Why you should care

Because Cuba is torn between honoring its past and looking ahead to its future.

Bearded rebels descended from the mountains in early 1959 as the country awoke to news that President Fulgencio Batista had fled in the night. Fidel Castro and his men surrounded Santiago de Cuba to demand the surrender of Batista’s troops in the otherwise quiet streets.

These days, Santiago is usually teeming, and on the 500th-anniversary weekend of this hot, hilly city — where Fidel studied as a youth — a short, slightly rotund and balding man barked at his opponents in a game of dominoes. Squabbles over tiles are the closest things to violence encountered today in this former fulcrum of revolution.

There were shootings. People disappeared. No one knew where the bodies were.

Rafael Bell Jr.

Rafael Bell Jr., 66, couldn’t spend his younger years in Parque Serrano playing games, because it could have cost him his life. “There were shootings. People disappeared. No one knew where the bodies were,” he says. His earliest memories hark back to the 1950s, when a dynamic, law-educated activist was denied the chance to run for Congress because President Batista was fortifying a dictatorship — one that helped the Mafia by letting American gangsters operate brothels and casinos in Havana. That activist organized a guerrilla army to overthrow the government; its target was the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, on the other side of the island. It was far enough from the capital to slow the arrival of reinforcements, yet big enough that victory would invigorate the rebel cause.

The attack began on July 26, 1953, the morning following the last night of Carnival. Fidel guessed Santiago would be quiet, with residents, even soldiers, hung over from the festivities. His strategy failed when one of the cars got lost on the way to the barracks, tipping off Batista’s men and leading to his arrest. But grassroots protests prompted Fidel’s release from prison two years later and his subsequent exile to Mexico, forever changing the course of history.

Fidel thereafter teamed with Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentine doctor turned Communist, and his own brother Raúl, surviving the seas on the creaky yacht Granma and eluding military capture and gunfire upon their 1956 return to Cuba, where they clambered the Sierra Maestra mountains to build a base and a following.

Rafael Bell Sr., the father of today’s dominoes devotee, joined the so-called 26th of July Movement in 1957. He could have supported his wife and three kids on his mathematics professor’s salary, about $200 a month, but he couldn’t tolerate the instability in the streets. With help from family, the Bells got by, relieved whenever they received a letter from the Mar Verde zone, a strategic military point about 20 miles west of Santiago. Rafael Jr. can’t recall how often they heard from his father, only that months of missing him ended one mid-January afternoon when Rafael Sr., his duties fulfilled and Fidel’s victory speech at Santiago City Hall long over, walked through the front door with a big smile on his face. “He was speechless,” Bell Jr. recalls. “He just cried with us.”

The father and his wife died three years ago, both at the age of 84. Their son is now a retired physics professor, a decent domino player and a husband of 42 years with two kids and four grandkids. He welcomes the free-market principles trickling into society, the property sales and small business ownership to counteract the Communism that keeps most salaries around $40 per month. But he never wants Cuba to mirror the capitalism of the United States, because he doesn’t want his country to lose its culture or socialist concessions like free education and health care.

Lilian Manzor, who left Cuba with her parents in 1968 and is now a Cuban expert at the University of Miami, wonders how much and how fast change will occur, beyond the reopening of embassies this summer in Havana and Washington. “There will be better hotels, better restaurants,” she says. But she worries about the ramifications for natives. “Will my cousins be able to live comfortably on their salaries? I don’t know.”

President Raúl Castro — his brother absent and ailing at 89 years old — left Santiago on July 26 of this year, shortly after former Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura called for an end to the U.S. embargo. Afterward, the city was mostly quiet, not only because the rhetoric had subsided, but because it followed the final sunset of Carnival. Bell’s booming voice and hearty laugh echoed around the dominoes table in the park, while neighbors sat outside their decrepit houses just blocks from the bullet-pocked Moncada Barracks. The crowds feasted on pulled pork sandwiches — the roasted hog laid out in an old wooden kiosk — for just 20 cents, accompanied by nonstop music.

Every now and then a popular tune would blare from an old boom box, songs from Van Van or Buena Fé, and a handful of Cubans would smile and look at each other, then spring to their feet and find a spot in the street to dance.

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Tales from the past to titillate and educate while giving you a lens on the present and future.