Before you read further, take a look at this luminous photograph of Cubans massed together in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.
The picture was taken Tuesday evening, when senior members of Cuba’s government were joined by foreign leaders to pay posthumous tribute to Fidel Castro, following his death last Friday night. The Cuban and foreign officials, seated in places of honor at the José Martí Memorial, are indistinguishable in this shot.
Commanding our attention instead are thousands of Cubans crowded into an image that is at once familiar but also different. The picture is a celebration by citizens who’ve come to their national square of their own accord. The Cubans who came alone or with friends, the families who assembled with their children, stayed long into the night as part of the first mobilization of the post-Fidel Castro era, as if inhabiting this very public space for the first time.
Poor Justin Trudeau. Canada’s Prime Minister, by issuing a statement expressing sorrow at former President Castro’s death, stepped way out of line. He was promptly denounced by Breitbart.com, which, enjoying its new role as an informal extension of U.S. state media, called him a “pretty little liar.” The Washington Post deployed its fact-checkers to challenge the Prime Minister’s tributes to Cuba’s systems of education and health. Others joined them, decrying Trudeau’s failure to toe the party’s line.
If Canada’s Prime Minister failed to read the memo on how to memorialize Fidel Castro’s passing, so did China’s President Xi Jinping. He visited Cuba’s embassy in Beijing on Thursday, and said in a statement that Castro was a “great friend of the Chinese people.” Pope Francis wrote President Raúl Castro and said “I express my sentiments of sorrow to Your Excellency and other family members of the deceased dignitary, as well as to the people of this beloved nation.” In Russia, more than 50,000 tweets were recorded on the subject of Fidel Castro’s death.
Many U.S. policymakers live in a black-and-white world, seeing Fidel Castro’s place in Cuba’s history, as President-elect Trump described it, as “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.” But that is ironic, to say the least.
At the end of a campaign marked by so many people saying to themselves that they didn’t see Donald Trump coming, it might do him and all of us good to step beyond our carefully curated bubbles and spend a moment listening to what a broader audience of interested parties – especially Cubans on the island and in the diaspora – is saying about the late president of Cuba and Cuba’s future.
Yes, it’s true, as the Miami Herald reported, that news of Fidel Castro’s demise caused thousands of Cuban Americans to dance, sing, and honk their car horns to celebrate his death. It’s true, as the Associated Press wrote, that “as Cuba silently bid farewell to Castro’s ashes Wednesday, an ice cream shop in Miami’s Little Havana district was selling ‘go to Hell Fidel,’ a mix of chocolate with red peppers.”
But there were also shades of grey.
As Michelle González Maldonado, a scholar of religion at the University of Miami, wrote, “when I heard the news of Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s death, I did not feel any sense of sadness, relief or joy. Instead, as a daughter of Cuban exiles, I experienced a mix of all those emotions.”
Achy Obejas, the celebrated Cuban writer who lives in the U.S., wrote in the New York Times about her cousins in Miami heading to the streets to chant for a free Cuba; about an ex-girlfriend who grew up in Cuba and who stated “I feel nothing.” And about her father, who loathed Fidel Castro but identified with him because of how “Fidel had outsmarted so many American presidents, and how Fidel had cunningly dodged all those assassination attempts.”
In Cuba, the mourning for Castro, the New York Times reported, “reached near-religious peaks of public adulation.” Some of the mourners, holding his picture, flowers, and the Cuban flag, were part of the older generation that is the backbone of support for the revolution. But Tim Padgett interviewed a young woman who didn’t quite fit that mold.
Marianela Pérez, he wrote, “is an independent Cuban entrepreneur who owns Pizzanella, a popular paladar, or private restaurant, in Havana’s Playa district. So why would a model capitalist like her mourn the passing of Fidel Castro, whose dictatorial communist rule railed against free enterprise?” “I’m one of many people who thank the Cuban Revolution for the education and other benefits that prepared me to run a business,” Pérez told Padgett. “I don’t consider that a contradiction.”
Reuters tells the story of Roberto, a 29-year-old engineer who earns $25 a month and only gets by on his state salary by doing odd jobs. “We´d like to have more freedoms, to be able to surf the internet, to have better wages. But there are values stemming from the revolution that no-one wants to lose, like free health and education.”
Nick Miroff of The Washington Post wandered El Romerillo after Fidel Castro’s death, and reported on the Cubans who lived in what he called “the socialist slums of Fidel Castro’s Cuba,” where there are no gangs or guns, and virtually no drugs. “Cubans have a special term for this sort of cradled existence,” he wrote: ‘tranquilidad social,’ which means something like ‘social peace’ but also law and order, a rare thing in a region with some of the highest crime rates in the world.”
