Six revolutionary sights
Saturday 29 July 1995
Bolivia itself is the best place to start a revolutionary tour of Latin America. A golpe de estado (coup d'etat) comes around rather more frequently than Christmas, with an average of one every 11 months since independence. This sort of record is what gives Latin America a bad name, and helps to explain why so few British travellers venture south of the Mexican border. If ever there was a lost continent in travel terms, it is Latin America - fewer than one in 100 of us journey to the world's greatest concentration of delicious eccentricity.
Those who set their preconceptions aside are rewarded with a continent of extremes (the driest desert, wettest jungle, highest railway line ...) and peoples of extreme generosity. This is a heroic continent, and perfect terrain for the revolutionary tourist. Here are half a dozen places where the spirit of Che lives on: from Santiago de Cuba to Santiago de Chile.
1. Moncada Barracks, Santiago, Cuba: On 26 July 1953 a motley collection of revolutionaries attacked this brute-ugly barracks in Cuba's second city. Fidel Castro and his fellow rebels failed dismally, but set in train the events that led to the seizure of power on New Year's Day 1959 - and the eternal hatred of the United States. Today the barracks is a primary school, with several rooms set aside to revere the revolutionaries. In the manner of all Cuban revolutionary museums, the blood-stained shirt is a particularly favoured relic.
2. Trotsky's home, Mexico City: The sombre answer to the Stranglers' inquiry ("Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky?") is lying on the elegant desk of a modest villa in a suburb of the city. The familiar spectacles lie cracked where they fell when the Russian revolutionary was attacked with an ice axe as he wrote. Stalin was not satisfied with exiling his rival, and despatched an assassin to despatch Trotsky. His grave lies within the fortified garden, whose defences were insufficient to prevent the execution. An apparent Trotsky clone (actually a bespectacled nephew) takes visitors around the sombre scenes of an ideological crime.
3. The Cathedral, San Salvador: Archbishop Romero was not a revolutionary in the mould of Trotsky, but his liberation theology was equally inspiring to the oppressed peoples of El Salvador. For a right-wing death squad, this was a good enough reason for his murder during a church service. The cathedral itself is in disarray, with cracks caused by a recent earthquake, but El Salvador is now calm - so far with few takers for some of the best beaches on the whole Pacific coast.
4. The Sandino Monument, Managua, Nicaragua: A hat dominates the skyline in Central America's most grotesque capital city. The broad-brimmed monument is a constant reminder of Augusto Cesar Sandino. He was the martyr who fought for five years against US domination of Nicaragua; shortly after his triumph, he was assassinated by General Anastasio Somoza. The brutal Somoza dynasty was eventually toppled in 1979 by Daniel Ortega's Sandinistas, taking their name, cue and inspiration from Sandino. During the Eighties, Nicaragua provided a heroic (and often chaotic) example of popular rebellion, but it was fatally weakened by an American trade embargo and the US-backed "Contra" guerrillas. At the end of the decade, the cordoba slipped below 1 million to the dollar, and a country regularly crippled by earthquakes reverted to a peculiarly Nicaraguan form of capitalism.
5. Colombia: As detailed in the Independent Magazine last week, this is the kidnap capital of the world. Yet most visitors report nothing but kindness from the people of this genuinely civilised nation. At the heart of Bogota, the capital, the last refuge of Simon Bolivar is a placid hacienda buried among the high-rises. The libertador who rid Latin America of Spanish domination died in chilling isolation described by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in The General in his Labyrinth. Outside, the belligerent traffic pays constant stinking tribute to the forces of liberty Bolivar unleashed: the amphetamised frenzy of life in Colombia, intoxicating and addictive.
6. Palacio de la Moneda, Santiago, Chile: In the mid-19th century La Moneda (a mint dating from1805 and designed by the Italian-born architect Joaquin Toesca) became home to Chilean presidents. The palace was severely damaged by military jets, tanks, bazookas, mortars and machine-gun fire on 11 September 1973, when General Augusto Pinochet (with a little help from Washington) led a coup against the democratically elected Marxist government of Salvador Allende, friend of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Allende died in a hail of bullets, gun in hand. La Moneda, and democracy, have since been restored, but the august general is still very much in command of troops who bravely mowed down unarmed civilians here 22 years ago.
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