I decided to write this post because I found so many friends and acquaintances were confused about other people’s opinions on Fidel Castro after his death was reported. Many asked me why some people thought he was a hero or unjustly criticized.
Let me give you a brief history of the Cuban Revolution along with some insight into the lives of Cubans. While this piece is a doozy in length, it is also a very over simplified version of the real story. It is meant to explain the plight of the Cuban people and hopefully end a little bit of the ignorance over Fidel Castro and why he is so hated.
The Promise: La Revolución
I’m going to use Bernie Sanders as a theoretical example so that you can more easily personalize and visualize this story. I’m only using him because he is the most recent example I can recall of someone offering to take from the rich and give to the poor. Let me preface this by saying that I sincerely like Bernie and his dedication to helping others even if I may disagree with some of his politics. I believe he is a genuinely decent person.
So, let’s say Bernie promises to be Robin Hood, take from the rich and give to the poor. He promises free education, health care, housing, basically everything that the poor want and see as the rich having too much of. So he starts a revolution and recruits people who believe in him, mainly it’s the ideological university students who want to fix the injustices of the world and the poor, uneducated country folk who have little to no access to education, healthcare, etc. Many innocents are killed and the government is overthrown. Bernie is now the unelected leader and he begins to do as he promised.
Unfortunately, you who have worked your whole life to amass a home, some land and some wealth are his first target. So he takes everything, wipes out your bank account and puts you to live in a small apartment with 5 other families. Without your income, you and your wife and kids are all dependent on the small rations of food that the government will supply you while the people who supported his revolution are living on your land, in your home, driving your car and enjoying your hard work. You will probably flee with your family, as there is nothing left for you in your homeland. This was the first wave of exiles.
Later, when he runs out of wealthy people to take things from, Bernie hits the middle class and takes all of their stuff and finally, even the poor folks get everything taken away. You may not own anything, no food, business, car, home. Nothing unless the government decides that you may have it, and it can get taken away at any moment. So be sure to always kiss some government a$$ no matter what they do to you, your family or your friends. Or else you are next.
At this point, everyone is a have-not unless they are the newly appointed government officials who have no previous experience other than taking up arms and helping with the revolution. These people are now running EVERYTHING. They are in charge of agriculture and commerce and healthcare. Did I mention that they had ZERO experience other than aligning themselves with Castro? As you would expect, things stop working as smoothly as they would when run by qualified individuals with the incentives that capitalism brings them.
Needless to say, people, even the poor, are now all angry at the government who promised so much and delivered so little. So now, in order to keep power, Bernie decides to take your guns. He also starts to recruit “comite” or regular folks in every block who are secretly spying for the government. Anyone who is seen complaining or (stealing) trying to acquire food or any extra money is reported. Many people who disagree with the government disappear never to be heard from again. Families are torn apart, because everyone is throwing each other under the bus. There is now only fear and a struggle to try to feed your family without getting caught. You do not know who you can trust. It takes immense courage and a huge gamble to figure out who you can trust to talk about escaping. Some do it and others disappear because they trusted the wrong person, even a brother or sister.
Now let’s leave Bernie out of the story and let’s talk about some specifics and the daily realities of living under Castro’s regime.
Everything is FREE, Or is it?
The people need food, shelter and healthcare to survive. The government promises these things, even in their scarcity, in return for complete loyalty. Cubans do not worry about mortgages or rent payments, nor do they deal with debt or college tuition. That is because they are not allowed to own anything, so there is nothing to pay for. However, if you dissent in any way or express a difference of opinion with the Party, these basic human rights will be taken from you and your loved ones. Did I also mention you will be imprisoned and may possibly disappear? So as long as you can be a drone and keep any free thoughts to yourself, you are good to go.
Yes, education can be said to have been a triumph of the revolution. Everyone can now read and write and learn. However, since they are not free to use their new skills to form their own opinions about things like the ideologies of the regime, it is actually sad. Castro demands complete loyalty to the party and the Revolution with zero opportunity for variance in thought. Also, remember that your career path is contingent on your professed loyalty to the Party. There is no engineer, head of state or school principal that isn’t in bed with the Party.
There is a price for the free education, it’s the indoctrination of the children who are taught that they are the property of the state and not of their parents. I’m sure we would all love for our children’s teachers to tell them that.
One cannot just sit in a room full of friends or college buddies and discuss ideas, philosophy or psychology, because anything that contradicts the ideals of the Party is considered illegal.
In fact, most American literature or works that speak positively of other forms of thinking that do not align with the government are considered enemy propaganda and are very rare on the island. Get caught with it and you lose your rations or your kid loses their job or you go directly to jail. Do not pass go, do not collect your $200. Well, you get the drill.
