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Reliving history at the Museum of the Revolution

Reliving history at the Museum of the Revolution

by Ricardo Alberto Pérez

A visit to the Museo de la Revolución on No 1 Refugio St. is one of the best ways to relive all of the most intense and dramatic moments in the revolutionary past of Cuba. And from the building’s balconies, you can enjoy a splendid view of Havana Bay.

Originally this building was meant to house Havana’s provincial government in 1909. But in 1918, due to its location and beauty, then-President Mario García Menocal headed an initiative to transform it into the Presidential Palace. And that was to be its function from January 31, 1920 until 1965. On January 4, 1974, the former Presidential Palace became the permanent site for the Museum of the Revolution.

The layout of the Museum ensures that visitors can follow a well-laid out path through the different eras of Cuban history, from 1492 when the Spanish first arrived on the Island right up to the present. Especially interesting is the collection of objects covering the Neo-Colonial Republican Era (1902-1959) with information on the revolutionary trajectories of figures such as Antonio Guiteras, Julio Antonio Mella, Rubén Martínez Villena and Pablo de la Torriente Brau. One of the most intriguing objects in this section is the metal talcum container that carried the ashes of Mella from Mexico to Havana.

The period from 1953 to 1959, just preceding the Cuban Revolution, is exciting for the heroic exploits that are shown: the attack on Moncada Barracks, the preparation and landing of the Granma under the leadership of Fidel Castro; the November 30, 1956 uprising in Santiago de Cuba in support of the landing of the Granma; the attack on the Presidential Palace and the simultaneous taking of Radio Reloj radio station in March 1957; the battles fought by the Rebel Army in the Sierra Maestra; and the last segments of the war highlighting the advance of the rebels towards the western part of Cuba, commanded by Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto Guevara.

These were tense and anxious days. Many patriots lost their lives in clashes with the repressive forces of the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Items of clothing worn by these heroes have been preserved and are exhibited here, still bearing blood stains, marks of their final fall in combat.

We should draw attention to the work of Cuban heroine Celia Sánchez who became the custodian of many of these heritage objects saved from the years of the struggle in the Sierra Maestra. Today these articles provide us with striking testimony that helps us to understand a lot more about those historical moments.

The exhibit devoted to Comandantes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos allows us a unique opportunity to view some of their personal objects. Viewing the collection of photographs and reading the explanatory labels, we can learn about the different facets in their lives. An impressive life-like depiction of Che and Camilo was made possible by using a new technique of colored resins.

The bullet holes left on the building’s walls, unchanged by the passage of time, are tangible evidence of one of the most heroic events ever undertaken by the Cuban student movement in the twentieth century. A brave group belonging to the Directorio Revolucionario stormed the Presidential Palace on March 13, 1957 for the purpose of executing the tyrant Fulgencio Batista.

The accumulation of memories from the early years of the Cuban Revolution is beautifully presented for visitors to the museum. Some things surprise and others lead to profound reflection, but in all cases they manage to transmit the energy of those days. I have heard people comment that after their visit, they were left with a strong sense of longing for not having been around to live through those exciting times. One of those elements from our past that has caused considerable amazement is a giant piggybank that had been located in Havana’s Central Park in order to collect funds for the recently-created Instituto Nacional de la Reforma Agraria (INRA), the national institute for agrarian reform.

Events such as the explosion of the steamship La Coubre, the battle at Playa Girón/Bay of Pigs, and the October Crisis (Cuban Missile Crisis) can be remembered from a viewpoint of responsible historical vision.

In the outside area to the rear of the building stands the Granma Memorial: the vessel that brought eighty-two men from Mexico to Cuba to start the guerrilla warfare in the Sierra Maestra has been placed there in a pavilion. Accessible from one of the Museum’s exits, it is surrounded by small planes and a handful of vehicles that played a part in the Revolution. The large, tree-filled area provides visitors with a pleasant finale for the rich historical collection inside that has revealed much about the vibrant history of Cuba.

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