In Cuba the people do not speak his name out loud, but make a hand gesture that signifies the bearded one. Responses to our questions about him ranged from resigned indifference to fervent hatred. People we talked with were not hesitant to voice their opinions. Many seemed anxious to do so.
The most extreme in their feelings were young men. Incautious, perhaps, due to their age. They talked of how they had to live. Of short food rations. Good doctors and hospitals, but no medicine. Education available to everyone and everyone can read, but it leads nowhere since professional positions like doctors and teachers pay $20 a month. A trained electrician cannot find enough work to make even that, so drives a BiciTaxi for tourists in Havana and makes $300 a month. They talked about cheap public transportation double-humped buses called camels pulled as trailers by semis. Packed so full that 50 or 60 people wait at a transit stop for bus after bus, each too full to take on more passengers.
They talked about their greatly subsidized housing and take us to their homes. Two, maybe three tiny rooms in buildings so deteriorated they would not look out of place in Beirut. Families living in rubble. Others, those with access to dollars from relatives in America or from the tourist economy, use that money to supplement their food rations and improve their apartments. White-washed walls, linoleum floors, glass in the louvered wooden windows. All are significant improvements. They are so pleased though to share their hospitality, serving us strong, sweet Cuban coffee. A glass of rum. A meal.
They talked about the watchers who live in every neighborhood. Everyone knows who they are. The government has given them cell phones. So when people talk of him, they do not say his name out loud and make their hand gesture discretely, with looks of frustration, disgust and anger. They do speak of Ché and Jose Marti. With love and passion and admiration. The revolution lives in their hearts through these two heroes. Even those born many years after Chés death.
As a child of the 60s it was easy to romanticize Cubas revolution. College friends going off to help cut the cane drew both my envy and my admiration. ¡Viva Fidel! ¡Cuba libre! But learning of the failure of that effort and the huge sacrifices made by thousands of Cuban men and women drafted to the fields makes that youthful fervor only naïve. Such naivete does not last in the face of todays reality. Life is hard in Cuba. Many who have jobs go to work every day knowing their wages will not support their families. Everyone is thinking about earning enough to buy the next days food. Every day. Those who hustle for the tourist economy, legitimately and more subtly, sometimes seem so mercenary. But by what right do I voice that opinion? Cuba makes you ask yourself this question.
I am the privileged. There to enjoy the beauty of the island, the warm spirit of the people, and the richness of Cubas culture. There to leave my dollars, I hope to enrich some lives in whatever small ways I can. Yet I complain about the high costs. I bargain in the markets. And I judge. My romanticism is replaced by sadness and a fatalism as to my place in Cuba.
They do not speak his name, so I will say it for them. Fidel, the revolution has not helped Cubas people. From the little I saw, it seems to have failed many of them in some very basic ways. People told us it had helped only those high up in the government. Only generals and colonels in the military. I dont mean to say that the revolution was wrong or unnecessary in the face of Batistas regime. But as appears to be true elsewhere, revolution has not served to make the lives of the people easier. Fidel, many of Cubas people are suffering. And they feel they cannot say your name out loud.
Dawn Smart, December 2000