Revolution, race and religion in Havana

In Havana, the signs of the revolution were everywhere. On the first morning, we wandered into a small museum featuring mementos from the revolutionary brigades of 1959. Military vehicles—from tanks and armored personnel carriers to the Granma, the ship on which Castro sailed to Cuba from exile in Mexico—form the main outdoor exhibit at the showpiece Museum of the Revolution. Indeed, military vehicles are scattered all over the downtown area in parks and monuments, as ubiquitous as Lenin statues in the former Soviet Union. Some plaques note that the vehicle was used in the struggle against the Yanqui imperialists—a reference to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

The sixth in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/


Street and place names evoke revolutionary history. The port terminal is called the Sierra Maestra, the mountain range where Castro assembled his guerrilla army before advancing west. Boulevards are named for socialist heroes, such as the Chilean president Salvador Allende. What was more remarkable than the official propaganda was the unofficial stuff, most likely the work of ordinary people who believed in the revolution—a hammer and sickle scrawled on a wall on the Malecon, “Viva Fidel” on a guardhouse at the university, elaborate wall paintings, simple graffiti, posters in the doorways of homes.

In the Plaza de la Revolucion, reminiscent of communist-era public squares I had seen in Central Asia, the monument and museum to Jose Marti, the intellectual leader of the movement for independence from Spain, faces a giant mural of Castro’s lieutenant Che Guevara, the revolutionary martyr who attempted to export the Cuban revolution and was assassinated by Bolivian secret police, probably on orders from the CIA. Although Castro remained the living embodiment of the Cuban revolution, Che was a stronger visual presence and symbol, his bearded face and beret adorning wall paintings, billboards and paintings in state museums. In an ironic historical twist, Che, the romantic revolutionary who died too young to be corrupted, is also the most common (and tacky) symbol on all sorts of souvenirs—T-shirts, mugs, key rings, wallets, even dolls. In post-Soviet Cuba, with the economy in trouble and the country burdened by foreign debt, Che is chic, too hot a commodity to be ignored by Cuba’s new entrepreneurial class.


On our second day, we took a field trip to Regla, an industrial and fishing community across the bay from Havana. This is where descendants of African slaves settled and preserved their traditions. Many follow a religion called Santeria, a mix of Yoruba and Roman Catholic practices, in which saints are given African names, live animals are sacrificed as offerings, and drumming and dancing are as important as the mass. We toured a church with a black Madonna and the municipal museum with its display of a Santeria home shrine and religious ornaments. At a dance performance, the characters of the orichos (deities) were represented in weaving, trance-like movement with accompaniment by traditional instruments. The mix of African and European cultures is evident throughout Havana—in the people, the food and the music. 


Race in Cuba, one of our lecturers explained, is a complex issue, with many gradations based on skin color and physical appearance. She told us there are at least 100 different ways to differentiate between races. We saw no clear evidence of racial divisions, with Cubans of all colors meeting, drinking and eating together. It was an inter-racial scene at the baseball game we attended, the home team, Industriales, taking on Cuidad Avila, from Central Cuba. The stadium was fairly modern with good lighting and the tickets were cheap, but no beer was sold. It was an exciting game, with the home team scoring early and holding a two-run lead until Avila scored in the 5th; Industriales put the game away with a flurry of runs (including two homers) in the 7th and 8th and the home crowd went home happy.  A group of students and faculty surprised the home crowd during an improvised seventh inning stretch by enthusiastically singing “Take me out to the ballgame!”

Next week: Aging kings of the road