Travel: In the name of the revolution

Che Guevara is still a hero in Cuba, and the anniversary of his death marks a coming of age for the island's schoolchildren
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The Independent Culture
You can never tell what Havana is hiding behind its decomposing, glamour-queen facade. The buildings of the old town, once an ostentatious mix of fin-de-siecle splendour and stream-lined Art Deco, have merged into a uniform of peeling grey paint. Corinthian columns and elaborate ironworks sulk, forgotten in dark alleys. Once-lovely inner courtyard oases act as convenient landing-pads for bags of rubbish launched from upper-storey windows. All exterior staircases, especially the ones carved from wood, are suspect. Havana is rotting and rusting; it often stinks, and is very much alive.

Out walking one grey morning, I saw a colourful class of school children, from eight to maybe 10 years of age. They were waiting to cross the street. Singing, and holding hands in twos, they waited for their teacher to give them the sign to break formation and run for it. I stopped and watched. The signal came. They ran. The teacher was leading the way but an older boy was shepherding them from behind. I probably wouldn't have noticed him if he hadn't been carrying a framed, 3ft-high portrait of Che Guevara. I followed them.

They were heading straight towards my hotel. Half a block before they reached it, the juvenile centipede made a sharp left turn into an opening in the wall. I gave the boy with the poster time to pass through, then, slowly and casually, I walked past. There, open on to the street like a French pavement cafe, was a classroom full of six-year-olds. A school. I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was. I had walked past that building dozens of times and had always assumed that it was yet another run-down tenement. I stood back and appraised the building. Decades ago, it had been an ornate, three-storey private house.

There was a cluster of teachers standing in what would have been the hallway. One of them, a wiry woman in her thirties, smoking a cigarette, caught my eye. I smiled. She smiled back and suddenly, with a speed nearly unheard of in Havana, I was touring the school.

The six-year-olds were in what had probably been the drawing-room. The old dining-room housed a class of raucous nine-year-olds. The eight-year- olds were up a narrow wooden flight of stairs in the study. The third floor was for the older students. The rooms were much smaller - servant quarters, probably. It had been a beautiful house, but that was a long time ago, before the paintings on the walls had been replaced by posters of revolutionary heroes - certainly before the schoolchildren had been born; probably before most of the teachers had been born. The rooms were sparse, the desks and chairs old, and the blackboards rubbed brown. Most of the children, some barefoot but all well fed and keen, were using notebooks that had clearly been used many times before, their pencilled notes erased at the end of each year.

I pointed at one of the omnipresent faded posters of Che and asked my hostess about the poster the young boy had been carrying in the street. She got excited. She spoke fast when she got excited. Two cigarettes later, I finally figured it out. The primary school was preparing for one of the most important days on its calendar. The day when the six-year-olds are inducted into grade one. The day when the grade threes ceremoniously exchange the blue scarf they have worn for the past three years for the red one they will wear for the next three. The school was preparing to commemorate the day Che Guevara died in a hail of bullets in Bolivia. My new friend invited me to attend the next day's show. I said that I'd be honoured.

At 9am the next morning, I walked down to Revolution Park, the small patch of widened street and disheartened flora directly in front of the Ministry of the Interior, and across a thundering boulevard from the Museum of the Revolution.

The students were already there, all spiffed up, divided into classes and surrounded by beaming relatives. I spotted my friend. She was so frantic that she wasn't even smoking. My boy was still carrying his Che poster but now he stood just a shade more erect. This was graduation day, after all.

Then, suddenly, it started. Class by class, they sang. Graceful children stepped out of formation to make heartfelt speeches. A sparkling 12-year- old raised her voice in an achingly beautiful solo, chorused by her classmates. A young cadet from the Ministry of the Interior, not more than 17 or 18, took the make-shift podium and spoke with the fervour of a preacher. The same phrases echoed throughout: "Seremos como Che", "amigo Che", "Che, Comandante". The square was charged with emotion, reaching a climax when the young ones, around eight years old, formed a V and faced the podium. A parent flanked each child and, on cue, awkwardly untied the student's blue neckerchief and knotted in its place a red one. All glowed with pride.

I turned to the grinning Cuban next to me and asked what had just happened. He explained that the blue neckerchief symbolised that the child was willing to "die in a hail of bullets for socialism". But, now that they were older, they were eligible to "die in a hail of bullets for communism", just like their hero Che.

The ceremony ended with a scratchy record of a speech by Che. It was the root of many of the songs, poems and speeches made by the young students. It ended with the impassioned cry: "Patria o muerte" - homeland or death. And while most children fidgeted like any child after an enforced period of good behaviour, some had tears in their eyes. The same sort of tears as those shed by patriotic Americans hearing "The Star-Spangled Banner" or Christians hearing "Onward Christian Soldiers". They were the tears of faith.

Chasing Che

CLEO PASKAL paid pounds 450 for a week's package holiday in Cuba, including a charter flight from Manchester and a room at the Hotel Internacional in the resort of Varadero. She hitch-hiked to Havana - a practice which is widely employed by Cubans, regardless of age or gender.

In Havana, she paid $12 (pounds 7) a night at the Hotel Caribbean, in Old Havana at Paseo de Mart 164 (tel 00 53 7 33 8233).

The life of Che Guevara is described with passion and clarity in two recent biographies, now available in paperback: Che Guevara: a Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson (Bantam, pounds 12.99); and Companero: the Life and Death of Che Guevara by Jorge Castenada (Bloomsbury, pounds 8.99).