Havana, Cuba – In a city of crumbling buildings where the roots of jaguey trees break through the pavement, one of Havana’s grandest mansions has been restored to shimmering beauty in the name of Cuba’s most contentious son.
The Centro Fidel Castro Ruz opened last weekend in grounds filled with 10,000 plants from more than 1,300 species, three years after work was begun and five years to the day after the Cuban leader died.
At a ceremony attended by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on November 25, Fidel’s brother Raul, 90, welcomed the new museum, calling it “the most exciting thing I’ve seen in my life”.
The opening comes at a time when Cuba is struggling to get back on its feet amid a pandemic and as economic woes are growing under government mismanagement and the 60-year-old US embargo.
It also comes as the government is celebrating stifling much-heralded protests that had been planned in mid-November.
Two blocks from the museum, a queue forms every day for people buying food. When asked, Yanet Hernandez said she hadn’t heard about the new centre but had been waiting two hours to get basic necessities. “Fidel wouldn’t have allowed this,” she said.
The grounds of the centre contain a 190-seat theatre and an exhibition space. In the garden, a fountain pours onto rocks brought from Rio La Plata, a river whose source was in the mountains where Fidel had his first command post in 1958 as head of the rebel army.
There is a section for plants gifted by “paises amigos”, friendly countries such as Venezuela, whose leader Hugo Chavez came to Cuba’s aid after the economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The house itself, on one of the finest avenues in the leafy barrio of Vedado – “the heart of the city”, according to the designers – once belonged to the socialite Lily Hidalgo Borges.
Stained glass windows, colonial tiling, hardwood stairs and filigreed wooden doors have all been carefully restored. Hidalgo Borges was married to Enrique Conill, a banker with a tobacco fortune, but the family fled to the United States after the Cuban revolution.
Now the rooms offer presentations such as “Fidel is Fidel”, in which projections of Chavez, poet Roberto Fernandez Retamar and the great restorer of Old Havana, Eusebio Leal, all of whom are also now dead, pay tribute.
During Fidel’s funeral, Raul said no statues would be raised to his brother: “The leader of the revolution strongly opposed any manifestation of cult of personality.” So the new museum presents itself as a study centre and library.
Fidel Castro and Jose Marti
The designers have tried to address this with displays such as “Fidel is a whole country”.
There is the lectern where Fidel made his famous speeches; there are displays of the AK47 he liked to carry, and interactive screens recreate battles such as the Bay of Pigs using the technology of computer games.
While Castro is by far Cuba’s most famous name abroad, the designers make an effort to meld his name with the great independence hero and poet Jose Marti, whose bust adorns every park on the island.
An electronic portrait with Marti’s image by the front door morphs into that of Castro and then back again.
“Cubans in the US will be horrified because Marti is a hero to everybody,” Ada Ferrer, author of the recent book Cuba: An American history, told Al Jazeera. “It’s interesting, in this polarised moment when they are fighting over the present, they are still fighting over the past.”
Rene Gonzalez Barrios, a historian and colonel in the Cuban armed forces who is director of the new centre, told Al Jazeera that foreign donors had provided the funds for the museum but that they preferred to remain anonymous. He did not say how much money had been spent.
The new, seemingly well-funded museum stands in contrast with other ageing cultural venues in Cuba.
The Museum of the Revolution itself, housed in the old presidential palace, has been under renovation for years without seemingly little progress.
“Now we can dream,” said one curator, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media. “Now we don’t need to say, ‘there is this museum in Boston’ or ‘there is this place in Frankfurt’. Instead we can say: ‘Have you seen the Centro de Fidel Castro Ruz? We can do that here’.”