Resiliency of Cuban people will live on after Fidel Castro’s death
Despite the dictator’s oppression at home and U.S. embargo, island nation had universal education and health care
During each of my 14 trips to Cuba between 2000 and this year, I always packed a business suit that contrasted with the lighter, gauzier stuff more suited for the humidity of the tropics.
I did so with the eternal hope that I and the journalists I traveled with would ultimately get that unexpected call — and be secreted away to a meeting with Cuban president Fidel Castro.
If that happened, I knew that I would be facing a leader with a complex legacy.
Here was a man whose triumphs in bringing health care and education to Cubans who looked like me, and whose role in helping South Africa defeat apartheid when the United States sided with the apartheid regime was overshadowed by his own brutal repression of human rights in Cuba.
Even though that repression pales in comparison to what the United States’ largest goods trading partner, China, metes out, José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, describes it as largely responsible for keeping Castro’s rule “rooted firmly in place for decades.”
Mostly, I wanted to know Castro’s thoughts about whether Cuba would be much further ahead in hewing to its major revolutionary promises of universal health care and education – a promise which has led to a 99.8 percent literacy rate and advances such as a drug to treat patients with diabetic foot ulcers – if its economy was not shackled by a U.S. embargo that the United Nations continues to condemn as a human rights violation.
I wanted to know what was being done to ensure that those promises were being fulfilled for my Afro-Cuban friends such as Alicia, a radio journalist, and other professionals who supported the revolution, but who are becoming disillusioned.
That’s because they find themselves looking on with envy as white and fairer-skinned Cubans earn convertible Cuban pesos that are worth 24 times more than the Cuban peso professionals like Alicia earn for doing menial work at hotels and restaurants in the same tourist industries that largely allowed U.S. companies to exploit Cubans in the years before the 1959 revolution.
But I will never have that conversation.
Castro died last week at age 90. His death, however, is more of a symbolic rather than substantive triumph for Miami exiles and anti-Castro hardliners in Congress, because his ill health forced him out of power 10 years ago in 2006.
And I’m willing to wager that for most of the Afro-Cubans on the island Castro’s demise will do little to upend the resiliency that they have exhibited for decades in the face of U.S. hegemony.
The hegemony has mostly come in the form of the economic embargo, which has been in place since 1962. Its original goal was to inflict enough misery on Cubans until they ultimately forgo their sovereignty and submit to having the kind of government the U.S. thinks it should have.
The embargo, in spite of some recent loosening, still makes it difficult for Cuba to provide basic goods to its people. And what it means for my Afro-Cuban friends, who make up the majority of Cubans on the island, is that even though they may speak multiple languages and hold multiple degrees, they still can’t buy simple things such as aspirin, shoes and toiletries.
What it means is that in spite of their first-world education, they have to endure third-world conditions.
But what it doesn’t mean, though, is that they are defeated. Far from it.
I know this because when I look at my friend Alicia, who I met in 2000 as she flawlessly interpreted the questions my fellow journalists and I posed about race in Cuba, I see someone who continues to revel in what the revolution brought her more than what the embargo restricts her.
While she would like to have shoes that last longer than a year, and while she believes that her contribution to Cuban society as a journalist should count for more than what her Cuban peso salary allows, she acknowledges that Castro’s revolution transformed the lives of people like herself.
Before he came to power in 1959 her mother, a mulatto, wasn’t allowed to teach in Cuba’s schools. Alicia was around 6 years old at the time, and because most Afro-Cubans lived in rural provinces where schools were scarce, so was the possibility of getting an education.
“Many of my teachers left [after the revolution] for the states, but new teachers came,” she told me in 2011. “My mother was able to get a job in my school … I would not have my job were it not for the revolution.
“Maybe we don’t have much to believe in, but what we believe in, we believe in seriously … ”
I know they aren’t defeated because when I look at my friend, Abel, a Cuban tour guide who spent a week with me in Jacksonville, Florida, in June 2015, I saw a man who was less impressed with the material goods that the U.S. had to offer and more interested in the ways in which it was providing the basics to its citizens.
Basics such as health care and education. Like they have in Cuba – except the health care is free, and the physicians live in the neighborhoods where their patients live.
“Do you have schools and health clinics in this neighborhood?” Abel asked, as he toured my neighborhood. “I haven’t seen one yet … ”
I took him to one.
I know they aren’t defeated because when I met Esteban Morales, one of Cuba’s leading black academics last summer, he not only talked about how Afro-Cubans were finally speaking out about discrimination in a nation that was increasingly turning to tourism and free-market ventures, but how they were building a movement to get more of the higher-paying, tourism-related jobs.
“ … There is racism and racial discrimination,” Morales said. “For a long time, we did not recognize this … ”
But they’re recognizing it now — and they’re fighting back.
And I know they aren’t defeated because each time I’ve visited Cuba, I’ve seen Cubans making a living from things that those of us on the other side of the Florida Straits have often thrown away — things that could easily remind them of their impoverishment.
But instead those things, such as old aluminum soft drink cans that once contained Coca-Cola, Sprite and Fanta, spark their ingenuity.
I clearly saw that in a Cuban woman who had transformed those cans into miniature cars and cameras – and was selling them to tourists from a roadside stand in Matanzas province.
And I’ve always seen it in the 1950s U.S. cars that Cubans still manage to keep on the road, turning similar vehicles that once filled many American junkyards into objects coveted by collectors.
Of course, pundits and partisans will persist on seeing Cuba’s future through the prism of its politics. They will make presumptions about what will happen now that its longtime president and revolutionary leader is dead.
Yet, what I know is that no matter what Castro would have revealed to me in that meeting, what he could never have shown me were the traits I saw in my Cuban friends – resiliency, ingenuity and a belief that they can ultimately improve their lot in an imperfect system while safeguarding their sovereignty.
Such traits were essential to the revolution not being stamped out by the boot of U.S. hegemony.
And just like Castro survived more than 600 assassination attempts and 10 U.S. administrations, my Cuban friends’ allegiance to their nation and the revolutionary ideas that elevated them and undergird their strength will also live on.
No matter which leader lives or dies.