Foto: New York Times

Cuba and Fidel through my eyes

Cuba prior to the Cuban revolution was an enviable country for others in the Latin American region and other parts of the world. Before the revolution, Cuba stood out in many areas including health, education, sport and economy. Cuba had world champions in various sports, prominent personalities in medicine, science and culture. Great figures of literature, plastic arts and architecture were recognized internationally.

However, we must point out some historical facts that do not appear in the story told after the revolution. And, we have to start with the same revolutionary movement.

The revolution did not begin with Fidel Castro as many may think. The revolutionary movement began with the figures of Abel Santamaría, his sister Haydee and Melba Hernández, among others, who began an opposition movement that Fidel later joined. Abel Santamaría began to devise an assault on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, in order to deal a devastating blow to the tyranny and deliver weapons to the population to begin the revolution. It had no name, and they called it the “Movement.” For the assault on the barracks they chose the carnival days in Santiago de Cuba, specifically on July 26, the day of Santa Ana, because in this way they would not attract attention among the participants in the celebrations.

Of the three cars that were going to storm the barracks, the first managed to deceive the guards, but the second was stopped and the battle began there. The third car — that Fidel headed- went astray, and although he knew the town very well, he did not “know” how to tell the driver the way to get there. The Batista dictatorship had no mercy and executed everyone, except those who managed to flee — such as Fidel and those who were with him — to the Sierra Maestra. They were arrested by a lieutenant who did not allow them to be executed as the others assault men had been, in the barracks courtyard and in the hospital.

After the leaders died, Fidel Castro founded the July 26th Movement. And next to him were people of great bravery and courage. People who have been erased from the history of the revolution and others who were shot, as is the case of Humberto Sori Marín Victoria, a member of the guerrilla who founded the FEU Revolutionary Directory in the mountains of the Escambray, for having ideas “contrary to the revolution”.

Here I have to say that, in the history of Cuba — the one that Cuban children learn — none of this is mentioned. I never knew that there was a commander named Huber Matos, I never knew that Camilo Cienfüegos was arrested and then made disappear as an aviation accident because he did not want to arrest Commander Huber Matos, as he did not find any plot to overthrow Fidel Castro. Who later sent a letter to Ernesto Che Guevara ordering the arrest of Commander Camilo which refused the bloodshed and instead told his troops to lower their weapons and went on in chains to ride the plane that “got lost at sea”.

This is one of the many anecdotes. All this happened in the first years after the triumph of the revolution. Already then, the figure of Fidel was well positioned, and with it the support of much of the people and the control of the State. And what continued was what gave rise to what I will tell next.

Fidel Castro disarmed the population and ordered the arrest of both people close to the Batista regime and middle- and upper-class people. My grandfather, despite having helped with many resources to the Cuban revolution, was stripped of all his weapons, had to move with his family, and if my great-aunt Tatá had not intervened — sister of his wife — and founder of the 26 July in Camagüey — he would have also been incarcerated. In my family, there were many participants in the revolution. I have a loving grandmother, wife of a cousin of my father who, along with her husband, participated in action groups to overthrow Batista’s tyranny. Her husband — already deceased — was tortured by the Batista regime and when he was released, he returned to the fight. Both left their children, very young then, in the care of my grandparents, with my father and my uncles.

Fidel ended generations and forged new ones under a new way of life, the one I narrate below. Generations that never knew anything outside the island and only the history that the regime wanted them to know. And if you don’t understand how could he achieve this and still have some doubts about it, I recommend an interview on YouTube of the KGB informant, Yuri Bezmenov. That man tells the complete process to dismantle the opposition, the mechanisms of control and elimination of any dissent, even those who are still faithful to the system but have “too much” information.

These are just some examples that the history that the revolution has given us is written as they have agreed is convenient. My great-aunt Tatá died in Santa Fe, with holes in her shoes and in poverty, without any recognition from the Government. Although she helped many leeches to climb in the Communist Party.

My life in Cuba

But let’s talk about what it is like to live in socialist Cuba that many applaud. Since I have reason, I only saw misery around me and suffered it in flesh and blood. The Cuban “socialist” system has a notebook in which they write down the products that you will receive monthly. Among them is rice, meat, sugar, bread, salt, toothpaste, etc. All those products you have to pay with Cuban pesos. My parents earned between 630 Cuban pesos and the dollar was then between 17 and 20 for one (do the math). But the problem is not in the price of the products but in the quantity and quality. To go buy those products many times you had to stand in line. If you were one of those who came first, you could buy meat (steaks) that are very regulated in quantity with less skin than those that would be acquired by the people at the end of the line. Beans and rice came with stones and straws as if a sack had broken and they had swept the floor and put all of that in another sack. You had to clean them before putting them in water and then boil them.