When President-elect Trump tweeted this week, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the US as a whole, I will terminate (the) deal,” these were the voices we heard, and wondered – who is he actually speaking for?
Not Deymar Rodríguez, a 24-year-old schoolteacher, who told the Wall Street Journal, “If Obama’s promises are stopped, it would hurt us a lot. They gave us hope that we could travel, have jobs that pay decent wages and lead a better life.”
Not Elaine Díaz, who wrote in The Guardian this week of the two points that get general agreement among the vast majority of Cubans: “the U.S. should return Guantánamo to Cuba and the embargo must be lifted.”
Not the great many Cubans, as Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker, “Who are not communists but who are proud nationalists, and who, whatever their feelings about Fidel or his brother, will take umbrage at Trump’s casual antagonisms.”
We write these things because they need to be recorded and remembered. Admittedly, they are subtleties, and perhaps they have no place in the 140-character world we all seem to be about to enter.
In the days before his inauguration, we hope the new president – before acting to implement his Cuba policy – will look at that picture of Revolutionary Square. He as much as anyone should be able to appreciate the possibilities that reside in people occupying public spaces as if for the first time, as the Cuban people, in all their complexity, gather and ponder their future.
This week, in Cuba news…
World reacts to death of Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro, Cuba’s former president, died Friday evening, November 25th at age 90. In the week since his passing, Cubans, world leaders, the diaspora community, policymakers, advocates, and journalists have reflected on his life and career, on what his death may mean for Cuba and for U.S.-Cuba relations as the inauguration of Donald J. Trump draws near.
Earlier this week, memorial services took place at Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution, with foreign Heads of Government including Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and South Africa in attendance and delivering remarks. Speaking last on the program, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro said his brother “dedicated his whole life to solidarity … with the poor. And for the poor he became a symbol of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist fight, for the emancipation and dignity of the people.”
On Wednesday, a caravan bearing Fidel Castro’s ashes left Havana en route to Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, retracing the revolutionaries’ path to the capital in 1959. As the caravan made its way across the country, many came out to see it pass (additional photos here). The Associated Press provides photos of reactions in Havana, where the public response on the whole was understated as the national nine-day mourning period began, according to reports. In contrast, many Cuban Americans in Miami responded to the news of Castro’s death with a late-night celebration in the streets, and parades and demonstrations in the following days. (The Miami Herald compiled photos from Friday evening.)
President Obama offered condolences and released a statement emphasizing the importance of continuing U.S.-Cuba engagement, and saying, “the Cuban people must know that they have a friend and partner in the United States of America.” Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Havana, and Ben Rhodes, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, will represent the U.S. at the funeral, which will take place December 3.
In Cuba and abroad, Cubans shared reactions to the death of Fidel of Castro in interviews with international press, on social media, and online publications.
Cuban economist Dr. Pavel Vidal Alejandro examined Fidel Castro’s economic legacy, which he describes as one of “disproportions,” between social achievements like education, and economic and social indicators like foreign investment and supply of hard currency and basic goods, and an aging demographic.
Roberto Veiga, director of Cuba Posible, an independent project of Cuban intellectuals on and off the island, told the New York Times that Fidel Castro’s death “will have an emotional impact. It will have a political impact. But it won’t have any impact on how the country is governed. It’s a long time since Fidel was in the presidency. Raúl Castro has been leading the country for years. He has a team. There’s stability.” In contrast, Enrique López Oliva, a retired Church historian, said, “it feels like a new phase is about to begin.” He added, “Now Raúl will feel more free. The process of change will undoubtedly accelerate.”
Cuban journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez, an editor and writer for independent online publication Revista El Estornudo, reflected on “The abyss between Fidel and Castro” in the New York Times, and writes, “Now, everyone will bury the Fidel Castro they feel they should bury and that they want to bury.”
Speaking with the New York Times, 51-year-old Graciela Martínez, who works at a café near the U.S. Embassy, said, “For those who loved him, he was the greatest. For those who hated him, there was no one worse.” Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a 46-year-old pro-revolution blogger and gay activist, said, “With his death, you feel that your own life is spread before you.” Miguel Fernández, 56, said that Fidel Castro’s death “closes one chapter and starts another. But it won’t bring about anything substantial. He’s been out of the picture for a while.”
The New York Times’ Damien Cave spoke with three generations of a Cuban family in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood.
To read the statement of Sarah Stephens, CDA’s executive director, please click here.
In our Recommended Reading section, you’ll find a roundup of pieces from the week offering a variety of perspectives on Fidel Castro and his passing.
