By Circles Robinson
Cuba has many popular recreational facilities but not long ago my five-year-old grandson Karim surprised me by asking if we could go to the city of Santa Clara to see where the remains of Ernesto “Che” Guevara are kept.
Karim wasn’t born in Cuba but he came here at a year old and has gone through the island’s day care and pre-school. It is there that he grew fond of “Che”, who he calls his brother. He knows that Che died fighting in Bolivia and he is still working to understand why. “He was the good guy, so why did he die,” he asks.
I don’t really have a good answer. Instead, I have my own questions about good guys and bad guys:
How could a man like Luis Posada Carriles, who organized a plane bombing that killed 73 persons and other horrendous crimes, be free on the streets of Miami at 79, when Che didn’t live to see 40?
For my grandson, the details about Che and what he meant to Cuba, Latin American, Africa and many far off corners of the world will come later when he starts reading.
So, what makes the Argentine-born medical doctor, commander of the Cuban revolution, government minister and above all internationalist guerrilla fighter, so dear to children on the island?
It is the simple fact that he cared about the fate of oppressed people and fought to free them from their oppressors. He rises above any TV cartoon warriors as a model.IN ROUTE TO SANTA CLARA
The 24-hour trip began late Saturday afternoon at the monumental Central Station train terminal in Havana.
I had booked a ticket on Cuba’s fastest train which travels the 850 kilometer route to Santiago Cuba in around 12 hours. It claims to be faster than the bus. Tickets cost $20 US dollars to Santa Clara for visitors. For Cubans and foreign residents the trip costs far less if purchased two weeks in advance.
This was Karim’s first train trip and he was very excited. As soon as I confirmed our tickets, he headed to the play area where a bunch of kids were on mechanical toys. Keeping him in eyeshot, I slipped out the open front doorway of the station where a nice breeze was a pleasant contrast to the sweltering heat inside.
I always have a hard time understanding what’s being said over loud speakers in bus terminals, train stations and airports, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that outside the station the messages were crystal clear. The second one I heard said our train had just arrived and would be soon boarding.
Twenty minutes later some 800 people would be on their way to Santa Clara, Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba, the only three stops on the express train.
Since the tickets have reserved seating, we were not hurried and were among the last to board. Our tickets said Coach No. 9 seats 7 and 8. We entered our carriage but to our surprise a woman and teenager eating a snack, were in what I thought were our seats.
The occupants informed us that the formal-looking numbers stamped above the seating weren’t the ones to follow. Instead, we had to look at the hand-written ones scrawled below them. “Go to the other side of car where the lower numbers begin,” they said. But when we reached the lower numbers, one of “our” seats was also occupied.
This woman was equally convinced that the number scheme was just the opposite, and directed us back to the other end of the car where we had come from. A little frustrated, but not discouraged, we decided to wait for the attendant to sort things out.
When she shut the door and finally came aboard, the three of us then repeated the routine. I began to think I had stumbled into a Marx Brothers movie. In the end, she asked one single passenger to move alongside another and we happily had our two seats.
Small curious kids ask a lot of questions. The first one was what the two buttons under the window were for. I had no idea, so we decided to ask the attendant when she came around to punch the tickets. “I think they were for reading lights, but they haven’t worked since I’ve been on this train,” she said.
Once we sat down and the train started to move, Karim asked why it was going backwards. I helped him figure out that it was our seats and not the train that were turned around.
For a short while, Karim was all eyes, face pressed up against the window. It wasn’t long, though, until the growing darkness and the rhythmic movement of the train had put him to sleep.
I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged man seated in front of us. He was heading home to Santiago de Cuba after visiting family in the capital. We never exchanged names but as the train chugged along, we discussed some of the burning issues facing the island. A union man, he was concerned about the need for improved salaries. We also talked about problems of workplace discipline and productivity, and the prospects for improved public transportation. He felt hopeful that the nation’s rebounding economy was headed in the right direction.
We arrived in the city of Santa Clara, 270 kilometers east of Havana, just before midnight. My plan was to catch a taxi to the Santa Clara Libre hotel located just off the central park, a ten-story building with a good view of the city.
However, there was no taxi or any other vehicle in sight. With Karim now wide awake, we hoofed to the center of town, some 15 blocks away. One of the nice things about Cuba is that you can be out on the streets late at night and feel perfectly safe – a far cry from many Latin American or US cities.
