BY GARY MARX | Chicago Tribune
If you sign up for a tour of Cuba, chances are one of the first places you’ll visit is the Museum of the Revolution.
Just a stone’s throw from the gray waters of Havana Bay and beyond it the Florida Strait, the museum is housed in an old presidential palace whose baroque facade and towering cupola conjure the feel of a cathedral.
Visitors get Cuban Revolutionary History 101, a barrage of information about what happened before Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 and what has happened since - all from the perspective of the government.
Cubans know the script by heart, but the island’s official view of history can jar visitors such as Krystal Beckham, a 22-year-old senior at the University of California, Davis, who toured the museum on her third day in Cuba as part of a university study program.
“It’s uncomfortable to think that something that you’ve always believed in is not perceived that way by everybody and maybe what you believe is wrong,” Beckham said, referring in particular to Cuba’s presentation of Columbus as an invader in the Americas rather than an explorer.
Up the museum’s white marble stairs is a veritable gold mine of revolutionary memorabilia, from the bloody uniforms of slain guerrilla fighters to 3-D models of rebel battles to revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s black beret.
Although some exhibits are closed for renovation, the museum remains packed with weapons of every sort - spears, swords, rifles, pistols, shotguns, tanks, even a surface-to-air missile - all of it giving the impression that Cuba is consumed by warfare.
Out back sits the twisted turbine of an American U-2 spy plane shot down during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Nearby, resting in a glass case, is the Granma, a 38-foot diesel-powered yacht that Castro and 81 rebels rode from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 to begin their improbable war to topple the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
“Everything in the museum is important to me, but the Granma is a symbol (of the revolution),” said a wiry 36-year-old museum guide who insisted that his name not be published.
The guide speaks several languages and said his job is to teach foreigners the true history of Cuba.
“The Spanish did nothing good,” the guide said as he stepped into a small room dedicated to nearly 400 years of Spanish rule.
Standing next to black leg irons and a 15th Century Spanish sword, the guide explained: “They carried away the principal wealth to Spain. The Indians were eliminated in Cuba. They brought the black man to do the difficult work. It was terrible.”
After the nation nearly gained its independence from Spain in 1898, the guide said, it was the Americans’ turn to rule Cuba through one puppet government after another.
The guide made his way to two photographs that best capture this chapter of history.
One shot shows dictator Batista holding his right arm out, palm down, as he presides over a Cabinet meeting.
“It’s the salute of the Fuehrer,” the guide said enthusiastically. Peering closer, it was difficult to tell whether Batista was imitating Adolf Hitler or was caught by the camera in between motions.
“I don’t know if he was a Nazi or not, but his methods were like the Nazis,” the guide later insisted.
A second grainy photograph taken in 1949 shows an American sailor in Havana squatting atop a statue of Jose Marti, Cuba’s venerated national hero.
“He’s urinating,” said the guide. “He tried to desecrate the statue. This was terrible for the Cuban people.”
Continuing past displays showing how America’s reign in Cuba led to poverty, prostitution, gambling and violence, the guide’s steps quickened as the revolution gathered strength.
In one room is a detailed model of the Havana apartment, including the stove, refrigerator, sink and toilet, of two rebels who helped plan the first major attack against Batista.
Almost forgotten behind a plywood barrier are life-size statues of Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, another revolutionary icon, dressed in battle fatigues and toting rifles as they climb atop a rocky outcrop.
The tour culminates with several rooms glorifying the revolution’s accomplishments, from its famed literacy campaign to its victories at the Olympic Games to the first Cuban flying into space in 1980.
Photographs of beaming workers and students abound, along with captions that hearken back to socialist realism circa 1970.
“Everlasting virtues of communists and of the whole Cuban people are internationalism and patriotism,” read one caption below a photo of female soldiers marching on a parade ground.
Has the revolution made any mistakes?
“When you create a new process, you make mistakes. It’s logical,” the guide explained.
But can you recall a specific mistake made by Castro and the revolution?
“I don’t remember anything important,” said the guide, peering at his wristwatch as he ended the tour and headed to lunch.