Havana's Museum of the Revolution might better be called a museum of revolutions, since it documents and celebrates Cuba's 19th-century independence wars nearly as much as it does the 1950s-era insurgency that brought in the present government. Above, it stands just behind a remaining fragment of the 17th-century city wall, built to protect the city from pirates and invaders.
It's located in the former Presidential Palace, and was itself the scene of an attempt in 1957 by a student-led group to assassinate the dictator Batista and overthrow his government. That attempt failed, but bullet holes from the time have been re-created in the wall behind a bust of national hero Jose Marti.
Two of the Gumbo Guessers beat The Puzzler to the end this week, TravelingCanuck and PortMoresby...well done! The palace didn't serve as a sat of government for very long, despite its impressive looks. Designed by Carlos Maruri of Cuba and Paul Belau of Belgium, it opened in 1920, with interior decor by Tiffany and Company. The gold telephone, presented to Batista by the International Telephone and Telegraph Company in celebration of his seizing power (and confirming their concessions) was a later addition.
Actually, the telephone (with its gold leaf peeling) can be seen in the corner of this view of the Presidential office, which Batista fled by a back door just in time to escape the machine-gun wielding attackers. The office was later used (briefly) by Fidel Castro as Prime Minister; before the government moved to more modern quarters late in 1959, Che Guevara was made a citizen there.
Much of the exhibit space is given over to long histories of Cuba's independence wars of the 1860s, 70s and 90s, led by such national heroes (memorialized all over Cuba) as Cespedes, Maceo, Gomez and above all Jose Marti. Along with descriptions, mostly in Spanish, many of the exhibits included personal items of the soldiers and leaders—a shirt here, a fountain pen there, perhaps a pistol or saber, binoculars or the like. We found that a general theme in almost all the Cuban museums we visited.
But of course, the true centerpiece of this museum is the story of the 20th-century Cuban Revolution, starting from the 1953 attempt to seize the Moncada army camp in Santiago, to the 1957 coup attempt in this building and the landing of Castro and a small group in the east that year to build the fight that led to the overthrow of Batista two years later. Above, the three big names in bronze: Che, Fidel and Camilo Cienfuegos. They also appear in the photo below, showing Castro's arrival in Havana a few days after Batista fled.
Other exhibits show off personal items of the new revolution, with photos and narrative behind. I don't remember whose shirt this is, but the irony of the caption can't be escaped: the beaches were restored to the people...but today there are quite a few visitors-only resorts in Cuba's tourism mix. Below, a team of literacy workers from Cuba's early campaign to wipe out illiteracy. I have many qualms about Cuba today, but that's not one of them!
The impressive courtyard that yielded the first clue this week was partly flooded (we brought a week of rain with us to Havana!) Numbers of children were happily playing there, including some who had made boats of their flip-flops and were staging what looked like mock naval battles.
From almost any angle, the building's variety of shapes, surfaces and windows is impressive; it's most often referred to as 'neo-classical,' but I see resonances of the Modernist styles that were in vogue in the years just before its construction in Vienna, Barcelona, Paris, and in Paul Belau's Brussels home.
We were repeatedly puzzled by the honored place given to Columbus wherever we went. Yes, an important figure in Cuban history, but none of the controversy seen elsewhere over his role in the treatment of indigenous populations or in general of European colonization, seems to surface here. In Santiago, we even found a fairly new monument to Junipero Serra!
Granma—a yacht purchased by Castro's followers for the return to Cuba—is enshrined in an outdoor museum behind these trees behind the museum, along with trophies from the Bay of Pigs invasion and other military hardware. In the museum, a cartoonish version. Granma is also the name of a province, and of the Communist Party's daily newspaper.
In another display, looking almost like some animatronic feature from a Disney park, we encounter Camilo and Che making their way through an indoor jungle. Below, "Idiot's Corner," mocking Batista and several U.S. presidents for their inability to make Cuba go away or bend.
Stretching away from the palace, toward the sea, is the Plaza 13 de Marzo, honoring the students and others killed in the attempt on Batista; at its far end is a monument to university students who died in an 1871 attempt to drive out Spanish rule.