9 Sep 2015

Founding Fathers: A Cuba Travelogue

EHE partners Dr. Brian DeToy and Sheryl Rankin Shafer were recently published, along with several of Sheryl’s photos, in Destinations Travel Magazine! Check out the article entitled Founding Fathers: A Cuba Travelogue! http://destinationstravelmagazine.com/September2015/#/86

Cuba is hot this year. The Pearl of the Antilles is anticipating an influx of Americans out to discover this country so tantalizingly close yet prohibido for so long. Under the slight lifting of restrictions, my wife and I recently traveled there. As a retired history professor, I wished to visit a number of sites. We also operate a history- and culture-based tour company, Essential History Expeditions (www.historyexp.com), and were eager to determine if Cuba should be in our portfolio of fascinating tours.

Fidel Castro looms like a sine qua non presence in Cuban history, overshadowing all who came before. However, we found two Cubans who should hold equal sway. One, Jose Marti, (1853-95), is known as the “Apostle of Independence,” and his writings have formed the basis for nearly all Cuban political groups over the past 120 years, including Castroites and their arch-enemies. The other, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, (1819-74), known as the “Father of the Country,” is almost forgotten. On our trip we saw places important to each and began to understand how their images were created and why they diverged over the past century.

Our first stop was the southern city of Santiago de Cuba. A cradle of insurrections, Santiago is called the “City of Heroes.” Its lively heart is the Parque Cespedes, in the center of which is a bronze bust of its namesake. A wealthy, well-educated man, the sugar plantation owner was a first-generation Cuban or criollo (as opposed to a Spanish-born peninsulare) who sought the independence other Spanish-American colonies achieved a generation earlier.

In the centuries-old Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, Cespedes and Marti lie a hundred yards apart. Cespedes’ grave is an attractive memorial, fitting for a founding father. Marti’s is something else again. It is a gigantic, ornate mausoleum of Italian carrara marble. Think Grant’s tomb in Manhattan or Napoleon’s in Paris. Every half-hour soldiers conduct a ceremonial changing of the guard. Why the difference between the Padre de la Patria and the Apostol de la Independencia? The answer would come as we headed, like Castro in 1959, along a route through the provinces leading to Havana.

Driving in Cuba is a Back-to-the-Future endeavor. The roads are abysmal outside the cities and free-ranging farm animals often cross paths with a wide assortment of vehicles. Horse carts and huge buses, and tiny Trabants, tractors and trailer trucks. And hundreds of 1950s American cars, many gorgeously maintained. There are many billboards, most with messages from 1962 — Long Live the Glorious People’s Revolution! Or The Revolution Dignifies the Life of the Countryperson! Or Socialism or Death! Mile-after-mile on the highways, block-by-block within the cities, the billboards continue to . . . inspire. More numerous than billboards are busts of Marti. Invariably made of white-painted concrete, these stand by the thousands. Throughout our drives and walks, Marti’s head appeared in front of nearly every public edifice and park.

Cespedes finally has his day in our next stop, his birthplace town of Bayamo, capital of history-rich Granma province. Here is the square where Cespedes began the War of Independence. Here the National Anthem was written and first performed. Here is the town center, with buildings still fire-marked, where the citizens set their village ablaze rather than surrender to the Spaniards.

Cespedes reigns in Bayamo. His statue dominates the gorgeous town square, officially the Plaza de la Revolution but called Parque Cespedes. A plaque memorializes his reply to the Spanish when they captured his son. They wanted to exchange Oscar’s life for Céspedes’ resignation as President of the Cuban Republic. He famously answered that Oscar was not his only son because every Cuban who died in the revolution was also his son. The Spanish duly executed Oscar.

Like Santiago, Bayamo is a center of Cuban revolt. From Cespedes and Marti to Castro. Nearby is the field where Marti fell in battle and became a martyr as he initiated the second phase of the War of Independence in 1895. Fidel gave his penultimate public speech, in 2006, in Bayamo – memorializing the Revolution and the role of this province. Granma is named for the yacht that brought Castro’s 30 revolutionaries, including brother Raul and Che, from Mexico in 1956 to start the fight from a hideaway in the Sierra Maestre.

