I meet Rafael in the Plaza Mayor of Trinidad. Sitting on a bench in the shade, toting a cowboy hat, a cigar hanging from his mouth, and a twinkle in his eye. He is Cuba personified.
Rafael is 74 years old. He belongs to the generation that sought revolution. Some day soon they will all be gone, the men who had the audacity to stand against tyranny and defy a superpower on an island in the Caribbean. Will my children ever meet a Cuban who lived through the revolution? I can’t be sure. In that moment, on that hot day in Trinidad, I had already made up my mind.
I had to talk to him. Him and I were sitting in that plaza at a strange and wonderful moment in history. My predecessors had never set foot on Cuba nor spoke with those who lived through the island’s tumultuous history, and my posterity will likely never have the chance to do the latter.
Obama opened the doors for us to have a conversation that day, but they wouldn’t be open forever. This is why I learned Spanish, right? I had to talk to him.
Our eyes meet from across the plaza. He surprises me by being the first to talk.
“Come and sit in the shade”
Behind wafting cigar smoke, a smile glazes over his face, revealing a grand set of dimples that punctuate his twinkling eyes. He slides over on his bench and beckons me over with welcoming hand motions.
As I leave my bench in the sun and enter Rafael’s shade, I step into the light.
He takes me through his life as a farmer, first as a landowner before the revolution, then working for the state after. He never saw battle nor joined the revolutionaries in any capacity, but he felt drawn to the movement and was happy when Fidel and Che took Havana. However, his affinity for communism was short lived.
As a private farmer he had a slew of freedoms that were lost when Castro’s regime took hold. The government provided the very basics, but nothing more. He was working twice as hard and earning less because he couldn’t sell his products independently anymore; most of his yield went to the collective. Production decreased when his horse died and he could not afford to replace it due to the rising prices of commodities post-revolution. Like most every Cuban, he became poor.
Rafael now lives in a tiny house up in the mountains surrounding Trinidad. Every day he makes the hourlong walk down to sell mangos in the streets. His pension does not fully cover the basic living needs of him and his 95 year-old mother, whom he takes care of. His shoes are tattered, he can’t afford new ones, and soon he is worried he will not be able to make the walk up and down the mountain to sell mangos and gather his limited government rations.
Rafael’s plights contrast starkly with those of the families I stay with in casas particulares, who seem happy and thriving and living with abundance. I tell him this.
Rafael gazes out at the magnificent, Spanish plaza. It is clean and well appointed. No one is sleeping on the pavement. No stray dogs digging through trash. No signs of poverty nor hardship.
“What you see is not the entire truth”
His words are reminiscent of Maria Elena’s, whom I met in the Che Guevara Museum of Havana.
“This is a difficult place to understand”
She says this to me on my second day in Havana, and I would come to realize it over and over again throughout my time in Cuba.
Maria Elena tells me about Che’s fascinating life and what he means to the Cuban people.
A polarizing figure, Che is both revered and reviled across the globe. Zounds of people worldwide adorn his face on their t-shirts and hats and bumper stickers, perhaps without knowing who he is or what he did. For it is not the man’s actions that have come to define him, rather it is what he stood for that has endured. The iconic image (you know the one I’m talking about) has come to represent rebellion and counter-cultural inclinations worldwide. You see it everywhere in Cuba.
Such images of the Argentine revolutionary are often accompanied by the phrase “Hasta la Victoria” (until the victory), a common saying during the revolution. Why is this mantra so ubiquitous to this day? Did the revolution not succeed so many decades ago? The phrase is as ambiguous and confounding as the life of Che himself.
As Maria Elena walks me through the museum, reeling off the accomplishments of the Argentine revolutionary, I can’t help but wonder if the Cuban people have simply chosen to forget the horrific acts of him and his comrades.
Communist hero. Anti-establishment icon. Revolutionary. Totalitarian. Murderer. For our purposes, the life and legacy of Che Guevara provide a perfect reference point to understand the current state of Cuba.
He has been lauded by some the world’s most revered and universally adored leaders, including Nelson Mandela:
“[Guevara is] an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom”
And yet his own words seem to condemn him for what he was.
“A revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.”
As Fidel Castro’s chief executor, Guevara reportedly killed thousands of dissenters, journalists, and Batista sympathizers who stood against the new regime. Such mass executions were carried out without trial or respect for justice. Cuba effectively became a police state with Che as its co-founder.
“Hasta la Victoria”. Is this the victory the revolution sought?
In Cienfuegos I talk up a forty-something man at a café. He is sharp, educated, and, unlike most Cubans, has been lucky enough to travel to other parts of the world. After more pleasantries I tell him I am looking for the real story of Cuba. He agrees to speak freely on the condition of anonymity.
