Viva la Revolucion!

February 20
Dateline: Havana

Today would be our last day in Cuba. Later this afternoon, we would be flying back to Miami. But that still left us a couple of hours in Havana. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to visit the Museo de la Revolucion, which had been closed when we had tried to visit it earlier.

Arriving at the museum grounds, we walked past the SAU-100 Soviet tank that Fidel Castro supposedly commanded at the Bay of Pigs. In a bit of irony, what now serves as a repository for revolutionary artifacts and memories was once a Presidential Palace, built in 1920 with an interior decor by the firm of Louis Comfort Tiffany. In 1957, the palace was the site of an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow General Batista. You can still see bullet holes in the foyer from that attack.

Although the museum focuses on the years of the revolution, it actually highlights chronologically much of Cuba’s political development, from slave uprisings to joint space missions with the Soviet Union.

The descriptions are in Spanish, but even if you don’t understand that language, the visuals allow you to comprehend the story. Two of the more noted exhibits are one of Che’s famous berets and a diorama of Che and Camilio Cienfuegos emerging from the forest of Sierra Maestra ready to continue the fight.

But I found an omission to be the most interesting fact about the museum. There is not one word, not one picture, not one news clipping, not one artifact about the 13 days known in America as the Cuban Missile Crisis. To me, given the impact it made on me as a 12-year-old, that was exceedingly strange. I tried to ask a couple of the guards the reason for the omission, but my Spanglish wasn’t sufficient for me to convey my questions.

Just outside the museum, a glass encasement – Memorial Granma – enshrines the vessel that brought Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and 80 others rebels from Mexico in 1956 to launch the revolution. Also outside is a display of other vehicles involved in the struggle including planes and tanks. There is a piece of a last U.S. spy plane shot down over Cuba in the 1970s.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

Lunch with a Close Companion of Castro

Naty Revuelta with Judy and Me

February 16
Dateline: Downtown Havana

On the bus on the way to the National Museum of Fine Arts, our writer-in-residence Tom Miller teased a special guest at lunch. Of course, we all wanted to know who it would be. “I haven’t finalized the details yet. But I think you’ll be surprised and really pleased,” Miller said.

So with that bit of speculation in our minds, we began our guided tour of the museum’s massive collection. Of course, there are paintings by Cuban masters such as Wilfredo Lam and Amelia Peleaz. There are also artistic calls for La Revolucion such as El Alba (The Sunrise) which depicts faceless worker trudging unhappily to a belching factory. In the modern section, there was an interactive Punch and Judy-like display where you could create your own history with figures of Che, Jose Marti, Simon Bolivar, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, V. I. Lenin, and many others.

Outside, Miller revealed that our special guest would be Naty Revuelta, Fidel Castro’s mistress and fighting companion during the 1950s and the mother of his only-known daughter. Miller said Naty, which she liked to be called, would not speak to the group, but would allow two of us to join her at her table. Or course, I wanted to do just that, but held back to see if others would want that honor. When no one came forward, I readily volunteered and so found myself in a Havana restaurant sitting next to someone who had once known Fidel Castro perhaps as well as he can be known by anyone.

Miller had laid down some strict guidelines for what was appropriate for discussion and mandated that I couldn’t take notes nor ask anything about Castro unless Naty brought it up first. On first meeting Naty, now in her mid 80s, I quickly discovered that I was in the presence of a lady who exudes a sense of specialness in speech, dress, and manner. She is, as I told Miller later, a woman both “classy and classic.”

Born into a wealthy Cuban family, Naty said she had an interesting raising. “I had a grandfather who was English and was very proper and I had a grandfather who was Spanish and was very emotional. I learned about both worlds,” she said.

Naty spent four years at a boarding school in Philadelphia, then two years in college in DC. We talked briefly about both those places: what they were like then and what they are like now.

“You know, I was 22 years old when I met Fidel,” Naty interjected. “It was an interesting time.” I waited for more, but she shifted into a narrative about the daughter she shared with Castro.

The daughter had fled to the United States from the island in 1960. It would be 24 years before UNESCO set up a meeting allowing Naty to see her in America. She showed me a picture of that meeting she always carries with her.

She then shifted back to earlier Cuban years. “Batista was not good for the people,” Naty said. “I was not a party member, but I was working for the party when I met Fidel. I am 6 months older than him.”

Although we then chatted about other matters, I knew from previous reading her current stand on the Cuban leader. She doesn’t say outright that Castro has failed to follow through on promises of democracy. Instead, she names his successes and commends his bravery in facing both Cuban and U.S. opposition. Castro, she says, will be remembered as ” a man who tried very hard. Some love him more, some love him less.”

Miller and my fellow traveler Dennis excused themselves from the table and I found myself alone with Naty. Suddenly, she began choking on a piece of prosciutto. A vision flashed before my eyes. I would try to save the choking Naty and be unsuccessful. Castro would be outraged. I would find myself in a Cuban prison. The New York Times lead article would be headlined, “Castro Claims American Agent Kills Mistress; Calls for Death by Firing Squad.” However, a sip of wine cured Naty of her choking and we resumed our talking until Miller returned, signaling the end of lunch.

I thanked Naty for her conversation and asked if she would pose for a picture with Judy and me. Ever gracious, she complied. “Did my husband talk too much?” Judy asked. “No he was the a perfect lunch companion,” Naty replied.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order