Medals for Sale

Military ranks, stars, distinctions of greater and lesser importance: decorations that recall past glories. Along with the books sold in the Plaza Vieja — and the tourist postcards of Che’s face — we have the largest market in medals in the whole country. If in East Germany the wall fell and, afterwards, the commerce in badges took over the street, here it has arisen before the very eyes of those who still wear these pieces of tin on their lapels. Many “vanguard” workers, mutilated soldiers, and active combatants who received such honors, today prefer to exchange them for convertible pesos. They trade for hard currency the object that distinguishes them as role models to be emulated.

Pinned to the red tablecloth, now lacking in any sobriety, are displayed the emblems of a nation crushed between diplomas and badges. The Soviet legacy has left us this extensive row of orders, distinctions, olive branches, laurels in soft medals, certificates of distinction, red-painted hammers and sickles, and shields of the republic pressed into zinc. A paraphernalia of recognition calcified in kitsch and the overflowing arrivals from the Kremlin. In those years no one wanted to be left without his decoration, because these distinctions were exchanged for perks and privileges. In the assemblies where refrigerators or washing machines were handed out, those aspiring to home appliances came with their rows of awards pinned to their shirts. The meeting thus became a ring of merits in a carnival of exaggerated exploits. But that was a long time ago…

From the vantage point of a so skeptical 2012, the aesthetics of these insignias provokes in us a mix of curiosity and wonder. Some of the vagabonds of Old Havana hang them on their chests so the smiling tourists will give them some change. Many of these relics also lie hidden in the backs of innumerable drawers, from the indifference or disappointment of their recipients. Others — to put it simply — have a price. They are sold in the antique market along with numismatic samples from the 19th century, or eighty-year-old Leica cameras. The buyers weigh the medals, haggle with the sellers, finally rejecting or claiming the cold metal that contains as much pomp as failure; the splendor and the fall.

4 thoughts on “Medals for Sale

  1. Why is che so popular???? why is not karl marx on tshirt? or lenin?

    there is a alternative store in the city with all these che items and medals and all sorts of these things collectables and uncollectables – yet i see many teenager and older purchasing. for a long time we saw boys with berets and che tshirts. but now so many offensive tshirts to everyone, rude writings and pictures of lots of people, do you think the picture of che is lost amongst it, especially with children not educated of south america and central america history. is especially a problem in europe, if it is not ww2 or medival forget it seems their policy.

  2. I was on Plaza Vieja in mid-January. As a veteran of Moscow during the perestroika period and before, seeing the badges and medals — as well as the older official posters on sale in a private market came as no surprise. Both were mainstays of trading on the Stary Arbat and at the Izmailovskoye market as Gorbachev’s reforms were getting under way and the Soviet state began to relinquish, or lose, its grip. The Havana traders told me they knew selling anything but books was illegal but that they had been doing it for 3 or 4 weeks and that the police had shown no interest in stopping them. A small harbinger of perestroika a la cubana?

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