In the middle of the little town of Baracoa in eastern Cuba is the Plaza Cacique Hatuey. It features a bust of the man it is named after, Hatuey. Powerful shoulders, neck straining forward, strong chin, stern scornful mouth and piercing eyes: I do not know how real a portrait this is, given that Hatuey died in 1512. But what is very real is the plaque on the pedestal, which calls him “Primer Rebelde de America”, or “First Rebel of America”.

Early in the 16th century, Hatuey, a cacique – or chief – of the Taino people, led a band of indigenous warriors in a running battle with the invading conquistadores from Spain. As with other indigenous peoples across the Americas, the invaders proved too strong. They captured Hatuey and burned him at the stake. But just before they set him alight, a priest in attendance asked if he wanted to convert to Christianity so he could ascend to heaven. Hatuey asked: “Do Spaniards go to heaven?”

“Of course!” said the priest, probably smiling with self-righteousness. Rebellious to the end, Hatuey said: “Then send me to hell.”

You sense something of the very soul of Cuba in those words, in that compelling face, in Hatuey’s story itself. It’s that defiant spirit that, nearly 500 years later, infused the revolution that Fidel Castro led. He and his guerrilla band would cleanse Cuba of years of decadence and corruption, they promised. They would build a utopia of equality and progressive thinking, they promised.

Michal Zalewski (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5]/via Wikimedia Commons

The bravery of change

Yet, by the time the former Cuban president died on Friday, at the age of 90, you could make a pretty good case that modern-day Cuba is not quite the country Castro fought for and promised it would be. True, they have in place exemplary healthcare and education: thus nearly every Cuban is literate and in reasonable health. But look beyond that and the image starts to fray.

Too many years have gone by in which too many of Castro’s countrymen have had to struggle just to make an honest living, and so too many of them have been forced into openly, dangerously, chasing hard currency. This sadness was evident everywhere we went in Cuba. Buildings were crumbling, peso-only restaurants served nearly inedible food, the renowned historian Alejandro Hartman earned a monthly salary of $16, young men (jiniteros) hustled everything from rooms to restaurants to their wives. Indeed, one of our most vivid memories of Cuba remains the number of young women prostituting themselves, and certainly not for “moneda nacional” (Cuban pesos).

And despite the state of his people and his country, Castro – if not exactly rebellious – stuck to his chosen path of communism till the end. I have always felt ambivalent about that.

Sure, there is something admirable about holding on to your convictions no matter what. In Hatuey’s case, that meant recognising Spain’s invading “Christians” for the rapacious murderers they really were. In Castro’s case, this “no matter what” includes the spectacular collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which has bankrolled Cuba. It includes the embargo by the USA (under their cruel and misguided “Trading With the Enemy” Act). It includes the deprivation and hardships Cubans have been forced to live with.

But surely there would be something equally admirable about seeing the hardships for what they speak of, and then taking steps to make Cuban lives better, even if that means backing away from conviction and ideology. That never happened with Castro. Especially after travelling through that country, you can’t help wondering if it tarnishes him and his Revolution.

Still, in Baracoa’s plaza, surrounded by schoolchildren in crisp uniforms and women in tights walking their babies, it is possible to overlook the sadness and feel the soaring spirit of Hatuey. On our first day, we sat there till dusk, joining a bunch of high-spirited, rum-bolstered youths in bawdy renditions of “Guantanamera”. Then we wandered back to our hotel.

Room with a view

This was Hotel La Rusa, a bilious yellow edifice on the city’s seafront boulevard, or Malecon. It is named after a mysterious lady – a princess and dancer – from Russia: thus “La Rusa”, or “The Russian Woman”. Nobody in Baracoa seemed to know her name. (Alejandro Hartman later told me it was Magdalena Menasse Rovenskaya).

She was just six years old when her father was executed during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. With her mother, she fled into the mountains and later through Turkey, France, Italy and finally to Cuba. The island nation bewitched her, and she and her husband settled in Baracoa. In 1953, they built this hotel at one end of the Malecon. And when Fidel Castro and Che Guevara began the revolution that would overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista’s regime in 1959, La Rusa was a fervent supporter, in spite of her own experience with revolution in Russia four decades earlier. Our fascination for this story drove us to stay in this hotel for our five days in Baracoa.

That evening, the receptionist said they had moved us from the room we were given when we arrived earlier in the day. And so they had: Every last bit of our assorted belongings was now in #302. (Well, just before we fell asleep someone brought us the bottle of Nyle shampoo that we had left in the bathroom of #206). Room 302 was smaller, but turned out to have a beautiful view of the sea.

But it was too dark that night to see that view. Besides, 302 had a gargantuan bed that filled the room to the extent that we had to edge gingerly around it. So with furrowed brows, we had to ask the receptionist: why the change?

With her broken English and my barely functional Spanish, we finally figured it out. Most tourists come here and ask for 302, she told us, and she thought we would want it for the same reason. Many years ago, a large man with a beard had visited Baracoa and stayed at La Rusa. He had lain his massive frame on that same massive bed in that same room with the lovely view. Cue plenty of jokes about making your bed and sleeping in it. But especially when we realised that this had happened on the very day that I was born – this is true – we told the lady in halting Spanish: oh that’s just dandy. We’re happy to sleep in the bed once used by Fidel Castro.