The newly restored colonial villa discreetly blends into the urban landscape of Paseo Avenue, which crosses the embassy neighborhood in Vedado towards the sea. Nothing suggests that behind its battlemented walls there is a new place of pilgrimage of the Cuban revolution. Only in a side street a sign indicates that it is in front of the entrance of the “Centro Fidel Castro Ruz”. The two-story, 1,400-square-meter residence houses a library and a bookstore, as well as a graphic workshop and nine exhibition halls dedicated to the history of Cuba since 1926, the year “Maximo Leader” was born.
Admission is free. Guided tours can be booked by phone or email, but only in Spanish. The historian in uniform also leaves no doubt that the language of the class enemy is not welcome here. However, he is happy to translate into Russian for tourists who are stranded in Cuba due to the war in Ukraine.
The owner of the magnificent building from the end of the 19th century was a wealthy banker and tobacconist named Enrique Juan Conill y Rafecas. An electronic bulletin board reveals that he fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain in 1895. His wife, Lily, is introduced as president of the Ladies’ Catholic League. The highest public position held by a woman before the revolution, adds the leader.
Life as a multimedia epic
This brings to mind the Jesuit upbringing of the Castro brothers, which would later help them forge close ties with the Vatican. Dozens of medals, decorations and gifts that Fidel Castro brought back from 88 trips abroad are assembled in cabinet display cases, including three Orders of Lenin and a golden tea set from the Islamic Republic of Iran. A bronze bust that newly elected President Xi Jinping brought to Cuba in 2014 shows him with a beaming smile.
In the following rooms, Fidel’s life is projected as a multimedia epic from different perspectives, commented and accompanied by music. Visitors experience the professional revolutionary in his favorite roles as strategic commander, convinced internationalist and tribune of the people. The photos also show him as a passionate reader, a tireless field worker and a keen athlete. In addition, behind glass are his favorite books, a freshly pressed work suit and the baseball uniform from a game with the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez. On the other hand, his uniform, combat boots and Winchester recall the first months of the guerrilla in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra.
All of Fidel’s state visits and public appearances can be called via touch screens. This also applies to his visit to East Berlin in June 50 years ago, when he gave the GDR a piece of the Caribbean: an uninhabited sand island named after Ernst Thälmann, which is today in the restricted military zone of the Bay of Pigs. . Or its reception of the first Ukrainian children from Chernobyl in March 1990. In total, some 26,000 victims of the nuclear catastrophe were treated in Cuba.
The last station reminds of a mausoleum.
You can follow the triumphal parade of the commanders in January 1959 on an interactive map. Every battle fought by the revolutionaries on their way to the capital can be experienced like a video game. The US invasion of the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 is also alternately shown from the perspective of a drone or a worm. From the cockpit of a MIG, viewers can shoot down invaders’ warships and admire Fidel as he leads the counteroffensive.
The last station is reminiscent of a mausoleum, on whose walls personalities of Cuban society express their admiration for the revolutionary leader. It is striking that here, as in the state media, only his “physical disappearance” is mentioned. In this sense, the newly created Fidel Castro Ruz Center is where his spirit is resurrected.
To avoid such a cult of personality, Fidel Castro decreed in his will that no place or public institution in Cuba could bear his name. But apparently his successors didn’t think they could do without him.
Architects cannot work as freelancers
Five hundred meters out to sea, a group of young architects and educators is rebuilding a dilapidated playground. The multigenerational project is being funded by a dedicated kiosk owner and the European Union cultural institutes (EUNIC), which are awaiting approval in Cuba. The wastewater is biologically treated and irrigates the shade plant pergolas before flowing into the sewage system. Such ideas were desired for the empty hotel towers that were built on the shores of Havana during the pandemic and dump their wastewater directly into the sea.
But architects are still not allowed to work as freelancers in the socialist island republic, although according to official estimates some 800,000 apartments are missing there and many of the 11 million inhabitants have to put up with dilapidated houses. A photo from the Nostalgia Cuba 2.0 Facebook group has just gone viral showing the ruins of houses in Old Havana. Headline: “This is not Kiev…” !
[Michael M. Thoss arbeitet für das Goethe-Institut in Havanna.]
Despite the successful start of economic reforms, the State still does not want to give up its monopoly over 114 activities classified as “strategic”, with sometimes grotesque consequences. At best, trained architects who want to work as freelancers are given state approval as “festival decorators.” This license also allows them to hire a clown full time.