Steve Inskeep has an extended piece on Cuba this morning on NPR’s Morning Edition. In the wake of Fidel Castro’s death, I imagine we will be hearing many such pieces. Inskeep spoke of his many trips to Cuba, how he always had a wonderful time, and how he always felt guilty. He talked about his minders, how information was controlled for both him and the people of Cuba, portraying them as victims of the oppressive Castro regime, kept in isolation from the rest of the world, never hearing anything but the party line. I think he does the Cuban people a disservice.
When Inskeep went to Cuba, it was in an official capacity as the representative of the American press. He stayed in a luxury hotel, was shadowed by minders at every step, and was unable to talk to any of the ordinary Cuban people. I went as an ordinary Tourist, without US government sanction, traveled all over the country staying in people’s homes and talking to people on the street about anything and everything. The notion that Cubans are isolated and insulated from outside news and ideas is patently ridiculous. Four million Canadian tourists visit Cuba every year. Millions of European and Latin American tourists visit Cuba every year. 500,000 Americans visit through Mexico or Canada every year. Many of them speak Spanish. Yes, internet is restricted, and, until recently, nobody had cell phones, but that doesn’t stop the flow of information, it just slows the speed of communication. Cubans are quite aware of and knowledgable about the world around them. Remember, this is a country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
There is no great love for Castro amongst the Cuban people. Yes, there are the diehard party members, and the families of those who participated in the revolution, but I was told my numerous people “yo odio a Castro” or “I hate Castro”. The mural above is one of the few depicting Castro that I saw in my travels across the island. Che Guevara is everywhere, worshipped by the people on billboards, signs, and in statuary. I believe it is because he represents the revolution, with its high ideals and hope, whereas Castro represents the regime which buried those ideals and killed that hope. Castro uses Che and his image to this day to keep the people in line.
Hasta La Victoria Siempre, is the ubiquitous rallying cry. Always Towards Victory it means. Never reaching victory, of course, because that would eliminate the reason for maintaining the revolutionary dictatorship and the power of the Castros. The pride of the Cuban people is understandable. They threw off the yoke of oppression by the most powerful nation on the planet, defied us by siding with the USSR, threw off many attempts to overthrow their government, distributed doctors throughout Central and South America and, for a while, with Soviet help, prospered in a way.
Cuba today is a shadow of what it was, a mockery of what it could have been. Castro promised free elections when he took power, but never delivered. We could blame him for everything which came after, but I suggest we look at why the revolution happened to begin with. In 1952, US backed president Batista lost the democratic election for a third term and staged a coup, cancelling the elections and installing himself as dictator. The US recognized his government almost immediately, leading to 7 years of dictatorship. Coincidentally, running for the parliament in the cancelled elections was one Fidel Castro. The United States, by recognizing the dictator who overthrew a democratic election, set the stage for 60 years of Communist dictatorship.
It remains to be seen what the death of Fidel will mean for US-Cuba relations, especially under a president Trump. There will certainly be a power struggle in Cuba, especially since Raul Castro is also nearing the end of his life. Will Cuba move towards economic reform? Canada already controls a large portion of the Cuban economy. Opening trade and tourism with the US could bring millions of tourists and much investment, but at what cost? What about all the families and businesses who had their property seized by Castro in 1959? Will there be a McDonalds in the center of Havana Vieja? It is going to be a very complicated time for Cuba and its people. I hope they can find their way without selling their country to the US again.