From our balcony overlooking the square, we could see the mist-shrouded mountains in the south. That night we sat on a park bench and watched men play chess and checkers as they sipped rum, observed single goats pull gaily-painted carts with several small children, and saw teenage lovers holding hands.

The next morning we entered Cespedes’ house, now a museum on the park and one of the few buildings to survive the 1869 immolation. We engaged the historian in a two hour give-and-take on the meaning of Cespedes. In an impassioned discourse, the young man explained Manuel’s coming of age as a reyoyo or second generation criollo in the 1820s-40s, his Barcelona university education and travels through Europe in a revolutionary age. Cespedes was a changed young man when he returned to Bayamo and took over the family sugar plantations, merchant houses and fortune. A generational split between those who supported the traditional Spanish power structure in Cuba and those who were emboldened by the revolutionary ideas of Europe and South America was occurring throughout Cuba. A full-blown revolutionary, with a plan for a free, independent Cuban government, Manuel was soon under close watch by the Spanish authorities and imprisoned several times.

The ground shifted in the mid-1860s. Demand for Cuban sugar plummeted and many plantations failed. The island was primed for revolution, and in 1868 the spark was a coup in Madrid that led to governmental change across the Atlantic. Cespedes exhorted his fellow conspirators: “This is the time and this is our chance. Gentlemen, the hour is solemn and decisive. The power of Spain is decrepit and worm-eaten; if it still appears great and strong to us, it is because for more than three centuries we have contemplated it from our knees. So … Rise! This is the time!”

The Governor, hearing of impending revolt, sent a telegraph message on October 8th across all of Cuba which said, in essence: No matter who rules in Madrid, Cuba must remain Spanish; arrest all conspirators. When the Bayamo operator, Cespedes’ nephew, received the telegram, he quickly informed Manuel that he was on the arrest list. That night Cespedes and a few close compatriots wrote their “Manifest of the Cuban Revolution Joint to its Country Fellows and the Nations of the World.” On the 10th, Cespedes went to his sugar mill at Demarra and, joined by 250 men, free and slave, he addressed the crowd and unveiled Cuba’s founding national document. Independence! Cespedes then went a step further. “My brothers,” he proclaimed to his slaves, “Until today I have been a Lord of Men. From today on, I will be a servant of the people! You are all free!” The call to freedom and action is known as the Grito de Yara (Cry of Yara, after a nearby town).

I had one last question — Why is Jose Marti so much more prevalent than Cespedes? “Ahh,” said the young historian, “that is because Fidel, he is a bicho.” A bicho? “Yes, a buck; a very clever and capable man, one who can read the people. Fidel recognized that the Cuban people have a greater love for Marti than any other man. He spoke to their hearts and spirits as no one else had.” Further, the disgraced Batista regime, overthrown in 1959, had appropriated both Marti and Cespedes, as all Cuban governments must; but, in their higher elevation of Cespedes, they allowed Fidel to wrap himself in Marti’s mantle. The Castros have maintained their revolution was the logical outgrowth of all Marti wrote and aspired to: Latin America for Latin Americans, without Yanqui interference. Yes, they say, Cespedes is important; but Marti is the true embodiment of Cuba.

Marti was born in Havana to a Spanish father and a Canary Islands mother. Young Jose was influenced by ideas of liberty and independence. Importantly, he thought about what type of society Cuba would have in that independent state. When Cespedes’ War of Independence began, Marti contributed to the cause in debate and poetry and was jailed as a traitor. At 18, exiled from Cuba by the Spanish, he began a nomadic existence across both sides of the Atlantic, constantly in support of the Cuban cause. He spent over a decade in the US as a poet, novelist, pamphleteer, journalist and editor. Marti’s time in America, especially in New York and Tampa where he organized the expatriate Cuban community, gave him strong feelings for and against US-style democracy and economic rights. He saw much to admire and much to deplore, and developed a philosophy for a Cuban system. His prolific writings kept the embers of rebellion going and eventually led to renewing the War for Independence. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes organized and fought for a free Cuba. But Jose Marti put a philosophy behind his dream and led through inspiring words and decisive action. And although both men died in the cause, Cespedes’ revolution failed, while Marti’s triumphed. And nothing succeeds like success.
From Bayamo, we traveled the length of the country, spending nights in rough Camaguey, beautiful, French-influenced Cienfuegos and Playa Larga on the Bahia dos Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). Each location brought more of the same: a park or statue named for Cespedes and a multitude of references to Marti.

