Cuba Libre, At Last
To ask of a Cuban-American his true feelings about the Castro regime is almost redundant. For in the Cuban heart, in that vibrant and warm Caribbean spirit and soul, there’s nothing if not truth in feeling. You’ll find no pretense there, only passion. There’s no hesitation of sentiment, only determination of will. There isn’t any of that careful insincerity nor that veiled obscurity that so characterizes us Americans to the north. I suppose what I’m saying is that, in raising with your Cuban interlocutor this topic about Fidel, Raul, Ché, Socialism, Castroism, and the like, you’d better be prepared for a swift, caustic, and—above all—a frank response.
The question, as such, usually invites one of two responses. Of course, it almost goes without saying that the answers depend entirely on to whom the question is posed. At least as it pertains to those with whom I’ve spoken at some length, many younger Cuban-Americans know remarkably little of their island’s tumultuous past. They trouble themselves greatly to recall the Moncada Barracks siege, or the 26th of July Movement that it later inspired. They don’t know much about the passage of Castro’s Granma vessel from Mexico to the port at Las Coloradas, though, thanks to the myth of the left and the work of the popular media, they may have a vague, dressed-up image of a hirsute Fidel propagandizing his creed amidst the verdant maze of the Sierra Maestras. After that, they might have a passing knowledge of that same Castro’s descent from those same mountains, of his confrontation with Batista. They may have a peripheral appreciation of the impotent Batista’s abdication and his craven dash for the United States. Rest assured they know of the six tempestuous decades of Castroism that ensued.
What they do know, and what informs their opinion to this day, is that the future lies not in Cuba. At least not in the Cuba of old. It lies not in that seven-hundred-mile thralldom of paradise, in that mountainous, beauteous landscape of vibrant architecture and verdant scenes. Younger Cubans know that fulfillment, enjoyment, liberation, knowledge, and happiness are to be found beyond the confines of that final bastion of “Communism” (although Venezuela is certainly making a go at expropriating that “final bastion” claim—much in the way it has expropriated just about everything else). This, in short, is the younger Cuban-American’s response: history is but a memory—and sometimes, not even that. Let’s get on with it, they say, so we might join the new world and chart ourselves a new and better path.
As for the older generation of Cuban-Americans, of whom many hadn’t the luxury of living the best years of their lives un-oppressed by the dictator’s thumb, the response will tend to be a bit more animated. If not that, it’s always more urgent. They’ll tend to know the nuances of Cuban history—their personal tragedy—acutely and they’ll know it well.
They’ll speak of the squalor in which they lived and the conditions from which they so desperately escaped. They’ll speak about the obstacles they encountered in the simple pursuit of knowledge and of a better life. They might shiver at the thought of makeshift rafts bobbing on the Florida Straits, or at the coast guard vessels pulling up their sun-burnt and overly weary bodies from that unforgiving stretch of sea. It’s a sea that separates an island from liberty. They might recount how the media back home upon which they relied for "information" was controlled and manipulated by the state or how access to the internet and, by extension, the world was stiflingly restricted and ultimately proscribed. They’ll know painfully well about the decades-long economic doldrums within which they struggled merely to get by. Food tends to be sparse when ideology is all that’s around. A paucity of the former is natural consequence of too much of the latter. They might remember fondly the 1950s jalopy that they, their children, and their children’s children were from birth fated to drive, but they’ll do so only behind the wheel of an air-conditioned vehicle in the modern age, in the most modern of countries, in most liberal of days.
In passing and in haste, they’ll typically mention the few but substantial benefits that came from living under the Castro regime. The perks here might include the broad and generous availability of healthcare and the educational opportunities open to all. They might even include the restoration of a virile and a nationalistic sense of pride. With nostalgia, corrupted as it always is with the passage of time, they might attribute to Castro’s policies their island’s evolution from Spanish colony, to American protectorate, to corrupt military regime, to a finally unified state. But even those social and emotional goods can’t begin to compensate for the losses incurred. And to these elder Cuban-Americans especially, the losses far exceeded the gains.
This is why, just one year ago in the streets of Miami, and again across the nation today, Cubans of all ages—knowledgeable of their history or not—are celebrating the last and dying vestige of the Castro regime. Raul, the far less captivating, yet far more ideologically-inclined younger brother of Fidel, has been Cuba’s leader since 2008. As the aging Fidel’s health began further and irretrievably to decline, and as his once burly stature began shriveling into the emptiness of his Adidas track-suit, Raul became the de facto head of state. It’s said that from the very beginning, back when the word “Castro” was little more than a synonym for coup d’état, Raul and not Fidel was in fact the true revolutionary. Along with the omnipresent Ché Guevara and the aptly-named Camilo Cienfuegos (whose surname translates to mean “one hundred fires”), Raul was the brain of the movement. Fidel was merely the bluster, the charisma, and the façade of the brawn.
It would be difficult now, though, to continue calling Raul’s agenda revolutionary. I suppose the same can be said of any revolutionary throughout history; it is an admittedly self-limiting description. At a time, perhaps he was the very essence of revolution, but because of his obstinacy and his inability to progress, the Cuban state became inert. Instead of revolve, as the revolutionist necessarily seeks to do, it began to retrogress. It invaginated while the world around it expanded. With that, and at the ripened age of eighty-six (his brother Fidel died in the ninetieth year of his life), Raul is finally handing over the keys of power to a young successor. By doing so, he’s leaving to his country the chance for it to unshackle its ankles, to unfetter its wings, and possibly to soar into the world and into the future as never it has before.
The new man atop the dais in Havana is Miguel Diaz-Canal, a fifty-seven-year-old political veteran and engineer. Auspicious though this all sounds, he’s no novitiate in the cult of Castroism; he’s been a party man for many years. Ostensibly, Diaz-Canal was selected to forward the “Communist” agenda that was so long ago conceived by Raul, refined by Guevara, succored by Khrushchev, and imbibed and then administered by the heroic Fidel. The most optimistic take is that because of Diaz-Canal’s age, Cuba’s ineluctable needs, and an obstreperous population led by its youth, this new president will be the long-sought force for change. He will pivot Cuba away from Marxism and Leninism and to the liberalism of the West. The hope is that he’ll step in (assuming Raul fully and graciously steps out) and engage America and the better angels of Europe and South America once again in commerce, in ideas, and in respect. It’s his opportunity to liberalize the country and to ameliorate its current plight, and Cubans feel impressed upon them this potentially extraordinary moment in history. Excited but suspicious, wary but sanguine, Cuban-Americans and the world will just have to wait and see if he can live this moment as he should and as his people, be they young or old, demand.