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Falling out of love with Che

I had spent the majority of my adolescence presuming that Che Guevara should be a hero of mine, and confident that we would have been great pals had our paths ever crossed. We both had wildly adventurous spirits, the odd irritating asthma problem, a love for sport, an eye for the ladies, a natural tendency towards the left and we were both clearly gifted in guerrilla warfare.

It wasn’t until I really started digging around though, that I realised he was actually a bit of an arse. It was a shame really. It slowly dawned upon me that the two of us had some real and insurmountable personality clashes and I began to feel cheated. The whole time he’d been masquerading as a lionhearted, colossus of a man with such strength and spirit that a young boy, raised on tales of Robin Hood and Zorro, could not fail to be in awe of.

Yet in actual fact, he was an extremely arrogant, mildly selfish, brute of a man who rarely washed and even more rarely gave a crap about any one else’s opinion. The rest I’ll give him. He was a double hard bastard, an inspirational leader, excellent at hide and seek and had a very tshirt-o-genic face. But it was too late, he was off the pedestal.

I wasn’t downhearted though, and there was no mourning period. As fickle and shallow as it may sound, I threw myself into a rebound fascination with Che’s charismatic leader Fidel Castro and got back to business pursuing my love affair with Cuban history and the romance of the revolution. I would have to get to Cuba very soon.

Visiting Cuba had always been on my agenda, and I knew it would have to be before Castro died; so 2006 made sense. When I learnt that El Barbudo (Fidel) was going to be throwing the mother of all parties to celebrate his 80th birthday in August, I spent a few moments dancing and then immediately booked my flights. He’d announced a 4 day national holiday and carnival, during which all Cubans were to down tools, drink rum and dance salsa, and all like minded souls were to join them in celebrating 47 years of sticking it to the infidel pigs across the Florida Straits.

The Cubans know how to carnival at the best of time, but not only was this going to be the party of the decade, it was also Fidel’s final fling with a country he had become synonymous with. Having long been in failing health, this was to be a goodbye, a wake, a birthday celebration and a triumph of socialism all at once. It wouldn’t be cheap to get to Cuba, but it would be worth every penny…..and in a sense it was.

I’ve been back from Cuba for a few months now. I’ve had so long to reflect that I’ve actually forgotten all but the most generic of memories and emotions. The powerful experiences have been consigned to the memory vaults as déjà vu fodder, and the amusing anecdotes and clever little observations will only be recalled when alcohol, setting and conversation next conspire to dictate so.

Generically then, I can share with you the disappointing news that I didn’t fall in love with Cuba. We flirted a lot, and had some intense and passionate moments, but I think both of us were painfully aware of the lack of the requisite, solid foundations for any relationship of substance. It wasn’t easy for me to accept. Akin to finally going on a date with Kate Moss and discovering that we don’t actually have that much in common. Can I then ignore the facts and continue to admire her from a distance?

The trip was hard work from the beginning. Flagrantly so!

It initially took on an entirely new perspective, and an undoubtedly less appealing one, with the upsetting news that, one week prior to his birthday, Fidel had been committed to hospital and had conceded power to his brother Raul. Unprecedented behaviour, and such disturbing a state of affairs that all celebrations were to be postponed, if not cancelled.

I decided to go anyway. Theoretically these should be very interesting times for Cuba. The conspiracy theorists were already making noises about Castro having died, and Cuba bracing itself for carnage; change at the least. Whether it be a US invasion, an insurgence of the youth, or an overhaul of Raul, anything could happen, and I concluded that I should definitely be there to witness it. The fact that my ticket was non-refundable may also have contributed to the decision.

I flew out on the morning of the terror raids in London, and the airport was chaos. No hand luggage, no drinks, no sense of humour. Having finally reached my gate it took me 15 minutes to persuade the crew to let me on the flight without a visa. A lack of basic preparation on my behalf, but I was convinced that I’d be able to blag it at the other side. As it turns out I managed to buy one from a very accommodating stall in Havana’s airport for ten pounds, which was actually cheaper than from the London embassy anyway, and didn’t require half a day’s effort.

The overriding memories of my time there are paradoxical. Heaven and hell, happy and sad, drunk and sober, rich and poor. Thrilled at the prospect of joining a 300,000 strong anti-imperialist rally on the eve of Castro’s birthday; bitterly disappointed and confused at its lack of fervour and passion. Infatuated with the architecture; depressed with its condition. Amused by the classic cars; wheezy from their filth. Irritated with the constant and invasive hassling of the jiniteros, yet amazed by the empathy and generosity of the masses. Appalled with the food, utterly obsessed with the peso pork sandwiches.

And so it was, ad nauseam, from one polar extreme to the next. Cuba is expensive, dirty and demanding, yet arrogantly dismisses its flaws with one nonchalant flick of its dancing hips and is all the more charming for doing so. Its rhythm and romance is far more powerful a flavour than any undertones of sleaze, and the beauty of Cuba’s beaches, forests and mountains will overwhelm any lingering taste of pollution. Critically, the quality, price and availability of rum and cigars triumphs over anything and everything!

Even the political constitution of Cuba lacked the backbone I presumed must exist. Rumblings of unrest in the streets betray a genuine generational conflict. The youth of today were not brainwashed by Fidel and are too young to remember pre-revolutionary woes. They focus rather on their hunger, their families’ prospects and whether Big Brother is aware of their unease. There is a real sense that the streets could explode at any moment. Whilst currently perfectly safe, there is definitely potential for Cuba to go rotten. Greedy eyes and criminal minds are ubiquitous, but dare not act at present. Given time and opportunity this will change.

Socialism is stifled when forced into isolation, and when surrounded by non-believers. Only the cows in Cuba exhibit true socialist values and behaviour, and enjoy wonderfully dynamic and egalitarian communities as a result. If Cuba’s youth could spend a little more time studying their bovine neighbours, rather than searching the airwaves for enlightenment, perhaps the country’s future would be more secure, and Fidel would sleep better at nights.

It’s deeply upsetting to see the embers of Jose Marti’s and Fidel’s legacies burning less brightly, but to cast a discerning eye over the current state of affairs is to arrive at no other conclusion. Yet despite this unfortunate inevitability, the country will remain to have one of the most exciting, glorious and inspirational histories of modern times; and while impressionable young minds like my own persist in citing Guevara as a hero, that fact will never be forgotten.

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