The free healthcare deal is another example of Castro’s brilliant use of propaganda to dupe everyone into thinking his efforts are all about the people. You see, the healthcare is actually a 2-tier system where the hospitals that are available to regular Cubans are bare and have no medicines and very little sanitation. However, the hospitals available to government officials, tourists and foreign media are stocked with everything one could ask for. A Cuban who has cancer will be given the most archaic therapy you can imagine. It is reserved for the tourists with their American, Canadian and European dollars.
Thanks to the outsourcing of its doctors to other countries, most general practionioners are gone and the clinics and hospitals are totally under resourced. Those who have something to give, offer doctors “gifts” so that they will get preferential treatment, causing a large problem with theft, since hospital staff will steal medicines and supplies to supplement their meager income with “private” work.
News and Media:
I know we complain about how the media in the US is tremendously biased, and I certainly agree. You see, we have the more left leaning media like the CNNs and the right leaning like Fox News. We have media that is more Libertarian and that which aligns with the Green party. We have media outlets that focus solely on environmentalism. Any type of news is available to anyone who seeks it out.
In Cuba, there is ONE owner of media. All outlets are owned by and run by the government. All news is propaganda by the government and that is it. There is no New York Times editorial ripping apart our leaders or a Washington Post expose about someone. No one can criticize the government and journalists are encouraged (read forced) to praise the Party and criticize the Imperialist Yankees.
Nope, there isn’t any of that either. Castro made sure that the only God the people could worship was himself. Many churches were destroyed and are still being destroyed today. Think about it, isn’t a church a place where large groups can gather and possibly plan a revolution under the guise of religion? I’m telling you, the guy was brilliant in his absolute control of the people.
Th latest is Legal Decree 322 which was implemented in January 2015. This regulation gives the government the power to confiscate property and has been used to declare approximately 1,000 churches illegal. About 100 churches have been designated for forced closure and/or demolition.
Who Can You Trust?
In order to keep the system in place, Fidel created what I believe to be a brilliant, although evil, extensive system for community spying. Basically, the state knows everything about everyone, or at least that is what most Cubans feel. Their loyalty is being monitored at all times by secret informants on every block. These informants are your friends, family and neighbors. This enables the government to keep an eye on everything, and it is common for someone representing the government to come knocking on your door because you were reported to be selling or buying on the black market, which everyone does to survive. They could knock on your door because you were reported to be drinking too much or harboring anti communist ideas or gathering with too many people. After all, large gatherings could mean planning a coupe or revolt.
Crimes Against the Revolution
What are the official “crimes” against the Revolution that results in the people being thrown in a jail cell for months having never been officially charged? Check out these three highly vague crimes that are considered a threat to the Revolution. They are peligrosidad (dangerousness), desacato (definace) and propaganda enigma (enemy propaganda). There are so many others, like having livestock or fishing or running a business. Remember all livestock belongs to the government, the fish in the waters are theirs too. If you are brave enough to find resources to run a business in the black market, you are playing with fire. All forms of commerce are owned by the government. You get caught, you disappear.
As I stated before, it is generally illegal to own a business. However, seven years after Raul Castro took over 20% of the economy is now private due to slow reforms toward heavily controlled privatization that began in 2011. There are some cherry-picked industries, mostly travel related, that are permitted to be semi-privatized during times of desperate economic need.
Since Cuba needed to grow tourism, it was forced to admit its failure at running restaurants efficiently. In 2014 it was announced that it would sell nearly 9,000 state-owned restaurants to private operators. These would be restricted to 50 guests at a time and again, are heavily controlled to ensure that the owners do not acquire any “unnecessary” wealth.
Since these reforms have given Cubans the ability to make additional money over the $20 monthly state salary, many doctors, engineers and other higher level government employees have chosen to leave their public sector jobs to pursue remedial, entry-level work. Highly educated and skilled workers are now restaurant cooks, janitors, taxi drivers and waiters. These opportunities have given many Cuban’s a front row seat to watch millions of foreigners enjoy privileges they never could.
Cuba’s Greatest Export, Doctors
Cuba’s main source of hard currency is its export of healthcare which is built on a system of slave labor. Doctors are forbidden from leaving the country without permission, and when they are sent abroad to earn money for the island, their families must remain in the country as hostages so they don’t defect. The system where the country bills $7,000 per month for renting their doctors out to other countries and paying them a pittance of $25 to $40 per month is based on Marx’s theory of “surplus value”. This doctor slave trade represents approximately 8 billion dollars in hard cash for the island annually.
The embargo began in 1958 during the Batista regime as a weapons embargo. It was later expanded in 1960 after the revolution to prevent exports except food and medicine. In 1962 it was expanded again to include almost all imports. Despite the embargo’s existence, the US is the 5th largest exporter to Cuba representing 6.6% of the island’s imports. Even though the Regime calls it a bloqueo (blockade) there is no physical blockade by naval ships. Also, Cuba is free to trade with any other foreign countries, as they are not under the jurisdiction of US domestic laws.
