|Martí monument at the Plaza de la Revolucion|
The most prominent monument in Havana, Cuba, is not for Fidel Castro, nor Che Guevara. The 109-meter tower honors José Martí, the intellectual hero of Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain. The poet, essayist, journalist, professor and philosopher died in action in 1895 at the age of 42.
At the base of the tower an 18-meter statue of Martí overlooks the Plaza de la Revolución. When Fidel Castro was healthier, he delivered his hours-long speeches to hundreds of thousands of Cubans gathered in the plaza. Castro was born in 1926, more than 30 years after Martí's death.
One can learn much about a nation's core values by studying its monuments and how it treats its own history. When the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, they deliberately tried to erase as much of Czarist Russia as they could by destroying and denying centuries of cultural history.
Castro's revolution was inspired in part by the same economic issues that fueled the Bolsheviks, but his regime enthusiastically embraced Cuba's pre-revolutionary culture. The Martí monument was started and completed during the regime of the hated dictator Fulgencio Batista, but it became the geographic centerpiece of the new regime. Across the Plaza de la Revolución, images of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, two heroes of Castro's revolution, look back and up toward Martí.
|Monument to Maximo Gomez|
Most of the statues in Havana honor other heroes of the 19th century War for Independence. A huge and ornate monument to Gen. Maximo Gomez, for example, anchors the east end of the Malecon, Havana's famous sea wall.
|Che Guavara poster|
Che Guevara is the most prominently honored of the Castro revolutionaries. His iconic visage based on a famous photograph by the Cuban photographer Korda adorns t-shirts, hallways, murals, virtually any surface on which an image can be imprinted.
And while Cubans do not enjoy the same freedom of expression as Americans do, parodies of even Guevara exist, such as the poster of his face on a bare torso painted red with the Nike slogan "Just Do It" across the top.
Almost entirely absent from the iconography of modern socialist Cuba is the leader of the revolution himself, Fidel Castro. Our guide explained that this was because Castro has ordered that no statues or monuments to him be built while he lives. His image will no doubt be ubiquitous when he dies.
Conspicuously absent from Cuban roadsides is any form of commercial advertising. There are scattered billboards and signs, and even those whose Spanish is limited to "Hola" and "Gracias" will have no trouble understanding "Socialismo Siempre" and "Viva la Revolucion."
|Hemingway bust at Cojimar|
One other individual is strongly represented in statues and monuments: the American writer Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway's corner room in the Hotel Ambos Munos in Havana is now a one-room museum. His farm outside Havana, Finca de la Vigía, is now a museum that probably looks just as it did when he lived there until 1960 (and one can't help but wonder if it isn't also a reminder of capitalist decadence). And there is a sculpted bust of the writer overlooking the harbor at Cojimar, the fishing village that inspired "The Old Man and the Sea." The "old man" was based on a fisherman from the village.
|The Black Virgin in Santeria Church|
Beyond iconography, Cuba has always embraced the arts and creative people in general, and that did not change with the revolution. As in many Latin American countries, much art is based in religion. Churches and cathedrals abound in sacred paintings and sculpture.
|Statue on the Gran Teatro|
The Gran Teatro de la Habana is home to an internationally renowned ballet company and regularly hosts concerts and opera performances (which I could hear from my hotel room at night after the son band on the patio finished for the evening).
While Cuba strives to remain a classless society, many artists enjoy special privileges and above average housing, often in the villas of Cuba's wealthiest people who were displaced by the revolution.
Some of these artists are as important domestically as they are to Cuba's reputation abroad. José Fuster, for example, is a ceramic artist whose work can be found world-wide (except in the U.S., of course), transformed his Havana neighborhood into "Fusterlandia." Fuster's colorful, sometimes quirky sculptures and mosaics stretch for blocks on roofs, walls, doorways and benches in the vicinity of his studio (which also serves as a paladar, or private restaurant). More than 80 of his neighbors have allowed Fuster to adorn their homes.
|Chichi at work in his studio|
Other artists work on a smaller scale but with similar artistic freedom. The potter Chichi throws pots daily in his studio that is open to the public in the 500-year old city of Trinidad on the south coast. Chichi and his apprentices and assistants work tirelessly with their wheels, sanding stations and kiln to produce gorgeous pots for sale in Trinidad's markets, all while visitors stroll through, taking photos and occasionally buying a pot.
Other than the image of Che Guevara looking over Chichi's shoulder, there is no sign of revolutionary propaganda in his work. His pots are traditional, meticulously created and typically Caribbean.
What I take away from all of this is that Cuba honors all of its history, and its values are rooted in traditions and events that are centuries old, re-shaped, but not destroyed, by the revolution that transformed the economy of the island nation more than 50 years ago.
Perhaps one day soon, the U.S. government will again allow its citizens to travel freely and see Cuba for themselves.
(For more images of Cuban monuments and other art, please visit my Web site: