Updated: Nov 9
FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF CHE
By Ken Potter
The only passion that guides me is for the truth...I look at
everything from this point of view
– Che Guevara
(The following article was a Writers Bureau competition winner in 2014)
There was a bleak, Kafkaesque feel about Havana airport. The uniformed guards eyed me suspiciously. I could understand their concern. The rest of the arriving passengers from my flight had long since departed. Eventually, one of the guards approached.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
I didn't know where to begin. How do you explain in Spanish that the passport to your dream has been hijacked?
"My bicycle hasn't turned up," I muttered.
For years I'd wanted to cycle across Cuba, explore the sites of the 1950s revolution, tread in the footsteps of Che Guevara. Now, having arrived at the start of my quest, the one requisite needed to complete the trip was missing – my trusty steed! Quixote sans Rocinante.
"You wait!" said the guard. "It will come."
It never did. The only good to come out of my four-hour airport stopover was the development within me of a certain stoicism which would prove invaluable during future dealings with Cuban bureaucracy. I filled in the forms, caught a bus into town, kicked the hotel furniture around the room.
Rock-bottom! But then a lucky break.
My previous information that the only bicycles in Cuba were antiquated, unrideable Chinese jobs proved false. Miraculously, I found Dan, a resident Canadian who hired out modern, Shimano-geared hybrids. Providence put me back in the saddle. Business as usual. I felt like celebrating.
"You like mojito?" asked the Cuban barman with a million-peso smile.
"Rum cocktail. Very popular in Cuba."
"Thanks, I'll try one."
"You like cigar?"
I could have sworn the Montecristo that I started smoking was longer than my forearm.
There's something special about Cuban bar service.
Dan gave me an excellent map and good advice. Cycle across the country from east to west, he said, because of the winds. The advice blended perfectly with the rationale behind my trip.
In 1958, the Cuban revolutionary forces had mobilised themselves in the east and swept westwards to oust the dictator, Fulgencio Batista. I would literally be following in their tracks.
A Viazul bus deposited me in Santiago de Cuba, in the far south-east where the bike-ride would begin. The Cuban experience took on a frenetic dimension – Afro-Latin rhythms, hustlers and hassles and warm hospitality, choking diesel-fumes and sweet-scented bougainvillea. I immersed myself with a passion.
With a basinful of Caribbean sea to my left, I cycled out from the bustle of Santiago along a narrow coastal road that skirted the Sierra Maestra. In places, it appeared as if the mountains were trying to push the road into the sea.
Large chunks of asphalt were missing. I tried to imagine what it must be like when a hurricane strikes. Alone on the road, with the sea crashing against the rocks, the thought was intimidating.
"Long live the revolution...down with Yankee imperialism..." The slogans written on boulders at the side of the road reflected the rebellious nature of the local people. It was here, to my right, in the deep forested slopes of the Sierra Maestra, that the revolution took shape.
Santiago de Cuba at nightfall.
The beginning of my journey on the road leading from Santiago.
In places the road had been worn away by the sea.
"Down with Yankee Imperialism."
In 1957, having been routed by Batista's forces after a disastrous yacht landing, the few surviving revolutionaries including Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, sought refuge in the mountains. With the support of peasants who yearned for the overthrow of the Batista regime, they mustered a formidable fight force. A guerrilla war ensued.
I was treading hallowed ground. At La Plata, a tiny village, I paused for thought. It was the site of a decisive battle. Under attack and heavily outnumbered, the wily Castro outwitted the opposition and inflicted heavy losses.
The Sierra Maestra eventually became the revolutionaries' springboard from which, suitably strengthened, they would launch into the rest of Cuba.
"No, señor! No take photo!" Two young lads from a nearby homestead came running and waving. I had stopped in the middle of the countryside and pulled out my camera.
My photographic interest had been aroused by the ubiquitous portrait of Che Guevara staring at me from a roadside hoarding. The boys didn't want me to take a photo of their hero.
I complied with their wishes. Instead, I merely admired the picture. How charismatic Che appeared. The thought came to me that, had he not been a revolutionary, he could quite conceivably have become a film star.
