By Beatrice Pignatelli
HAVANA TIMES – My husband’s phone rang at 2am. A quick glance at the country dialing code, +53, jolted him out of his haze; an unexpected call in the early hours of the morning has more often than not proved to be the bearer of bad news.
He answered the call, from the other end of the line, we recognized the excitable voice of our former neighbor recounting Raul Castro’s televised speech, confirming the news that no one believed would ever be true: se murió Fidel, Fidel has died.
Parallel scenarios played out across all four corners of the globe, as the Cuban diaspora’s (now 2.4 million strong) facetimes, whatsapps and imos started to buzz incessantly. The cradle of the Cuban exile community in Florida, concentrated in Miami and the Cuban epicenter of Hialeah, quickly gathered outside the emblematic Café Versailles. The area was ignited by the honking of horns, banging of pans, fireworks, flags and other forms of patriotic paraphernalia.
The news travelled like wildfire and by the next morning, Cubans scattered over the world had entered the online debate. What started as initial shock has quickly converted to name-calling and finger-pointing counteracted by lamentations and tributes. Words like “draconian rule”, “hope” and “healing” juxtapose “leader”, “titan”, “revolutionary” and “legacy”. Meanwhile, the general public follows the hastily pieced together Castro eulogies and easy-to-digest, bite-size Cold War historiographies provided by the international media.
There is no clear-cut picture of how we should remember Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz. In fact, throughout his lifetime he passed through a number of metamorphoses: from guarijo to guerrillero, defiant victor to charismatic leader, a Marxist to a Stalinist, a megalomaniac to a decrepit old man. It is only a figure so contentious in life that could divide opinion so uncompromisingly in death.
It is also, in some ways, unsurprising that this event has resurfaced the dichotomies that society has grown comfortable with using: vindication vs. demonization, hero vs. villain, good vs. evil. Even the choice of referring to the deceased by his first or last name is capable of polarization. He may be Fidel, the “bearded revolutionary”, or Castro, “the tyrannical dictator”. The Cuban journalist Carlos Manuel Alvarez articulates this idea of semantic power so assertively in his recent article for the New York Times: “No one like Fidel can create a distance so inexplicable, between his first name and surname. He split a country in two, where people sought refuge in his first name, were exiled in his surname, and others simply left in fear.”
In the aftermath of his passing, his person continues to evoke this binary fracture. On one end of the spectrum, crowds in Miami choose to revel in the death of a 90 year old Castro, their pay-back time for a man who stole their country; on the other end Fidelistas vindicate the achievements of his life-long project. The man who overthrew a dictatorship, stood up to the U.S., survived countless attempts at his life, provided healthcare and education to his countrymen, but due to a combination of flawed ideology, bad judgments and a challenging international context, tumbled the nation and his loyal followers into a severe economic crisis.
The reactions of his opposition groups and their subsequent mobilizations in Miami are hardly surprising, given the ‘absolutist’ nature of Fidel Castro and his model of social reform.
Described by historian Alan Knight, Fidel Castro’s vision for Cuba was a ‘trade-off between Dahlian democracy’ (which has been roundly repudiated) and social rights or benefits, in the form of healthcare and education, (which have been significantly advanced). His demand for iron-clad loyalty stamped out any whiff of political opposition.
But the magnitude and pace of change in Cuba was Herculean in nature, and bears witness to what can be achieved when society is able to unite under a common cause. His ability to round up the troops achieved the 1961 literacy campaign, which saw educators dispatched to rural areas, reducing illiteracy by 23.6percent from to 3.9percent over a nine-month period. By 1963, 70percent of Cuban land had been seized from private land-owners and brought under government control through the Agrarian Reform Law of 1959 and 1963. His radical experiment in sugar production, which aimed to reach a 10-million-ton sugar harvest by 1970, sacrificed much of the rest of the economy and foundered when the international demand for sugar rapidly subsided.
He was all-or-nothing; you’re either in or out, a similarly black and white approach to politics that both his supporters and opponents continue to emulate.
However, the correlation between his passing and the “end of an era”, that so many political leaders have made reference to, has not yet arrived, or at least if it has we hardly noticed it.
This is partly due to the fact that Fidel has been out of the picture for a while. He has long since lost his leading role in the Cuban narrative and Fidel-centrism is no longer a viable justification for the longevity of his regime. The Castro regime has diminished its personalistic nature, proven by the seamless handing over to Fidel’s brother Raul ten years ago. Fidel Castro has been pushed out of the public eye for so long that life in Cuba has been ticking on by for a number of years with limited mentions and appearances. The reality of the Revolution’s survival despite invasion, blockade, economic austerity leading to a grave crisis, political dissent, and a period of estrangement from new socialist allies has shown that the regime has set up roots much deeper into Cuban soil then Fidel Castro ever reached.
Since Raul came to power officially in 2008 there have been significant changes to Cuban society – the opening up of private sector, buying and selling of private property. Cubans can now own phones, cars, and travel with slightly less restrictions (at least from the Cuban side of things). Salaries are still low, bureaucracy is still overriding, and the future of the Cuban economy remains a mystery.
The Revolution has matured, and Raul Castro’s older brother can no longer be viewed as the problem itself for its downfalls apart from being symbolic of conservatism. Although civil liberties continue to be construed by elimination of the opposition, there is not a systematic repressive regime in place. Mass migration continues, but the Cubans that leave the island today are mainly forced to do so for economic reasons as the island doesn’t offer viable opportunities for young professionals. The mass political exodus of the 80s and 90s is a painful memory but not the driving force behind Cuba’s current brain drain. The new generation of Cubans have a different set of dreams and priorities – to work, to better their lives and the improve the lives of their families back home.
The quiet streets of Havana reflect this political distance. It brings to mind something a professor of Latin American History and Politics once mentioned when asked about what would happen after Fidel Castro passed. He predicted that the first thing Cubans would do is wake up and have breakfast. And at least in Havana, they did just that and went to work, just as my mother-in-law did yesterday morning in order to write us an email confirming that all is well.
Now the initial shock trickles away, we begin to deal with our own personal sense of grief and catharsis. As with any death, we look through old photos, recall the golden years and begin to piece together the pieces of a curtailed narrative. And although it may take longer for some than others, it will soon be time to look towards the future and to seek understanding and compliance.
As one person doesn’t really change the world, but rather the people who unite under them, for a common cause.