Vidal Park in the heart of Santa Clara was teeming with people at 12:30 a.m. However, the clerk at the hotel informed us that they were temporarily closed due to a water problem. Early that morning, buses of tour groups from Holland and Germany had been sent to stay at the hotels on the outskirts of the city.
Instead, she offered to call people who rented rooms in their homes to tourists. Fifteen minutes later a retired mechanical engineer named Aroldo Garcia had arrived at the hotel to walk us to his place, five blocks away. Cubans stay up pretty late, especially on the weekends watching movies, so we hadn’t woke him up.
The house was modest and clean. A corridor filled with plants led to our room which had air conditioning and a fan, a private bathroom with hot water, a refrigerator and a cassette player/radio as well. Karim was still not interested in sleeping so we had a late night coloring book session before finally falling asleep around 2:30 a.m. I think I dozed off first.
We woke up at 8:30 and Aroldo fixed us an ample breakfast that included an omelet, Cuban style bean soup, rice, toast, and lots of fresh fruit as well as juice and coffee. ALL SET FOR SIGHTSEEING
It was finally time to see the sights. The towering bronze statue of Che came into view several blocks before reaching it. The monument looks out onto a large plaza where large public gatherings are held. The walls around the pedestal are carved in bas-relief and include scenes of Che’s rebel troops taking of the city of Santa Clara.
Having forgotten to bring a camera —shame on me— I managed to recruit a Dutch visitor to take a picture of Karim in front of the towering Che. Through the marvels of e-mail, he said we should have the picture in a week.
We entered the air-conditioned museum and saw all the photos and personal belongings of Che and some of his comrades. Che’s doctor’s coat and olive green uniform, plus berets, pistols and rifles, knives, diaries, letters, radio, camera, fountain pen, medical and dentistry instruments are all carefully displayed. Karim was all eyes and ears.
Photos, some blown up huge, took us through Che’s life story, from his childhood in Argentina to the taking of Santa Clara, Cuba, and beyond to his last days in Bolivia where he was killed on October 9, 1967.
Shy at first, Karim informed one of the museum guides that “Che” is his brother. She reacted with acknowledgement, knowing exactly what he meant.
The museum exit door leads to the entrance of the mausoleum where Che’s remains rest with those of several internationalist comrades and Bolivians that had fought alongside him.
There is an eternal gas flame set in the floor of the somber yet magical burial chamber.THE FAMOUS ARMORED TRAIN
Next on the agenda was a visit to the “tren blindado” armored train museum. We got there part of the way in a horse drawn cart, — which appeared to be the main type of public transportation on the sunny Santa Clara Sunday.
The first thing you see upon arriving at the outdoor museum is a small yellow bulldozer welded on a metal platform. Behind it are several train cars that could have derailed yesterday.
The museum is closed on Sundays so we couldn’t go inside the freight cars but two women on guard duty were more than happy to fill Karim in on what had happened with the train back in December 1958, just days before the triumph of the Cuban revolution.
The rebel troops commanded by Che had been tipped off that the dictator Batista had sent a train full of troops and weapons eastward to try and stop their advance. The plan was to derail the train and capture the weapons.
And so it went. The little bulldozer dug up the rails and when the train derailed the rebel troops under Che opened fire. However, the armored car walls were impenetrable. The guard told us they had metal on the outside plus sand, wood and more metal.
She said the rebels set off explosions under the wooden floorboards and the smoke filled the cars forcing the soldiers to come out and surrender or die asphyxiated. The rebels then took charge of the weapons and finished off with the liberation of the city of Santa Clara.HEADING HOME
After a long walk down the center of the railroad tracks we went back to the house where we had stayed. Aroldo had family over as they were celebrating his daughter’s 37th birthday. There were a couple of children that immediately incorporated Karim into their games. I joined the adults for a couple shots of birthday rum and a varied conversation from baseball to music to economics.
It had been a full day and by 4 p.m. we were off in another horse drawn buggy to the bus station a few kilometers away. To our luck there were seats on a bus that pulled in just after 5 p.m. and by 5:30 we were headed home. Karim fell asleep as I watched the green countryside, the farms, reforestation efforts, and emblematic palm trees in the changing late afternoon light. By 8:30, we were in Havana just over 24 hours after having left from Central Station.
When Karim went to his pre-school the following Monday and proudly told some of his friends where he had been, only one actually believed him. As I write a week later, the photo just came from Holland and next week he can show the non-believers.