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A new book by Michael Casey, “Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image,” explores how the world-famous shot of Ernesto “Che” Guevara by Albert Korda has gone from being a symbol of resistance to the capitalist system “to one of the most marketable and marketed brands around the globe…as recognizable as the Nike swoosh or McDonald’s golden arches.”

According to a recent story in the New York Times, Che’s image has been used to sell air fresheners in Peru, snowboards in Switzerland, and wine in Italy. “The supermodel Gisele Bündchen,” it claims, “pranced down a runway in a Che bikini. A men’s wear company brought out a Che action figure, complete with fatigues, a beret, a gun and a cigar. And an Australian company produced a ‘cherry Guevara’ ice cream line, describing the eating experience like this: ‘The revolutionary struggle of the cherries was squashed as they were trapped between two layers of chocolate. May their memory live on in your mouth!’”

Well, we haven’t come across any Che ice cream in Cuba, but his image truly is as ubiquitous as Starbuck’s logos in Seattle, and if you’re going to go home with a souvenir from the island, odds are it will be Che-related.

Yesterday we snaked our way up the hills outside of Viñales to a pink hotel, Los Jazmines, perched on a bluff overlooking the Valle de Viñales. The fertile valley below us, where much of Cuba’s tobacco is grown, was encircled by these dramatic rocky outcrops, called mogotes, which are ancient limestone plugs formed during the Jurassic Period.


Photos by David Lansing.

Photos by David Lansing.



The lookout above the hotel is a spectacular setting for the dozens of little enterprises where you can get a hot dog and a mojito, a locally-produced cigar, or Che flags, t-shirts, and berets. Hardy went off in search of something to bring back to his 8-year-old son (my godson) and settled on a beret with the famous Korda image embroidered on the front.


I’ve decided that my gift to my godson will be to convert the photo I took of his dad wearing the Che beret into a poster like the ones they sell everywhere in Cuba. So he can hang it on the wall above his bed. And contemplate how his father, a true capitalistic Master of the Universe, ended up on a print looking very much like one of the most infamous revolutionaries in history.

As the NY Times piece points out in regards to Che’s role in capitalistic endeavors, “Clearly, it’s not what Che Guevara had in mind when he declared that ‘the revolutionary idea should be diffused by means of appropriate media to the greatest depth possible.’ For many, Che has become a generic symbol…‘the quintessential postmodern icon’ signifying ‘anything to anyone and everything to everyone.’”

Including a little 8-year-old boy in England.

Victoria siempre!

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A country road zigged and zagged its way through the copper-colored tobacco farms spread across the Viñales Valley in western Cuba. We stopped at a little roadside tobacco factory about a mile out of town called a despalillo de tabaco where they sort the tobacco leaves according to quality and color before sending them on to the Francisco Donatien factory in Pinar del Rio.


Photos by David Lansing.

Photos by David Lansing.



We walked out into the fields where turkeys and chickens were pecking at the red soil, searching for the pests that eat little holes in the silky-smooth green leaves. There was a veguero or tobacco farmer in the fields looking slightly malnourished and no doubt older than his actual age. He wore a filthy armless shirt that looked to be homemade and a straw hat, too small for his head, that reminded me of something a child would wear.

He had a small white knife with a curved blade—almost like an oyster knife—that he used to quickly slice off the criollo leaves, hanging them over his arm until he had a bunch large enough to drape over poles in the field for drying. This was the ligero tobacco, the best and most aromatic of the leaves that have received the most sun. He showed us how to use the knife. Although the harvesting looked simple, there was a trick to it, as there is to any age-old expertise, that we couldn’t quite master. In any case, you could see how the harvesting of the leaves was a delicate process that would also wear a man out after a few hours, particularly in this steamy heat.

There was another veguero working in the drying shed, a cheerful young man with a gold-capped front tooth. It looked like the man had lost the tooth, since the gum-line above it was damaged, and it had been stuck back in his mouth and then, perhaps where it had partially broken off, capped with the gold. When we told him we were mostly American, he shook our hands and told us that a few years back he’d tried escaping on a boat to Florida but had been caught and ended up spending 17 months in a Cuban prison. Although he smiled, he spoke with a simmering anger just beneath the surface and you had the feeling that he’d try to escape again if the opportunity arose.

