Cuba:Looking back to move forward

People gather outside the Cuban embassy in Santiago the day after Cuba’s historic revolutionary leader Fidel Castro died aged 90. Photo: AFP

Following Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro's death on November 25, numerous columns and articles have been written about his achievements and failures. It is, therefore, logical for readers to be weary of another article on "Fidel" (as the Cubans affectionately call him). Let me clarify that this column is about my impressions and observations of the Cuban people based on a recent visit to the country. But, any piece on Cuba would be incomplete without paying tribute to Castro -- the man who shaped the country's destiny for nearly six decades. His death, however, invoked extreme and intense reactions -- from deep sorrow and veneration to jubilation. The sharp dichotomy is understandable given that Castro ousted the corrupt Batista regime with its connections to the American mafia and other vested interests. In its place, he established a communist state aimed at equalising Cuban economic life and putting an end to social divisions. As in most revolutionary situations, changes came at a high cost: the leftist regime cracked down on opponents, seized private businesses and homes and monopolised the media.

The post-revolution political and economic system of Cuba might have its limitations, but it is essentially designed to ensure that people do not starve and are housed and transported at minimal cost. In addition, Cubans have access to free education and world-class medical care – not just for home use, but exported to many African and Latin American countries. The Western media continues to highlight Cuba's human rights abuses. But what it often fails to mention is that despite economic hardships resulting from US sanctions and post-Soviet austerity, Cuba has managed to prevail in terms of social indicators. Life expectancy and child mortality rates in Cuba still compare favourably with those in the vastly richer US.

Fidel ceded power to his brother Raul in 2006 but remained a towering presence in the background. With his exit, it is expected that significant reforms and changes will be introduced. While experts speculate on the speed and direction of future changes in Cuba, I would like to share some impressions about the Cuban people and society based on my personal experiences and observations.

What struck me most was that class divisions are more or less non-existent. One notices an absence of extreme opulence or extreme poverty in favour of a generalised level of well-being which could be described as "enough to get by"! Overall, people seem to share a camaraderie that transcends the barriers of income, colour, gender and social strata. Most Cubans I interacted with displayed a sense of professionalism -- whether it was the artist selling her paintings or the driver/guide who took us around the island. They conducted themselves with dignity even when receiving a tip or negotiating prices.

I observed that despite years of economic deprivation, Cubans seem to be filled with joie de vivre. They also have a natural proclivity toward music and art. Groups of happy people sing and dance in the parks and street corners and the markets are filled with local art, which has its unique stamp and style. My favourite memory is that of an elderly couple (probably in their sixties) dancing away to the rhythm of a street band with joyful abandon. For me, their swinging motions and graceful movements symbolised the Cuban spirit: bent but not broken!

Surprisingly, I did not see Fidel's portraits or statues in public places: unlike in Middle Eastern dictatorships or even South Asian democracies. And now we have learned that Castro left instructions that streets or public buildings should not be named after him!

It would be remiss of me not to mention the indelible mark that a visit to Ernest Hemingway's home (turned into a museum) in Finca La Vigia left on me. The local people fondly remember him as "papa" who loved to sail and hunt and shared his life with ordinary folks. Reportedly, Hemingway left the island reluctantly under immense official pressures from the US government. Thus, in preserving Hemingway's memories and possessions, Cubans seem to be making a bold statement: that their affection and admiration for the author transcend ideological and political differences.

 Some of you may be wondering if, in the course of my trip, someone gave me a special drink of "Mojito" that has induced uncritical support of the Cuban regime! The truth is, it's not the regime, but the human qualities of the people that have earned my deep respect and admiration. Qualities that I do not always detect in wealthy, ambitious people on this side of the ideological divide. I can't think of better words to define them than dignity and nobility resulting from a tremendous sense of pride in their Cuban identity.

Not surprisingly, I also got a sense that Cuba is ready for change. Its citizens, especially the younger generation, want greater freedom of expression and better living standards. But as the country moves toward economic liberalisation, the question is what compromises will it make in terms of its political system. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara played leading roles in re-building the Cuban society. But the collective will and sacrifices of the people have greatly contributed toward making Cuba an egalitarian society. And I doubt they are willing to reinstate economic and social inequities in their lives.

 In his farewell speech to the Communist Party, Fidel Castro said: "Our turn comes to us all, but the ideas of Cuban communism will endure." Will it indeed? We must wait and see.


The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.


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