SHAFAQNA- The sun sets behind the old neighborhoods in Havana. Lovers are scattered along the Corniche. Here, there is no racism, no religious doctrines and sects, no wars by “ISIS” and “al-Nusra Front,” and no Dahes wal-Ghabra’ battles. There are lovers from different ethnicities and races. Their African and Spanish origins give distinctive charm to the Cuban nights. The city sways to the sounds of salsa music blaring from cars parked at both sides of the street.
Havana – Slogans against the neighboring United States line the road between Havana and Santa Clara. Among the banners are pictures of the ‘Cuban Five,’ detainees who were held at the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and who the United States accused of infiltrating the Cuban opposition in the United States. Their arrest became a diplomatic issue between the two countries.
The employee at the car rental company smiles. He wipes the dust off the windshield of a car, goes underneath it and rises up, walks around it to make sure there are no damages, and then presents the rental paper for signing. He smiles again and says, “I wish I could go with you to Santa Clara.” Like all the people in his beautiful and warm country, he seems to have maintained his love for that who is in Santa Clara.
Before leaving the capital Havana, we spot the United States Interests Section building, on which 138 black flags are raised. This is how Cuba blocked the electronic screen installed on the fifth floor of the “espionage section” – as they call it here – to prevent the broadcasting of anti-regime propaganda. Relations have slightly improved during President Barack Obama’s terms, but Cuba continues to suffer from injustice by its neighbor.
In the spring of 1960, US Secretary of State Christian Herter expressed the need to take a “positive position which would call forth a line of action while as adroit and inconspicuous as possible makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”
Cuba endured starvation and remained steadfast. It stood high and upheld the dignity of its freedom fighters.
“Would you please show us the way to Santa Clara?” The Cuban woman clad in white smiles and bends over towards us, almost poking her head through the window. She says that she is heading to a place not far from the area. She tries to climb into the back seat, but we ask her to sit next to the driver. I sat in the back seat.
She praises our respect for women. She asks where we come from and seems more interested in knowing what is going on in our country. Here, popular culture is more inclined towards literature, arts, science, and medicine. The people seem to have had enough suffering. She says that Palestine used to be the only thing she knew about the Arab world. Despite its modest capabilities, Cuba today still hosts and sponsors Palestinian students. Today, the Cuban woman knows Syria, Iraq, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt. She smiles and says, “Beware of the United States and NATO… they are the cause of our problems.”
Her name is Maria. Her modest golden ring perhaps holds one of the many beautiful love stories in Cuba. We all go silent. She places her right hand on the car window, salutes people standing on the sidewalk as if she knows them, guides us to our destination, thanks us and gets out of the car. Here, the people are kind and love life. They are well-read and have been patient for the duration of the sanctions imposed on their country. They dream of having some extent of luxury, but not at the expense of their dignity.
Maria crosses about 50 kilometers every day to and from work. She has two degrees, one in nursing and another in world literature. A picture of Che Guevara is pinned to her chest. Pictures of “Che” – as he is affectionately called here – spread along the road between Havana and Santa Clara. He is smiling in all pictures. It is as if he is laughing at where the United States has come to be on the world stage – or perhaps at what remains of the Arab left in the era of the Islamic caliphate.
Guevara was not Cuban. He was an Argentinian doctor, intellectual, and writer. He came to Cuba to support the revolution. He was loved by the people, and his image became engraved in every heart and street. His pictures abounded after his death, while pictures or statues of Cuban leader Fidel Castro are rarely seen. Leaders here revolt, triumph, and build their country. In countries where statues are revered, the leaders rob their people. Here, history recognizes rebels and leaders alike. There, history damns both the statues and who they represent.
How beautiful Santa Clara is. The statue of Che Guevara rises skyward. It stands tall above the grave, which has become a pilgrimage site and the most visited by tourists. A square-shaped picture of the handsome rebel hangs between round-framed pictures of his comrades in struggle and revolution. A pink lily flower sits next to the picture, under which a torch burns day and night – as did the revolution – and like the dignity of the people in Cuba today.
The receptionist smiles at us. She realizes that we – as millions of visitors before us – came to experience the flame of a real revolution. Here, the revolution did not consume its children, just as others did not consume the revolution. The employee smiles and reminds us that taking photographs is forbidden, and then continues reading. We ask if we are required to pay an entrance fee. She closes the book, laughs, removes her glasses, and says in Spanish, “Dear comrades, the revolution is not for sale.” Former allies in our revolutions, who are currently part of the NATO alliance, came to my mind.
Many personal belongings of Che Guevara and his companions are here: his identity card carrying his birth date in 1928, his camera which captured the last photos of the rebels, a cup of maté (a green drink similar to tea), a Colt pistol, military clothing, an old radio, a leather belt, and many pictures of the rebel beau with the revolution’s leader Fidel Castro. Each piece is accompanied with several explanations.
