Friday, September 21, 2007

Castro caps all the fad in Cuba


Fri Sep 21, 2007 11:34am EDT

By Esteban Israel

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban leader Fidel Castro may have dropped out of sight, but his trademark green military cap is everywhere.

Nearly 49 years after Castro's socialist revolution, the Fidel cap is selling like hot cakes to tourists visiting Cuba, and more and more young Cubans are also snatching them up, in fashion statement that has little to do with politics.

"People should be able wear these hats as a tribute to Fidel Castro. He's a national hero. It's a tribute to a Cuban icon," said Scottish politician Jim McGovern, a member of the British Parliament, strolling through a Havana arts and crafts market.

The emblematic caps bought by tourists to take home as mementos of their trip to Cuba usually have red stars on the front, a symbol of revolutionary socialism. Others have an image of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine-born guerrilla who fought alongside Castro in the revolution.

It was then that Castro first began to wear the brimmed cloth cap -- with no braid or emblems -- with his austere military fatigues. But fashion was the last thing on his mind as he led an armed uprising against U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

When Castro triumphantly entered Havana in January of 1959, after Batista fled the country, he began giving out the caps as presents to his supporters.

Guevara acquired cult status after his death at the hands of the Bolivian army in 1967 and images of "Che" have long been used on everything from T-shirts to Swatch watches.

But in Havana the Fidel cap is now edging out Guevara's choice headgear, the black beret with a star.

Castro's olive-green cap was modeled on U.S. army caps of the 1950s, which themselves were not new. German tank crews used them in the Afrika Corps during World War II and elsewhere when fighting in hot weather, said Canadian military historian Hal Klepak, an expert on the Cuban armed forces.

Until emergency intestinal surgery forced Castro to hand power to his brother Raul in July 2006, Castro appeared in public wearing the hat for his long and frequent speeches.

Castro gave Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona one of the caps after he led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, and another in 2001 when the soccer great was in Cuba recovering from a cocaine addiction. Maradona boasts tattoos of both Castro and Che Guevara.

Havana hat-seller Ramon Alvarez said Cuban youth have set the trend and visitors are following.

"The hats are in fashion because young people use them. And you see many Cubans in the street with the hats and berets on -- something you didn't see much a few years ago," he said. The headgear sells for the equivalent of $3.50 in Cuban markets.

Some Cuban youth make a point of disassociating their green caps from Castro's socialist politics by stitching tags of major brands like Adidas, Puma and Tommy Hilfiger, symbols of the capitalist consumer society criticized by Castro.

"It is the Fidel cap, but done our way. It's the fashion now. We get hold of the caps and then decorate them ourselves. If you brought me one of the New York Yankees, I'd be just as happy," said Yoandry, 13, sitting on a curb in Old Havana.

His cap had a Puma logo sewn on. Others have labels from old shirts, trousers, shoes or other imported clothes items.

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