HAVANA – The young teacher was seething. “Fidel!” he said, spitting. “Let me tell you about
He shifted from broken English into Spanish, letting fly a few profanities. In a seaside bar crowded with young Cubans, Alejandro Peña did not bother to lower his voice.
“Fidel was a coward,” he fumed. On billboards and in shop windows, in magazines and on television, Fidel Castro’s iconic image is as ubiquitous here as ever. But nearly a year after the ailing leader officially ceded power to his brother, his aura has lost its luster among many on this troubled island.
Peña’s counter-revolutionary assessment of Cuba’s longtime ruler – which the teacher broadens to include current President Raul Castro – is now common in Havana, even though it still can be dangerous to publicly scorn the Community Party’s elite. In the black market of personal opinions, of which this bar seems to be a trendy bazaar, there doesn’t appear to be enough profanity to go around.
For many older Cubans, however, Castro retains the cult of personality he cultivated since taking power on Jan. 1, 1959. But on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, mystique and memory are giving way to the realities of a country of 11 million people where the young have little opportunity and many of the promises of the revolution have yet to be fulfilled.
Absolution on Hold
To evaluate the successes and failures of the Castro regime, a good starting point is 1953. Charged with leading an attack against a military barracks in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, Castro rose in his own defense to deliver what was reported to have been a four-hour speech in which he detailed crimes committed under the rule of then-President Fulgencio Batista – and to describe a list of actions the revolutionary government would take once Batista was overthrown.
In the speech and later revolutionary writings, Castro called for an impartial justice system, free schooling, full employment and fair wages for all Cubans, access to subsidized health care and reinstatement of Cuba’s 1940 constitution, which Batista had suspended.
These principles, Castro said, were the guiding lights of revolution.
And in the light of those successes, he promised, “La historia me absolverá.” If history ever absolves Castro of his failures, it won’t happen on Erik Luna’s watch.
“The abuses that have been committed have been despicable,” said Luna, a law professor at the University of Utah who has made a number of academic sojourns to Cuba as a visiting scholar and lecturer at the University of Havana. “The treatment of dissidents and independent journalists is reprehensible.”
Among a number of historic hypocrisies in Castro’s famous speech were his repeated complaints that he was a political prisoner who had been deprived of his basic legal rights.
A half century later, Castro’s regime is notorious for its mistreatment of political prisoners. “When it comes to political crimes in Cuba,” Luna said, “the justice system has been hijacked. It is controlled by the regime and outcomes are predetermined.”
But Luna is quick to point out that this is not the only way to measure Cuba’s justice system.
“With regards to the vast majority of crimes, the Cuban system is no worse and may be far better than many other countries in Latin America,” he said.
Castro’s government set up a judicial system that, in most respects, “is hard to assail.” That’s certainly not “real justice” as Castro described in his 1953 speech. But Luna said it’s also not the abject failure often depicted by American political leaders.
Taking aim at Cuba’s pervasive poverty, inequality and joblessness, Castro came to power with promises of school and work for every Cuban who wanted “to earn their daily bread honestly.”
Fifty years later, every Cuban has a right to a public education. Those who have the aptitude – or who have the proper party connections – get a free college education.
But many can’t get work in the fields in which they are educated. And almost everyone supplements their government income – typically no more than $20 a month – by working por la izquierda – on the left, in the black market.
Not for the Seriously Ill
After 14 years away from the island of her birth, Adriana Flores returned to Cuba in September to visit her dying mother. But as Flores stepped off the bus on the island’s eastern seaboard, it was hard to feel nostalgic – she was simply too angry.
“The cancer my mother has, it could have been treated,” she said. “But there is a long wait for treatment here, and by the time they got to her, it was too late.”
Flores said Cuba is a fine place to get sick with a cold, to break an arm, or to suffer from nearsightedness. “But if you are more seriously sick, you must have connections.”
Assailing the Batista regime in the infancy of his revolution, Castro complained that “public hospitals, which are always full, accept only patients recommended by some powerful politician.” Fifty years later, there is a doctor in every Cuban neighborhood, medical care is free and the island exports hundreds of medical experts to troubled nations around the globe.
But when Dr. Catherine DeVries made her first trip to Cuba in 1999, she was disheartened by what she found. On a visit to the Havana hospital where surgeons operate on children with urological conditions, DeVries saw a woeful lack of resources.
“They pretty much had nothing,” said DeVries, founder of a Salt Lake City non-governmental organization that provides surgical education in developing nations. “They had a room that looks like a storage closet – that was the operating room – and in it they had a light that smoked when you turned it on.”
But DeVries noted that Cuba is not alone in using its health care budget on universal basic care rather than improving advanced care. And, she noted, that decision was made independent of the kinds of economic pressures Cuba faces under the U.S. trade embargo.
‘My Life Is Better’
Arturo Castro is proud of his surname, though he is no relation to his country’s longtime ruling family. At 62, he’s just old enough to remember the first time he heard Fidel Castro’s name. It was shortly after the attack on the barracks at Santiago de Cuba and Arturo, who grew up in nearby Guantanamo, recalled the children in his neighborhood playing a new game.
“It was called ‘revolution,’ “ he said. “We later learned that this was not a game. There were times after the revolution that were difficult. But under Fidel I learned to read. When I was old enough, I was provided work and a home. … I know for certain that my life is better because of what happened in 1959.”
That is a point that Frank Argote-Fryere seems willing to concede – or at least not to contest. The professor of history, who lectures on Cuba at Kean University in the U.S. state of New Jersey, notes that quality of life indicators such as education, health care, life expectancy and infant mortality all place Cuba on par with many industrialized nations – and significantly above much of the rest of Latin America.
But in the end, Argote-Fryere said, Castro followed a strikingly similar path to the man whose power he usurped. Like Batista, Castro went from revolutionary to strongman, making good on promises of progress where convenient to hold onto power.
It’s unlikely, though, that Castro ever saw it that way. “Castro was never known for self-reflection or self-criticism,” Argote-Fryere said. “He was motivated more by power than anything else.”
Reprinted with permission of The SaltLake Tribune.