Socialism In Action

A Trip to Cuba

Chaman Lal

My long awaited visit to Cuba materialised from 9th to 17th December, 2011. I have been trying for this visit from the beginning of my assignment in Trinidad & Tobago in October end 2010. In fact my reluctant acceptance of this assignment was due to the close proximity of Cuba and Venezuela to the country and a chance to visit the two nations with hopes of seeing Socialism in action. Developed friendship with Cuban and Venezuelan embassies in Port of Spain from February beginning, meeting the ambassadors from both the countries on some function organised in Bolivarian embassy of Venezuela. Started attending many functions and expressing my solidarity as well, addressing a few. Became member of 'Friends of Cuba' and gave the proposal to Cuban and Venezuelan embassy to deliver lectures on Che Guevara and Bhagat Singh. The proposal was sent to Cuban embassy in Delhi, where Ambassador Miguel Ramirez was personally well acquainted and had my book on Bhagat Singh. However, nothing worked out, tried through CPM leader Sita Ram Yechuri, Dr Lal Khan, through face book sites, through Pritam's Trotskyite friends, through Indian embassies in Cuba and Venezuela, through Socialist party activists form Margarita, where I had gone. So as last attempt, I had to take recourse to Travel agency and opt to go as Tourist, as I was put to link with Producto travel agency by Cuban Counsellor in Trinidad Ana Silvia. This was going to be an expensive trip, but I could not miss the chance as from India it would have become more expensive. It came to nearly 2400 US dollars or one lakh twenty thousand plus rupees in Indian currency.

So I took flight on 9th December evening via Panama, wished to spend a day in Panama, but visa problem created unnecessary complication and dropped the idea to stop over for one night, though later came to know that Indian official passport holders did not require Visa, so had to miss the one day trip. From Panama changed the flight and reached Havana at late night 11.45 pm or so. The man from travel agency came to receive and put me on a taxi, entering which got my back jerked.

I was put up in Cuban govt. Neptune hotel of middle level, room was OK. Did not sleep well in first night, was ready by 9.15 am on 10th morning, when travel agency man Rafael came around 10 am, with whom I planned my week long trip. On first day I could just reach Revolution square after 1.30 pm only. I had exchanged dollars with Cubar currency Pesos and had to spend three Pesos for half an hour use of internet at hotel computer. First thing I saw in Havana was Revolution Museum, depicting the history of Cuban revolution in pictures, paintings and documents. Kept on clicking on my not very good camera and mobile. After completing round of Revolutionary museum, saw real 'Granma' sea boat yacht, on which Castro-Che came with total of 82 guerrillas to make revolution in 1956. Started journey on 25th November and reaching Sierra Maestra mountains by 2nd December. By the time Granma reached Cuban shores, Batista army had attacked them viciously and only 15-20 Guerrillas survived including Castro brothers, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and few more. They found each other in few weeks and organised Cuban people in such a way that by 1st January 1959, they could liberate Cuba from Batista regime and make socialist revolution.

From Granma, walked over to Capitola, the capital site of Batista regime, more like Capitol of Washington. Took photographs sitting in old Cuban cars put on display, saw huge queues for film show in cinema house there, had a look at old classic theatre and Jose Marti statues around.

On 11th December Sunday had walk towards sea side near hotel. For city tour went first to Revolutionary Plaza, a huge spacious place with very big white statue of Jose Marti, around which all Cuban Govt offices are there, on one side National Library and on offices sites-two huge artistic sketches of two popular heroes of Cuba-Che and Camilo are displayed. National theatre was also around the area. We were taken to Cuban rum and cigar factory shop, where I bought few cigars and rum. Later on we moved to Old Havana city, having charm of its own, saw one bar, where Hemingway was a regular visitor, sometimes Castro joined him. Hemingway signature and phonographs figure there, small but always crowded place. Perhaps took one mojito shot there. Met two Mexican tourists and got clicked also with one black lady. One artist just made sketch of mine in pencil and gifted me, but could not pay him anything. Returned to hotel by early evening. Producto agent Rafael came to tell Santiago arrangements. Went for long walk among localities and saw people's houses and their living style. Small houses, many people sitting outside courtyards. Hardly any house with a car. The huge houses vacated by Cuban rich fled to Miami, were all turned into embassies, government offices, schools etc.

On Monday 12th December, after getting ready went to Rafael office, got some currency problem settled from Republic Bank, in which I had account in UWI Trinidad. Went to visit University of Havana first and met Dr Carmen, who was waiting in Che Guevara study dept, she gifted a book for JNU VC/library in Spanish. Later met Milagros in Che centre and gave her my papers on Bhagat Singh. From there came over to Jose Marti research centre, met its director Dr Rafael, an old scholar, bought few books from bookshop there of Jose Marti. Before that visited Indian embassy in Havana and had lunch and coffee there. In afternoon moved to Hemingway museum, a bit away. Huge house, where Hemingway lived now turned into museum. His bedroom or study room, full of books, his working room and his old typewriter on it, which I clicked also, etc. Could only be seen through glass walls. Saw his huge personal boat or yacht, which he had bought in those days in 7000 dollars, huge amount. Hemingway was quite close to Fidel Castro, as he was later to Marquez, outliving both! Bought few music dvd's from shop there. Moved to Indian embassy from there and embassy staffer from Bathinda side Suresh Kumar took me to his house where he lived alone and served me with Cuban rum and cigar. He thought, I could be close to Trinidad's Indian High Commissioner, but he found I am not, so he lost interest. He dropped me at my hotel, near his house, where I had my dinner.

