Fidel Castro died last Friday. Someone commented, “That’s a surprise. I thought he died years ago.”

President Obama issued a cleverly neutral statement on Castro’s death: “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.” An obvious attempt to walk a narrow line that would not damage his recent rapprochement with Cuba nor offend the million or more ex-Cubans in the US who escaped Castro’s dictatorship over the last half century.

Compared to the incredible outpouring of emotion when Thailand’s king recently died — literally hundreds of thousands crying in the streets — it’s clear Castro was hardly a totally beloved figure even among those Cubans that didn’t flee the island. As the NY Times reported from Havana, when the announcement was made late Friday night, and music abruptly stopped in the local nightspots, the young “spilled into the streets. No one was weeping.” Saturday morning in Havana, “indifference and relief stood side by side with sorrow and surprise.”

If dying in bed is the key benchmark of a successful dictator, however, Castro succeeded. But it’s hard to name any other positive accomplishments. 

Presumably, if you go back to Batista’s 1950s Cuba, where the gap between the rich and the poor was legendary, a Fidel-supporter could claim he leveled the playing field. Indeed so — by making everyone equally poor.

I visited Cuba once, in 2001, about the same time as our Supreme Court’s pick for president was being sworn in. Cuba was off-limits to Americans in those days, but we were escaping a few weeks of the Maine winter in the Bahamas, so three of us took a Cuban airlines flight from Nassau. The propeller-driven aircraft was similar to one on a Yemen airlines I had taken about 30 years earlier. The main difference was that on the Yemeni one, someone had smuggled a couple of baby goats aboard which at one point were running back and forth down the dirty aisle. On the Cuban flight, the aisle was blocked with enormous plastic-wrapped packages of food and supplies the passengers were taking to their families in Cuba.

A friend with us was using a cane, which the pilot obviously noticed, so an ambulance was waiting when the plane landed in Havana. We all scrambled in and the driver took off down the runway, drove back around to the parking lot in front of the departures area, got out, and told us to wait. By then he had negotiated to take us into town for $5. But after about 15 minutes under the hot Cuban sun in the back of a 50-year-old, un-air-conditioned ambulance, with no driver in sight, we crawled out the back, walked into the departures lounge and explained in our rusty Spanish to the confused Cuban passport officer that we were arriving not departing. We could just as easily have caught a taxi directly into town and avoided arrival procedures altogether.

I forgot to mention our cane-carrying friend was traveling alone because her husband, an ex-CIA Soviet specialist, had skipped the trip, concerned that Castro’s government might take a dim view of his visit. Fat chance: they would have been totally unaware.

 


The hotel we stayed in, the Nacional, the grand old hotel that was the social center of Havana in Hemingway’s time, had recently been renovated by a Spanish corporation. Its gleaming art deco facade added to our sense of confusion, as the Havana we had just driven through, its streets filled with ancient DeSotos, the paint peeling from its buildings, looked like the backdrop to a Depression Era movie. The contrast between the hotel and the rest of the city reminded me of a trip I had taken in 1960 from West Berlin into the eastern half.

The Cubans were very outgoing. Almost everyone had something to sell us. One man offered Cuban cigars, so we went back to his flat, two small rooms in what had once been a rambling one-family house, now shared by six families, the three-storied courtyard criss-crossed with drying laundry. He left us with his two small children and their grandmother while he went off to find his friend, the cigar-seller.  The box of good Cuban cigars cost about half of what they were at the airport duty-free shop. His friend apparently worked there.

Havana's shops were essentially bare. We happened to be there over a weekend, when a bunch of stalls are put up in the big square in front of Havana’s striking 18th-century cathedral. Local craftsmen were selling paintings, a few papier mache items, some crocheted table cloths and the like, nothing the locals could use.

The hotel had just gotten a couple of brand new Mercedes. Our driver seemed unusually plump compared to his compatriots, and when my wife commented on it, he said it was because he could eat a lot of pork, which other Cubans couldn’t afford: “because I gets lots of tips from tourists.”

I had visited Moscow and St. Petersburg some years earlier, Rangoon before that, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia in the late ’60s, but nothing was comparable to Cuba after 40 years of Fidel’s iron grip. It wasn’t just a Third World country; the whole scene was a step back into the 1930s.

Today, following Obama’s re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the Cuba under brother Raul’s control, some of the US sanctions have been lifted, and a little capitalism has seeped into Fidel’s Soviet-style communism. 

President-elect Trump has indicated he might re-impose some of the trade restrictions Obama has lifted. Tightening the screws on a country that has only recently, and only very slightly, begun to emerge from Fidel’s legacy would be downright stupid — an obvious nod to Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and to the permanently unforgiving older generation of Cuban-Americans, as well of course as to far-right Republicans. But it will hardly bring more or faster democracy to Cuba.

Coincidentally, this past Monday, two days after Castro’s death, American Airlines resumed direct daily flights from Miami to Havana for the first time in over half a century.  Steps like this, that expose Cuba, and Cubans, more directly to today’s world — and not a tighter embargo — are what will gradually bring it into the 21st century. 

“How do you keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” Sophie Tucker once sang about American farm boys exposed to Europe in World War I. But it’s valid for Cubans today. Fidel understood that very well. And Trump doesn’t?