A friend Corrie and I just completed a drive across Cuba from west to east, ending on the Cuban side of Guantanamo. The distance was about 700 miles in each direction. Along the way we stopped at various military/historical sites and at other points of interest. We took many photographs and made videos of our expedition. Because we are both U.S. military veterans, we wanted to research our future guided tour of Historical Military Sites in Cuba. Few Americans appreciate the many historic sites there that represent significant events in the history of the United States.
In Havana we saw massive fortresses built during the Spanish colonial era, including Castillo de la Real Fuerzo, constructed during the 1500’s near the entrance to Havana Harbor.
We saw displays of various weapons deployed during and following the Cuban Revolution, including tanks, anti-aircraft tanks guns, surface-to-air missiles, a Russian-built Mig-21 from the Cuban Air Force, and an SS-4 intermediate-range Soviet missile that had previously been fitted with a nuclear tip.
The day after we arrived, we got a ride to the CubaCar Rental Agency, located at the Hotel Deauville. We had made prior arrangements to rent a vehicle, but we didn’t know what type of car would be available that day. Cuba is known for its frequent bad roads with potholes. I had hoped we would be offered a Toyota or Hyundai or similar reliable make of car commonly rented in Cuba. Instead, the only vehicle available was a Renault Sandero, but it turned out to be a very durable hatchback.
We headed east to Ernest Hemingway’s country estate. There we saw his 38-foot fishing boat Pilar, which he used to hunt for German U-Boats off the coast of Cuba during World War II.
We then drove southeast to the Bay of Pigs—a significant site in U.S. military history. We saw the beaches where anti-revolutionary Cuban exiles (supported by the U.S. military and C.I.A.) came ashore in April 1961. The invasion was planned during the last 2 years of the Eisenhower Administration. Young President John F. Kennedy had been in office for less than three months. For some unknown reason, JFK changed the invasion site from the beaches of Trinidad, to the Bay of Pigs. The invasion turned out to be one of the biggest military fiascos in U.S. history. We saw a museum with displays of weapons used by Cuba’s defenses as well as by U.S. invading forces. There were also maps, documents, and photographs of the invasion. We watched a fascinating 20-minute movie that showed historical footage.
We continued driving east across Cuba, which is almost as long from east-to-west as California is from north-to-south. Some roads were smooth and uncrowded; others were filled with potholes. We stayed in BnB’s and ate at local in-home restaurants. After three days and a 700-mile drive, we eventually arrived in the medium-sized city of Guantánamo, with a population of about 200,000. It is really out-of-the way, visited by few tourists. We could tell by the architecture that at one time there was once much wealth due to the city’s interaction with sugar barons and the U.S. Naval Base prior to 1959.
We wanted to visit the boundary between the Cuba and the territory occupied by the United States. We discovered that it is necessary to apply ahead of time for a permit from the Cuban Government to travel through the three consecutive military checkpoints. We decided to do that on our next visit, when we bring a group of U.S. veterans and their families.
After staying overnight in Guantánamo, we began our return trip. Fifty miles west of Guantánamo is Cuba’s second-largest city—Santiago. We stopped at San Juan Hill, made famous by Teddy Roosevelt as he led his Rough Riders up the small mountain near the end of the Cuban-Spanish-American War. The hilltop is now a beautiful memorial park dedicated to the bloody events that occurred on that site. Marble monuments described the activities and sacrifices made by American forces 120 years ago. The original observation tower at the top provided a 360-degree panoramic view of the lush countryside. We observed no desecration or vandalism to any of the monuments or displays praising the U.S. forces. As we left, we realized that most Americans have heard of San Juan Hill, but very few know anything about it.
Santiago Bay was the site of a great battle in 1898 between battleships of Spain and the U.S. during the Spanish-America War. The American Navy, with its advanced technology, overwhelmed the Spanish warships. Many were sunk at the mouth of Santiago Harbor, and a few now serve as historic diving sites for visiting SCUBA divers.
We continued west on our journey and stopped for a few hours in Santa Clara, in the middle of the island. All Cubans, most Latin Americans, and very few Americans know this was the site of the key battleground in the Cuban revolution. The outdoor museum depicting the 1958 events was quite interesting. A single borrowed bulldozer was used to lift up a single rail of a track. Soon after that, an armored train carrying hundreds of Batista’s soldiers and thousands of weapons flew off the tracks. A much smaller group of Revolutionaries (led by Che Guevara) captured the men and weapons, and residents of Santa Clara built up barricades in order to restrain the movement of Batista’s tanks and artillery. This battle would prove to be the definitive turning point in Cuba’s Revolution, greatly changing the chances of victory and the course of history in Cuba.
We eventually arrived back in Havana on Wednesday, April 18—the day that Miguel Diaz-Canal was confirmed to be Cuba’s newest president. This was the first day in about sixty years that the country has not been led by one of the Castro Brothers—Fidel or Raul. The Cubans we talked to had mixed emotions—hope for a leader from a new generation, but fear of the unknown.
While in Havana we also saw the Memorial to the U.S. Battleship Maine, which blew up in Havana Harbor in 1898. This led to American involvement in the Cuban-Spanish War, which was later referred to as the Spanish-American War. Cubans were given little credit for the fact that their rag-tag army had all but defeated Spain—once a world military super-power that eventually lost control of its vast empire, country by country.