After tweeting “Fidel Castro is dead!” President-elect Donald Trump released a statement Saturday and then tweeted again Monday indicating his plans for Cuba policy: “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.” EFE reports on Trump’s increasing support from Miami’s pro-embargo hardliner groups, while Politico quotes a Republican Congressional aide who said Saturday that the course of U.S. engagement with Cuba needs to change: “The dialogue needs to be: These are our terms, take it or leave it.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio said Tuesday, “We’re going to re-examine everything the president has done, and figure out what’s the right thing to do,” The Hill reports.
Separately, Spanish news outlet ABC reported Thursday that according to Miguel Fluxà, head of Spanish hotel chain Iberostar, Trump investigated the possibility of opening hotels in Cuba as recently as six months ago. At that point, Trump still held that President Obama’s policy toward Cuba was “fine.” The Trump transition team and the Trump Organization did not respond to the Miami Herald’s request for comment; nor did Jason Greenblatt, the Trump Organization’s Executive Vice President and chief legal officer, who, according to the Miami Herald, was one of several Trump Organization representatives invited to the Havana International Trade Fair this October (he also visited Cuba late 2012 or early 2013 looking at options for golf courses on the island, according to Bloomberg Businessweek’s July report).
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Obama administration is encouraging Cuba’s government to reach business deals with General Electric and Google, with announcements related to each expected in the coming weeks. Three U.S. cruise lines also hope to announce agreements with Cuba’s government to begin service to Cuba, including Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Royal Caribbean Cruises, and Pearl Seas Cruises. A spokesperson for GE told the Wall Street Journal, “we continue to talk to Cuba and we’re in the middle of negotiations.”
The first direct U.S. commercial flights to Havana began this week, with Delta making its first trip to the island in 55 years. American Airlines announced that beginning mid-February it would reduce its number of daily flights to Cuba from 13 to 10 and would switch out the planes on two routes for smaller aircrafts, due to insufficient demand, reports Bloomberg. The Miami Herald reported in October that American Airlines’ flights to Cuba were “often less than half full.” A spokesperson for American Airlines said that the carrier had decided to make cuts before the election and that the move is not a response to President-elect Trump’s threats to roll back regulatory changes facilitating travel and trade.
After Fidel, Peter Kornbluh, The Nation
Writing for the forthcoming edition of The Nation magazine, Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, looks at this “delicate stage” in U.S.-Cuba relations in the context of the last six decades of U.S.-Cuba relations and notes that since Fidel Castro’s death, “the statements that Trump and his advisors have made signal a far more ominous approach to Cuba,” and that “any hope of a low-profile and low-rhetoric transition period with the new administration has been lost.”
On Fidel’s Death, Cuba and Puerto Rico, Two Paths Intertwined, Luisita López Torregrosa, NBC News
Luisita López Torregrosa examines Puerto Ricans’ relationship with Fidel Castro and his legacy: “This relationship between Puerto Ricans and Cubans was palpable with Fidel’s death, touching off memories and bone-deep emotions on both sides. Nothing had passed into memory, nothing had faded, and it was all there in full force this weekend.”
How Cubans See Fidel Castro and His Revolution Is Tied to How They See Themselves, Andrés S. Pertierra, The Nation
“It shouldn’t be a surprise…that Cubans still beam with pride when they talk about the ‘triumphs of the revolution’ – education, healthcare, literacy, sports, culture, international humanitarian missions… – even though many of these achievements have been allowed to crumble due to lack of funding,” writes Andrés Pertierra. “They still smile when they recount the times that Fidel outsmarted the yanquis and thumbed his nose at them from across the Florida Strait.”
Fidel Castro, 1926–2016, Greg Grandin, The Nation
Greg Grandin, Professor of History at New York University, discusses Fidel Castro’s life, career, relations with ten U.S. presidents, and how U.S.-Cuba relations even before 1959 shaped his politics and worldview. “There are many other arguments to be had about Castro and the Cuban Revolution,” writes Grandin, “about the relationship of political to social rights, about whether, considering the fate of other social democratic experiments in Latin America—in Guatemala, for example, or Chile—the Cuban Revolution would have survived had Castro not shut down civil society, and if that survival was worth it.”
Trump Could Give Cuba $8 billion Interest-Free Loan, Sarah Stephens, Huffington Post
If President-elect Trump dismantles the progress made thus far in U.S.-Cuba relations, outstanding certified claims amounting to as much as $8 million could effectively languish as “the equivalent of an interest-free loan to the Cuban government,” writes Sarah Stephens, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas. “That’s not anyone’s definition of a better deal,” nor is it business-friendly, she points out.
Trump’s election threatens medical cooperation between U.S. and Cuba, Rob Waters, STAT
Rob Waters discusses potential the avenues of U.S.-Cuba medical collaboration, and the critical medical advances already in progress that the Trump administration could put a stop to by rolling back President Obama’s regulatory changes.
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