Part One on Cuba, The North American Continent
To finally embark on the blogging process, I figured I’d write on the recently completed island of Cuba. Drawing this country was an extremely captivating project, and I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d more like to blog about. However after knocking out a first draft, I found myself editing well over 3000 words. As much as I'd like to unpack Cuba all at once, I suspect such a lengthy blog is not a good choice for my first ever post. So, it will be in two parts. Today we will tour the map to discuss the basic history and legacy of the Cuban Revolution, featured heavily in this portrait. As no discussion of Fidel’s Cuba is complete without the fiery relations with the United States, we'll also cover Guantánamo Bay and the future in light of the fledgling American-Cuban thaw.
As I discuss the various sites drawn, each point of focus will be emboldened and annotated with a red number. This number will correspond with the annotations on the main map below. I hope this is a useful tool to share what I’ve discovered, but it is by all means in its testing phase. All suggestions are most welcome to refine this method. I wish to tell a story that paints a picture of the regions I draw; seems an appropriate way to discuss an actual picture.
Cuba has a rich and storied history, from the original Taíno inhabitants, through the landing of Columbus, to spectacularly wealthy sugar barons and the Spanish-American War. In the Cuba of 2016 however, no period still resonates more than the overthrow of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista by Fidel Castro in 1959. Indeed, critical revolutionary moments are in all corners of this depiction of Cuba.
The Revolution began in earnest on July 26, 1953, with Castro’s failed raid on army barracks in Santiago de Cuba . Fidel and his brother Raoul were captured and imprisoned at the Presidio Modelo  prison on the Isla de Pinos (now the Isla de la Juventud). They were held here for several years until Batista caved to political pressure and in 1955, remarkably, he released the Castro’s. It did not take long for them to flee the country. They spent the next year touring the US and Mexico gaining support for their movement. Upon raising enough enthusiasm and capital, the Castro’s – now joined by Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos – covertly returned to Cuba on a leaking overcrowded yacht dubbed the Granma . The yacht plays a big role in this region, and indeed when Cuba’s administrative divisions were re-drawn in 1976, a new province was carved out of the Oriente and christened Granma. I have drawn the yacht approaching the very beach in Granma they landed on 60 years ago.
Just as before, it was a disaster for the revolutionaries. Completely overwhelmed by the Cuban air force, those who escaped alive managed to flee, wounded, into the most rugged mountains on the island: the formidable Sierra Maestra. Under the shadow of Cuba’s highest mountain – Pico Turquino (1974m) , Fidel set up his secret revolutionary headquarters. The unassuming hut I have drawn in these mountains is the Comandancia de la Plata , the base of operations for the ultimately successful overthrow of Batista. The Comandancia is now an attraction for the more intrepid travellers that make it to the Sierra Maestra. This part of Cuba is especially important in regards to both the revolution and Fidel himself. Indeed, just southeast of Holguín you’ll see Castro’s iconic cap . This is at Birán, his hometown.
Things improved a lot for the movement as their mountain base proved an outstanding site from which to foment revolution. Following a series of losses, Batista was finally overthrown in the Battle of Santa Clara in December 1958, when Che Guevara derailed an armoured train packed with soldiers and munitions on its way to Santiago to crush the revolution. In the city most associated with Che, you can find his mausoleum , along with Tren Blindado , a monument to this most consequential derailment. A mural of Che in the world-famous Guerillero Heroico  pose adorns a hill in Santa Clara, watching over a city heavy with his presence. Only 3mm wide and long, it was an exceptionally difficult thing to draw. I nearly gave up at first, but the prospect of this iconic image was just too much to pass on. It is remarkable the extent to which Guerillero Heroico has permeated popular culture around the world. The commercialisation of the image seems so completely at odds with the hard-line Marxism of Guevara.
The brief period between Fidel’s rise to power and the total souring of relations with the US is fascinating. Before diplomatic relations were severed in January 1961, Castro toured the US as Prime Minister of Cuba and charmed the country. The photos of a young Fidel with Malcolm X in Harlem, and shaking hands with Vice President Richard Nixon, are from this period.