Through the notebook you could buy one bread per person, attending to the amount of people who lived with you. My parents ate half a little bread every morning and gave me one for breakfast and one for school snacks. That bread, my parents varied it with sugar or sometimes, garlic and oil, so that it had some flavor. To buy clothes and shoes there was another notebook and you were “allowed” to purchase the accessories per year; If you bought a pair of shoes, you couldn’t buy another one until the following year. The same happened with toys in the case of children.

At the same time, my school attended children of officials and militants of the Communist Party. They did have a new backpack every year and their parents sometimes made the mistake of filling their lunchbox (which I didn’t have) with a sandwich of ham or cheese, depending on what they had. Those same children of officials had new shoes and new clothes. I was fortunate to be in a school where these kids were my friends and had a sense of appreciable solidarity, and I remember one in particular, Yosley, a friend of the chess team, who almost always shared his snack and ate my bread with sugar or oil and garlic, and I part of his bread with ham or cheese.

I was one of the privileged -up to some point- because my father traveled abroad occasionally, due to his professional preparation. Sometimes he attended international fairs in capitalist countries and could buy some things for myself and the family. For this to happen, he had to play with the currency exchange, because when he returned from the trip he had to make a report and return the money that was left from his expenses and — in the case of book sales — that of sales. On other occasions he bought milk and beef from the Cuban black market. Yes, that also exists there, which reveals a state corruption that does not appear in national or international newspapers.

I remember many other friends who did not have a traveling father, who had no father because he had abandoned them, and his mother did not earn what mine earned. Because although the salary did not mean much, something you could buy. And I also remember that to some of them I left a lot of my clothes already worn out and they received it happily.

One can say — like many defenders of the regime — that all this was the fault of the “Yankee blockade”. But there was nothing in Cuban state-owned stores, and if you had already bought what was your turn and amount to buy, you could not buy more until next month. However, at one corner of my house, as was the case, there was a “shopping” (as they called it there, also owned by the government), where you could buy everything; but in which you had to use dollars, and there you could go whenever you like — or you could-, because the salaries of the vast majority of Cubans was in pesos of national circulation. While the stores in pesos were empty or with very few products, the dollar groceries were full.

In the same way, the hospitals where the ordinary Cuban visited, patients had to bring with them sheets, food, candles, fans and in extreme cases even the medicines. But in others, where the high officials and foreigners who go to Cuba to be treated, the rooms looked like hotels with even air conditioning.

Cuba before and now

The Cuban people always wanted to be more; since colonial times it was always a fierce and brave population. They understood very early that the island had the enormous wealth to be the “pearl of the Caribbean” and even the world, and it was, briefly. Cuba was a pioneer in many aspects. We had world chess champion (Capablanca), we had the first Olympic medalist in Latin America, Ramón Fonst, who, despite growing up in France, always represented Cuba in the Olympics. We had Professor Aurelio Ángel Baldor in mathematics, doctor Carlos J. Finlay who discovered yellow fever transmitting mosquito. Cuba owned the sugar, and practically, the world price was set in the country. Cuban agriculture was extensive and varied until the arrival of the revolution. And also, many writers of high caliber, and journalists. And I can’t leave out that Cuba was a pioneer in television, radio, rail and much more in Latin America.

Anyway, Cuba was already a diamond in the Caribbean before the revolution arrived. And when it arrived, with the implementation of “Castro’s socialism,” then all that economic prosperity went down. Fidel Castro ended the entire production model, making people unable to direct and control Cuban agriculture. He destroyed thousands of hectares of varied agricultural products to make the “Ten million harvest” tons of sugar. And this was a resounding failure that did not reach eight million tons and left the annual economy broke.

Beyond all this, Fidel Castro divided families ideologically and physically. It can be said, without fear of error, that there is no Cuban who does not have an emigrated family member, not only in the US but in all parts of the world. With greater cynicism he encouraged the exodus of Cubans through the port of Mariel, causing the departure in rafts the means to escape from Cuba. And it turned Cuba into the “shame of the Caribbean,” because we could talk about Haiti, but Haitians were never a power in any way. And anyway, there is not much difference between the life of a Cuban and a Haitian in terms of poverty and misery. And he also shot and tortured thousands of Cubans for the simple fact of thinking or wanting something different.

In conclusion, Fidel Castro came to power in a rich and beautiful Cuba in full splendor, but very corrupt, it is true. And he left a poor miserable country, with corruption indices that only those around him know, with millions of families divided and thousands of disappeared and political prisoners. So, in my eyes, Fidel is, at the same time, the most successful and vile dictator of modern times.

All this makes it very clear to me, that although his death is not a reason to celebrate, it is an important fact for many Cubans to be cheerful. And I hope that his death is an omen of the change that a country frozen in the past needed, with more than ten million Cubans living in poverty, oblivious to everything that happens in a globalized world.

Of course, the change will not occur immediately and there may be many internal power struggles. The country will not be what it once was, but there will be hope that democracy, freedom of expression, free trade and the most elementary human rights will once again become a reality on the suffered island of Cuba.

A journalist from Dominican Republic. I work at Diario Libre.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store