The Legacy of Fidel Castro and the Future of Cuba / Iván García

Saturday, December 3, Santiago de Cuba. Elementary school students await the arrival of the entourage with the ashes of Fidel Castro. Photo by Darío López-Mills, from AP, taken from El País.

Iván García, 6 December 2016 — Some large scale political events, the ones where people are weeping over the death of a “venerated leader” or yelling slogans like ventriloquists, are really smoke and mirrors. A dishonest trick.

On April 7, 1957, a month after the assault on the Presidential Palace by the March 13 Revolutionary Council, friends of the dictator Fulgencio Batista organized a demonstration on the esplanade in front of the palace.

It was a rainy day but, according to press accounts at the time, 250,000 citizens turned out. This was a huge number considering that the 1953 census reported that Havana had 785,455 residents. (The entire population of Cuba in 1953 was 5,829,000.) One year and nine months later the same residents, probably in even larger numbers, filled the streets of the capital to pay homage to the new soldier messiahs.

A resident of Santos Suárez, now deceased, told me that on November 8, 1958, Batista’s hitmen were involved in a shootout for more than five hours with four young people from the July 26th Movement, who were holed up in a building at Goicuría and O’Farrill streets in what is today the Tenth of October district.

No one from the neighborhood came to the defense of Pedro Gutiérrez, Rogelio Perea, Angel “Machaco” Ameijeiras and Norma Porras, who was nineteen-years-old and pregnant by Machaco, the group’s leader. Residents remained indoors, watching the shooting from behind their blinds. They later recounted seeing the three men taken alive. After being tortured, they were executed. Porras was captured on a neighboring roof and taken to a military hospital.

Neither their torture nor their corpses, which were thrown into a ditch by Batista’s repressive security agencies, were enough to convince Cubans to hold public demonstrations. Similarly, dissident protests denouncing human rights violations are not enough to summon the large mass of Cubans who harshly criticize the Castros in private.

According to experts, closed societies govern by resorting to human fear. In a democracy, any incident or injustice can be an incentive for strikes or public protests.

But in an autocracy — whether it be communist, fascist or a banana republic — acquiescence and fear stifle rebellion. It’s not as though Cubans have a genetic predisposition for this condition. Certainly not.

In Italy, Mussolini reined in the Mafia. In Germany, Hitler used the public squares for his xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and militaristic harangues.

Cuba has spent sixty-four years under dictatorships. Seven under a capitalist dictatorship which respected free press and granted amnesty to political prisoners. Although it did impose press censorship at times, it also later lifted it. For fifty-six years the socialist dictatorship has invoked a false sense of nationalism and co-opted the heroes of Cuban independence for its own advantage.

Fidel Castro was clearly an important leader, for good and for evil, but only in the political realm. In 1956 he raised a guerilla army and launched a war that broke all the rules of conventional warfare, destroying a professional army that relied on artillery, planes and war ships.

He was a key figure in Africa’s anti-colonial movement. He provided men and materiel to seventeen African nations. He tried to subvert almost all of Latin American except for Mexico (although Subcomandante Marcos’ men did train in Cuba) with strategies that combined armed struggle with terror.

A majority of the continent’s seditionists — from Venezuela’s Carlos the Jackal to Colombia’s Manuel Marulanda (alias Sure Shot) — passed through the military camp set up in Guanabo, a seaside area on the outskirts of Havana. They also included commandos from the Basque terrorist group ETA as well as the PLO and the IRA.

In terms of economics, Fidel Castro did very little that is worthy of applause. And a lot at which to jeer. Let’s consider what has come of some of his hair-brained schemes, the lies he told, the promises he never fulfilled.

In Picadura Valley there are no air-conditioned dairies or robust livestock setting new records for dairy production. Nor any exotic fruits in Baconao. And Havana was never able to attain the standard of living of New York, as he once promised in one of his hundreds of speeches.

Rather the opposite has occurred. The neighborhoods he built are a master class in architectural folly. His schemes destroyed or depreciated sugar, citrus and coffee production operations.

His brother Raúl had to resort to urgent economic reforms, timid and still incomplete, if for no other reason than to paper over the disasters created by Fidel.

Castro I was a dictator, an enlightened leader. He did not have a 900 million dollar fortune, as Forbes magazine reported. He had much more. He had something that cannot be appraised in monetary terms. He had a whole country. A country that he ran like his own personal estate.

Now that he has died, the question that arises is: What will happen to the more than twenty houses that he owned throughout the country? Or to his private navy? Or his island in Cayo Piedra south of the Bay of Pigs?

The man whom God has just called home has, to my mind, caused damage on an anthropological scale to Cuba and to Cubans. He polarized society and opinions. He sold us on the idea that the Fatherland was synonymous with revolution and socialism.

Castroism did not end with Fidel Castro’s death. The regime still has some life left in it. But with his death an era ends and the revolution loses a symbol. International economic forces will require new reforms if it is to survive. A relapse into ideology and a retreat from economic reform will spell the beginning of the end for Castroism.

After Fidel Castro’s ashes have been set inside an enormous rock, supposedly brought down from the Sierra Maestra, and the funeral services have concluded, honest Cubans — those from here and those from there — must sit down and discuss whether or not we want live in a democratic nation.

All of us are vital to the future of Cuba. The best way to repair the terrible sociological and spiritual damage Fidel Castro has caused is to set aside resentment and engage in dialogue.

To paraphrase the poet Angel Cuadra, the two sides have the same hero, José Martí. Both always defend their ideas singing the same anthem and raising the same flag.

The war is over. Let’s build a new Cuba together.

 Diario Las Americas, December 4, 2016