The Shoes and Shroud of Che Guevara, 2012

I was in Havana in 1960 and again in 1961, or so I am told because I only remember being there once; the time we stayed at the Hotel Riviera. I remember a confused night in Miami and my aunt’s fur coat hanging on a hook on the inside of a hotel door. The next day we were in Havana. I don’t remember the Hotel Nacional, where Fidel visited and encouraged the 29 American guests to tell their friends that American tourists were still welcome in Havana and would be treated like kings. I remember that my red headed cousin, who burnt easily in the sun, was given a green Fidel hat to wear on the beach. Joe Louis was staying at our hotel and my gregarious five year old sister befriended him. Errol Flynn, the dissipated actor, followed Fidel around in the jungle in 1958 and made the film Cuban Rebel Girls there in 1959. My mother, often mistaken for Alice Faye, met him at the hotel bar, but that must have been on an earlier trip without the children. He was dead by 1960.

I didn’t go back for 50 years. It was December, 2010 and it was unseasonably cold when we arrived in Havana. Buildings are not equipped with heating. I spent the first night in the luxury Hotel Riviera sleeping in my jeans, socks, hoody and coat. There was no hot water in the morning. In La Habana, images of Che Guevara are as ubiquitous as images of Christ. There are far more images of either, than of Fidel, and fewer still of Raul. Communism is often described as a 20th century religion and in Havana I can see the confusion. In fact, the Museo de Comandancia del Che, a modest white building overlooking Old Havana from within the ramparts of El Morro, appears to be guarded by none other than Christ himself. The monumental marble statue of Christ was a gift to Batista from his wife, after a failed assassination attempt in 1957.

The Che museum is composed of a few small rooms. The first appears to have been Che’s bedroom. There is a single bed with a modest wood frame and a pink coverlet. Evidently, this was a command center and women and children were housed elsewhere. There are two wooden dressers, one with a mirror. On the mirrored dresser is a box of Cuban cigars, a lamp, and a silver thermos. On the wall above the bed is an enlarged black and white photograph of Che seated on this same bed in this same room with Fidel seated across from him and leaning toward him, there to express his concern after Che had a severe attack of asthma. The photograph is dated 1959.

Next is a room of artefacts in glass vitrines: a set of crude medical implements, a small round plastic container the size of a silver dollar containing hair cuttings. Why they are white when Che died with a full head of black hair is left unexplained. Perhaps just as nails and hair continue to grow after death, Che’s hair turned grey in the small container after his demise. There is another glass case with something resembling a bear trap; an upturned dead fly lying next to it. The label reads; “Trampa de caza utilizada por los guerrilleros.” There is a vitrine with a used pair of shoes. There is a tiny casket with Che’s name on it that is barely large enough to hold a newborn infant. And there is a large standing vitrine with the stretcher that his dead body was laid out on; literally two poles with faded green canvas stretched taut between them.

It seems somehow natural and fitting that Che and Christ should have become one in Cuba, communism’s most cherished reliquary. The violence unleashed by the revolution hides behind a curtain of martyrdom that nearly every tourist can understand and that is all that is left to mythologise. The stretcher that bore the dead Che becomes one with the Shroud of Turin, just as images of Che’s assassinated body became one with Mantegna’s painting of the dead Christ. Che has been artfully arranged in the collective unconscious with the help of the painterly tropes alive in the mind of Freddy Alberto when he photographed Che’s outstretched body on October 10th in 1967, the day after his execution.

Not unlike the city of Tel Aviv, with its many Bauhaus cement buildings, Havana suffers the onslaught of salt water against its majestic facades, especially along the Malecón, where on a rough day the water jumps over the sea wall spraying the sidewalks accompanied by a rhythmic tympany. When we departed the Hotel Riviera I noticed a grand ball park along the waterfront. I returned there on my last day in Havana. There is seating underneath what looks like an extensive open clam shell of cement. The grandstand of peeling paint and graffiti is pitted with holes gouged out by time and salt water and the ground is brown, mostly dirt and prickly straw.

In this vast and dilapidated ball park are one man, a boy, and a bicycle leaning against a goal post. The man is pitching a baseball to the boy. After a long time wandering the ball field I realize that not once have I heard the crack of the bat against the ball and I turn to watch the man and the boy. The man pitches to the boy and the boy watches the ball but always swings after the ball has soared past him. The boy is maybe ten or eleven. When the boy goes after the ball I notice that there is something wrong with his legs. His gait is spastic, he is impaired somehow. The man never loses his patience and the boy is always smiling. He always swings too late and never appears either frustrated or discouraged. Somehow, finally, the boy connects the bat to the ball. Or maybe, the man has managed to hit the bat with his pitch. The ball flies up into the air. When I leave over an hour later, they are still playing. The man is still patiently and gently pitching to the boy and the boy is still smiling and swinging and missing.