Fidel’s Tomb Stone


At least once in Cuba we had to fall for a scam.  And Santiago seems to have its fair share of crooks.  There is no end to the people who will approach you with sob stories.  And many of them are real, especially in comparison to the worlds most of us travelers live in.  There are quite a few beggars too, more than elsewhere. But the ones you need to watch out for are those who offer some services supposedly for free and for friendship’s sake, and then harass you for payment.  These street hustlers even have a special name around here: Jineteros.

You also have to watch out for drummed up charges.  Drinks cost anything between 1 and 3 CUC, depending on the venue.  One of our fellow travelers from Belgium told us a story: he and his wife had consumed 6 drinks at a bar.  They had offered about 4 drinks to some locals at their table and in the end were presented with a bill of 90 CUCs!  Even though the guy was quite a big fellow, he decided to pay up rather than make a ruckus.  That, of course, only encourages the crooks to continue.  He was probably paying for everybody’s drinks at the bar weather he knew it or not.

We decided to explore town.  There is much to see in Santiago, but some sights are too far from the center to walk; hiring a tricycle (or bici-taxi as they are called here), a bike with a driver and two seats for passengers, seemed a good solution.  Two guys, supposedly father and son, talked us into a round-trip tour, promising to hit some of the major sights.   5 CUC per hour was the agreed price.  When we started however, both drivers took off with us.   One empty, one carrying both of us. Were they going to take turns?  I should have known that there is something fishy about a tour such as this and about a duo of drivers.  First off, with a “tour” the drivers are in charge where they are going.  Secondly, charging by the hour encourages the drivers to pedal as little as possible, slowing down the trip as much as they can.  But not only that, they made completely unnecessary detours; after all, we are new in town and can’t tell the difference, right?  Except, that you could if you paid close attention.  I recognized several distinct buildings front and back and it became apparent how for parts of the trip we went up and down parallel streets just to add time.  Still, we saw quite a bit amidst all the phony stops, turns, and delay tactics.

There was the harbor for the fishing boats with nothing much to see.  There was the stop at the so-called Rum “factory” which turned out to be an excuse for selling rum after visitors were lured into unlimited free samples of liquor (first thing in the morning!).  No sight of a factory.  To the displeasure of our guides, we only used the bathroom, depriving them of a commission they would have received for any purchases we might have made.  Then, there was the first worth-while stop:  a market run by followers of Santeria, a mix of religious tribal practices from the Yoruba people with Christianity.  I would give a lot to find out more about this syncretic religion from a practitioner.  It fuses African deities with Christian saints and continues other occult and animistic rites imported from Africa.  It is still practiced today even though under Fidel (himself to be believed to have been influenced by Santeria), the religion was suppressed.  But in the 1980’s it bounced back.  Followers who have just undergone initiation rites can be identified by their all-white dress.  Other colors (yellow, red and white) and symbols such as doves or the moon are also symbolic.  Initiation rites are accompanied by sacrifices of roosters or pigeons which were for sale here, at this small market among bracelets and colorful tinctures.  To fully understand what we were looking at, we would have needed real guides.

The Plaza de la Revolucion was next.  It is an obligatory stop in this city, dominated by a gigantic equestrian statue of Antonio Maceo, a revolutionary of the War of Independence from Santiago.  A museum beneath the monument’s platform was closed at the moment for unknown reasons.  We had no time to wait.  The monument- hill opens into a plaza of gigantic proportions.  Just the kind of gathering places that people like Stalin, Fidel, or Ulbricht loved for their parades, speeches and propaganda events. In their vast emptiness, they mirror the hollowness of the entire system and make for very inhumane spaces.  Contrast that with the intimate, traditional plazas which invite people to gather whether they are summoned or not.

I don’t know why it was necessary to kill more time, but instead of driving on to our main destination, the Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia, we diddled around in a nondescript neighborhood made up of 4-5 storied uniform housing built by the Soviets.  The housing units were interspersed with a few playgrounds and a restaurant, placed inside an old Soviet aircraft.  The houses lacked proper light and ventilation, were crumbled and were boarded up in parts.  A few inspirational socialist murals did nothing to help lift up anyone’s spirit who was condemned to live here.  Were we supposed to be impressed?

The marble-sparkling cemetery could not have been a starker contrast.  Here, many of the quintessential heroes of the revolution, including Fidel himself, are buried.  Jose Marti steals the show with an underground sarcophagus and a bust housed in an octagonal Art Deco shrine that towers over the entire cemetery.  There are members of the famous Bacardi rum family, lesser-known revolutionaries and several politicians and presidents of Cuba.  One of the most recent graves in the cemetery is that of Fidel Castro.  According to his wishes, there has never been a bust, or a statue mounted of him anywhere. His picture is omnipresent in posters and on billboards, but there is nothing three-dimensional.  Is that modesty or the fear of being toppled like Lenin, Saddam Hussein or some other comrades or dictators? 

His grave is a huge boulder.  A neat symbolism of what he liked to think of himself.  There is no birth date, no death date, not even his last name chiseled into the stone, just Fidel.  A name, forever associated with him just like Adolf will forever be linked in at least all Germans’ mind to Hitler.

We had to hurry back.  It had gotten late and we had more plans for the afternoon.  At our final destination we checked the clock.  We had been around and about for just shy of three hours.  I handed over 17 CUCs, 15 plus a tip and was met with pouted lips signaling outrage:  Not 15, 30 CUCs were due; 15 per person.  At first we thought we were charged for two bikes and argued that we had only hired one.  No, no; it’s not about two bikes, it is about two people riding the bike. 

We had goofed around with these guys and had a good time with them for the last 3 hours.  All of that went south in a heartbeat.  There never had been talk about how many people were taking the trip.  There is a two-people limit to these bikes, at best there could have been a small charge for the additional weight which was never discussed.  Celi was ready to just pay up; I was not.  In a country where some people have to work for 10 CUC per month, making 15 CUC in three hours is a great wage.  But I also did not want to keep arguing.  So, I took our communal purse which I knew had about 20 CUC in it — turned it over, laid it out and said:  We would not have agreed to this trip if the price had been 10 per hour.  There is 20 CUC.  Take it or leave it.  That is all there is. 

And so we left with these guys continuing to feign disappointment and outrage, supposed to make us break and feel like we were the bad ones who had cheated on an agreement.  Sorry, we did not. 

I am glad to say that in three+ weeks this was the first attempt to mess with us this blatantly.  Yes, we have been overcharged, but we were willing partners in those transactions and accepted the fact that we as foreigners pay more.  We are not happy that we are seen as cash cows, especially the Americans, but it is unavoidable.  But this particular incident went one step further.  It left a bad taste in our mouths.  Oh well. 

Good night.