The main hall of Havana’s Casa de las Américas, the art-deco cathedral of Latin American culture, is packed. It is 2012. The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano is reading from his 2009 book, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everybody, to commemorate the first Cuban edition. “Fidel,” Galeano begins. “His enemies say that he was a king without a crown and that he confused unity with unanimity. And in that his enemies were right.”
Silence. Galeano continues. “His enemies say that he exercised power by speaking much but listening little, because he was more accustomed to echoes than to voices. And in that his enemies were right.” Slight murmurs, a wave of palpable tension, even an uncomfortable chuckle.
“But,” Galeano goes on, “what his enemies don’t say is that Fidel wasn’t posing for history when he faced down bullets during the [Bay of Pigs] invasion; that he faced down hurricanes as equals, hurricane to hurricane; that he survived six hundred and thirty seven assassination attempts; that his contagious energy was decisive in turning a colony into a country; and that it wasn’t by a Mandinga’s witchcraft nor a miracle of God that this new country was able to survive ten presidents of the United States… And they don’t say that this Revolution, which grew up amidst punishment, is what it could be and not what it wanted to be.”
Galeano goes on to mention that the island has the least economic inequality in all of Latin America. He finishes by comparing Fidel to Don Quixote—a comparison the bearded revolutionary had made himself. The hall erupts in applause.
* * *
Fidel is dead. The mourning of many Cubans—though not all—may be confusing for outsiders to understand. It helps to first try seeing history through their eyes.
As a Spanish colony and then as an American protectorate, Cuba had become a paradise for vice. Fulgencio Batista’s 1952 coup pre-empted a landslide victory for the Orthodox Party whose entire platform had been based on the idea that the Cuban Republic was already sick. Only if the island were freed from foreign tutelage and the interests of the island’s own oligarchs could Cubans once again take hold of their own destiny and help shape the world’s. Fidel promised to restore Cuba to the path from which it had strayed so that it might realize its true potential.
With one hand he monopolized political power; with the other he enacted policies, such as land reform, which his predecessors had promised and failed to implement. His legitimacy was cemented in April of 1961 when he defeated a band of exiles, armed and trained by the CIA, who tried to apply in Cuba the same tactics that had recently ousted the democratically elected government of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. The attempted invasion, economic embargo, and attacks by paramilitary Cuban exile organizations operating from American soil only bolstered the siege mentality and resentment that many Cubans felt.
Even some of those who were suspicious or outright critical of the radical changes Fidel enacted felt the Americans had left them with little room to maneuver, since foreign pressure for regime change meant that domestic critics could be construed as a fifth column.
To explain this problem, many Cubans still love to quote a line from a poem by the 19th-century writer and independence fighter, José Martí: “our wine is bitter but it is our wine.” To be a sovereign, independent nation meant the right to make mistakes and apply Cuban solutions to Cuban problems.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Cubans still beam with pride when they talk about the “triumphs of the revolution”—education, healthcare, literacy, sports, culture, and international humanitarian missions, including tens of thousands of troops sent to help Angola defend itself against an invasion from apartheid-era South Africa—even though many of these achievements have been allowed to crumble due to lack of funding. They still smile when they recount the times that Fidel outsmarted the yanquis and thumbed his nose at them from across the Florida Strait. Cuba would have numerous allies in the decades following 1959, but they would never again be relegated to someone else’s “sphere of influence.” They would demand respect and they would get it.
* * *
It is not hard to understand why those whom Fidel harmed along the way find it difficult to forgive him. No one has the right to tell a gay man sent to the labor camps or blacklisted by the state—for a long time the only legal employer—to forgive his oppressor. Nor those who fled during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, often the victims of actos de repudio (acts of repudiation) in which a government-organized mob of the emigrant’s neighbors gathered around their home, threw eggs, and yelled “escoria” (human waste) or “gusano” (worm) at them. Nor religious Cubans who had to hide their faith for decades for fear of committing career suicide. Nor small-business owners who lost everything for a revolution that had promised to protect them. Nor those deemed guilty of ideological heresy and quarantined to menial posts until they recanted or their sins were forgotten. Nor, especially, the ordinary Cubans who were forced to live in a chaotic reality over which they had no control and with injustices they had no chance to make right.
How Cubans see Fidel and the revolution is tied to how they see themselves. His mark cannot be removed from the country’s achievements over the past half century any more than it can be erased from the heinous acts committed against its own citizens. As Americans, we also struggle to sort out our own complicated history: how “enlightened” founding fathers also owned slaves, how emancipators like Abraham Lincoln continued to persecute Native Americans, how American troops fought fascism in Europe while US citizens of Japanese descent were interned at home, how we helped free Cuba from Spanish chains only to replace them with American ones.
Before I left Cuba in 2013 I had a long conversation with a Cuban intellectual who had held a middling post in the government for decades. Even in the dim light of his office I could see his salt-and-pepper hair, the lines etched in his face by time and pain. With his gravelly voice he tried to explain how many Cubans felt about Fidel. He told me about his father, an educated man who had dedicated almost his entire working life to the revolution. Once, his sisters’ regular gripes about Fidel caused his father to yell at them and storm off. A dutiful son, he had tried to play peacemaker. In a wounded tone, his father had confided in him: “Son, I know they’re right about some things. But I sacrificed so much. If Fidel, if the revolution were failures, what was my life?”