On 13th December I visited Che Guevara home also, which is now turned into research centre. It was closed for renovation, met some officials, Che daughter was abroad and could not get any connectivity to his other family members.

On 14th December visited ICAP-Cuban government institute for friendship with other countries’ peoples. Met its director Odalio and pacific in-charge Ringberton, presented them Bhagat Singh Jail Notebook copies, they promised to send one copy to Fidel Castro, one copy was sent earlier through Trinidad Cuban ambassador. It was pleasant discussion and they arranged for my Santiago ICAP contacts also. This day visited Sun house handicraft market also, bought few items. Also took long round, visiting Alicia Alfonso art/dance museum, walked through statues of African and other revolutionaries including one of Salvador Allende of Chile. In different places saw busts of Gandhi and Tagore somewhere. Could not reach Indian embassy before its closure time, so had to reach hotel on taxi, from where moved to Indian ambassador Deepak Bhojwani’s house for a party. His wife Shaila Arshi, a Punjabi woman was from JNU, could be my contemporary. I enjoyed this evening with some cultural items including one on Tagore. Met ICAP Vice President and former Cuban ambassador to India Ramirez, who came with his family-a warm meeting and with few other Cubans. Had Mojito shots and took dinner before coming over to hotel.

I gifted my Bhagat Singh Jail Notebook and other books to Ambassador Bhojwani also. Bhagwat Swarup Ketyar, second senior embassy official was helpful in many things.

On 15th morning got ready in time for going to Santiago. Taxi driver Williams's father came today to drop me at airport. On the way he shared lot of interesting stories about Fidel Castro, he being a Communist party member was privy to such stories. He told how Castro spent more than a month in Chile after Allende came to power and made a stirring speech there. Flight to Santiago took earlier than time at 12.15 pm and reached by 1.40 pm. But it took two hours to reach hotel and on the way crossed Moncada Bridge—a site of Castro's 1953- 26th Julio movement attack on Moncada garrison. After having nice lunch of fish, walked up to Young communist league, ICAP and other offices/buildings on straight road, moving up to Communist party regional office. Spent some time in party office watching Fidel Castro photographs, was irritated by bureaucratic attitude of communist cadres of mass organisations. Walked for more than two and half hours covering 6-7 kilometres. Met young communist cultural workers. Had two cocktails or rum punch before dinner.

On 16th December-Got up too early and went for walk. Walked through hospital building and few other buildings with graffiti of Cuban revolutionaries.

Got ready by 9.30 am and went to ICAP office, they arranged for English knowing young man to accompany me on their office old fiat car with broken doors. I got gasoline filled for ten pesos. First we came to revolution plaza, where grand monument of revolutionary Antonio Maceau with 2-3 swords in hand. Under the monument, there is museum of revolutionaries, which is very impressive. From this Plaza Fidel had proclaimed liberation of Cuba. From plaza we moved to a place—a house from where Fidel Castro began attack on Moncada on 26th July with 104 men, out of which more than sixty were killed and Castro sentenced to 15 years imprisonment—his court statement became classic—'History will absolve me'! It is a house now well preserved as museum, belonged to two women close to party. Moved to actual garrison site which again is now museum with photographs of all attackers including those who were martyred. The clothes, torture weapons etc. displayed in this museum now. On return had lunch of pork-rice at some reasonable restaurant, but did not like its taste, but it’s common Cuban food. Saw one woman beggar there. In evening there was ICAP cultural function in support of "Free Cuban 5'. I joined the function. Bolivian group's musical performance was quite good, got clicked with them. I was also invited to speak and spoke for about ten minutes, expressing solidarity. Returned to hotel and afterwards to airport for return flight to Havana by 8 pm, flight was at 10.50 pm, had sandwich. Flight took long time and reached Havana by 12.15 am, reaching hotel by 2 am.

17th December—Santa Clara—Got only four hour rest, got ready by 8.30 am. Taxi driver Williams waited for an hour. After breakfast, took 276 kilometre journey on eight lane highway, reaching Che monuments by 11.30 am. Spent three hours at grand monument with huge Che statue, 220 martyrs’ graves. A sombre hall where Che and Tania's last remains are placed, which cannot be clicked. One feels humbled there. Met library researchers there, gifted my Bhagat Singh's Jail Note Book. One senior researcher came over with me to city to show the revolutionary monuments—Railway station, where Che's 23 warriors captured train full of army men and weapons, now a museum. Monuments in city. Santa Clara quiet town with Che statue at city hall with a child in his arms. Bought few t-shirts etc. Did not eat or stop due to time constraint. Only on return journey stopped at two places to have some food. While on return journey watching photographs on camera, formatted the camera by mistake and felt horrified by losing the precious collection of so many photographs.

Returned to Port of Spain by next day. With the help of UWI centre was able to recover 80-90% of photographs but quality suffered, still felt happy that my Cuba's most cherished visit photographs were not completely lost!

Out of all my trips abroad, Cuban trip was the most cherished one and yet I was not able to write its travel account, though started writing on 21st December 2011 but only a paragraph, except for taking hand written daily notes on my 2011 diary. Now after five years, I have been able to type down the diary notes based account of Cuba trip.

[7th November 2016,
October Revolution Centenary Day]

Vol. 50, No.7, Aug 20 - 26, 2017