Like just about everyone we’ve met in Cuba, the vegueros were extraordinarily friendly to us, happy to have their photo taken or tell us, in Spanish, about their lives in a way that never seemed intended to elicit our sympathy. Still, you couldn’t help but feel empathetic. Their lives are as difficult as that of a farmsteader working a dry plot of land in the Dakotas a hundred years ago. Except that the Dakota farmer could always give up the land and try to make a go of it somewhere else or move to the city and become a shoe salesman. These vegueros can’t. Like their fathers and their father’s fathers, they were born on the land to work the tobacco fields and will most likely die on the land. So you feel extraordinarily sad that someone like our gold-toothed friend hadn’t made it to Florida, but then again you think, What would have happened if he had? An uneducated grown man who speaks no English and has done nothing but grow tobacco his whole life suddenly showing up on the shores of Miami? To do what?

 Still, listening to his story, you couldn’t help but believe that he, like all Cubans, should at least be given the opportunity to try out a different life, if that’s what they want. 

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Say what you want about Fidel’s failed political experiment (and I’ve said plenty myself), but he did keep his promise to provide health care for everyone. But while it’s not difficult to see a doctor here, the problem is that the country has no drugs (and no money to buy any), so while your disease might be quickly diagnosed, there might be little Cuban doctors can do about it.  

One of its biggest health care successes, however, is its emphasis on maternal and infant health. Back in the grim days under Fulgencio Batista, the infant mortality rate was 91 per 1,000 live births; fifty years later it stands at about 6.4 per 1,000 births. That’s pretty astonishing for such an impoverished nation. (By comparison, according to the U.S. government, the infant mortality rate in our own country stands at about 6.3 per 1,000 live births).

I mention this because as I was walking around Viñales after lunch, I passed the Hogar Materno, a four-bedroom, 15-bed maternity home where a very pregnant young woman and a nurse were sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch.


Photo by David Lansing.

Photo by David Lansing.



I stopped and chatted with them for a few minutes. According to the nurse, whose name I think was Noemi, there are approximately 210 maternity homes like this one in Cuba—one for every municipality.

And who comes here, I asked her, all the pregnant women in town?

No, no, no, she told me. Mostly women who are malnourished, as well pregnant moms who have high-risk factors like diabetes or anemia. Or like this one, she said, nodding to the woman in the pink top sitting next to her, who are “teniendo gemelos”—having twins.

The pregnant mom patted her belly with two hands and rolled her eyes. “Era flaco,” she said.

“You’re still very skinny,” I lied.

I asked her what was the best part about living at the maternity home.

La comida,” she said. The nurse laughed.

Before leaving, I asked for their permission to take a photo. And then the expecting mom got up and waddled inside to have her midday meal. 

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Scenes from Viñales: Part 2

A British guidebook on Cuba describes Viñales as “a perfectly preserved Colonial settlement.” Really? I mean when I think of a perfectly preserved Colonial town I think of places like San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. Or maybe Guanajuato.

Viñales, in contrast, is basically little more than a Cuban Mayberry; a sleepy two-block long main street named after Salvador Cisneros Betancourt who played second fiddle to José Martí during the Cuban War of Independence. (I think most Cubans have forgotten that Cisneros lobbied for and helped pass the Platt Amendment in the Cuban Constitution, thus ensuring American involvement on the island for the next hundred year and the establishment of that little outpost on the eastern end of the island, Guantánamo).


Church in Vinales. Photos by David Lansing.

Church in Vinales. Photos by David Lansing.



In the middle of town is a small central square, Parque Martí, bounded by a very modest church, Iglesia del Sagrado Corazó, which looks like it could have been the perfect setting for a shoot-out in one of Clint Eastwood’s old spaghetti Westerns (it would also make a fine crypt for El Comandante—I’m just saying). Next door, the arcades of an old Colonial mansion, once the diplomatic headquarters of the Spanish gentry, have been turned into folk-art flea market, selling hand-made instruments—claves and guiros—and other Cuban tsotchkes in front of what is now the Casa de la Cultura.

In the cool shade of the arcade was an old guy in a straw hat and tattered blue shirt who looked like a Cuban version of Barney Fife. He was smoking the most outrageous (and obviously hand-rolled) cigar I’d ever seen. The monster stogie stuck out of the middle of his mouth, like a snake’s tongue, drooping from its own weight.


Imagine Barney in a straw hat smoking a big ol' stogie.
Imagine Barney in a straw hat smoking a big ol’ stogie.


I asked the old guy if he could tell me where Casa de Don Tomás was. With smoke swirling round his leathered head, he nodded up the street without saying a word.

Our British guidebook said Don Tomás was not only the best restaurant in town but also an architectural gem, a colonial home built in 1887 for a rich Spanish merchant. They said the house had recently been restored and had a gorgeous terra-cotta roof and “exuberant flowering vines bursting from the balcony.”

