One Family. Six Decades. Myriad Views of Fidel Castro’s Revolution.
By DAMIEN CAVE NOV. 27, 2016
HAVANA — When Fidel Castro rode victoriously into Havana on Jan. 8,
1959, Juan Montes Torre rushed into the streets to cheer. A poor,
uneducated laborer from the eastern countryside of Cuba, he had arrived
in the capital a few years earlier and, like most of his neighbors,
could hardly believe what was happening.
“It was an emotional shock,” Mr. Montes said. “These bearded men, poorly
dressed — they won! And on behalf of the lower classes!”
Mr. Montes, who was 25 at the time, stayed loyal to Mr. Castro, who died
on Friday, from that moment. The Castro revolution gave him an
education, a home, and a job as a police officer who sometimes guarded
the comandante himself.
But that allegiance slipped from generation to generation in Mr.
Montes’s family, and in Cuba as a whole. His son’s views darkened
decades ago, during tussles with the Castro government’s restrictions.
His teenage granddaughter, Rocio, has spent most of her youth feeling
glum about the conditions in her country.
“There are too many Cubans who get up every day and struggle and
struggle, and that’s it,” she said in an interview. “My dream is to leave.”
The Montes family’s story of faith and disillusion is common. Cuban
families have been arguing about Mr. Castro since he came to power. His
death has again produced an intense clash of emotions for many Cubans
who recognize that he was more than just a political figure. He was also
a brother, a father and a grandfather to various Cuban generations — a
familiar presence whose ideals, whims and ego shaped everyone’s identity
and daily life.
Whether they wanted him around or not, Fidel was there, with his
four-hour speeches, his billboards and the grandiose absolutes —
“Socialismo o muerte!” (“Socialism or death!”) — that helped produce
early triumphs in education and health care, along with restrictions on
speech and assembly and, later on, persistent economic failures.
His relationship to the country was remarkably personal. Robert A.
Pastor, a former Latin America adviser to President Jimmy Carter, used
to say that Mr. Castro was one of the few world leaders referred to by
just their first names. Many Cubans have grown comfortable with calling
him a complicated relative.
“You have to look at this in a very cool way — this is like the father
who has been there all the time that has taken the family through thick
and thin,” Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a former Cuban diplomat, said in an
interview on Saturday. “Maybe at times you don’t agree with him, but
most of the time you agree with what he has done.”
Yet Mr. Castro was not exactly a common loved one. He was also the
maximum leader — charismatic but quick to anger, a guerrilla whose name
Cubans were often afraid to utter. Because he ruled for decades, Mr.
Castro’s impact — and the perception of it — changed over time. Cubans
born before the revolution saw him as a transformative force for good or
ill. Those born later, especially after the Soviet Union started
collapsing in 1989, tend to view him as an obdurate barrier to economic
opportunity and to integration with the rest of the world.
In life, he was often an enigma; in death, for Cuban families like the
Monteses, he is a collage of competing images, from the inspiring young
rebel to the out-of-touch old man.
Mr. Montes first heard of the barbudos, or bearded rebels, when he was
picking coffee and fruit in the fields in Cuba’s eastern province of
Guantánamo. It was the early 1950s, and poor farmers in the area had
started banding together, revolting against wealthy landowners. Mr.
Castro was among many leaders said to be demanding better working
On July 26, 1953, Mr. Castro staged his first major attack, raiding the
Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba, now the country’s second-largest
city. Mr. Castro was caught, and he defended himself in court three
months later with a lengthy speech that included the line “History will
absolve me.” Mr. Montes had decided by then to move to Havana — and to
root for Mr. Castro and his guerrillas.
“There was a lot of injustice back then,” Mr. Montes said. “Coups,
crime. The government didn’t care at all for the people.”
Compared with its neighbors, Cuba was well off, with a per-capita income
in 1958 that was exceeded in Latin America by only Argentina and
Venezuela, according to United Nations statistics. But the Cuban economy
was essentially stuck in place, with yawning inequality. In rural areas
like those where Mr. Montes grew up, more than 90 percent of the homes
lacked electricity. In Havana, the streets were clogged with a mix of
shark-fin Cadillacs and ragtag beggars.
After taking power in 1959, Mr. Castro promised radical change. “We have
fought to give democracy and liberty to our people,” he said days after
his triumphant arrival in Havana. He delivered, Mr. Montes said. Over
the next few months, the Castro government announced plans for land
reform to grant property to the poor, taxes of 80 percent on expensive
cars and additional government spending to decrease unemployment.
