So far most of my posts on Cuba have been beaming with positivity about how much I fell in love with this fascinating place. The welcoming warm people, the beautiful decaying buildings and old mansions, the sounds of salsa and son, the warm tropical breezes, the fragrant air, the mouth-quenching mojitos and the extraordinary history of this unique island, all have captivated my soul. As a world traveler, for me Cuba offered something different. A forbidden place with a tumultuous past that has been frozen in time.
Yet like all places, there is much more to the story and not everything about Cuba is rosy and clear. I briefly touched upon Cuba’s painful past and long fight for freedom in my post “A Look into Cuba’s Tumultous Past” but I was not quite ready to tackle the controversial and complicated topic of Fidel Castro. Quite frankly, I wanted to complete other posts on all the wonderful things I saw in Cuba: The arts, architecture, music, culture and people.
However a recent comment on my post “Stepping Back in Time on the Street’s of Havana” published on Elephant Journal made me realize it was time to address the difficult topic of Castro’s Cuba. The comment has started some interesting dialogue:
As a Cuban in America whose parents were arrested, jailed and tortured I read these articles with mixed feelings. The Revolution assassinated in cold blood many people. Most were public executions with the bodies left for days as to remind the public what happens when one disagrees with the government. Some dissenters are still in prison after 50 years. El Che did start with a great idea, but ended up being just another assassin. Cienfuegos, another of the orchestrator of the Revolution, disappeared under mysterious circumstance after also killing many because they disagreed with him. And, of course, we are left with Fidel Castro, a human beings with no human feelings at all. He has denied his own son passage to Spain. Should we be able to travel to Cuba freely? I believe so. Will I return? Only to dance on Castro’s grave.
Fidel Castro is arguably one of the most contradictory, revolutionary figures in the world. As an American on a cultural tour of Cuba led by a Cuban guide, you would falsely believe that he was a hero. All throughout Cuba, there is revolutionary propaganda and images of Castro and his revolutionary pals: On billboards, posters, mugs, key chains, hats, t-shirts, buildings and magazines. You would think that people loved him. Yet I’m not so sure that is true.
Of course on our cultural “people-to-people” trip to Cuba we were going to learn about all the fabulous things that makes Cuba special. Her vibrant culture, free education, universal health care and amazingly high literacy rates. But we weren’t going to hear any bad things about Cuba and especially not about people’s true feelings about Castro.
When I returned from Cuba and began writing my posts, I realized that my opinions about Castro were tainted. I was giving him perhaps too much credit for some of the few good things he did. Our tour brought us to see the Literacy Museum, a hospital, and lots of other government-sponsored programs that were helping the people. But we didn’t get to tour a dilapidated state-owned Cuban apartment or a meager grocery store with hardly any supplies. We also never got to talk freely about politics with local Cubans. It was considered a taboo.
Embarrassed, I decided it was time to dig deeper into Cuba’s past and get a better, more accurate understanding of why so many Cuban exiles in America hate him. I begin researching Cuba’s history and it has been fascinating. A great book I’ve been reading on Cuba is called “Bacardi and The Long Fight for Cuba” and is written by veteran National Public Radio correspondent Tom Gjelten. The novel begins at the fateful time of Spain’s Colonial Rule and covers history up until present time through the life of the famous Bacardi family. What has struck me the most about Cuba’s revolutionary past is how Castro came in at the right time and seized the moment to make Cuba his own.
In the late 1950s there was a growing hatred of Batista, whose strong ties with the American mafia and his enormous corruption and violence were making many Cubans desperate for change. Castro and his guerrilla-clad group of revolutionaries was the change that most Cubans hoped for. He represented fairness, socialism, nationalism and equality. At the time, most Cubans supported him, even some from the wealthy class. Pepin Bosch, the highly-influencial long-time chairman of the Bacardi Rum Company supported Castro and was willing to give him a chance.
Yet as time went by and more of Castro’s true plans were coming to fruition Bosch and many other important Cuban business and political leaders saw that Castro was not all he cracked up to be. Even without a formal office, Castro was the true supreme leader of Cuba. Cuba’s government officials were powerless and it was all a lie. Behind closed doors, Castro had his own plans for Cuba and soon enough the truth would come out.
Support for Castro remained strong despite the growing concern about his authoritarian rule and his strong, anti-democratic words. “Revolutionary justice is based not on legal precepts, but on moral conviction,” Castro explained to the masses. Anything including murder could be justified if it threatened Castro’s revolution.
Soon Cubans would discover that that Castro was not who he pretended to be. Per Gjelten:
“The real Cuban Revolution – a social, political, and economic refashioning of the country into a rigid socialist state – came only in 1959 and 1960. Castro advised Cubans at the onset that it would be a harsh undertaking, particularly in the initial phases, and indeed it was. It required the dismantling of a capitalist economic system, the uprooting and displacement of an entire social class, and the replacement of ‘bourgeois’ political insinuations and free media with a new structure of state control and one-party rule”.
-Tom Gjelten, “Bacardi and The Long Fight for Cuba” p. 225
The worrisome signs of Castro’s real plan for Cuba emerged slowly. The slow dismantling of free speech, the hints of the sweeping economic, social and political changes, and the violence against anyone blocking Castro’s revolution. Despite all the frightening developments, most Cubans including Pepin Bosch continued to support Castro and were not alarmed. Meanwhile, the US-Cuba relationship was faltering and growing more intense.
By 1960, fifteen months after Castro took over Cuba, things began to really change and Castro showed his true colors. The revolutionary authorities shut down all independent media and companies began being nationalized. US relations with Cuba intensified as well when U.S. oil companies refused to refine Soviet crude oil. Cuba retaliated by nationalizing $850 million of U.S. oil company assets in Cuba (Source: Gjelten, “Bacardi and The Long Fight for Cuba” : “The Year Cuba Changed” p. 229). It wasn’t much longer when Castro began nationalizing everything and no one was monetarily compensated for their loss.
While many of the elite Cubans were angered and began to flee Cuba, others stayed and were happy with some of the changes the revolution installed. Universal health care and education were offered to all and many other economic and social reforms initially helped the average Cuban. But it wouldn’t be long until Cuba’s economy faltered, and life in Cuba became very hard. Food was scarce, basic supplies like glass and spare parts to repair American-made products were gone, and daily life involved wasted hours spent waiting in life for basic necessities. Meanwhile, working hours at state-owned businesses increased and pay decreased as the previously strong unions had no power. Life for the next fifty years until the present day became a life of hardship and frustration with little hope for change.
For years, many anti-Castro movements attempted to overthrow Fidel including the disastrous Bay of Pigs attack that was supported by the CIA. But all the groups were poorly organized and lacking true financial and political support. No anti-Castro resistance effort was ever able to topple Castro’s regime and fifty years later it still stands.
So what does the future hold for Cuba? Will there ever be a democracy and freedom? It is a hard question to answer and I don’t think anyone knows. Life has slowly improved since Raul took over Cuba in 2008. Raul introduced some simple reforms that have slowly brought much-needed change to Cuban politics, economy and every day life. Yet the majority of Cubans argue that it is not enough. Most Cubans are still living on an extremely low salary of $ 2.50 a day which doesn’t suffice. They can’t afford fresh produce, meat, much-needed repairs and maintenance to their homes, TVs, cellphones, clothing and the list goes on.
It will be fascinating to see what the next 20 years brings to Cuba. I hope it will be for the better and Cubans will finally get the freedom they deserve.
Author’s note: If you would like to read more background on Cuba’s history, please check out my post “A Look into Cuba’s Tumultuous Past“. I also included additional resources in case you want to learn more.