“Yo soy Fidel!” “Nos son Fidel!” “F-I-D-E-L!”
We are in Havana on the morning after Castro’s passing at age 90 and students from the University of Havana are marching up Avenida de los Presidentes, chanting what will become a familiar refrain as our route coincides with that of Fidel Castro’s funeral cortege over the next nine days.
Several days later, in the town of Sancti Spiritus, we watch from a hotel balcony as people begin assembling in the plaza at 5:00 a.m., music blaring from loudspeakers, to await the arrival of Fidel’s ashes and honor guards. At 11:00 a.m. the cortege arrives. Jeeps of army officers and other vehicles, including the flowered one carrying Fidel’s flag-draped miniature coffin in which his ashes lie, slowly circle the square. The procession stops for the singing of the national anthem, then slowly continues to the next stop. Flags wave wildly. School children and adults alike sing. Women weep. Men weep. A woman faints. A group hug comforts a group of friends.
But who was the man who inspires such devotion? The answer to that question is difficult. A complex history, the politics of reform, and economic reality come together in this island country once dominated by Spain and America and then ruled by the revolutionary Fidel Castro, challenging visitors like us to make sense of it all.
Accounts of the Cuban situation depend largely on an individual Cuban’s personal experience, political persuasion, education and class. Depending on which side of the divide individual Cubans were on at the time of Castro’s 1950s revolution, and what their experience has been since, one is subject to differing views.
Some suggest that Castro’s revolution was the product of an egotist’s ideology wrapped in the rhetoric of social change that has never been fully realized. Others talk about how bad things were in the dictator days of Batista, pointing out that Cubans now have free education, health care, social security, food and housing, arts and culture. Those benefits come at a price however. Everything in Cuba is totally controlled, from where you shop to what you eat to what information is shared on state media. In Castro’s day life was especially dicey with even more shortages than exist today.
In her 1998 book Havana Dreams about four generations of Cuban women, two of them Castro’s illegitimate daughter Alina and her mother, Wendy Gimbel paints an interesting picture of Fidel Castro and his regime. Bear in mind that she was writing when the punishing US embargo was in effect, the USSR had collapsed ending aid to Cuba, and the women she was writing about were among Havana’s elite.
At that time, Castro was seen as a “romantic adventurer,” a “ruthless cold-war villain” or a “ruthless dictator,” depending on the source. He was clearly passionate, intelligent and self-disciplined. He was also egocentric, and much like Donald Trump it seems. “He had the narcissist’s disease,” Gimbel wrote, with “the unshaken confidence that attention should be centered on him.” In her interpretation, again like Trump, Castro “expressed no sense of responsibility for Cuba’s fate, no disappointment with himself. … Sometimes Fidel seemed to live in his own reconstructions of the past; that accounted for his endless speeches, his self-absorption, his passion for his own words, their created realities.”
How interesting it would have been to see Fidel Castro and Donald Trump dance around the new relationship fostered by the Obama Administration, especially given the 140 daily flights expected to soon arrive, the massive restoration and building of new high-end hotels designed to welcome visitors with open arms, Air France’s expansion and management of Cuba’s international airports, and massive amounts of foreign investment waiting to pour into the country.
In 1959 Fidel Castro launched his still unfilled revolution in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba where he had once been a student. From there he made the 600-mile journey to Havana where he was hailed as a hero. In 2016 he made the journey in reverse, being driven from Havana to Santiago to be laid to rest. In every town and city his cortege passed through people of all ages wept and mourned.
To an outsider, it wasn’t entirely clear why. He had, of course, liberated his country and restored national pride among Cubans after 400 years of Spanish and American occupation and oppression. But he had also established a brutal regime and headed an oligarchy that has yet to realize his idealized dream of an egalitarian country prepared for life in a modern globalized world.
To ordinary Cubans, it seems, the Revolution wasn’t quite “everything” as Castro had promised. It still remains to be seen if it was sufficient to ensure Cuba’s survival in an increasingly complex and seemingly dangerous world in which nations are at odds with themselves and others.
For the extraordinary people of Cuba, whose generosity of spirit and enduring joie de vivre makes a visit special, one can only hope.