published in the Dallas Morning News A Tale of Two Castros
Bourgeois, rebel, prisoner, liberator, dictator, jailer, orator, evangelist, icon, killer, defiant, propagandist, communist, populist, caudillo: These are the words that describe El Commandante, a contradictory man, but indeed a giant of our times.
In my multiple visits to Cuba during and after his reign, and after many interactions with Cubans in exile, I have mixed feelings as to whether Fidel Castro’s impact on Cuba has been positive or negative. On the surface, a formidable propaganda machine paints a picture of an enlightened society of equality and social justice, but beneath the iron fist of Fidel lay a society plagued with fear, prostitution, drug use and oppression.
This giant of a man understood how to use opportunity to his advantage.
For 50 years, his totalitarian rule kept 11 million people behind an iron curtain that has endured for decades even after the fall of Soviet communism, bedeviling 11 successive US presidencies, and Castro himself survived multiple attempts at assassination.
From the U.S. perspective, politically fueled by a vocal exile Cuban community centered in South Florida, the seizure of property, the jailing, execution and exile of dissidents and the curtailing of freedom and human rights have cemented him as a despot and villain of vast proportions.
From the perspective of many developing countries, however, he is hailed as a hero – one whose defiance in the face of the United States’ CIA-manipulated Latin American political landscape, whose generous donations of scholarships, healthcare and deployed medical/military personnel – has created a cadre of loyal and passionate Castroistas throughout the Western Hemisphere, and as far flung as the African continent. Castro’s enduring charm and avatar-like image has earned him the adulation of Latin American populist leaders such as the late Hugo Chavez Venezuela, who tried valiantly to remake himself and his country in the image of Castro’s Cuba.
I spent much of my time living in South Florida in the early ’90s sipping Cafecitos with older Cuban immigrants that recall Cuba before and after the revolution. While few have any regard for the Batista dictatorship that preceded Castro, most feel betrayed by this fatigue-clad rebel, whose background as an educated son of a wealthy Spanish immigrant farmer belied his opportunistic move toward a Soviet sponsored dictatorship in the midst of the Cold War. Black Friday 2016 for many Cuban Americans has become a day of celebration that has been a long time coming.
My 70-year-old driver, Alejandro, echoed similar sentiments during my visit to Havana in 1997. An elegant gentleman in a crisp white Guayabera driving a brand new Mercedes Benz recounted the official rhetoric of the administration as we drove from the then-sparkling new Melia Cohiba around the dilapidated capital. My multiple questions about the vast number of prostitutes lining the Malecon, laundry hanging out broken windows of mansions that haven’t seen paint for decades, and the stark contrast of our shiny new car against the mule-drawn carts and ancient cars chugging along pothole-lined boulevards, drew a furrowed brow from Alejandro. Eventually, he pulled off to a side street and whispered to me: “I don’t know who you are, but if I give you the truth of what is happening here, I will probably lose my job and my car.”
After my assurances, he finally opened up, describing his sad disappointment as a former member of the revolution. He described the role of the assigned monitors that report on any sign of prosperity of their neighbors, lamenting that even the $50 tip I gave him (the equivalent of several months of his official salary), will have to be hidden or else seized by the government. Alejandro felt that the revolution was necessary to rid the country of Batista and his corrupt elites, but the controlled and oppressed state of scarcity that evolved under Castro was not what he envisioned.
Alejandro’s story can be repeated over and over in this island state that defies all norms. A country where free education and healthcare and an unmatched rate of literacy has spawned a vast talent pool, but the lack of opportunity has forced this talent pool into menial and even immoral activities like prostitution in Cuba’s burgeoning sex tourism industry.
In response to this growing gap in ability and opportunity, and as an offset of falling Soviet financial and fuel subsidies and declining earnings from sugar, Castro utilized this vast talent pool by granting exit visas for deployment of doctors, teachers, performers, agronomists and other professionals to work throughout the region. This move brought badly needed foreign exchange, and served to build on the regime’s image as a South-South champion for development. This deployed army of educated professionals, combined with the army of grateful scholarship recipients in developing countries that lived in Cuba, has brought a carefully choreographed message of a defiant Cuba, a great leader, and a story of an extraordinary man; a proverbial David that defied a superpower Goliath, as it were. It will be interesting to see how this tale of two Castros will be recorded in history.
Raul Castro has indicated that he will cede power in 2018. Recent moves by the U.S. to normalize relations, and the growing celebrity and tourism attention will all serve to bring gradual change to Cuba. As foreign influences grow, so will the exposure of the Cuban people and so will the demand for change. Fidel’s shadow, however, will continue to loom, as 50 years of Cubans that never left the island will grapple with how to integrate into a connected world where they have been virtually cut off.
My last visit to Cuba was on a boat, briefly stopping off in the remote Western outpost of Port Antonio in 2014. I recall the sparkle in the eyes of the young dock assistant at the apparent miracle of my iPhone’s ability to play music on the boat’s Bluetooth speaker system while standing on the dock. I remember wondering to myself, “How long will this spark take to ignite a wildfire that will consume Fidel’s legacy in a nation that is on the verge of its next era?”
Michael Singh currently serves as a special advisor to the Office of the Prime Minister of Belize on government performance and efficiency. Throughout his career he has lived and traveled extensively throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.