The Death of Fidel Castro and The Rebirth of the Cuban Socialist Model - by Peter Dunphy

I decided to spend Friday, November 25th, at home. The night before was a crazy Thanksgiving in Cuba, which included multiple bottles of Havana Club rum. My friend’s family was visiting and took us out to dinner at one of the nicest paladars (fancy, private-run restaurants) in all of Havana, patronized by mostly tourists or the seemingly-contradictory Cuban elite. I got in my bed and snuggled up with my much-loved Kindle that my parents brought into the country the weekend before. I checked my phone one last time before going to sleep to see I got a text from my friend.

    “Yo how nuts is this”

    “Am I missing another message? I just have ‘Yo how nuts is this’,” I replied.

    “Fidel died.”

A morbid response – something I couldn’t believe. We had made off-handed comments about the possibility of Fidel dying during our semester abroad, but never actually imagined it would happen. I stumbled upstairs and turned on the television. Instead of the normal five channels, only TeleSur was playing, the rest blacked out. My friend wasn’t lying: Raúl Castro was addressing the nation announcing the death of his brother and predecessor. The Comandante Jefe of the Revolution was really dead. And I was really living in Cuba while this was happening.

Around one hundred miles north, Calle Ocho in Miami was erupting with celebration. Cuban exiles were smoking cigars that they had been holding onto for decades waiting for this day. For them, the dictator was dead.

Back in Cuba, Havana was quiet and somber. The Malecón Sea wall usually ablaze with crowds and roaming musicians was instead almost completely deserted. Many Cubans shed quiet tears as the news slowly made its way through the city – remember no mobile internet, no breaking news notifications, only word of mouth.

There are generational splits in personal connection to Fidel and his Revolution. My host mother represents the older generation: she was depressed. She had lived through Batista. She came an impoverished community that gained so much when the Revolution brought general equality to the island. Within younger generations, there is another divide: some of my peers are obviously much more revolutionario, but for many, their experience with the Revolution was growing up in a Cuba in deep economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union, known as the “Special Period.” They are the Cubans who are willing to take more capitalist measures, pragmatism over the idealism of the older generations, to save their country.

Fully comprehending Fidel’s impact and legacy inevitably brings to the forefront parallel reflections on the Revolution. For Fidel is the Revolution, and the Revolution is Fidel. In the 58 years since Batista was overthrown, the two have been interchangeable. After spending thirteen weeks in Cuba, Fidel’s death sent me into a mental crisis about my own relationship with the Revolution. Did I support it or not?

Well. I have a lot of thoughts on the subject:

I acknowledge and sympathize with the pro-Revolutionary stance. The Revolution brought autonomy to an island that had never broken its colonial legacy – a colony first of then Spain and then, for all practical purposes, the United States.

The Revolution brought incredible social gains to the Island. In the first years, the famous Literacy Campaign that took teens from their homes and transformed them into teaching brigades, eradicated illiteracy throughout the country in a matter of months. It sits today at 99%. Currently, Cuba’s most valuable commodity and main export is their human capital. International students flock to Havana to receive top-notch medical attention. Cuban doctors are sent all over the world through their own version of the Doctors Without Borders program.

In the same way that the United States views the multi-party system and freedom of speech as fundamentals of human rights, Cubans point to universal extraordinary medical care and education as self-evident rights.

The United States, a country that hails itself as the shining City on the Hill, does not have the human rights record to back up the moral authority it uses as rationale for its foreign policy towards Cuba. Cubans are aware of and petrified by police brutality in the U.S. They see rampant segregation and inequalities along race, class, and educational levels. They are shocked by the hatred and racism that is not at least outwardly apparent in Cuba. They saw the U.S. ripped apart on the most basic level during the presidential election, the capstone of the multi-party state.

When the presidents of South Africa, Namibia, and Angola remarked on Cuba’s involvement in Angola in the 1980s at Fidel’s funeral ceremony this past week, all emphasized that Cuba intervened not for the gold, nor jewels, nor diamonds like the Western Powers, but in support of the cause of nationalism and autonomy for colonized nations. The Revolution put Cuba on the world map. From a U.S. perspective, Cuba represented the defiant antagonist in the Capitalist-Socialist, First World-Third World, and North-South conflicts, and incurred a grave punishment for standing up to Goliath in the form of the economic embargo.

