HAVANA TIMES — Some Cubans celebrated the death of Fidel Castro, but others said they’ll miss the bearded one who led their island nation for decades.
The stories of seven of these loyalists shedS light on the allure of Castro, who rose to power in 1959.
Maria Antonia Figueroa was an organizer during the revolution and helped track the rebels’ finances.
While she reminisced about the Cuban revolution from her apartment in Havana, a fruit and vegetable vendor passed in front of the building. Figueroa, now 97, scrambled onto the balcony and shouted below, “Do you have lemons?”
“Yes!” the vendor yelled back, and Figueroa grabbed a basket and lowered it. “I’m crazy about lemons,” she said.
Figueroa paid the man a little over a dollar, then raised the basket.
She calls Fidel Castro “our father” and displays his portrait on the wall of her living room.
Figueroa was living in Santiago de Cuba when Castro and his followers attacked the Moncada barracks in 1953. The attack failed and Castro was arrested. Figueroa said she met him after he went to prison.
At the time, she said she felt “repugnance and hate toward the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.” So she joined the July 26 Movement and was named the group’s treasurer.
She said she’ll die happy knowing that she contributed her grain of sand to the revolution.
Cuba “was the first free territory” of Latin America, she said. And Castro still has “the affection and respect and love of those Cubans who believed in him and fought with him,” she said.
Marta Rojas is a journalist and writer who covered Fidel Castro’s 1953 trial following the failed attack on the Moncada barracks in the eastern town of Santiago de Cuba.
During the trial, Castro gave a four-hour speech justifying the Moncada attack and calling then-President Fulgencio Batista a tyrant. He portrayed Cuba as a place of injustice, violence and joblessness and ended his speech with the words, “History will absolve me.”
After the speech, Castro walked through the small room in a hospital where the trial took place. Rojas recalled that Castro walked up to her and asked: “Did you take notes?”
“Yes,” she replied.
The Batista government did not keep a record of Castro’s speech and censors prohibited newspapers from publishing his words at the time.
After the insurgents drove Batista from the island, Castro’s speech was published, along with Rojas’ narrative of what happened.
Rojas said history has demonstrated the truth of what Castro said in 1953.
“History has already absolved him,” said Rojas, who described Castro as a “great politician” who was also well versed in law, history and science.
“Any way you look at it, he was a genius. They say that geniuses do what they can and not what they want because their minds are filled with too many ideas to carry out.”
Rebecca Chavez is a filmmaker who has made several documentaries about Fidel Castro and the Revolution.
“For the Cubans of my generation, the figure of Fidel became like a landscape or a background, a presence… that has been with us all our lives,” Chavez said. “Nobody can deny that he is the most important figure of the 20th century Cuba and a very, very important figure in Latin America.”
Chavez described Castro as being “almost surreal,” like someone out of a novel by the late Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Castro “had to think hard about how to make sure that his revolutionary project and Cuba would survive” the 1990s, Chavez said.
She credits him for giving Cubans the education, the culture “in the broadest sense” and “the sense of dignity, belonging, that helped us resist” after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
Chavez said she wanted to produce documentaries about Castro because she wanted to learn more about him.
“Despite all that I’ve heard, all that I’ve read in the thousands of interviews he’s given…I’ve always had great curiosity and I’ve always thought, ‘I want to know more about this or that.’”
Chavez recalled joining filmmaker Santiago Alvarez in 1977 when he interviewed Castro in Playita de Cajobabo, a rocky beach in eastern Cuba. It’s the spot where Cuban poet Jose Marti had come ashore to join the war against Spain in 1895. Marti was killed in battle and became a national hero.
Alvarez told Castro that an old man who lived nearby had met Martí.
Castro said he wanted to meet the man, named Salustiano Leyva. Chavez said, “I’ll never forget that Fidel walked over to Santiago and told him, ‘I’ve come here to accommodate you. I don’t want you to think that I want to compare myself to Marti in any way. I’ve come here to please you.’”
Osmani Diaz said government forces murdered his grandfather during the uprising against Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s.
“My grandfather was accused of helping Fidel, of giving food and some supplies to Fidel, and he was taken and burned alive,” Diaz said. “My mother still feels the loss. “
Today, Diaz is a guide at La Plata, a former rebel command post in the mountains of eastern Cuba. Fidel Castro led the fighting against Batista from this once secret spot, built into a hillside under a canopy of trees.
After the insurgents won in 1959, Diaz said the rebel government helped his family and made sure “that they had good schooling” and enough food to eat. “My mother and I greatly admire the revolution because of this.”
Arsenio Garcia Davila is a former fighter who joined Fidel Castro and 80 others on the Granma, the yacht that brought the rebels from Mexico to Cuba in December 1956.
Less than a dozen of 82 Granma expeditionaries are still alive and only four remain who took part in the armed fight against then-dictator Fulgencio Batista. Those four have the rank of “commander” of the revolution. They are Garcia Davila, Raul Castro, Ramiro Valdes and EfigenioAmeijeiras.
The Cuban revolution began in 1953 when Fidel Castro and his followers assaulted the Moncada barracks in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. Most of the attackers were captured or killed.
Castro survived and went on trial. He sentenced to 15 years in prison. Cuban authorities pardoned him in 1955. He and other rebels then traveled to Mexico to regroup.
Garcia Davila helped supply the insurgents in Mexico.
“I had very humble beginnings. I had never seen 500 pesos together,” he said. “I was very honored that they trusted me and gave me $10,000 to take to Mexico.”
Kcho, aka, Alexis Leiva Machado, is one of Cuba’s most famous artists. He doubts that he would have become an artist if Castro had not put an art school on the Isle of Youth, where Kcho was born.
He said Castro changed only on his life, but the lives of millions of people.
“History will miss Fidel” and “history does not miss many people,” the artist said.
Kcho said Castro’s leadership was inspiring. He described him as a teacher of everything, a Renaissance man of sorts. And he said while Castro made many mistakes, he got a lot things right, too.
Castro’s effort to bring free education and health care to all Cubans is probably the most important part of his legacy, said the artist, who described Castro as “very inspiring person.”
“To hear Fidel talk about any topic is very inspiring and motivating,” he said. “That man was born there in Birán and from an early age has inspired and motivated many people.”
Javier Sotomayor is a former Olympic athlete and holds the world record in the high jump. He cleared 2.45 meters (8 feet and 3/8 inch) in 1993.
At the time, Sotomayor said, workers were building apartments with ceilings of 2.43 meters (just under 8 feet). Castro “told everyone, mostly the builders of those apartments, that the height of the apartments was the height that I jumped and that we had to live up to what Sotomayor did,” the former athlete said.
Sotomayor said Castro helped turn Cuba into a sports powerhouse. He remains grateful to the Cuban leader for standing behind him even after he was accused of cocaine use in 1999.
He said Castro fought against poverty and transcended borders. He described him as “a man without precedent.”
“He’ll always be in our hearts, in the feelings of each one of us. I think his example Hill always endure,” Sotomayor said.