The first dose of Cuba you get when you touch down at Jose Marti international and take a taxi through the scorching plains towards Havana is, unsurprisingly, an unending stream of Barbudos.
Barbudos everywhere: on cracked streetside murals with paint peeling under the weight of Caribbean humidity, on the great, mold-stained billboards that line the autopista, on the side of foodtrucks propped up on bricks, or on heart-shaped posters seen fleetingly through the passing windows of schoolhouses.
They are inescapable, these Barbudos. You can hardly walk twenty minutes throughout any point in Cuba without seeing a public reference to them.
Named for the roughshorn beards they cultivated during the Revolution’s early years in the Sierra, these three men- Fidel Castro, Che, and Camilo- have attained a level of grandeur unmatched in any third-world country.
Most prominent of these three, also unsurprisingly, is the gleaming image of Fidel. His face is such a common sight that it is easy to forget his posthumous presence, so much so that his memory quite literally permeates the geography of the island.
So I ask the taxi driver the question on the first day, watching him weave easefully through the frightening traffic towards Havana: what do you think of Fidel?
Pues, he said, enunciating his answer in his thickly accented Cuban Spanish, siempre me ha gustado el. Hizo mucho para nuestro pais.
It was only the first of many times I received a pleasing review of the dead leader — a characteristic introduction to the convoluted, unsettling, legacy of Castro.
Deification of political leaders is by no means an originally Cuban tradition. For eons, posters of revolutionary leaders and dictators have been slapped on walls in countless African, Asian, and Latin American countries. To a smaller but no less undeniable extent, we here in the United States do the same with our historical heroes, erecting monuments in the name of Washington, Jefferson, JFK, Lincoln. And it would be a stretch even to say that the old Cuban leaders are deified in their country: in the propaganda contest, Cuba falls far behind Stalinist Russia or North Korea, totalitarian regimes who literally reconfigured the memory of their leaders into Gods.
But all the posters and murals depicting Castro lead most outsiders to the same, natural question:
What was Castro’s legacy?
It is, as I found through my trip to Havana last week, hard to say.
Those who support the present regime say that he broke Cuba free from the decades old chain of American imperialism, providing much-needed social welfare programs and ushering in the long-awaited independence of Cuba.
Those who detract say that he was a flagrant violator of human rights, dragging the country into an economic cesspool and tossing anyone who challenged his leadership in jail.
But what surprised me the most during my short time in Cuba is the discord between the almost unilateral hatred of Castro in America and those many, diversified perceptions of him within his homeland.
Growing up, despite having been being born seven years after Cold War ended, I was still nonetheless surrounded by the notion that he was an incorrigible dictator whose rule led to the exodus of hundreds of thousands and to economic disaster for his country.
But what shocked me was the bipolar diversity of opinions about him. In this controversial-ness, he almost resembles Trump: some wept upon news of his death, while others- most notably in the exile community of Miami- rejoiced in celebration.
I heard on numerous occasions people impart favorable reviews to Fidel:
From the taxi driver on the way into Havana, an aging negro, who spoke admirably of the social welfare reforms created by Fidel that allowed people to receive free medical treatment and send their kids to school without charge. From the twenty-year-old student from La Universidad de Havana — who longed to join her escaped fiancée in Miami and who’d never been outside of Habana province — who explained to us as she guided us through town that a university education would have been too expensive for her poor family were it not for Fidel’s reforms. And from the amicable bartender who showed us around town after we asked for directions on the street, who had never felt the desire to leave his country and who believed so strongly in Fidel’s revolutionary ideals that he wore a hidden tattoo of Che on his shoulder.
Inside the monument to Jose Marti — Cuba’s first revolutionary hero, whose memory is universally cherished by all Cubans — I was handed by the elevator driver a copy of Granma, the official publication of the communist party and, supposedly, the most popular newspaper on the island. Featured in the top left corner of the front page was the famous black and white picture of Fidel and his rebels, raising their rifles victoriously as they paraded into Havana.
Inside that very same monument, whose first floor entailed a large, circular museum about Jose Martí, a whole slice of the exhibits were dedicated specifically to Castro, who is regarded within pro-government circles as the natural heir to Martí’s intellectual legacy.
