Fidel and the Future

Political columnist James “Scotty” Reston once observed that Americans “will do anything for Latin America–except read about it.” So although the health of Castro and the future of Cuba have been much in the news, I’m still not sure that outside Miami, most Americans are paying any attention. Still, I thought I’d share some recollections of a trip to Cuba in 1999.

I was there as part of a U.S.-sanctioned visit of educators to Cuba. During that time, we had a chance to visit many Cuban schools and speak with (carefully vetted) teachers and administrators. We also heard more than our share of party officials. Here are a few observations:

1. Fidel is perhaps the best politician I have ever seen. Clearly, he’s needed great political skill to remain in power for so long. Case in point: There are no statues of Fidel in Cuba. Instead, the icon of the revolution is Che. It is his picture emblazoned eight stories high on a building near the central square where Fidel gives his address to the nation. So even after Fidel’s death, the hero of the revolution will “live” on.

2. In the end, the embargo hurts both Cuba and the U.S. I’m well aware of the human rights violations in Cuba, but there are certainly similar violations in countries like China, where we are only too happy to trade and do business. Shutting off all contact between the two countries allows the worst extremists in both countries to control what gets said.

3. Despite all their difficulties, Cubans retain a zest for life and a great sense of humor. This joke was a favorite among Cubans when we were there. A man dies and gets sent to hell. He is met at the entrance and offered his choice: imperialist American hell or Cuban socialist hell. What’s the difference, he asks? “In imperialist hell, you’re chopped up in little pieces, boiled in oil, then left to bake for a fiery eternity.” And in Cuban hell? “You’re chopped up in little pieces, boiled in oil, then left to bake for a fiery eternity.” In that case, says the man, the choice is easy. “I’ll choose the socialist hell. After all, in socialist hell, there may not be any oil … the cutting machine may be broken … the boiler may break down …”

5 thoughts on “Fidel and the Future”

  1. Wonderful beyond words. This trip is good or better, and this was one of the very best. I am still processing. Will post pics and reflections as I can formulate the words — and get help with the photos, of course :-)


  2. Where did you stay?

    I used to live in Miramar, a few miles outside Havana; and a few blocks from the beach.

    I was all set to go visit (haven’t been to Cuba since I left in ’61 as a child of nine) but wham, Bush said only folks with parents and siblings.

    I only have aunts and cousins.

    I often wonder how I would feel since my Spanish is that of a 9-year old. My cousin e-mails me (she teaches at the University of Havana and has e-mail privileges).

    I have to put through the Spanish translator for an easier read, even though I can speak without a foreign accent.

  3. We stayed at the Hotel Nacional — lovely and right on the beach. You have not had a mojito until you’ve had one there! On the trip with me was Dan Domenech, then superintendent of Fairfax County. He had not seen Cuba since he was ten. I must say he was mostly very sad to see how badly things had deteriorated.

  4. There have been extensive contacts between my church and the counterpart in Cuba, which used to be a subsidiary. I’ve always thought the best way to modify the revolutionary government in Cuba was through open contacts and full commercial exchange. The best educational level and health care accessibility are an embarrassment to the U.S. Certainly the human rights record is suspect, but we can’t boast. Guantonamo is better known to Cuba than to U.S. citizens. Cubans have a vivid memory of when the U.S. controlled it for the oligarchy. We could do better.

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