The Regime uses the embargo as an excuse to the people of why things are scarce, even though they are free to trade with other countries. Even the soviets spent years helping Cuba before pulling out. The truth is that the government has mismanaged everything and uses the embargo as the scapegoat.
Why Don’t They Rise Up?
No guns dude. Castro took their guns after the revolution ensuring another counter revolution would not happen. Add to that the fact that you cannot congregate in large groups that are not government sanctioned like the Federation of Cuban Women. Basically, if you are caught meeting in a group you will be charged with illegal association.
The Party Faithful. Do They Exist?
But aren’t there people in Cuba who genuinely defend the party and its ideas you ask? Of course there are. If you are a poor farmer from the country and suddenly gain access to free education, food and health care even though it’s sadly lacking, you see it as a step up. If the Revolution gave you access to a position of power that you never could have attained in a free market and all you have to do is rat out some neighbors because you feel they are threatening you and your family’s opportunities, then it’s an easy trade-off for many.
If you want to be a doctor you know that you must be extremely faithful to the Party or the closest to a hospital you will ever get is as its janitor.
Then there are the folks who are happy with the fact that they do not have to work. They can scrape by with what the government gives them and spend the day playing dominoes.
There is also the knowledge by the Party faithful that if the Regime ends, all of the people who have been hurt by them, of which there are millions, will execute their revenge. The people who lost loved ones, food, jobs, freedoms are in the majority, even though they are too afraid to speak of it for fear of losing more.
Most people who appear to be Party faithful are pretending to do so. They do what they need to survive whether that be publicly condemning the US as imperialist pigs or reporting a co-worker for dissenting. Meanwhile in private they dream of escaping to the US with their families one day.
Wait, There’s More!
I left out so many things that it’s quite dizzying. The entire story requires a book, and there are several good ones that give you a more complete story. I also left out my own story and that of my family because I wanted to explain the Cuban experience as a whole.
Check out these links to learn more about Fidel Castro and his legacy of ruin. There is also a book titled Real Life in Castro’s Cuba that is a great read if you’re interested in a more detailed explanation.
- The Bay of Pigs Invasion: This is where the US trained and promised to supply military backup to a group of Cuban exiles in their attempt at an invasion of Cuba to overthrow Castro. Kennedy later backtracked while the invasion was in full swing and pulled back the US military’s support, leaving all of the Cuban exiles to be arrested, imprisoned and killed.
- The Cuban Missile Crisis: In response to the Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuba made a deal with the Soviet Union to supply missiles pointed at the US. The US established a military blockade to prevent further missiles from being sent to Cuba by the Soviets. It was the closes we ever came to an actual war during the cold war era.
- Fidel Castro’s Firing Squads:According to Babalu Blog Castro, “used firing squad executions to enforce discipline, punish followers deemed disloyal or intimidate potential opposition. At the beginning of the Castro regime there was a reign of terror typical of revolutions in which the firing squad was used prominently but the executions continued for decades.”
- The Cuban forced labor camps: Castro’s solution to homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, dissidents and anyone it deemed a drain on the government and society was to send them to brutal forced labor camps.
- Operation Pedro Pan: This was a mass exodus of over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors to the United States between 1960 and 1962. Father Bryan O. Walsh of the Catholic Welfare Bureau created the program to provide air transportation to the United States for Cuban children. It operated without publicity out of fear that it would be viewed as an anti-Castro political enterprise.
- The Mariel Boatlift: After tens of thousands of Cubans rushed into the embassies in the island begging for political asylum in 1980, Castro announced that anyone wishing to leave the island could leave as long as they had someone to pick them up. While Cuban exiles in Miami rushed to pick up their families, Castro also released the island’s criminals and the criminally insane from its prisons and mental health facilities to join the 125,000 Cubans fleeing the island.
- The 13 de Marzo Tugboat Sinking: On July 13, 1994, 37 men, women, and children were killed by government agents seven miles off the Cuban coast, as they sought to travel to freedom on board the “13 de Marzo” tugboat. The agents attacked them by ramming the boat causing it to sink, and spraying the victims with pressurized water jets, ripping children from their parents arms and into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Eleven of the victims were children. The only reason there were survivors was that the attackers spotted a Greek ship nearing the site.
- The 1996 shooting down of civilian aircraft from Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers To The Rescue): To quote the New York Times, “The Cuban Government made prophets of its most caustic critics Saturday by shooting two American civil aircraft out of the sky. There can be no justification for deliberately killing four civilians who posed no military threat to Cuba.”
Now that you’ve learned some of the specifics, I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions and feelings. Hit me with your comments, after all, we have the freedom to express them!