By Victoria Herring
On November 25th, two cities just 90 miles away from each other experienced a radically different array of emotions. In Havana, the streets were silent; some people wept and others retreated into their dark houses. In Miami, shouts erupted from the Cuban community and people paraded through the streets with banners and music, waving both Cuba and American flags in jubilation. Cuba had just announced the death of Fidel Castro, aged 90. The country established a nine-day period of mourning for the deceased leader and shut down concerts, nightclubs, and public performances. University students at the school where Fidel himself had studied law seventy years earlier laid flowers and photos at his monument. His death has brought up many different sentiments, as 51 year old Graciela Martinez, whose father fought in the revolution and whose relatives escaped to the US, said: “For those who loved him, he was the greatest…for those who hated him, there was no one worse.”
Many in the “free world,” as capitalist and democratic countries call themselves, have trouble understanding why those in Cuba are saddened by Castro’s death. However, those Cubans were raised under Castro’s leadership and grew to respect and revere him. He inspired the zeal of the revolution and created important health care and education reforms on the island. As a young Cuban woman stated, “The Cuban people are feeling sad because of the loss of our commander in chief Fidel Castro Ruz, and we wish him, wherever he is, that he is blessed, and us Cubans love him.” As a people, Cubans are proud of their country, for they are a vibrant and adaptable people with an uncanny openness and a strong sense of community. Undoubtedly, all Cubans are in the process of reconciling many feelings, as Castro was the catalyst for many who escaped the country, the communist structure of Cuba, and the indefinite split among many families, many who never saw their loved ones again after leaving Cuba. A quote from another Cuban living in Miami expresses yet another powerful emotion, one of hope and of the disillusionment Castro later incited, “It’s a moment that we’ve been waiting for 55 years. We’re free at last. The man that caused so much suffering, so much people to be sad in my country … has passed away.”
It will be difficult to assess if there are similar sentiments on the island, as social media and wireless access is significantly restricted and all of the news available to outsiders comes from Cuban government sources, as the country has the most restrictive laws on freedom of the press in the Americas. According to citizens of the country who escaped to the U.S., Castro’s death means the end of an era. Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother who has governed Cuba for the past eight years, is 85 years old. There is no other individual officially lined up to take over power, leading many to believe that the time has come for a new Cuban generation. While it is uncertain as to whether the world will see a democratic uprising or another Castro hardliner, the future of Cuba will be the subject of many political debates in the coming months.
Castro was much more than the chief commander of the Cuban revolution; he was and will continue to be a legendary figure, romantic inspiration, and even remarkable survivor – authorities report there were six hundred attempts on his life. He lived to see a historical reestablishment of diplomacy between Cuba and the United States under the Obama administration; many Americans who remember the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis – where Russia, Cuba, and the United States narrowly avoided nuclear war – regarded the island nation as a threat to democracy. Geopolitics required that the U.S. exercise great caution with its close neighbor, and Castro fiercely defied the United States and its embargo on his small and financially struggling country as relations frayed in the 1960s. Over the decades, the embargo proved to be counterproductive: Cubans began blaming the United States for their economic hardships and Latin American countries criticized the U.S. for isolating the island. At the memorial for Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013, Obama and Raul shook hands. The international community pondered whether this symbolic greeting had any meaning for the two nations, it was heralded as “the second handshake between leaders of the two countries in the past half-century.” The action proved to be indicative of change, for Obama became the first U.S. president in 88 years to touch down on the island and meet with leaders. Soon thereafter, relations began to normalize, and certain travel and financial restrictions were weakened; just last week, Southwest and United Airlines announced regular commercial flights to Havana. Congress continues to disagree with the president, however, and debate concerning the lifting of the embargo continues.
In order to gain an idea of what the future of Cuba looks like, one must understand how Fidel has influenced Raul’s leadership in the country for the past eight years. Political analysts speculate as to whether the younger brother held back social and economic reforms for fear of opposition by Fidel; the original commander of the revolution had reportedly kept the Communist Party from carrying out major reforms at the party’s conference just last year. Yet, as he retreated from the public eye due to serious illness, Raul countered the three principles of “Fidelism” – paternalism, idealism, and egalitarianism – with new reforms. He replaced his brother’s established military leaders with his own trusted ones, opened a minuscule space for small businesses, introduced performance-based salary increments and reduced state welfare distribution. After these small measures, Enrique López Oliva, a retired church historian in Cuba, expects an accelerated rate of change with the death of Fidel.
In the timeline of U.S.-Cuban relations, a wild card emerges: the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. He has spoken of reinstating economic sanctions on Cuba if he does not obtain more concessions from its government, calling Castro a “brutal dictator.” and thus opposing Obama’s words of reconciliation after the death of Fidel: “(we pursue) a future in which the relationship between our two countries is defined not by our differences but by the many things that we share as neighbors and friends.” The collapse of Cuba’s longtime ally, the Soviet Union, along with the removal of financial assistance from ailing Venezuela, has created an uncertain stage with a speculating audience. As the next few months unfold, the world will watch with tremendous interest.