I'm not about to make this blog political in any sense, but when it comes to the news of Fidel Castro resigning I just have to respond. The revolution of Cuba and the subsequent isolation of the island has been much better documented by the papers and the historians over the years. There's nothing that a simple blogger like me could possibly add. Yet Castro is one of those political and historical figures that fascinates me immensely. There's no doubt that Cuba is a dictatorship, that Castro takes human rights and freedom of press lightly. One visit to Amnesty's Internet site tells you enough and one must wonder if the argument that Batista's reign (the dictator Castro toppled) was worse still stands ground. But it is undeniable that Castro has an enormous amount of charisma. So much in fact that the left intellectuals of the West were so much infatuated with him that they failed to see his flaws. And maybe sometimes still do. Not to long ago Michael Moore took Cuba as an example for America's failings. Even though Cuba's health care system is impressive, especially for Caribbean standards, trying to make Cuba as a standard was an odd choice to say the least. Maybe Moore intended it as a means to instill shame in American leaders, I don't know. Maybe Moore just fell for Fidel the Rock star as well. Because if Fidel Castro is one thing its just that.
R&R in a sense is the little man rebelling, the average Joe getting himself heard. Amidst American dominance their was that little island that defied them, led by a staunch cigar smoking militant with an almost character defining beard. Castro is an iconic image paralleled by the likes of those other great images of the sixties such Martin Luther King, Kennedy and Bob Dylan. That is not to say that Castro is cut from quite the same kind of wood, but he is one of those people who's image transcend his person. Castro's image is more than that dictator he is on Cuba. He's that image of David and Goliath in his defiance of the US. Together with Che, Castro's image is the patron saint of any revolutionary. The image of Castro is the promise that a people can stand up to its dictators and overcome. The ideal image of Castro is bigger than life, better than the revolution ever was. In truth Castro is a textbook case of broken promises, yet he radiates the opposite.
I traveled Cuba some five years back and tried to make some effort to get a sense of the people there. Quite easy since I was traveling alone, something that's impossible in Cuba. At every opportunity the locals tried to catch my attention despite the fact that mingling with the tourists is forbidden for the locals. Every body seemed to have something to sell. For a communist country the level of entrepreneurship I encountered was striking. Everything seemed for sale, from coffee to cigars, from guided tours to women. You name it and it is offered on the streets of Cuba. Though every Cuban has a home, there are no shanty towns, food on the table and clothes on their back, it struck me that a society where the main income for women seemed to be prostitution is sick to the core. Everywhere you turned you seemed to see bloated aging Americans with stunningly beautiful young women on their arms, oblivious to the struggles of the country. Yet I must admit that it was hard not to be tempted when at every bar two or three beautiful women were trying to get your attention. Some were just hustling for drinks, others were offering more. I went for the first option since it was a pleasant way to get to know more of that thrilling and exciting country.
What struck me in my conversations with local Cubans was how well loved Castro was with the elderly. They remembered Batista's iron reign and the poverty that came with it. The young people of Cuba were a lot more impatient with the bread, as they would call him in contempt. The younger generation was eager to get their hands on some of those luxuries that trickled in from the Cubans in exile or were available in the dollar stores. Cuba has a very dual economy where tourists pay with dollars and locals in pesos. It seems a national sport for Cubans to hustle as many dollars as they can from tourists in order to get some hip new Adidas shoes from the dollar stores. This doesn't necessarily mean that the young generation is dying to become part of the capitalist world. Their attitude towards the US struck me as very ambivalent. Though they glamored for Mickey D's and designer clothes, they seemed very much aware of the downside. Even the staunched opposer of Castro ventilated their concern about what would happen if he would ever die. A capitalist society didn't seem to be on anyone's wish list. Flawed as the revolution may be in the eyes of the younger generations even they had some admiration for the beard. Castro starting the revolution from that tiny boat the Granma proved to be the kind of legendary imagery that speaks to anyone's imagination.
The landscape of Castro's revolution is scattered with broken down Buicks and Cadillacs, left over from the fifties, still functioning as taxis. The buildings in the cities are collapsing, the bars in desperate need for some fresh paints. Hotel air conditioning is an unheard of luxury. Coffee and sugar out of reach of many of the Cubans. Gas stations all seem to be without gas and farmer markets only offer what's fresh of the land that day. Maybe the revolution and Castro's accomplishments are captured best in a joke I was told by an old man on a bench while we were sipping rum. After a day of fishing a husband returns to his wife, beaming with pride. He just caught a fish big enough to feed the entire family. Much to his surprise his wife looks to him with a sadness in her eyes. "What's wrong my love" he asks, "aren't you glad I caught you this big fish". The woman shakes her head and confesses she'd love to prepare him the fish but she doesn't know how. The hard economic times have left the stove without gas and her without matches to make a wood fire, there's no oil to bake the fish nor means to boil the water to cook it. Frustrated the man sets the fish back into the sea. Before swimming off the fish turns and shouts "Viva La Revolution". Of course that joke cost me a dollar.
Castro's resignation in the NY times and articles from the archives.