The Bay of Pigs, scene of the ill-fated CIA-backed counterrevolution in April 1961, is an hour’s drive from Cienfuegos and enroute we observed farm workers drying rice right on the roadway. The museum in Playa Giron, a main invasion beach along with Larga, is over-the-top in terms of propaganda with little perspective balance. But the heartbreaking stories of Cubans in the region under the Batista regime are nicely juxtaposed with inspiring ones of what has happened in the area since 1961.
Departing Larga, we headed to our final destination on this incredible journey – La Habana. We spent three days and nights in the capital and were overwhelmed with its beauty, vibrancy and history. We walked the famed oceanside Malecon esplanade, climbed about the El Morro and La Cabana fortifications, and visited the Tropicana nightclub and the art deco Hotel Nacional. We dined at phenomenal paladars, privately-owned restaurants emerging since Raul Castro provided a small opening in the prohibition of private enterprise.

Again, Jose Marti dominated the personality debate. A fairly new statue stands before the American Embassy along the Malecon – Marti is holding a child, Elian Gonzalez, and pointing accusingly at the Americans. Gonzalez was the boy whose US immigration in 1999, and subsequent repatriation to Cuba the following year, caused an enormous international imbroglio. A few miles away, the Plaza de la Revolution lies in obeisance before a tremendous monumental hilltop tower. At the base, looking downhill at the plaza and the city beyond, is a large, brooding Marti. Facing him, across the plaza, are two iconic artworks dedicated to Castro revolutionaries. One is the world-famous Argentinean, Che Guevara. The other is the more enigmatic Cuban Camilo Cienfuegos. A young Cuban told us, “Che, as a foreigner, was no threat to Fidel, and would soon be off to fight in other lands. Camilo, however, was almost as important to the Cuban people as the Castros.” A famed guerrilla, Camilo was associated with revolutionaries who were not enamored with Fidel’s seemingly abrupt embrace of orthodox Communism. The young man continued, “Most of us believe Fidel had Cienfuegos ‘disappeared,’ as Camilo took off on a flight in 1961, on a mission directed by Castro, and no trace of plane or man was ever seen again.”

An old adage opines ‘revolutions eat their young.’ Perhaps. What is not in doubt is that Castro embraced a cult of Jose Marti and, essentially, ‘disappeared’ Manuel de Cespedes. In the US we have our own sense of ambivalence towards the “Father of our Country.” George Washington is seemingly marble, aloof, unknowable. We do not memorize his speeches and writings. We admire him for leading our armies in the War of Independence and guiding our early years as a republic. But we do not love him. Instead, our affection is pointed towards the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. We love his coming-of-age tale, his homespun western sensibility and his steely grit in carrying the nation through its most harrowing days. We know Lincoln’s stories, his brilliant writing and, more than anything, his heartfelt speeches. He is the embodiment of America. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that in downtown Havana’s Parque de la Fraternidad, in which each American nation placed a bust of one of its leaders, the United States sent one of Abraham Lincoln. Maybe each country has its Cespedes and Marti, its Washington and Lincoln.


Dr. Brian DeToy is a retired Army officer who most recently ran the Defense & Strategic Studies program at the US Military Academy, West Point. He is an author and historian, with an undergraduate degree from Notre Dame and a PhD from Florida State in European History. He has appeared on numerous television documentaries focused on various aspects of history. Brian has led more than 150 tours of over 50 cities and battlefields on three continents.

Sheryl Rankin Shafer is a freelance writer, researcher and editor focusing on educational leadership and business marketing communications. She has leadership experience in the start-up phase of multiple corporate and nonprofit businesses, both as a consultant and as a member of the board of directors. She is currently president of an education software company; her published work focuses on the education field. She holds an MA in in Leadership, Policy and Politics from Columbia University’s Teachers College and a Master of Nonprofit Management from Regis University.
Together, Brian and Sheryl own and operate Essential History Expeditions, a small tour company focusing on high-end guided travel to explore the history and culture of countries, cities and battlefields around the world. For more information, including upcoming trips to Cuba, visit www.historyexp.com.