel chatted with the people surrounding him, protecting him. When the labour leaders had finished, he stuck a familiar pose at the microphones. We were seeing living history. We were about to hear it, too, as would all of Cuba.

Famous for his long speeches, we could still hear him as we wandered the streets of old Havana. Big speakers placed at various street corners broadcast his voice. So did bullhorns on the roofs of vans and his words echoed off houses in other sections of the sprawling city of 2 million or more.

In a little park near our B & B, the vans blared the message to the cleaning woman resting near a statue of John Lennon sitting on a park bench. It would be heard by the Coppelia ice cream parlour attendant dishing up some of the finest helado in the Americas. Passers-by outside the Ambos Mundos hotel heard the famous voice through tinny speakers. So did wannebe novelists marvelling at Ernest Hemingway’s stand-up typewriter in his old room on the fifth floor. Even the mojito guzzlers at La Bodeguita and the daiquiri slurpers at El Floridita would be unable to escape Fidel as he interrupted a pretty good salsa band.

He was everywhere, the old revolutionist, the papa and grandpapa of the Cuban Revolution. Beard grey now and well trimmed. Not like in the museum photos of him and Che training their ragtag army in Latin America or rousing the masses as they rode victorious into town after town in 1959, ousting the American puppet Batista and bringing freedom to six million mostly poverty-ridden Cubans (now about 11 million).

Che was never far from us that day. Photos of him were everywhere, always watching with those penetrating eyes below his firm brow and his lone-starred beret. We saw him in battle fatigues, smoking the ubiquitous Cuban, shooting a rifle and even playing golf. Back at the museum we had watched a fawning video of his life -- Che leading the troops, making an inspiring speech to young people, condemning imperialism at the United Nations, labouring with workers in the cane fields and factories.

As we watched, we recalled a scene in The Motorcycle Diaries when the young Che decides to swim across a jungle river to be with the lepers instead of the nuns. It is a pivotal moment in the film and in Che’s life, and it was part of what inspired us to travel to Havana. [The more recent Che offers a five-hour biography of his years as a revolutionary, but back then there was something moving about the young man who, like many of us, hadn’t quite decided what his life should mean.] 

When the video ended, we turned a final corner of the museum where we were confronted with another photo of Che. Remember the one where his eyes stare blankly into the camera as his CIA-trained Bolivian captors stand proudly behind his corpse? They are displaying him like a bagged game trophy. It is almost as if the authorities who ordered him killed are worried that he might be resurrected.

That May Day week we sensed that he had been momentarily revived in the minds of millions. We also sensed that his spirit still lived in the streets of Havana and, though struggling, the Revolution did too.


Ron Verzuh is a Vancouver writer. He visited Cuba during the Bush era. Since then, Fidel has fallen ill. His brother Raul is said to be making changes that could be good for all Cubans. Also, the Obama administration has announced some positive changes in the anti-Castro policies in place since the early 1960s. This may be cause for some celebration on May Day 2009 but there is still much left to do, starting with the release of the Cuban 5 and the lifting of a crippling decades-old trade embargo. 

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