By Jared Olson | firstname.lastname@example.org
The first dose of Cuba you get when you touch down at Jose Marti international and take a taxi through the scorching plains towards Havana is, unsurprisingly, an unending stream of Barbudos- “the bearded ones”.
Barbudos everywhere: on cracked streetside murals with paint peeling under the Caribbean humidity, on the great, mold-stained billboards that line the autopista, on the side of foodtrucks propped up on bricks, or on heart-shaped posters seen fleetingly through the passing windows of schoolhouses.
They are inescapable, these Barbudos. You can hardly walk 20 minutes in Cuba without seeing a public reference to them.
Named for the roughshorn beards they cultivated during the Revolution’s early years in the Sierra, these three men—Fidel, Che, and Camilo—have attained a level of grandeur unmatched in any third-world country.
The most prominent of these three, also unsurprisingly, is the gleaming image of Fidel. His recent death polarized the world, calling into question the dark nature of his 50-year rule: was he a rebellious Hannibal crusading nobly against American imperialism, or a ruthless dictator, carefully orchestrating a police state under the visage of social justice?
So I ask the taxi driver the question on the first day, watching him weave easefully through the frightening traffic towards Havana: what do you think of Fidel?
“Well,” he said in his slurred Cuban Spanish. “He did many good things for our country. I have always liked him a lot.”
That was the first of many times I received a pleasing review of the infamous leader—a characteristic introduction to the convoluted, unsettling legacy of Castro.
Deification of political leaders is by no means an originally Cuban tradition. For centuries, posters of revolutionary leaders and dictators have been slapped on walls in countless African, Asian, and Latin American countries. To a smaller, but no less undeniable extent, we here in the U.S. do the same with our historical heroes, erecting monuments in the name of Washington, Jefferson, JFK, Lincoln. And it would be a stretch even to say that the old Cuban leaders are deified in their country: in the propaganda contest, Cuba falls far behind Stalinist Russia or North Korea, totalitarian regimes who literally reconfigured the memory of their leaders into Gods.
But all the posters and murals depicting Castro lead one to a very natural question:
What was Castro’s legacy?
It is, as I found through my trip to Havana, hard to say.
Supporters of the present regime venerate Fidel as a revolutionary hero in the truest sense, having liberated Cuba from the chain of U.S.-installed puppet dictators, providing her millions of impoverished with much-needed social welfare programs and crusading throughout the third-world, militarily and medically, to wage war with the twin evils of poverty and imperialism.
Detractors, who are often infuriated with the blind romanticism Fidelistas like to adorn upon their leaders memory, point to Castro’s numerous flagrant, well-documented human rights abuses—imprisonment of journalists, suppression of political dissenters—and to the economic wreckage he drove his country into.
I, having been raised in post-Cold War America, years after the “Cuban menace” posed any conceivable threat to the United States, was surrounded growing up by the relatively unquestioned, unilateral notion that Fidel’s dictatorship was incorrigibly evil, having led to a massive, transoceanic exodus of refugees and to economic stagnation for his island.
So it was a shock to realize there still remains a sizable chunk of the Cuban population that actively supports the revolutionary government—a realization that hit me like a brick wall the moment we got into the taxi to leave the airport.
I remember thinking upon my first few days in Havana that Castro, in the passionate controversy his memory invokes, almost resembles Trump: millions wept upon news of his death, while millions more- especially in Miami’s exile community- rejoiced in celebration.
There were numerous times that I heard praising reviews lavished on the memory of Fidel:
There was the saturnine, African taxi driver (born before the revolution) who drove us to Havana from the airport on the first day, who spoke admirably of Fidel’s social welfare programs and anti-imperial foreign interventions in Africa.
There was the melancholic girl who guided us through Old Havana’s backstreets on our first afternoon in the city, who longed to join her escaped boyfriend in Miami and was endlessly embittered by the fact she’d never been out of Havana Province, but who nevertheless conceded that her education at La Universidad de Havana would’ve been impossible for her poor family, were it not for Fidel’s educational reforms.
And then the amicable bartender who took us on a string of drinking adventures after we asked for directions one night, who had never felt animosity towards Fidel’s revolutionary regime and believed so passionately in the regime’s socialist ideals that he’d had an image of Che Guevara tattooed on his shoulder.
Inside the monument to Jose Marti—Cuba’s first revolutionary hero, whose memory is universally cherished by all Cubans—I was handed by the elevator driver a copy of Granma, the official publication of the communist party and, supposedly, the most popular newspaper on the island. Featured in the top-left corner of the front page was the famous black-and-white picture of Fidel and his rebels, raising their rifles victoriously as they paraded into Havana in 1959.