In December that year, Mr. Montes was hired as a police officer. It was
his first steady job since his arrival in Havana and came with free
schooling, leading him from a fourth-grade education to a high school
diploma. The pride he felt at his rise into the middle class can be seen
in family pictures from that era, with his wife wearing new necklaces
beside her smiling husband. Even in his 80s, he speaks of his first few
years on the police force with the excitement of a new cadet.
“When someone committed a crime, we arrested them, but always with a
sense of justice,” he said. “We didn’t abuse anyone. It was a process
for everyone. It wasn’t just for the upper classes.”
From the outside, especially in Washington, Mr. Castro seemed to be
upending Cuba’s justice system, summarily executing opponents and
filling Cuban jails. Mr. Montes, however, said he had seen a police
force once viewed as a collection of corrupt thugs becoming
professional. From 1959 to 1962, Mr. Montes said, Cubans all over the
country were eager to serve Mr. Castro.
But there were enemies close by — mostly wealthier Cuban exiles who had
fled when Mr. Castro began nationalizing property. They had the support
of the United States, and when their attack came at the Bay of Pigs on
April 17, 1961, Mr. Montes was guarding the home of Celia Sánchez, a
famous guerrilla fighter and Mr. Castro’s longtime lover and confidante.
Around 4 a.m., Mr. Montes said, there was a flurry of activity inside.
Moments later Mr. Castro emerged, surrounded by armed escorts.
“He looked calm,” Mr. Montes said. “No one knew what was happening. No
one knew they attacked us.”
The Cuban missile crisis and the American trade embargo only
strengthened the siege mentality that Mr. Castro relied on for decades,
as he argued repeatedly that Cuba must remain under tight control lest
the northern imperialists invade and turn the island into an American
fief. In an interview in late 2012, Mr. Montes said he had never
questioned that assessment, even when he was with critics of Mr.
Castro’s authoritarian ways. In 1970, during the government’s effort to
harvest a record 10 million tons of sugar, Mr. Montes helped guard 300
political prisoners forced to cut sugar cane.
Mr. Montes said they had not seemed to be bad people. “But,” he said,
with what sounded like a touch of disappointment, “they were wrong.”
He said he had often felt the same way about relatives who at times were
critical of Mr. Castro, including some who had moved to the United
States. “The revolution is a process,” he said. Shifting in his seat, on
a flowered couch at his home in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana, he
looked toward his son’s house next door. “They don’t see things very
clearly,” he said. “They don’t realize that they have the greatest
opportunity in the world; they have the opportunity to study.”
He said he wished younger Cubans in his family could see the broader
context. “We were a poor, uneducated, humble family before the
revolution,” he said. “Then there was a change. It’s a radical change
that’s still maturing.”
The entrance to Juan Carlos’s home is covered in green vines with
bunches of bitter grapes. More than a decade ago, he ran a private
restaurant, or paladar, beneath the greenery. He also used to rent rooms
to tourists until he developed a new business in which he uses his newly
acquired Spanish passport to travel to Panama to buy clothes and other
items to sell in Havana.
He is a member of what might be called the “resolver” generation — those
who learned to resolve or negotiate their way around the shortages,
regulations and inefficiencies of Cuban socialism in its later stages.
If his father’s image of Mr. Castro and the revolution was shaped by the
changes of the 1950s or ’60s, his views have been sculpted by the
transition from the flush 1980s to the scavenging ’90s.
The shift was significant. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost a
patron that had provided around $4 billion a year in credits and
subsidies. The economy contracted by 34 percent from 1990 to 1993, with
chronic shortages of fuel, soap, food — just about everything.
Cuban officials acknowledged in 1990 that the country had entered a
“special period.” The implication was that Cuba would need to make some
exceptions to the norm. In 1993, Mr. Castro legalized the American
dollar and allowed Cubans to become self-employed in dozens of
industries, especially those serving tourists. Scholars still debate the
degree to which Cuba adopted capitalism in that period, but Juan Carlos
was one of many who took advantage.
He was 31 at the time and had already become frustrated with the way the
Castro government worked. In his 20s, he worked at Cuba’s customs
agency, as his father had after his tenure on the police force. What
Juan Carlos saw, he said, was an antidemocratic system that rewarded
silence instead of initiative.
He said his frustration peaked in the late 1980s when he was rebuffed by
Communist Party officials for gathering recommendations from colleagues
for improving the agency. He believed he was doing what socialism
revered: organizing workers.