Visitors of the memorial experience a strange feeling. It could be the significance of the place, or perhaps the honorable history which is embodied in a rebel’s smile and some of his belongings.
Like us, about 1,500 visitors come to the memorial every day. If every visitor pays just one dollar, it would help improve conditions in Cuba. But here, the revolution is not for sale. The majority of visitors are Italians. The memorial attendant jokingly says, “especially Italian women.”
We are the only Arabs on the visitors’ list. Arabs do not care about the history of the Cuban revolution, or perhaps do not like this type of tourism. Arab money is accumulated in American banks, is spent in the streets of Europe and at nightclubs and casinos, or is sent to terrorist takfiri groups to ruin other countries, some which look like Cuba. The attendant feels happy when we tell her that Che’s image is also engraved in the hearts and homes of many in the Arab countries.
The Cuban night falls on Santa Clara. We pull a cigar from the yellow pack, as most Cubans do. Here, cigars are not limited to the corrupt, the illegally wealthy, or politicians who rob the people, as is the case in our country. The cigar here is not a symbol of status or social class. Refuse collectors, restaurant waiters, taxi drivers, intellectuals, politicians, and everyone smoke cigars. The cigar is the pride of Cuba.
Cuban nights are beautiful. There is a general sense of happiness that rises above the dire economic situation and inhabits the hearts of the people. Since the early evening, Cuban music blares from houses, kitchens, and cafes. Cubans in their summer clothes gather in front of their houses. They bring out food and drinks, and dance to the sounds of music. It is commonplace to see housewives dancing with their husbands. Everyone is hospitable, and hosts would walk hundreds of kilometers to accompany a guest who gets lost. The people exude kindness that is rare to find in any country in the world.
Cuba’s revolution did not come out of nowhere. The country’s history has a lot of similarities with the history of the Arab countries. Since its independence in 1902, Cuba has known how to punish corrupt rulers linked to the United States. The American neighbor did not hesitate to violate its smaller neighbor. The United States attacked Cuba at least three times, and helped install and protect the dictator Fulgencio Batista, who suppressed the people and sold his country’s resources to the West. Does he remind you of anyone? Does he not remind you of many rather than one?
Batista arrested the young Fidel Castro. In the dictator’s prison, Castro wrote his famous letters: “History Will Absolve Me.” And history did him justice. The Soviet Union became his ally. China supported him. The United States severed ties with its neighbor, which became a powerful symbol of dignity. The infection of revolution spread. Pictures of Che Guevara sprouted like glorious lilies across Latin America and Africa. He continued to raise the banner of pride and dignity until he was betrayed by Bolivia itself, where he revived revolutionary sentiment.
Guevara was martyred. The revolution triumphed. America was enraged, and sought to suffocate Cuba economically by punishing all companies that do business with the country. Does this remind you of something? The Europeans put their support behind Washington. How history repeats itself. The helpless United Nations – which sometimes condemns, and at other times just lies dormant – slept more than it should, just as it does when it comes to Palestine.
Cuba held its ground and stood tall. It made of its people’s dignity a commitment, and of their pride a beacon. Then came the idiotic invader George W. Bush. Iraq’s Nero sought to punish the rebellious neighbor. He said, “We will soon bring down the Cuban regime.” Guevara laughed in his picture and Castro scoffed at him. He said from his hospital bed: “Bush should remember that we defeated Batista although we were just a thousand men while the Cuban dictator had 80,000 men… we will turn the life of the invader into hell.”
Threats were useless, and sanctions did not undermine the dignity of the people or education in the country. Cuba advanced scientifically, medically, and culturally in an astounding manner. The country produced medicines and drugs to treat diabetes, cholesterol, and at least 13 infectious diseases that afflict children, and developed the first vaccine against epilepsy. The country exported drugs to over 40 countries, and more than 80,000 doctors worked in neighboring Venezuela under the faithful late Comrade Hugo Chavez.
Castro said to Bush: “You can export bombs to the world, and we will export medicines and doctors.”
The wonderful opera song “Hasta Siempre, Comandante” plays on the radio. We turn the volume up. The car slides like the flow of the river between the lush trees. The evening breeze feels refreshing after two days in Santa Clara. The green fields, colored pastures, and old wooden houses in the Cuban villages smile at us. We listen to another version of the song played by a Cuban band. Many versions of this song have been released, glorifying the memory of a comrade who came from Argentina to say to the Cubans that revolting against dictatorship, oppression, tyranny, and colonialism is one. Sheikh Imam and his song “Guevara Died” come to mind. We feel like singing “Oh Comrades in Proud Cuba” by Marcel Khalife.
Here, the revolution was not for sale, and thus succeeded. Here, the Spring was led by genuine freedom fighters, and thus yielded dignity. Here, the people remained silent for half a century, forcing the United States to apologize and admit that its policy was wrong.
Congratulations to Cuba and its people, in the hope that the US’ return will not bring an end to that beautiful era, or to the cities which still retain the fragrance of the country’s history.