A Che for all days

“The teacher walked up and down the ranks and asked the children to repeat the slogan about Che Guevara [“Pioneers for communism, we will be like Che!”]. Teo remained silent, and his pout didn’t escape the eagle eyes of the principal. When she asked him why he didn’t say the slogan he pointed out, with childish simplicity, ‘Because Che is dead and I don’t want to be dead.’”
–Yoani Sánchez: Havana Real

Today the Great Bus of China jounces us off into the interior of Cuba, to Santa Clara. Ariadna starts the ride with a lecture on Che Guevera.

Che originally hailed from Argentina, and was struck by the plight of the poor when he roared through South and Central America on motorcycle as a young medical student—his book about this vuelta was, in 2004, made into the feature film “The Motorcycle Diaries.” Ariadna says that he met Fidel when they were both in jail in Mexico in 1955. He came to Cuba to join the Revolution  in 1956 with other young idealists on the overcrowded yacht Granma. “Much here is named Granma for this,” she says, “including our biggest newspaper.”

Che joined the cause originally to work as a battlefield doctor. He fought in the Sierra Maestras with Fidel, who then put him in charge of troops ordered to take central Cuba. In 1958, he led the successful attack on Santa Clara city, and derailed and captured Batista’s armored train.

After the revolution was won, Fidel put Che in various positions of power. He oversaw the execution of political prisoners, was named president of the National Bank in ’61 and Minister of Industry in ’62. But he grew restless and left in 1965 for the Congo, to work undercover against the government. That didn’t go well, and he returned to Cuba—then, in 1967, left again to fight in Bolivia, and was captured and killed there that year with the assistance of our CIA.

His body was buried in an anonymous grave until 1997, when it was found and returned to Cuba, where it now lies in a Memorial/Museum in Santa Clara. We will go there after lunch.

We reach town around 11 am, and enter a public meetinghouse for a program starring 7 representatives of a local retiree association.

Everybody in Cuba plays music spectacularly. Or so it seems.

Which is remarkable, because Fidel’s government dropped its support for much of the old music after the Revolution because he deemed it frivolous or un-revolutionary. Now, that government is trying to make tourism a Very Big Deal in Cuba, and the Afro-Cuban beat is front and center.

We are greeted by a band of guys in their 70s and 80s, who sound like pros. The drummer pounds the hell out of an upturned bucket, his smile huge; the guitarist rocks out. Yet another percussionist beats rhythm on sticks. It is a glorious welcome.

The President of the retirees’ club, a commanding woman in her 70s, gives us the essentials on the pre-revolutionary art of Danson, Cuba’s national dance. She tells us the slow two-step created an uproar in its day because it permitted hormonal young folk to scrap the decorous lines of the Contra Dance and—gasp!—dance with each other.

Parents quickly enlisted chaperones to protect their daughters at public dances. So the daughters used their fans as signal flags to bypass minders and engage in a dialogue with their prospective swains across the floor (“Pre-text messaging,” notes a fellow tourist).

We dance—not, thank El Deos, the Danson, but lively beat-driven gyrations. The Sports Chairman invites the men up to play Quimbumbia, a geriatric version of baseball wherein a player flips a small dowel into the air with a stick, hits it, then estimates the distance it will fly. Paul wins a tiny straw hat embroidered with the name Cuba.

We buy hand-made jewelry—and Paul buys a Quimbumbia stick and dowel—give and receive a flurry of abrazos and cheek-kisses, and promise to “stay happy.”

After a fine, sedate ancient-music concert at a museum across the square, we take lunch at a government-run hotel, the Amerikan. The food is bad, and string-bikini-clad young women cavort at a pool on the other side of our dining room window.

Our guides trundle us off to the town square, to the statue of Marta Abreu, the philanthropist who gave the town its music hall and a fountain statue that legend claims depicts a homeless boy who shined shoes in the park for many years. Ariadna says the tale is nonsense; the statue was donated at some pre-revolutionary time by the US, and depicted a child dressed in Civil War soldiers’ clothes.

“This is known as the most racist of Cuban cities,” she tells us as we cross the square to the Great Bus of China. “You see there are really two sidewalks around the square?” Indeed, one borders the street, and the other is parallel, but up over the curb, on the level of the plaza proper.

Pre-slave Santa Clara was almost entirely white—Spaniards and Frenchmen—Ariadna explains. Cane field masters imported black slaves to work the fields, and they were made to walk the lower level so they would not displace their white “betters.”

“They have now taken down the fence between the two walkways,” she says.

The square is alive with people enjoying Sunday. A man pushes a steel wheelbarrow past, filled with plastic bags of trash. Men lead goats pulling small carts full of children.

“I remember the carts when I was small,” Ariadna says. “It is hard for parents, because they must pay for each ride, and children want to go around and around again.”

We notice a long line leading into a building. Paul asks if it is a ration store. “Not on Sunday,” Ariadna says. “That’s for ice cream.”

The last stop on the Santa Clara tour is Che’s Monument/Museum, a concrete building surmounted by an enormous statue of the hero at the height of his scruffy machismo, his left arm in a cast, his right toting a rifle. In front of the monument stands a billboard with Caesar Chavez’s smiling face and the words: Chavez—our best friend.

Che is interred in the building, behind an eternal flame lit by Fidel himself. We can’t bring our cameras into the main crypt, out of deference for its sacred nature. Che’s body is not laid out in a glass box like Lenin or Ho Chi Minh—a relief, considering it was found so many years after its first burial.

Upstairs, in the museum dedicated to Che’s life, I find photos of the young, dashing hero with his comrades; pictures of him as a toddler, a child, an adult. A picture of him doing dental work on a fellow revolutionary; another where he slouches in a seat at the UN in 1964. Che’s uniform hangs in a glass case: the short trouser legs and sleeves and the jacket’s wide chest speak of a short, beefy man. Indeed, Che stands next to Fidel in an adjacent picture: his head barely reaches Fidel’s shoulder.

There is a board of pictures of Che in his last Cuba years: a slightly stout, older, shaven version of himself. Ariadna tells us he’d had surgical reconstruction on his face, and returned to his family as “uncle Ernesto” to make sure his kids didn’t recognize him and let others know he was home.

This is not your Che, Revolutionaries; step away and forget you saw this man.

No, the Che you know is the young man with the laser eyes and the beard. I can’t help but think how lucky it has been for the Revolution that Che died at 39, forever handsome and virile. Like our JFK, he will not age; he will not lose his hair, nor his charm. Nubile girls still swoon at his picture. First-graders like Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez’s son Teo was, at the time of the opening anecdote, continue to pledge to “be like Che” every year on October 8, when they receive the blue kerchief that marks them as Pioneers for Communism.

This many years later, with the country he helped “liberate” rattling in the palsied grip of a pair of brothers who look like Dorian Grey’s attic portrait, Che remains the young idealist. He is the saint who ignites your fervor, the hero who inspires your dreams, the idol of toddlers and teens throughout the island, the chic objet d’art for fashionistas around the world. He’s striking in a beard, perfect on a billboard, a wall, a hat, a sweatshirt.