What we got, when we found Don Tomás, was a concrete patio with a white canvas roof. Evidently the celebrated Casa de Don Tomás had been flattened by Hurricane Gustav last September (amazingly, while the storm destroyed some 100,000 homes on the island, there wasn’t a single death). Where the historic building had stood for over a 120 years was now little more than a big pile of bricks and rubbish.

But one does not close down an institution like Don Tomás, even if the physical part of the business has vanished, so operations were simply moved across the street. No doubt in four or five years a faux Don Tomás, complete with a terra-cotta roof and flowering bougainvillea, will rise from the rubble.


The house specialty--delicias de don Tomas.

The house specialty--delicias de don Tomas.



But while the setting was a disappointment, the lunch was not. There were the refreshing El Trapiche cocktails, made with white rum, pineapple juice, and honey with a sliver of sugar cane for a swizzle stick, and the house specialty, called delicias de don Tomás, a kind of paella made with rice, lobster, fish, pork and sausage, served in a little brown ceramic bowl, as well as a most excellent live son band called Guacachason (ironically, the CD the band sold when they took a break featured a photo of the 5-piece group standing in front of what used to be Casa de Don Tomás—red tile roof, flowering balconies, and everything).


Guacachason plays for us at Casa de Don Tomas.

Guacachason plays for us at Casa de Don Tomas.



The day was hot and humid; no one was anxious to go back out into the afternoon sun. So, after lunch, we ordered more drinks and kicked back listening to the excellent son band play canciones para recordar—songs to remember. Not a bad way to spend a hot afternoon. 

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Scenes from Viñales: Part 1

We had coffee at a little outdoor café in Palma Rubia, waiting for our taxis to arrive. Every so often one or the other of us would stand in the middle of the dirt road, looking up the valley to see if anyone was approaching. When the three taxis finally did arrive, it was with great flair. They came roaring down the red dirt road, dust flying everywhere, and came to a screeching halt in front of the café. What an entrance. It was as if John Wayne and the cavalry had just arrived to escort us through Indian territory.

While we’d been waiting, a Cuban guy in his mid-20s had been ingratiating himself to us, giving us “insider” tips on which restaurants to go to in Viñales and such. Once the taxis arrived, he offered to give us a tour of what he said was his family’s tobacco farm in exchange for a lift into Viñales.


Scenes from Vinales. Photos by David Lansing.

Scenes from Vinales. Photos by David Lansing.



This was a bit trickier than it sounds because Cubans can get fined for traveling with tourists. Our taxi drivers didn’t want anything to do with this arrangement. But we convinced them that the Cuban was our official “guide” and reluctantly they agreed to let him come with us.

Once we got to Viñales, we instructed the three drivers to wait for us near the main square, the Parque Martí, while we followed our new Cuban friend out into the countryside. None of us had the faintest idea where we were going (or for how long we were going to have to walk). It didn’t matter. It was pleasant passing by the panaderia (which had maybe a dozen hard rolls, at most, for sale) and saying hello to the the women carrying sun umbrellas as they brought their children home from school for comida.

Eventually we made it out into the tobacco fields where the bright green plants, no more than two-feet high, were growing in long rows. In the middle of the field was the storehouse, called the casa del tabaco, where the harvested leaves, tied in bunches, and hung on poles all the way up to the rafters. Our Cuban friend told us that when the tobacco leaves dried they would be sprayed with a mixture of honey and water or cocoa and water as part of the hydrating process so the tobacco wouldn’t become brittle.

I don’t know. I’d never heard this before. Spraying tobacco leaves with honey? At this point we were all beginning to wonder if this was truly our friend’s family tobacco farm or if he’d just escorted us out into the country and taken us to the first casa del tabaco he’d come across. Maybe he didn’t know a damn thing about growing tobacco and was just making it up as he went along. It was hard to tell.  

Hardy, in a very diplomatic way, told the guy we appreciated the tour but now we were all hungry and wanted to get back to Viñales for lunch. Which is when the pitch came. Our friend would be happy to sell us some excellent cigars, the type you cannot get on the market he told us, if we would just follow him to his grandfather’s house.

“So this is what Cuban communism has come down to,” Hardy said as we ambled back towards the town square. “Everyone trying to hustle cigars.”

I think our Cuban friend figured out that we weren’t going to buy any of his grandfather’s cigars. By the time we made it back to the Parque Martí, he’d disappeared. Probably just as well. Now we needed to figure out where to have lunch.  

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