As Castro breathes, Cubans wait

Change: The revolution the 75-year-old led decades ago evolved into a dependence on capitalism and his determination, with communism and zeal fading.

May 05, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

TRINIDAD, Cuba - Ernesto "Che" Guevara, almost luminous in his revolutionary zeal, stares from the gift shop at the sprawling and swanky Hotel Trinidad Del Mar, about 180 miles southeast of Havana.

European vacationers, middle-aged, well-fed and sunburned, choose from the Che 2002 calendars and posters, bearing the iconic photo of the Argentine-born hero of the Cuban revolution. There are also Che T-shirts, Che lapel pins, Che refrigerator magnets and Che cigar cases. His writings and biographies, arranged neatly on a stand, sit unopened.

Che's daring and skillful military attack at Santa Clara in December 1958 was key in Fidel Castro's eventual victory over the cruel and repressive dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. In an effort to export the Cuban revolution, Guevara traveled to Bolivia, where he was shot by government soldiers.

Now the man who despised capitalism has become a trinket, purchased with eagerly accepted American dollars. And his old comrade Castro, with the help of mostly Italian capitalist investment, has built this Disney-like hotel that hawks his image along this perfect stretch of Caribbean beach.

From the grand parks and promenades of old Havana to the pristine and nearly deserted beaches of the Bay of Pigs, from the cobblestone streets of 16th century Trinidad to the massive Soviet-like memorial to Che in Santa Clara - the folly on both sides of the Cuban-American stalemate becomes clear.

The billboards with their windy talk of The People and The Revolution and Imperialist Yankees seem hollow next to the gleaming hotels and resorts that bar most Cubans while catering to foreign tourists who could not care less about the revolution. Young locals hover outside. Men promise black-market Cohiba cigars and young women brazenly offer themselves.

A display in the Museum of the Revolution, in Havana's ornate former Presidential Palace, scolds the Batista regime for the prostitution patronized by U.S. sailors on rum-drenched liberty and frolickers from Miami who came for the beaches and the casinos and the girls. Today the socialist morals are guarded by hordes of beret-wearing police who loll about, impassive to all about them.

Not far from Havana's main avenues and newly restored hotels, wash hangs from dilapidated buildings. In the shadow of Che's monument at Santa Clara, people live in hovels built of scrap metal.

At the same time, the tight, four-decade-old U.S. embargo and talk by conservative U.S. congressmen of the "Cuban threat" appear almost as anachronistic as the 1950s vintage American cars still driven in Havana. The embodiment of the threat reveals himself in a video at the Museum of the Revolution. The aging Castro - swimming and talking with average Cubans - is more pathetic than fearsome, especially since losing his chief partner in belligerency against the United States more than a decade ago when the Soviet Union collapsed.

With his graying beard and ill-fitting fatigues, it seems as if Castro's own most powerful enemy now is time.

When we returned from Cuba, U.S. Customs officers peppered us - journalists allowed to travel in spite of the embargo - with questions we never heard in the island dictatorship. What is the purpose of your visit? Where did you go? What did you buy? One of our party was forced to provide receipts and was sternly told the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control would be notified. (American law does not prohibit travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, but restricts spending U.S. currency there.)

Three weeks earlier, another scene bordering on the absurd played out in Giron, a sleepy Cuban beach town that was the main attack zone in the failed U.S.-supported invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. A colonel from a NATO country stayed in a bed and breakfast at Giron. After he left, Cuban state security officers came to question the owner. What did the colonel say, the security officers wanted to know. Where did he go? Did he take pictures?

As if NATO might seriously be interested in Giron's military installations: a few whitewashed garage-like buildings with a flag-pole and a weightlifting bench.

Dislike of Americans

The B&B owner, a beefy and pleasant 32-year-old, is a committed communist who wore a New York Knicks T-shirt. He was asked about the post-Fidel Cuba. "That is the $1,000 question," he said, fearing the death of Fidel would bring in American tourists and businesses in full force. "They don't care about people, only money," he said, puffing on a long cigar.

Like most Cubans one talks to, he asked not to be named. Freedom of speech is not high on the Castro regime's agenda.

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