For an ex-London cabbie who used to have nightmares about traffic jams, the almost empty highways were perfect cycling territory. I settled into the easy pace of Cuban life.
"Buenos dias, señor." Straw-hatted campesinos who occasionally passed in carts drawn by weary-looking nags, traded greetings. In towns, as I strolled through cobbled streets and market-places, I admired the 1950s American cars and relaxed to the infectious rhythm of salsa music.
Neatly-kept squares, architectural gems, and resplendent churches nestled alongside the urban decay brought on by the 50-year old American embargo.
The charismatic image of Che Guevara can be seen everywhere.
He is looked upon as a god.
The empty highways are perfect cycling territory.
Old American cars abound. Often they are kept in pristine condition like this spotless beauty parked at the roadside.
Passing campesinos trade greetings.
"Che Guevara was no hero," said Rafael. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was staying in a casa particular – one of the private homes licensed by the government to rent out rooms – and Rafael, the owner, had engaged me in conversation.
"Why not?" I asked.
"He had people executed without trial," Rafael said, "and the revolution has much to answer for. We need a new Cuba, a more open society..." He shrugged and brought out a fresh bottle of Havana Club. After opening it, he spilt a little of the contents to one side.
"In Cuba, when you open a new bottle of rum, first pour a little away," he said.
"For God, for friends not here, for friends who died." A moment of sadness crossed his face.
The infectious rhythm of salsa music permeates Cuban society.
Caibarién...Remedios...Camajuaní...the towns rolled past as the ride took me through sugarcane- and tobacco-producing areas with scatterings of palm trees. This was the exact route taken by Che Guevara as he geared up for the assault on the city of Santa Clara.
In my journey, I sensed his. My vague childhood memories of television broadcasts about the revolution came filtering back as my mind blended the past with the present. The end was in sight.
In the closing days of December 1958, the Battle of Santa Clara was the most crucial confrontation of the war. Against seemingly impossible odds, Che's revolutionaries captured the city.
His legend was assured, his military prowess celebrated. Batista, realising that all was lost, fled the country. Castro, accompanied by Guevara and other revolutionary leaders, entered Havana to the applause of the masses.
Half a century later, on a balmy February evening, I rode quietly into the capital's suburbs, entered a bar, bought a mojito. I raised the glass toward a portrait on the wall. Che's words rang clear in my mind: 'Until Victory Always.'
Che Guevara had both admirers and detractors but there can be no dispute that he left an indelible mark in history. Five decades on, I had celebrated that mark and in doing so had discovered a fascinating country.
© Ken Potter 2007
A revolution is not a bed of roses. A revolution is a struggle to the death
between the future and the past.
– Fidel Castro
And...after the revolution... nightfall on a quiet Cuban beach...
Having completed the above quest, Ken then kicked about Havana and also cycled around Western Cuba as far as Viñales and Pinar Del Rio.
Below is a selection of places he went to...
El Capitolio, Havana. Built in 1929, this majestic building was the seat
of government until the Cuban revolution.
El Floridita was one of Ernest Hemingway's favourite bars.
Inside El Floridita, I chew the fat with Ernesto. I was always a big fan.
Hemingway's study in Finca Vigia, his house in Cuba. It was here that he wrote THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA about a fisherman who lived in the nearby town of Cojimar and much of FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS.
Hotel Nacional, an historic luxury hotel in Havana. Over the decades, the hotel has played host to the famous – politicians, film stars, sports stars, etc. In 1946, it infamously hosted the 'Havana Conference' – a mafia summit run by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky which was attended by many mobster bosses including Santo Trafficante Jr., Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, and Vito Genovese. The conference was dramatised in THE GODFATHER PART II.
Cueva de los Portales. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Che hid out with his army in these caves in the beautiful remote countryside near La Güira national park. He played chess while the world hovered at the brink of nuclear armageddon.
Inside the caves, he discussed strategies with his officials in this room.
I take a break not far from the caves. The countryside is littered with strangely-shaped hills called mogotes (seen behind me in the picture).
What we did yesterday taught us that nothing is impossible. After all, what seemed impossible yesterday, was possible today. So nothing will seem impossible tomorrow.
– Fidel Castro