“But the party guys,” he said, “they just told me: ‘That’s not right.
Here are the things we are going to talk about, and you, don’t stand up
Juan Carlos shook his head and laughed as if expressing a sentiment that
Cubans have long relied on to describe run-ins with the government: “No
es fácil” — it’s not easy.
He left his job just before the Soviet Union’s collapse. Over the next
few years, he found work in hotels. When Mr. Castro legalized small
restaurants, Juan Carlos decided to open one with his wife, but there
was a problem: He needed permission from the local Committee for the
Defense of the Revolution, the neighborhood party watchdog, and the
group had not met in years. So he nominated himself to lead the group
and got his neighbors to support his candidacy.
“I became the president so I could open the restaurant,” he said.
The Castro government was never far away, however. The 1990s led to
relative economic openness, but in fits and starts as Mr. Castro and his
brother Raúl, who took over presidential powers in 2006, limited change.
Businesses must stay small under laws that restrict how many employees
can be hired. Supplies must be bought from the government, and
crackdowns are common.
Even as relations with the United States have improved, peaking with
reopened embassies and President Obama’s visit this year, the economic
life of the island remains constricted by Cuba’s loyalty to central control.
“It’s like an accordion — they open a little, they close,” Juan Carlos
said. “But they never open it up all the way.”
Success, then, has tended to play favorites. Economic and racial
inequality, after improving in the early years of the revolution, has
gotten worse since the 1990s. Cubans with small businesses and more
lucrative jobs in tourism are typically lighter-skinned, with advantages
built up over time. Some have relatives in Miami. Others have
connections in government or, in the case of Juan Carlos, Spanish
ancestry and a home in Vedado with extra space.
He acknowledged that he had done relatively well through much hard work.
During one winter visit, he popped a tape into a VCR, showing his
daughter’s quinceañera — her 15th birthday party — at the Hotel
Nacional. The girl, Rocio, wore a light floor-length gown and thanked
her parents as the guests drank and danced. It looked like a small prom.
But for Juan Carlos, and especially for his daughter, one night of fun
is nowhere near enough to create contentment.
Rocio dreams of becoming an art historian. Tall and thin, she described
Cuba with the nuanced sophistication that comes from a good education
and plenty of time to think things through. In her eyes, Cuba is
purgatory, and even before he died, Mr. Castro was a specter of the
past, studied in textbooks more than seen.
“Fidel had an enormous vision,” she said.
And, yes, there a lot of things she said she loved about Mr. Castro’s
Cuba: the breezy liberty of the streets, crime-free and rarely snagged
with traffic; the emphasis on education and culture. She said she
sometimes feared that violence would return once Fidel and Raúl Castro
But mostly, as she has grown from adolescence to adulthood, she has
wanted to leave. Her older sister already lives in Spain. Her best
friend went to Miami for a vacation one summer and stayed, telling Rocio
about the crowded shopping malls and the impressive facilities at her
new school. Most of Rocio’s friends, she said, hope to get out of Cuba
as soon as they can.
“My generation, we’re not worried about politics or ideals,” she said.
“We just want to get out. Abroad you can achieve so much more. You can
be recognized for your work, internationally, by the world.”
Fidel Castro’s era of speeches, ideology and Cold War standoffs is not
what today’s ambitious young people want. Like many young Cubans, Rocio
mostly wants Cuba to catch up. Why is there no open and affordable
access to the internet? Why can’t she easily get on Facebook to say hi
to her sister in Barcelona? Why is it so hard to visit the Louvre, in
person or virtually?
“I think everyone has a right to get the information they want to think
and study,” she said.
She said that the American trade embargo clearly did not help, but that
most young people considered their own government responsible for
creating a society of limits.
“Fidel and Raúl started out with a good idea,” she said. “They just
didn’t achieve what they said they would achieve.”
She wants the same thing her grandfather and Fidel Castro wanted when
they were young: radical change and a fair shot at making a life for
herself on her terms. The changes of the past few years under Raúl
Castro, allowing more private enterprise and travel, offer some hope,
she said, “but it’s not changing at the pace it needs to.”
Fidel Castro is gone — “He was a man of the 20th century,” Mr. Montes
said in an interview on Saturday night — and his granddaughter has long
been ready to move on. “We don’t have time to wait,” she said.
Source: One Family. Six Decades. Myriad Views of Fidel Castro’s
Revolution. – The New York Times –