Instead of serving the intended purpose of making the Castro regime weaker, the bloqueo, as it is known in Cuba, rallies the country around the flag, gives fuel to the Cuban claim that the country is constantly under siege, and provides the perfect scapegoat for any socioeconomic or political problems faced by Cuban society. I still get chills every time I walk home from Plaza de la Revolución and see a twine noose on a black billboard around the words in Spanish, “Embargo: The Longest Genocide in History.”

What were the alternatives to the Cuban Revolution, and were they better? That is a point that Cubans in support of the Revolution often stress to me. The Dominican Republic, flooded by tourists and controlled by foreign companies? Mexico, or much of Central America and Columbia, a battlefield in the international drug war that Cuba is completely removed from? Many Cubans would gladly claim their history.

But, let’s not kid ourselves on the fact that U.S. claims of human rights abuses by the Cuba government are based on substantial evidence. Journalism students at University of Havana who were mutual friends of mine were arrested because the government thought they were writing a seditious article. They were just talking to a street performer. Print journalism in this country is terrible, a product of a lack of material resources and government censorship and intimidation.

Cuba, in my opinion, is not a democracy. There is no consequential battle of visions for the future here and that, to me, is the basis of a democratic system. This must be taken into account when assessing Fidel's legacy. He left an economic system that was too conservative to take the appropriate measures necessary to save itself. The economy is infuriatingly inefficient – it was here that I first self-identified as a capitalist. Many hardworking families had everything they owned taken from them in the name of revolution, a situation I wager most people in the United States would not react positively to.

The Cuban Government embraces the fact that there isn’t freedom of speech in the country, saying that it does not exist in order to achieve larger social progress. The same goes for the lack of political change. Fidel Castro was the longest serving consequential ruler of the twentieth century (sorry Queen Elizabeth for not counting you in on this one). And I can almost see the logic in this argument, but exporting it to other countries shows its grave flaws. In particular, to Cuba’s closest ally and ailing friend, Venezuela.

Nicolas Maduro retained power from his predecessor Hugo Chavez, both disciples of the Castro model. But Maduro is no Chavez, and tanking oil prices and inflexible state-run economic institutions have left the social safety net in crisis and caused inflation to soar. Rations have fallen leading to food stockpiling. The country is on the verge of crumbling in desperate need of political change that is repressed by both jailing the opposition and quashing popular protests.

The “Revolution” aspect of the Cuban Revolution is over –after 58 years in power it has now clearly been institutionalized. It is time for the Cuban people to demonstrate whether they accept the Revolution, accept the current path, or prefer a different option for the future. And this referendum process does not exist in any form on the island.

I also lived in the best of Cuba. I was in the most prosperous city (Havana) in the most prosperous neighborhood (Vedado) attending the best university in the country (University of Havana). I have been told that there are many Cubas in Cuba. I don’t mean to speak for all of them. The Revolution and modern-day Cuba carries a plurality of experiences, even within one of the most socialist countries of the world.

So, my views on the Revolution are complicated - very, very, very complicated.

And Cuba is shifting – rapidly – to places unknown. Raúl Castro says he will step down from power in 2018. The initial generation of the Revolution – those who lived under Batista and carry with them that comparison – are dying. Tourists are flooding the Island in unprecedented numbers. The private sector is the largest it has been since 1959.

While I strongly doubt that Cuban socialism is going anywhere, as strongly predicted in the West, the model is being updated and will continue to be. And the final remnant of the Cold War, US-Cuban relations, is starting to thaw.

The United States must continue the détente and practice constructive engagement with Cuba like the rest of the world does. We must finally end the embargo, because opening up Cuba to our markets and companies is how the U.S. can influence the Island the most. Bring technology, bring brands, bring our culture, bring our tourists, bring our news and send Cuban innovation, Cuban doctors, Cuban experiences to the States as well. Turn a history of hatred into a future of trust.

For over half a century the 90 miles that divide our two countries has seemed much larger. I am very optimistic leaving Cuba now that these next years could finally end that.

Peter Dunphy