He tells me, to this day, that people are arrested who speak badly of the Castros or Che Guevara. Dissent is still very much a crime, and free speech is severely limited. Their revolutionary heroes, the revolution itself, and communism, are all supposedly untouchable.
Okay, but what of all the good things I’ve seen done for the collective? Pristine highways, clean streets, education, healthcare, an absence of beggars and homelessness. Surely the revolution can claim victory on some of these fronts, no?
“This is all a lie”
The man frantically reels off reasons why the things I’ve seen and heard do not capture the real Cuba. The truth, I would discover, is that I had been staying in nice, well appointed houses on the tourist track, but these are not typical of the average Cuban. I had lived with and broken bread with families who go through a series of interviews to determine their dedication to the government’s “ideals”, and they do not (or cannot) share their honest opinions. I had walked through cities that have been tailor made to appease tourists and paint a picture that communism works for everyone, but I would not see the same in towns off the tourist track. The reason I hadn’t seen poverty or hardship is because it has been made to look that way.
He tells me that a dozen or more Cubans typically live in tiny, cramped apartments without adequate space or basic commodities like soap and toilet paper. That their pay, or stipend, is typically just $20-$40 a month, even for important government jobs like doctors and translators. Schools and hospitals are crowded, crumbling, and lackluster. Their “food cards” only get them small monthly portions of rice, bread, fruit, vegetables, and a few pieces of chicken the size of the palm of your hand. As Rafael spoke of, the government still just provides the very basics. Many are malnourished and die young; now I know why most everyone I see (outside of my well compensated hosts) is overly skinny.
I can practically see the steam rising off his head as we sit in that café sipping on rich coffee.
“Hasta la Victoria”. Is this the victory that Che would have wanted for Cuba?
After Cienfuegos I head for Santa Marta, where I visit a memorial and mausoleum where Che’s remains are housed.
Che was assassinated in 1967 in Bolivia, where he was attempting to lead another revolution. He died young; like Biggie and Tupac, the world never saw him grow old. His image has been preserved in time, and his legacy as a hero and martyr has endured to this day.
“Hasta la Victoria Siempre”. The words are etched under a towering statue of the Argentine. He stands upright, looking forward, toting a rifle, donning his iconic hat and thick beard.
“Until the victory, always”. Like Che’s iconic symbolism, the revolutionary phrase still persists. But what of it? What of Fidel Castro’s 56 year reign and that of his brother currently? When will that victory be realized?
In many ways, the words seem to serve as a propagandized method of preservation for Cuba’s “us against the world” attitude. By continuing to harp on the revolution’s mantras, the adoration for the Castro regime and the romanticization of Che Guevara will continue. This in effect is what stifles Cuba. Despite my initial impressions and what I saw on the tourist track, it is an island of vast poverty, lack of mobility, and rampant suppression, stuck (or forced to be stuck, rather) in the long since past revolution and its heroes.
I was lucky to have met men like Rafael, the man in the cafe in Cienfuegos, and Alejandro, who drove me to Varadero in a Ford Thunderbird. Through their words I learned of Cuba’s other side, the one that was carefully denied to my two eyes.
While driving along the Cuban coast, Alejandro told me that he did not cry when Fidel Castro died last year, that Cuba needs to move on and mobilize a new revolution. I now realize how necessary this is. Not a revolution of violence, but one of peaceful, yet radical, change.
On my last night in Cuba, back in Havana after traversing the island, I take a stroll through one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods and get propositioned by a woman to take her daughter and wed her.
Again, I ask, is this the victory that Fidel and Che fought so hard for? A society in which people resort to pawning off their posterity so they might have a better life?
When I got to Cuba, I set out to understand the island. I can surely say I understand more than I did before, but even after writing so much, there are still more questions I haven’t yet answered. I feel as though I was denied a chance to see the real Cuba, almost like I had gone through a North Korea-lite tour. Thankfully I met some candid men who told me like it is and helped me understand their plights a little more.
The Cuban people have so much to offer, they just need opportunity. Echoing the words of my new Cuban friends, opportunity, via a new revolution, is the only way to shake the aged “Until the Victory” mantra that has gripped Cuba for over half a century.
I hope to return to the island someday soon. Two weeks was simply not enough. I hope to return so that I might continue to understand this half century long, ongoing communist experiment that has endured at the doorstep of the world’s premier superpower. Understanding both the successes and struggles of Cuba’s one-party socialist state is paramount in looking ourselves in mirror and recognizing the pitfalls of our free market, consumerist society that has yielded similar poverty and hardship.
Indeed, to understand Cuba is to contend with what we as the western world needs to do to effectively govern ourselves, to create policy that draws from the best socialist and capitalist positions, one that constantly strives for progress while creating opportunities for all.
These are the most important things we can do with our time on this earth. Understand our neighbors, work to create a better system, and help our fellow man.
So on we go…until the victory, I suppose.