The mass nationalisation of American assets enraged the US, leading to the failed Bay of Pigs  invasion - represented here by a tank. This very tank is an antique from the actual invasion, still on display today at Playa Girón. When 1500 CIA-backed Cuban exiles tried to invade the country in April 1961, it was a disaster for newly-minted President Kennedy. An Eisenhower project he reluctantly signed off on, it was crushed in three days by Castro. 118 of the CIA-backed militia were killed, the rest captured, publicly interrogated, and thrown into the Presidio Modelo . The failed invasion greatly strengthened Castro’s nascent regime and pushed him to develop closer ties with the Soviet Union.
A year and a half later, the world balanced on a knife-edge during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Anticipating more American attempts to overthrow his government, Fidel welcomed the stationing of Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba – a counter for the US missiles stationed in Turkey at the time. A Soviet SS-4 nuclear missile  stands to attention in Pinar del Río province in the west, the location of many of the missile sites that initiated the crisis. In those harrowing days, the world came closer to nuclear war than it ever has, and this beautiful Caribbean island was the theatre in which it played out.
Since the sobering crisis of 1962, there have been countless attempts to undermine and even neutralise Castro. The most impactful move against Cuba has been the US embargo, now in its 56th year. As evidenced by the iconic old American cars, or "yank tanks” , that still dominate diesel-choked Cuban roads today, the embargo has ensured only that the Cuban economy remains substantially stunted. As a method to weaken the Communist Party’s grip on power, it has clearly failed. Fidel stepped down in 2008 due to his health, and his younger brother Raoul continues as president to this day. The Communist Party, whose headquarters  can be seen flying the Cuban flag in Havana, is still very much in control.
Finally, the last place I drew on the island - a brief return to the United States. The infamous Guantánamo Bay . I thought long and hard about how to draw Gitmo. The necessary policy I have across this map is to maintain political neutrality as much as I can. Without a doubt, the mere choice between addition and omission is enough to forgo this vision, but there’s far too wild a range of data to attempt a deft navigation of political terrain. So, rather than focusing on the detention centre with an orange jumpsuit or something to that effect, I tried to simply address the oddity of the long American presence on the shores of a foe. Indeed, behind the Cactus Curtain, Gitmo has the only McDonalds on the island. What better way to highlight the absurdity of this arrangement than a symbol so emblematic of the unchecked capitalism that Castro’s Cuba rejects. On the eastern side of the bay, a simple American flag flies above a wall. And, finally, a US battleship. Despite Gitmo’s well-known detention centre, its primary function is and has always been as a naval base.
Cuba is certainly going to change in the coming years. Fidel Castro turned 90 the same day I drew the tank at Bay of Pigs. His younger brother, President Raoul Castro, is 85. In 2014 the Obama Administration set in motion a perhaps irreversible thaw in relations, despite GOP bluster in an election year. While any thaw or normalisation is surely a step in the right direction, it’s worth speculating on the potential impact of the colossus to the north. Will the McDonalds at Gitmo no longer be the only one in Cuba, merely the first? Will, as I recall Anthony Bourdain once suggest, Havana’s Malecón one day have a Four Seasons and a Best Western? Cuba’s people have paid a high price for the political circumstances they are in, but the country has been free to develop its identity isolated from the gravity of the world's most powerful nation next door. Whatever the future holds for Cuba, I hope it strikes a balance between political and cultural sovereignty and the benefits of economic development.
There are many more things to discuss about this portrait of Cuba – from the music to the geography, fauna, to more history; in particular the legacy of Christopher Columbus’s landing here in 1492. I will post the other half of my discussion on this island in the next week, but first – please let me know what you thought. What worked? What could be better? What would you like to know more about? Was the numbering process effective?
Many thanks for reading. Stay tuned for Part Two on Cuba: Son Cubano, Columbus and the painted snail.