Reflections on Today’s Cuban Revolution
Commentary on a recent trip to Cuba...
Just 93 miles off the coast of Florida lies perhaps the last remnant and stronghold of cold war opposition with the United States. For the last five decades it has boasted a leader that earned the title of dictator by successive U.S. regimes, while simultaneously maintaining widespread respect and admiration among his own people. Involved at one time in a potent trio, along with the U.S. and Soviet Union, that nearly brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, today the country stands as one of the sole examples of resistance to U.S. corporate and ideological imperialism. As the global community awoke on February 19 to the news of Fidel Castro's resignation, U.S. politicians, along with Florida's Little Havana, were in celebration of the impending change. But as Cuba officially hands over the reigns of power to Fidel's younger brother Raúl, the change the U.S. government has sought since 1959, appears truly to be an unlikely reality.
Both as a U.S. citizen curious about a perceived neighboring enemy and as a student of revolutionary history, I have long desired to visit Cuba. I have desired to witness with my own eyes both the positive attributes and negativities that have made this Caribbean nation so unique. So in defiance of the U.S.-imposed travel restrictions set in place since 1961, I finally decided to visit, booking my flights well in advance and completely ignorant of the coincidental timing of the sibling regime change.
Arriving in Havana late in the evening on February 22, I was eager to not only explore this energetic city, but also to bare witness to the historic changing of the guard that would occur just two days later. Would Raúl take the stand at the base of the José Martí monument in the Plaza de la Revolución, delivering a lengthy, passionate speech as Fidel had done on so many occasions? Would his inauguration be met with widespread support of the Cuban people or would it be used - as the U.S. news media so eagerly suggested - as an opportunity for unrest and counterrevolutionary activity?
Much to the dismay of the U.S. government and it's anti-Castro movement, February 24 passed as most other days in Cuba. There was no uprising, no unrest, no public speeches, and no hinting at even the slightest change in Cuba's governing. In fact, if it hadn't of been for the news coverage in the Communist Party paper, The Granma, this particular Sunday would have come and gone like any other in Havana - locals would be sunning themselves stretched along the Calle Malecón, and the streets of Vedado and Havana Vieja would be bustling with open air markets, captivating music, and tourists running down their checklists of incredible sightseeing opportunities.
And yet, this day was different, it was extremely significant in the historical context of a nation that has struggled for the last fifty years to maintain its developing revolution. For the leader of that effort, the man the world identified with all of Cuba, was finally stepping down and relinquishing his power. In what appears to be a carefully planned and orchestrated move on behalf of the Cuban government, this shift in leadership by no means represented a change in the Cuban methodology of governing, nor in its policies toward its antagonistic neighbor, the United States. Rather, Cuba appears to be demonstrating to its rival and the rest of the world that its revolution can and will outlive Fidel.
Ever since the success of the 26th of July Movement in overthrowing the U.S.-backed Fulgencio Batista government in 1959, the U.S. government has waged an ongoing war against Cuba, both its government and people. The revolutionary victory was, after all, a disaster for U.S. economic interests on the island. Prior to Batista fleeing power, the U.S. had invested an estimated $1 billion in Cuba, primarily in the agricultural market of sugar. In January 1960, one of the first acts of Castro's revolutionary government was the expropriation of an estimated 70,000 acres of property owned by U.S. sugar companies.
The U.S. government responded with ongoing attempts to overthrow this Cuban government, a regime that successfully interrupted the imperialist business practices of U.S. corporations and governmental policy. The first primary response was President Kennedy's failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Originally planned by the Eisenhower administration, the goal of this blatant act of war was to kill Fidel, his brother Raúl, and Che Guevara. Known in Cuba as the Battle of Girón, this became one of the first of an estimated 638 attempts to assassinate Castro by the CIA.
The outlandish attempts on his life over the years are almost mythical and include:
• The famous exploding cigar that was intended to blow up in Castro's face
• Contaminating a diving suit, which was to be prepared for him, with a fungus causing fatal skin infection
• Placing explosives underwater in mollusk shells, designed to explode as Castro was on a recreational dive
• Bacterial poisons were planned to be placed in his coffee, tea or in his handkerchief
• A former lover was provided pills to give to Castro as he slept
• Mob-style attempted hits in direct daylight in the streets of Havana
• The year 2000 attempt to place explosives under the podium where Castro was to speak while on a visit to Panama
But the war against Cuba did not stop with the attempted assassination of Castro, Raúl, or Che. The real war, the one that has directly harmed the Cuban people, has come in the form of an economic embargo. Similar to the United Nations imposed sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s, which killed up to an estimated one million Iraqi people, the U.S. government has strictly enforced a trade embargo against Cuba since the failed Bay of Pigs fiasco.
