November 26, 2016

Glimpses of Havana in the Final Days of Fidel

The revolución may not be over—it may never be over—but Fidel Castro's Rebel Army only has one member left.

Juan Almeida Bosque died of a heart attack in 2009...

...Che was executed in 1967...

... and Camilo Cienfuegos disappeared in the Florida Straits in 1959.

And now, Fidel himself has finally passed.

The last man standing is Fidel's brother, Raúl Castro, the current Cuban president.

What you see in Havana now can largely be attributed to their collective insurgency against the Batista dictatorship in 1959...

...but mostly in that it's been frozen in time since then.

Most of the "progress" and "development" happened before that—starting with the Spanish colonials in the 15th and 16th century, through the 19th century when Havana was known as "the Paris of the Antilles" and ending in the first half of the 20th century, when Havana was thriving as "the Paris of the Caribbean."

So why are women still dressing in traditional garb, harvesting and roasting their own Cuban-grown peanuts, and selling them on the street with a song of "Maní...maní...maní"? Why the state of arrested development?

It's complicated. The government that Fidel and his army of rebels successfully ousted had, in fact, actually ousted the government before it: long-shot candidate Fulgencio Batista overthrew Cuban President Carlos Prío before he had the chance to be reelected. And to be honest, Prío didn't put up a fight—instead, he fled.

So, a president whom some considered bad (despite Cuba's independence, civility, and free speech of the time) was replaced by someone most would agree was worse. And, while probably well-intentioned, Castro's coup to rid Cuba of its corruption put a merry band of warriors in charge of a country they had no idea how to run.

With ties already severed with the U.S. during the Batista autocracy, Fidel needed to get help from somewhere. As a result, in 1962 he started sleeping with the enemy, the Soviet Union, at the sacrifice of relations with other international economies—until the USSR collapsed and pulled out of Cuba officially in 1991. With it, Cuba lost a huge export partner, and the resulting economic hardship sent the Cuban economy into a downward spiral.

And all Fidel's revolution ended up doing was replacing one dictator with another.

Cuba is considered a country of the "third world," but it's not as depressed as you might think. Sure, the septic system can't handle any paper flushed down into it, and there are practically no wi-fi hotspots to be found. But the dogs and cats you see on the street are loved and well-cared-for. People on the street don't beg—they work and they sell things you actually want to buy. You see children only in their school uniforms, heading to or from class.

Some may say that Cuba is falling apart...

...but, from what I could see in Havana, Cuba is being rebuilt.

Cubans haven't had access to modern automobiles from the West, but they've gotten rid of their post-Soviet-era bicycles from China and are driving whatever they can get their hands on.

And those that manage to get one of the classic cars from the 1940s or '50s soup them up however they can—maybe even with a Hyundai engine—and turn them into a business.

They worship their larger-than-life religious idols and herald their war heroes...

...but they've also surrounded themselves with literary icons, like Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões and Cuban national hero, poet and writer José Martí. Just for comparison, the Cuban literacy rate is 99.8%, while here in the U.S. it's 97.9%; and likewise, the Cuban unemployment rate is only 3%, versus our 4.9%. The poverty rate is practically nonexistent at 1.5%, compared to our 13.5%.

I only caught glimpses of Cuba during my three days and three nights there in November 2016, just weeks before Fidel died at age 90. I couldn't possibly understand it fully yet. I definitely didn't see everything, but being able to see anything with my own eyes—and with my heart—was a lot more enlightening than what I'd been able to glean from the media or pop culture.

Photo: jim & me [CC BY 2.5 es], via Wikimedia Commons

Vas bien, Fidel. You fought against the impossible, and you won. But now it's time to go and let Cubans figure out who they are without you.

Related Posts:
Cruisin' Cuba in a Convertible
Photo Essay: The Picasso of The Caribbean's Surreal, Ceramic Land
A Cooking Oil Factory Heats Up Cuban Nightlife
Discovering Religion, Art & Philosophy in a Cuban Alley

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