Part of being a tourist in Cuba is sorting out the puzzle of its ideology and its struggling economy. With the country opening up to tourism, softening its controls on society, and preparing for the inevitable end of the Castro era, traveling here is filled with fun and curious insights.
Fidel Castro is beloved by many for winning Cuba's independence from the dictatorship of Batista, and loathed by many for keeping the country out of the global economic and political mainstream. Visiting Americans who may be inclined to criticize Cuban policies compare the economy and civil liberties to their reality in the USA, and find it horrible. Others compare the economic reality of workers here to workers anywhere else in Latin America, and find it roughly the same (from a material wealth point of view) -- and note Cuba's comparative advantage in health care, education, stability, and safety. When it comes to crime, drugs, and gang-related violence, communist Cuba is far safer than capitalist Latin American countries. But this is not a democracy, and being a dissident here can land you in jail. While other countries have their economic elites in business, Cuba has its economic elites in high government posts.
In 1956, Fidel Castro and a few dozen fellow Cuban Revolutionaries motored a yacht from Mexico to Cuba intent on overthrowing the Batista dictatorship. (Batista was friendly with the big American corporations that dominated the Cuban economy. He also stripped Cuban people of many rights and arrested anyone who took a stand against him.) With a mix of heartless brutality, political brilliance, and liberty-or-death courage and idealism, Castro and his gang inspired Cubans to rise up and overthrow their government. And in 1960, Castro -- now the leader of the island -- found himself in Havana speaking to the masses who filled what was later renamed "Revolution Square."
The Museum of the Revolution tells that amazing story from a Cuban point of view. It shows off the good ship Granma, in which Fidel Castro and the original band of 82 Revolutionaries cruised from Mexico to gain a toehold on the island and eventually rally the people to overthrow their corrupt dictator, Batista. The museum also displays, with simple typed descriptions in old-school glass cases, the humble artifacts of that stirring Revolution.
Castro's right-hand man was Che Guevara. While you see lots of monuments to Che and the revolutionary hero from a century earlier (José Martí), you rarely see Fidel Castro's image on monuments. But he looms large in many Cuban hearts.
Che Guevara is the classic dashing Revolutionary, and a big seller from souvenir shops to tattoo parlors. While a charismatic leader, he was also a brutal killer. I resist the temptation to celebrate Che.
In Cuba, you see very little advertising beyond simple store signs. But there are plenty of billboards with political messages. The propaganda I saw was not anti-Imperialism or anti-American (except for anti-embargo messages), but rather pro-Cuban Revolution and pro-Cuban dignity and independence. Many of them tied Castro and the Cuban Revolution to two newer world figures: the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez (Venezuela provides Cuba with critical economic support -- desperately needed considering the US embargo and the fall of the USSR, which propped up the Cuban economy for so long) and Nelson Mandela (a fellow hero of the "non-aligned world" -- developing nations that refused to formally align with the big powers during the Cold War).