According to Cuba's Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, the U.S. embargo has caused over $89 billion in economic damage to Cuba since it began and over $222 billion if adjusted for inflation. For the last sixteen years, the U.N. has voted to urge the United States to end its trade embargo, with the vote count in 2007 being 184 to 4 in favor of ending the blockade. Yet, as the U.S. has done on so many occasions, it continues to ignore the U.N., strengthening the embargo with the Bush administration, while urging allies to also sever ties with Cuba.
In talking with people on the streets of Havana, Santa Clara, and in small villages such as Viñales, it is clear there is a sharp divide among Cubans when it comes to the topic of the revolution and Fidel finally stepping down. The older generations, those who had more of a direct tie to the revolutionary period, wholeheartedly appear to maintain their belief in the Cuban government, in the revolution, and share an appreciation for all it accomplished. After all, prior to 1959, Cuba had been little more than a colony of the United States for years, and before that, a colony of Spain. The social programs instituted by the 26th of July revolutionary government eradicated illiteracy within the country, provided universal healthcare and today guarantee employment for every Cuban - a policy that has brought unemployment rates down to a mere 2%. These older generations look upon the banners, billboards and signs that decorate even the most remote Cuban landscape with Viva la Revolución messages with pride and understanding.
In contrast, the younger generations appear to be much more apt to desire something more than they believe the revolution is able to currently offer. When I talked with Frederico, a young lawyer in Havana, I asked him what he thinks of the governmental change occurring in the country. He described his views in terms of the television channels, "Before we had Fidel 1, Fidel 2, and Fidel 3, and now it's Raúl 1, Raúl 2 and Raúl 3... there really is no change." But while the older generations may find this reassuring, those of Frederico's generation, those who have witnessed the growing tourism industry bringing scores of Europeans and Canadians along with their technologies and fashions, have developed an appetite for what they believe lies beyond the islands shores.
With the fall of the Soviet Empire in the 1980s, Cuba lost one of its primary trading partners and means of assistance. Its economy suffered greatly and the Cuban government decided to heavily market tourism as a replacement industry. Today, Cuba is one of the top Caribbean tourist destinations, annually attracting well over 2 million visitors and providing an economy well beyond that of sugarcane farms.
But the satellite television laden luxury hotels - half of which on the island are operated by the Spanish Sol Melia hotel chain - with lobbies boasting internet cafés, upscale restaurants and shopping boutiques present a sharp juxtaposition to the everyday reality of the Cuban people. As Frederico pointed out to me, the overwhelming majority of Cubans don't have access to the internet, they don't have access to or can't afford satellite television and most, except for the workers, are not permitted inside the luxury hotels. Many live in dilapidated Spanish colonial buildings such as those in Old Havana, falling down as the government is investing more in the tourism industry than in repairing its own infrastructure. Furthermore, Cubans, for the most part, are restricted to the island. Unlike the multitudes of tourists that descend into Havana on luxury tour buses while on a sun and fun vacation, Cubans are not permitted to leave and experience the concept of an international holiday.
Catching glimpses of a world full of internet, of MTV, and cell phones, while at work in the growing hospitality industry, Frederico's generation sees a world beyond Cuba that they cannot access. And simply because there is no access, because of these restrictions, many seek to leave, to flee Cuba in search of a land where the grass is always greener. Many try and some are successful crossing the shark-infested waters of the Straits of Florida. Others simply carry on with their lives in a state of political discontent.
This is the real failing of the Cuban revolution. While the overthrow of the Batista regime did vastly improve the quality of life of both the rural and urban Cuban people, the revolutionary government has ceased to connect with the younger generations and provide them with a sense of hope and fulfillment. The real test of the survival of the Cuban revolution will not so much be in who is handed power after the 76 year old Raúl has his turn, but rather in whether the revolution succeeds in reaching the hearts and minds of the younger generations. The true success for the Cuban revolution lies within a careful balance of combining modernity with freedom, while providing a strong, convincing education as to the outweighing benefits of their political structure and methodology of governing.
Without a doubt, Cuba is a beautiful country. Its people are some of the most friendly and welcoming I have experienced. No matter their level of discontent, or material worthiness, they appear unmistakably happy, energetic and always ready to have a good time. From the look of determination on the talented Flamenco dancers faces performing at a Spanish restaurant along the cobblestone streets of Old Havana, to the coffee farmer in the rural country outside of Viñales taking time out of his day to show his home and land, Cubans possess a pride both in themselves and in their country. Meeting and talking with people there, learning of their stories and daily lives, became just as inspirational to me as standing a few inches from Che Guevara's body in his Santa Clara tomb.
As I left Cuba and headed back home, I could only imagine what Cuba could have become, what advances would have been made, and what the quality of life would have been like without the U.S. imposed sanctions. I think of the amazing country I had the opportunity to tour and the many friends made along the way. And most of all I think of this charming island perhaps in its most legendary form, as the nation that has withstood the test of time in refusing to cooperate with the terrorist and imperialist agenda of the U.S. government. It is my sincere hope that this resistance and opposition to unjust U.S. policies continues long after Fidel, long after Raúl.
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