Travel `98: October Havana

It's a revolutionary survivor, home to the remains of Che Guevara and ruled by the world's longest-serving political leader. Simon Calder visits Cuba

You know Cuba, of course - that glorious confusion of Spanish colonialism and West African rhythms, encircled by the finest beaches in the Caribbean and enriched by 10 million people whose generosity has barely been bruised by the bad times. The largest island in the Caribbean, but a mere splinter beneath the underbelly of the United States. Once an outsize missile base, which Moscow liked to accord as little respect as an obscure Soviet republic. Remarkable revolutionary survivor of, a) CIA subversion; b) the collapse of the USSR and consequent economic calamity; c) astonishingly elongated and turgid speeches by the world's longest-serving political leader.

You know Fidel, of course. For the majority of his 71 years he has ruled with a single-mindedness that is reflected in the one-party state he created. Last Thursday morning, the state newspaper Granma proudly changed a tiny detail on its masthead: since New Year's Day, the nation has been enjoying Ano 40 de la Revolucion. Not only has Fidel Castro endured - his revolution has survived to middle age, outliving many of its friends (Che Guevara and the Soviet Union), and foes (miscellaneous US presidents and the despised exile, Jorge Mas Canosa, who fought Fidel from Florida until his death two months ago).

You know this because Cuba is the last recalcitrant ruffle in the post- Cold War world, refusing to be ironed out. It punches way beyond its weight thanks to a combination of muscular national identity and iron political discipline. Fortune lends a hand, too. A casual remark by a retired Bolivian army officer to Che's biographer, Jon Lee Anderson, led to the discovery of Guevara's remains. Castro, who has assiduously milked the legend of the asthmatic Argentinian freedom fighter, was able to preside over the triumphal return of Cuba's greatest revolutionary. On 8 October last year, the 30th anniversary of his execution, Che was laid to rest in the city of Santa Clara - where he led the rebels in their decisive battle against troops of the dictator Batista.

And, unless you've been operating your own Washington-style embargo of the travel pages, you know that a certain sense of humour is required for any trip to the wonderfully wayward land.

Santa Clara is the place to start a revolutionary trail, but anyone seeking a glimpse of the handless skeleton will be disappointed. No Lenin-style mausoleum for Che; a simple brass plate indicates the casket containing his remains. The armoured train that lies toppled beside the railway in the city centre is a more tangible symbol of insurrection.

Where next? To the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, perhaps, where the vast, saintly image of Che beams from the south wall of the Communications Ministry, seeking to inspire a nation ground down by economic privation. The tall monument in Revolution Square is to another hero, Jose Marti - the father of Cuban independence, and another martyr to the cause. Until last year, it was sealed off by soldiers, until someone realised you could charge tourists $10 a go to travel to the top.

To go back to the very beginning, you should finally check in at the Rex Hotel in Santiago de Cuba, the eastern capital. Here, after a meal of chicken washed down with beer, the first floundering attempt at defeating Batista was launched: on 26 July, 1953, a feeble assault on the nearby Moncada Barracks. Most of the rebels perished. Castro survived to fight another day. At his trial, he gave a five-hour speech which can be summed up in a single line: "History will absolve me". And perhaps, despite everything, it will.

Simon Calder is co-author of the `Travellers' Survival Kit: Cuba and Cuba in Focus'.

How to get there

Cubana (0171-734 1165) flies three times a week from Gatwick to Havana and once a week from Manchester.

You say you want a revolution?

St Petersburg Perhaps the fact that the October Revolution was, according to most of the rest of the world, actually a November rebellion should have signified that Leninism was an ideology out of time. But all the paraphernalia lives on, from the cruiser Aurora (which fired the shot that triggered the revolt), to the Winter Palace.

Pyongyang You know a Communist regime is in big trouble when it starts courting tourism. North Korea has held out longer than most, but needs foreign currency so badly that it is prepared to welcome Andy Kershaw as a regular visitor.

Boston The Freedom Trail through America's most human city celebrates the insurrection against the Crown. In the course of the Revolution, much British property was confiscated and has yet to be returned. Yet the return of title is the central plank of the US trade embargo that seeks to strangle Cuba.

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