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.