Inside that very same monument, whose first floor entailed a large, circular museum about Martí, a whole slice of the exhibits were dedicated exclusively to Castro, whose legacy is regarded within pro-government circles as being a historical extension of Marti’s. Castro, for many, is seen as Marti’s intellectual heir, having fulfilled his unfinished prophesy of liberating Cuba from foreign influence.
In one part of the Castro exhibits there is a picture of the young, imprisoned Fidel standing with vulnerable eyes before a picture of Marti; in another there is an emboldened quote from his famous “History will Absolve Me” speech, which says that “the intellectual author of this revolution is Jose Martí, the apostle of our independence.”
When I visited a bookstore in Habanavieja, a seemingly endless stream of literature was available for purchase on Fidel. Lining the dusty shelves were everything from philosophical tracts purporting how Fidel had pushed forward the Hegelian progression of history to gaudy comic books about his wartime exploits in the jungle, with names like “The Brave Rebel,” and “Adventures in the Sierra.”
Little is said, however, of Fidel’s numerous documented human rights abuses: his negation of the most basic political freedoms, his intimidation of opponents and his draconian usage of the prison system to silence any murmur of dissent. Little debate over the regime’s legitimacy is heard openly in the streets: criticism is usually restricted to the safety of closed doors at home. In the words of José Miguel Vivanco, director of the American branch of the Human Rights Watch, for decades Castro “meted out (harsh punishments) to keep his repressive system rooted firmly in place … such abusive practices generated a pervasive climate of fear in Cuba … and pressured Cubans to show their allegiance to the state while discouraging criticism.”
I asked lots of people what they thought about Castro during my exploits in Cuba. Many of the responses consisted of passionate admiration; lots, of light praise; and the criticisms of Castro … well, I never heard any criticisms of Castro.
I did, however, manage to elicit a mildly critical response from a Cuban citizen.
We were walking through the backside of Habanavieja late one gold-slanted afternoon, towards the end of our trip, when I asked a young teenage couple for directions back to the Capitolio, the towering, Romanesque, Batista-era government building at the heart of the city. After striking up an amusing conversation—Cubans are charmed by gringos who speak their language—they opted to walk with us along the way.
The boy was a 19 year old studying history at the University of Havana, and his girlfriend was the equivalent of a high school senior. They often spent their afternoons like this, aimlessly wandering the city, and when I told them that I was from Florida their eyes lit up.
“Can you take me there?” the boy’s voice caught me off guard with his seriousness.
Returning the joke, I recommended that I surreptitiously ship him back in a box- that way “we could show him the parties back up in Miami.”
He laughed, though a trace of sadness was discernable in his voice.
“So why, then,” I asked. “Do you not like Cuba?”
“Screw Cuba,” he said suddenly.
I asked what he hated about the country.
“No,” the girlfriend interjected. “We don’t hate our country. But we’ve never seen anything outside of it. We’ve been here our whole lives- we’ve never had the money to leave. The jobs here just don’t pay enough. We love lots of things about Cuba. We just don’t like our government.”
“Do you think the regime is going to change anytime soon?”
This, they said, within earshot of the police, amongst the throngs of people and cars threading through the palm-lined amphitheater of Plaza Martí.
They conceded that they appreciated the educational and medical systems Fidel had instated- yes. But the economy prevented them from ever having enough income to see the outside world. They had grown tired of Castroism’s stifling ideology being shoved down their throats. They knew their government was corrupt. They loved Cuba. But they just wanted out- they wanted an opportunity for life beyond the restrictive shores of Cuba’s economic hardship.
Perhaps more seriously, at the end of our conversation I suggested that when I came back I’d have two tickets waiting for them so they could come to the United States with us. They each flashed a smile, and then broke off, merging in with the stream of Cubans wandering along the avenue.
Later that night, as we wandered back through the deserted streets of Centrohabana, we happened upon a huge mural of Castro in his revolutionary uniform, smoking a cigar with a sagacious, all-knowing face. In block letters beneath, the mural is captioned “FIDEL IS THE PEOPLE.”
The mural was in obvious decay, with the portrait starting to chip along the outer edges, and in the street a group of teenage boys– who were skinny to the point of emaciation- busily played a game against the mural, ricocheting a rubber ball off the cement. Seeing us gringos walk past, they approached us in their tattered T-shirts and asked pleadingly for pesos; seeing how young they were, we couldn’t help but offer them a few.
A line of cars whipped past, and across the street an old lady perched on the eave sucked lightly on a cigarette, exhaling blue rings of smoke, watching the last traces of sunlight drain towards the western horizon. Twilight was falling on Havana—just as it was finally falling, perhaps, on the era of Castroism.
Castro remains a divisive figure in Cuba. But either way, it was becoming obvious that all his murals, which adorned almost every other street in Havana, were fading with age: a sign, perhaps, that the memory of the Barbuda himself was finally beginning to wane.