National Geographic : 1999 Jun
HE MOUNTAIN TRAIL was slick, difficult, rocks, rain, mud. It took me up into a cool, misty world far different from the sun-blasted lowlands below. The trail led to La Plata, the moun tain camp where in 1958 Fidel Castro planned the last guerrilla attacks against the army of President Fulgencio Batista. My companion was Ruben Araujo Torres, 60, a short, sturdy man in a peasant's straw hat. He had joined Castro's cause back then, picking up medicine and soap from secret caches, trading these for food from peasants, then bringing the food up to the guerrillas in their aerie. "It was dangerous. The army was everywhere." Why did he go with Castro? "I was a peasant, illiterate, didn't know anything. But friends said, 'Come on, come with us.' I knew the other guys were burning and killing, so I came with them." Ruben ended up on the winning side; from these mountains, the Sierra Maestra, Castro and his fighters broke the spirit of Batista's army. We passed guard posts and a few outbuild ings, then came to Castro's house of thatch and wood, set on a steep slope above a spring fed stream in a sea of green. The house had two rooms. The kitchen held a kerosene fridge with a bullet hole in it. The small bedroom had wooden windows on three sides; you propped them open with sticks. "Fidel built the bookcase, those chairs," Rub6n said. "He built this chair for himself, that one for Celia." Celia Sanchez was his aide-de-camp. I went outside, sat on a pole bench. "Fidel would sit there sometimes to write," Ruben said. "It's the original wood, hard; it lasts." I asked about Celia. "She was very nice," Ruben said, "the mother of the troop." She was constantly by Castro's side taking notes, keep ing watch, running errands. She stayed by his side until she died in 1980. "Celia planted these," Ruben said, "hibiscus, marpacifico." I had noticed the bright red petals on the trail coming in. They seemed to me now souvenirs of a time when everyone here was young and all the world was green. Forty years after the mountain, Fidel Cas tro, el comandante en jefe, the commander in chief, still dominates Cuba, his hand every where. Yet Cuba is changing, its future uncer tain. The end of economic and military aid from the old Soviet Union has led to a search for new money, new friends, new ways of doing things. And the comandante is aging; people wonder who will replace him and when. I wanted to look into these questions and also into the questions of how life is in Cuba today and what the people think about their lives, their problems, their future. I knew that to gain answers, I would have to range the island, talk to people at every level, let them shape their stories, be an hon est and patient listener. I discovered to my surprise that almost everyone wanted to talk, and at length. It was as if, controls having been eased, there were thousands of pent-up conversations and experiences to be shared. Only an ear was needed. I decided to start in Havana, that magnifi cent and crumbling city of 2.2 million souls. It is said Havana is two cities: One represents the old socialist ways, one the new ways. I drew a circle around one block on a map of Old Havana, the historic heart of the city. I would dig in there, see what life was like. On one side of the block was Calle Obispo, the tourist street that runs from Hemingway's old hangout, El Floridita, down to the 16th century Plaza de Armas. The block's other streets were not touristic but narrow, filled with people, potholes, carts, voices, music, dogs, laundry fluttering from balconies, a mat tress being lowered by rope from an upper floor. I went to Obrapia No. 508 to meet the block's family doctor, a state employee in a sys tem that offers free medical care to all Cubans. Dr. Henry Luis Brito, 29, was at work in a small, hot, humid room. As patients came in from a dark passage outside, he would listen attentively, take blood pressure. A woman suf fered from depression, another from pain in her knees. A child had asthma. A young man, WHERE SIDEWALKS ARE PORCHES in central Havana, the street becomes both playground and footpath. Families often share cold-water row houses in such crumbling neighborhoods, which get less government attention than programs for education, medical care, and rural development.