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CUBA DIARY: Viva Ernest and Elvis
by Mike Woitalla, September 7th, 2008 7AM



Books and artwork are among the few items the U.S. Department of the Treasury allows Americans to bring back from Cuba, so I take a walk down the Paseo de Prado where Havana artists sell their paintings. But on Saturday the pedestrian-only path is overrun by about a hundred young volunteers passing out condoms and educational material on the prevention of STDs. The Plaza de Armas in Old Havana is as usual, with scores for vendors selling used books. It's of little surprise what books dominate the vendors' displays.

Omnipresent are Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, followed by Jose Marti, the 19th century poet, writer and independence leader.

"Castro and Religion," "Castro's War Diary," and "The March of Castro" are just a few of the Fidel titles. One book for youngsters is, "Fidel talks to the Children." There are also numerous different editions of Castro's "History Will Absolve," the transcription of his two-hour opening statement from the 1953 trial at which he was convicted for organizing an uprising. Castro jotted down his courtroom address while in prison on small pieces of paper, which were smuggled out. The manifesto was widely published as a booklet and became the blueprint of the successful revolution in 1959.

One of the more interesting books, sold by most of the vendors, is a collection of photos from Alberto Korda, the photographer of the world-famous Guevara head shot ("Guerrillero Heroico") that has become so popular worldwide on anything from T-shirts to coffee mugs.

Most the vendors also sell Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince" in Spanish, "El Principito."

The first poem in Jose Marti's "Simple Verses," which inspired Cuba's most famous song, begins with "Yo soy un hombre sincero, De Donde crece la palma." As if on cue, the band at restaurant around the corner plays "Guantanamera."

The most popular English-language books at the market are those of American author, Ernest Hemingway, who lived on and off in Cuba during the 1930s and is much revered here.

National Geographic magazines from the 1950s are available as are a sprinkling of other English-language books, most likely left by tourists. And there, on a bottom row between two Spanish-language textbooks, smiles Elvis Presley.


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