In one part of the Castro exhibits there is a picture of the young, imprisoned Fidel standing with vulnerable eyes before a picture of Marti; in another there is an emboldened quote from his famous “History will Absolve Me” speech, which says that “the intellectual author of this revolution is Jose Martí, the apostle of our independence.”
When I visited a bookstore in Habanavieja, a seemingly endless stream of literature was available for purchase on Fidel. Lining the dusty shelves were everything from philosophical tracts purporting how Fidel had pushed forward the Hegelian progression of history, to gaudy children’s comic books about his wartime exploits in the jungle, with names like “The Brave Rebel,” and “Adventures in the Sierra.”
Little is said, however, of Fidel’s numerous documented human rights abuses: his negation of the most basic political freedoms, his intimidation of opponents and his draconian usage of Cuba’s abysmal prison system to silence any murmur of dissent. Little debate over the legitimacy of the regime is heard openly in the streets: any criticism at all is usually restricted to the safe confinement behind the closed doors at home. In the worlds of José Miguel Vivanco, director of the American branch of the Human Rights Watch, for decades Castro “meted out (harsh punishments) to keep his repressive system rooted firmly in place… such abusive practices generated a pervasive climate of fear in Cuba… and pressured Cubans to show their allegiance to the state while discouraging criticism.”
I asked lots of people what they thought about Castro during my exploits in Cuba. Many of the responses consisted of passionate admiration; lots, of light praise; and the criticisms of Castro… well, I never heard any criticisms of Castro.
I did however, on one occasion, manage to elicit a mildly critical response from a Cuban citizen.
We were walking through the backside of Habanavieja late one gold-slanted afternoon, towards the end of our trip, when I asked a young teenage couple for directions back to the Capitolio, the towering, Romanesque, Batista-era government building at the heart of the city. After striking up an amusing conversation — Cubans are often charmed by gringos who speak their language — they opted to walk with us along the way.
The boy was a nineteen-year-old studying history at the University of Havana, and his girlfriend was the equivalent of a high school senior. They often spent their afternoons like this, aimlessly wandering the city, and when I told them that I was from Florida their eyes’, especially the boy’s, lit up.
“Can you take me there?” his voice caught me off guard with his seriousness.
Returning the joke, I recommended that I surreptitiously ship him back in a box so I could show him the parties back up in Miami.
“Why, then,” I asked. “Do you not like Cuba?”
“Fuck Cuba,” he said suddenly.
I asked what he hated about the country.
“No,” the girlfriend interjected. “We don’t hate our country. But we’ve never seen anything outside of it. We’ve been here our whole lives — we’ve never had the money to leave. The jobs here just don’t pay enough. We love lots of things about Cuba. We just don’t like our government.”
“Do you think the regime is going to change anytime soon?”
This, they said, within earshot of the police, amongst the throngs of people and cars that threaded through the palm-lined amphitheater of Plaza Martí.
They conceded that they appreciated the educational and medical systems Fidel had instated — yes. But the economy had prevented them from ever having enough income to see the outside world. They had grown tired of Castroism’s stifling ideology being perpetually shoved down their throats. They knew their government was corrupt. They loved Cuba. But they just wanted out — they wanted an opportunity for life beyond Cuba’s economic hardship.
Perhaps more seriously this time around, at the end of our conversation I suggested that when I came back I would have two tickets for them so they could come to the United States. They each flashed a smile and then broke off, merging in with the stream of Cubans wandering along the avenue.
It was in this couple that I saw the most perfect embodiment of the Cuban people in their relationship to Castro, to their government. They loved their country, the culture and the food and the dancing and the relaxed attitude and the beautiful tropical landscapes. But they didn’t want to sacrifice their rights to economic mobility and political freedoms for their rights to social justice. They loved their country but wanted out. To them, Castro was a dead god, a fallen leader whose memory was incompatible with contemporary Cubans.
Castro remains as divisive as he ever has been in Cuba. And I make to attempt to provide final judgment here regarding my assessment of his legacy — though I imagine many of those reading will correctly guess my final, weighted up opinion of the man.
Every time I’ve thought of Castro since then the memory of that couple materializes in my memory. Of the young Cubans, in love with their country; young Cubans, burdened by the past; young Cubans, dreaming for the dawn of a better future.