Travels on Cuba’s revolutionary trail with Fidel

Simon Calder prescribes ‘el camino correcto’ —‘the right path’ to explore the Castro legacy

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The Independent Travel

Whether you regard Fidel Castro as a revolutionary hero who fought for the rights of his people, or an oppressive tyrant, the late Cuban leader leaves a nation like none other. 

Glorious colonial cities, dazzling beaches and superb tropical landscapes are underpinned by a vibrant culture that has eluded the Americanisation of lesser Caribbean islands. The huge, decaying 1950s cars that lurch around Havana tell a story of decades of hardship during the US economic embargo. Meanwhile the socialist slogans everywhere show that Fidel’s younger brother Raul, has no intention of discarding the Castro legacy. 

While Cubans come to terms with the loss of the man who dominated their lives, the traveller can follow in Fidel’s revolutionary footsteps.

Where did it all begin?

Fidel’s career as a revolutionary started disastrously in Cuba’s second city, Santiago de Cuba, which is in the centre of the island’s anvil-like south-eastern shore. 

On the evening of 25 July 1953, a group of rebels assembled at the city’s Hotel Rex, on Avenida ​Garzón, just off the Plaza de Marte. They dined on chicken, rice and beer. Next morning Castro, a young lawyer, led an armed attack of around 150 on the nearby Moncada Barracks, an important garrison for the dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

The attack, in which some rebels turned up by taxi, was a dismal failure. But the movement named after the dates of the attack, Movimiento 26 Julio or M 26-7, formed the basis for Castro’s next attempt, and is still is celebrated across the nation.

The barracks now contains a museum, while room 36 at the Rex Hotel is preserved as a shrine to the revolutionaries. 

Castro and some other survivors managed to escape to the hills of the Sierra Maestra, but surrendered after gaining assurances via the Archbishop of Santiago that they would be given a fair trial. Fidel was sentenced to 15 years. He served two years in the Presidio Modelo on the Isle of Youth, in the Caribbean about 100 miles south of Havana. This prison, based on an American design, comprises five giant circular blocks. There is now a museum on the site.

Castro was released in an amnesty in May 1955, and went into exile in Mexico. Here Castro met an Argentinian doctor, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who shared his revolutionary zeal.

And then?

At the time Cuba was a playground for rich Americans. A 1956 book called Escape to the West Indies describes “a giant car ferry from Key West to Cardenas, Cuba” and says “United States visitors take off for Cuba every hour by plane for a flight that requires only 30 minutes”. But later that year, things started to change.

On 25 November 1956, exactly 60 years before he died, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and 80 fellow revolutionaries began a week-long voyage from Tuxpan in Mexico. Their invasion took place aboard Granma, an overloaded cabin cruiser. They came ashore at Playa Las Coloradas, near Manzanillo in south-east Cuba. Che later described it as “not a landing, but a shipwreck”. A monument now marks the spot. 

Close to here, Alegria de Pio was the location for the first skirmish between the rebels and Batista’s troops. Over the next two years, the depleted band of revolutionaries won support from the public and began to march towards Havana. 

Further west, Guantanamo is a handsome city in its own right – but best known for the US naval base where Washington keeps detainees. One of the most eerie experiences of fly-drive in Cuba is when the American military radio station accompanies you as you drive along the coast. Every year, the US government wrote a cheque for $4,085 (£3,273) in rent for the site, and every year Fidel refused to cash it. 

Where next?

The city of Santa Clara, which would be a pleasant but unremarkable city were it not for one event that marked the climax of the revolutionary struggle. Track down the Tren Blindado, astride the main railway line from Santiago de Cuba in the south east of the island to Havana, the capital. By late December 1958, Fidel Castro and his fellow rebels had fought their way from the south-east of the island to the centre of Cuba.

The dictator, Fulgencio Batista, dispatched a ‘tren blindado’ – armoured train – full of troops to subdue the insurrection. But in Santa Clara, the train was derailed – with the help of a bulldozer, which removed a section of track.

After a fierce battle, the government soldiers surrendered to rebels commanded by an Argentinian, Ernesto Guevara – better known as Che. By New Year’s Day 1959, Batista recognised the game was up and fled the Presidential Palace in Havana. Today, Che and his comrades who lost their lives in Bolivia are interred in a memorial at the Plaza de la Revolución in Santa Clara. The Presidential Palace in the capital is now the Museum of the Revolution.

Havana’s highlights?

The Museum of the Revolution, on the edge of Old Havana, tells the story of 20th century Cuba from the point of view of the victors, with faded photographs, bloodstained uniforms and Che Guevara’s black beret. Within its grounds, in a glass case, is the cabin cruiser Granma — alongside vehicles and military hardware. It opens generally 10am-5pm daily, admission CUC3 (£2.50).

Across the city, the Vedado district it is dominated by the Habana Libre Hotel, on the corner of Calles L and 23. It opened in 1958 as the Havana Hilton, but was taken over by Fidel Castro for his post-revolutionary headquarters less than a year later and promptly renamed as the ‘‘free Havana”.

For more on the capital, see 48 Hours in Havana

Anywhere else?

Go east. Varadero is at the far end of the Via Blanca highway from Havana, a late 1950s project that provides one of Cuba’s great drives. The strip of sand that comprised the main resort for American visitors was used by Fidel to rescue Cuba.

The last year of Fidel Castro’s Golden Age was 1989. It began with the revolutionaries celebrating three decades since their triumph on New Year’s Day 1959. In the interim, Cuba had acted as sometime aircraft carrier for the Soviet Union, and thorn in the heel of Washington - of immense strategic and propaganda value to the Kremlin. In return, Fidel’s regime enjoyed a sugar-for-oil swap that was skewed to Cuba’s immense advantage.

When the Soviet Union unravelled, the pipeline dried up. Castro changed his message from “Socialism or death” to “Welcome to Cuba”. He concluded that the only way to preserve the gains of the revolution was to harness Cuba’s immense potential as a holiday destination.

South of Varadero, Cardenas projects the gently crumbling face of a nation hamstrung by the US economic embargo. And on the south coast, Playa Girón is central to the story of 20th century Cuba. In April 1961 a force of 1,400 US-trained Cuban exiles landed here from Nicaragua in Plan Pluto, which became known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. Fidel Castro took personal command of repelling the invaders, and sealed his image as hero for the oppressed.