At the southwest corner of the Quinta de los Molinos grounds, the Avenida de los Presidentes becomes Avenida de Ranchos Boyeros and continues south for about 1km to the Plaza de la Revolución. For much of the time the plaza comes as a bit of a letdown, revealing itself to be just a prosaic expanse of concrete bordered by government buildings and the headquarters of the Cuban Communist Party. You’ll find a more animated scene if you coincide your visit with May Day or other annual parade days, when legions of loyal Cubans, ferried in on state-organized buses from the reparto apartment blocks on the city outskirts, come to wave flags and listen to speeches at the foot of the José Martí memorial. Tourists still flock here throughout the year to see the plaza’s tri-fold attractions: the Memorial Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Memorial José Martí and the Memorial Camilo Cienfuegos.
Almost every Cuban town, large or small, has a bust or a statue of José Martí somewhere, and if they don’t already know, it doesn’t take long for most people who spend any time touring round Cuba to start wondering who he is. Born José Julián Martí y Pérez to Spanish parents on January 28, 1853, this diminutive man, with his bushy moustache and trademark black bow tie and suit, came to embody the Cuban desire for self-rule and was a figurehead for justice and independence, particularly from the extending arm of the US, throughout Latin America.
Angry young man
An outstanding pupil at the San Anacleto and San Pablo schools in Havana, and then at the Instituto de Segunda Enseñaza de la Habana, Martí was equally a man of action, who didn’t take long to become directly involved in the separatist struggle against colonial Spain. Still a schoolboy when the first Cuban War of Independence broke out in 1868, by the start of the following year he had founded his first newspaper, Patria Libre, contesting Spanish rule of Cuba. His damning editorials swiftly had him pegged as a dissident, and he was arrested a few months later on the trivial charge of having written a letter to a friend denouncing him for joining the Cuerpo de Voluntarios, the Spanish volunteer corps. Only 16 years old, Martí was sentenced to six years’ hard labour in the San Lázaro stone quarry in Havana. Thanks to the influence of his father, a Habaneran policeman, the sentence was mitigated and the now-ailing teenager was exiled to the Isla de la Juventud, then known as the Isla de Pinos, and finally to Spain in 1871.
Martí wasted no time in Spain, studying law and philosophy at the universities in Madrid and Zaragoza, all the while honing his literary skills and writing poetry, his prolific output evidenced today in the countless compendiums and reprints available in bookshops around Cuba. One of his poems, taken from the collection Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses), was adapted and became the official lyrics of the song Guantanamera, a Cuban anthem.
By 1875 he was back on the other side of the Atlantic and reunited with his family in Mexico. Settling down, however, was never an option for the tireless Martí, who rarely rested from his writing or his agitation for an independent Cuba and social justice throughout Latin America. Returning to Havana briefly in 1877 under a false name, he then moved to Guatemala where he worked as a teacher and continued his writings. Among his students was the daughter of Guatemalan president Miguel García Granados, who fell in love with Martí but whose love went unrequited. Martí returned again to Cuba in 1878 and during another brief stay he married Carmen Zayas Bazán, with whom he had a son that same year. By 1881 he was living in New York, where he managed to stay for the best part of a decade. His years in New York were to prove pivotal. Initially swept away by what he perceived to be the true spirit of freedom and democracy, he soon came to regard the US with intense suspicion, seeing it as a threat to the independence of all Latin American countries.
Charging to battle
The final phase of Martí’s life began with his founding of the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1892. He spent the following three years drumming up support for Cuban independence from around Latin America, raising money, training for combat, gathering together an arsenal of weapons and planning a military campaign to defeat the Spanish. In April 1895, with the appointed general of the revolutionary army, Máximo Gómez, and just four other freedom fighters, he landed at Playitas on Cuba’s south coast. Disappearing into the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, just as Fidel Castro and his rebels were to do almost sixty years later, they were soon joined by hundreds of supporters. On May 19, 1895, Martí went into battle for the first time and was shot dead almost immediately. Perhaps the strongest testament to José Martí’s legacy is the esteem in which he is held by Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits, his ideas authenticating their vision of a free Cuba and his dedication to the cause an inspiration to all.
Memorial José Martí
Memorial José Martí
Although widely seen as a symbol of the Revolution, the star-shaped Memorial José Martí had been in the pipeline since 1926 and was completed a year before the Revolution began. Its 139m marble super-steeple is even more impressive when you glance up to the seemingly tiny crown-like turret, constantly circled by a dark swirl of birds. Near the base sits a 17m sculpture of Martí, the eloquent journalist, poet and independence fighter who missed his chance to be Cuba’s first populist president by dying in his first ever battle against the Spanish on April 11, 1895. Carved from elephantine cubes of white marble, the immense monument captures Martí hunched forward in reflective pose.
Museo José Martí
Museo José Martí
Behind the statue of José Martí, the stately ground floor of the memorial tower houses the exhaustive Museo José Martí, which charts Martí’s career mainly through letters and photographs. The lavish entrance hall, its walls bedecked with Venetian mosaic tiles interspersed with Martí’s most evocative quotes, certainly befits a national hero and is the most impressive aspect of a museum that tends to stray off the point at times. The most eye-catching exhibit is close to the entrance to the first room: a replica of Simón Bolívar’s diamond-studded sword, which was given to Fidel Castro by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2000.
The second room holds photographs of Martí in Spain, Mexico and North America along with an assortment of artillery, most notably Martí’s six-shooter Colt revolver engraved with his name, and the Winchester he took with him into his only battle. A temporary exhibition space in the fourth room showcases work by local artists, while music peñas with local crooners singing boleros and the like take place in a small function room on the first and third Saturday of the month.
The lookout point
When you’ve finished in the museum, take the lift to the top floor and the highest lookout point in Havana – on a clear day you can see the low hills in the east and out as far as Miramar in the west. The room is divided into segments corresponding to the five spines of its star shape, so you can move around to take in five separate views.
Memorial Ernesto “Che” Guevara
Memorial Ernesto “Che” Guevara
On the opposite side of the square to the north, the ultimate Cuban photo opportunity is presented by the Memorial Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a stylized steel frieze replica of Alberto “Korda” Gutierrez’s famous photo of Guevara, titled Guerrillero Heroico – the most widely recognized image of him. The sculpture that you see now on the wall of the Ministry of Interior building, where Guevara himself once worked, was forged in 1993 from steel donated by the French government. Taken on March 5, 1960, during a memorial service for victims of the La Coubre freighter explosion on Calle 23, Korda’s photograph, with Guevara’s messianic gaze fixed on some distant horizon and hair flowing out from beneath his army beret, embodies the unwavering, zealous spirit of the Revolution. It was only in 1967, after his capture and execution in Bolivia, that the photo passed into iconography, printed on T-shirts and posters throughout the 1970s as an enduring symbol of rebellion.
Korda, who died in 2001, famously received no royalties from the image, and even gave its wide dissemination his blessing. As a lifelong supporter of the Revolution and Guevara’s ideals, he believed that spreading the image would allow Guevara’s ideals to spread alongside it, which neatly allows for the image’s commercial use in Cuba itself.