From Castro’s Cuba to Trumplandia

A visit to Cuba, coinciding with the death of Fidel Castro and the victory of Donald Trump, puts into perspective the achievements and shortcomings of both societies. Português Español

Teofilo F. Ruiz
18 December 2016

Javier Galeano AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Returning to the United States from Cuba (where I was born many decades ago) the day after Fidel Castro’s death, I could not help but reflect upon the temporal coincidence between the passing of Fidel, a towering historical figure, and the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. I am a historian of late medieval and early modern Iberia and the western Mediterranean; thus these comments do not claim the expertise of a historian of Cuba or the United States. These are personal reflections that I have attempted to place in some historical context.

My wife and I were in Cuba for over two weeks, one of which was spent in La Habana, mostly walking the city’s non-tourist neighborhoods. For those who have long criticized the Revolution and Fidel’s leadership, there was much to note and much to support their criticism. Even though conditions are better now than when we visited four years ago and the care of La Habana’s historic center is much improved, many buildings throughout the city are decrepit and on the verge of collapse. Sidewalks and roadways are often crumbling. There are shortages of essential goods such as toilet paper, shampoo, tomatoes, and the like (though not for tourists and foreigners). The public transportation system is practically non-existent; to get around most Cubans depend on cabs of ancient vintage, the colectivos, which stop at street corners and pick up multiple passengers, depending on their destination.

Many humble Cubans voiced their complaints openly and forcefully. Although no one engaged in overt criticism of the government, many told us of their desire to leave. Quite a few (young men) inquired whether we knew a nice girl they could meet, by which they meant a nice foreigner who would fall in love with them and take them off the island. These were not intellectuals, dissenters, bloggers, or artists, but common people.

We also witnessed, far more than we did four years ago, the impact of Cuba’s accelerating parallel economies on its revolutionary ideal of an egalitarian society. There still is one economy for those connected to the tourist trade--not only hotel staff, restaurant workers, and small shopkeepers but also elite artists and performers-- who have access to its special currency (paired with the dollar, the euro, etc.) and are prospering; and a second economy for those functioning within the national, depressed currency, with few jobs and little benefit from the flow of tourists into the country. These people seldom prosper, and they bear the brunt of the shortages and the dilapidated neighborhoods. Thus, a great deal of the country's egalitarianism is being undermined by the government's own decision to run two economies and by the desire of many Cubans to venture into capitalist enterprise to make a better life for themselves and their families. If we were to judge Fidel Castro’s accomplishments and his place in history solely on these points, his legacy would not be praiseworthy. But Cuba is a society of contradictions, a puzzling island that must be experienced as a whole.

We saw and experienced all of the things I have detailed above, but in my walks, in my wife’s photographic expeditions throughout the city, we also saw and experienced other things. We saw (either by ourselves or with the group we led for half of our trip) a Cuba where education and culture remain an enduring priority. Most children are in school, dressed in color-coded uniforms to identify their grades and ages. Their uniforms, which flood the streets with these colors, are subsidized by the government, as are their textbooks.

We saw a Cuba where health services, childcare, and other signs of an advanced society are available at no cost to most of the population. The mortality rate is equal to that of the US; their infant mortality is much lower. The literacy rate is the highest in the continent. We also saw a Cuba where music (from a baroque concert performed in an early-modern church to an a capella group in a provincial city to renditions of traditional Afro-Cuban music, hip-hop, reggaton, and jazz) is ever-present in the streets, and not just for tourists.

We saw a Cuba where film festivals, art galleries, and other cultural venues are to be found in the most diverse parts of the city. In the neighborhood where we were staying, one of the local cinemas on the Calzada de Infanta (not a tourist destination) was showing a two-week cycle of Ettore Scola’s films. We wonder whether Mr. Trump has ever heard of Ettore Scola or seen a single one of his films.

And this is not just my usual snobbery, to which I confess freely, but also the reality of a revolutionary Cuban culture that has not turned its back to the world. By the way, the admission price to see one of the movies was the equivalent of seven US cents.

We saw a Cuba where there are no homeless people, no obvious drug addicts, where children play in total freedom in the streets without parents worrying constantly about their safety. We saw a Cuba where, as humble as these allotments are, everyone is guaranteed a minimum income and a minimum ration of food. We sometimes ate where the Cubans eat -- a steak sandwich and a beer – for 1 CUC and ten cents or a little bit over a dollar. And it was very tasty indeed. But these are material things that every advanced society is in theory expected to provide for its citizens.  To give just one example: Scandinavian societies, the most advanced social systems in the world, provide social services while, unlike Cuba, guaranteeing economic prosperity, modernity and the well-being of all of its citizens. There are shortcomings, great shortcomings, in Cuba. After all, these social programs cannot obscure the willful destruction of Cuba’s economy or its tightly-controlled, autocratic political system and society.

But what truly impressed us, what we saw vividly in the streets of La Habana and other cities throughout the island, was the extraordinary vitality of the Cuban people, their joie de vivre, even while complaining about the shortages; their banter, the sounds of street vendors in La Habana, the music everywhere. What truly impressed us was their unique sense of self; the obvious pride in their culture, in their country, in themselves. It was evident in a poor woman who sold me a steak sandwich, refused my tip, and instead paid for my beer. It was clear in a blind man selling peanuts on a bus and truck stop in Las Tunas, who insisted on selling his merchandise rather than accepting help and who could talk about literature and art in ways that are not common elsewhere. What truly impressed us was the many Cubans who showed a deep belief in their ability to resist and to survive.

A song we heard in Santiago de Cuba captured that well-developed sense of Cuban identity. It reminded me painfully of what I have lost. The song stated: “If I could choose where to be born again, I would choose Cuba.” Fidel Castro’s greatest contribution to the making of a Cuban nation was to instill in most of its citizens -- through education, propaganda, and the extolling of Cuba’s great successes in the arts, music and sports -- a sense of the uniqueness of the revolutionary island and its people. I remember as a young student in the mid-1950s, under the execrable Batista regime, how drunken US sailors rampaged through La Habana, urinating on the sculpture of Jose Marti in the central square. I remember our sense of outrage and impotence. For those who wish to rewrite the history of pre-Castro Cuba through rose-tinted lenses, I also remember the children, mostly black and hungry, with distended bellies and parasites a mere ten kilometers from the casinos and brothels of the city. Today, blacks and whites and all range of skin tones in between go to school together, sing together, dance together, and marry each other.

                                                           ….  ||  ….

And then we returned to Trumplandia. We returned to be confronted with the dubious moral compass and intellectual shortcomings of a narcissistic, vindictive, and ignorant man who will be the most powerful person in the world for the next four years. What hurts in reading or listening to the news (something that I have sworn not to do anymore but rather read Jane Austen) is Trump's and his followers’ Orwellian use of language. If repeated enough times, falsehoods become truths. What hurts is the lack of compassion and dignity. What hurts is Mr. Trump’s profound and ostentatious vulgarity and that of many of his followers, unbearable surrogates gloating about their victory.

What hurts is returning and seeing Cuban Americans in Miami, celebrating the passing of Fidel in the streets. Of course, many of them “heroically” fought against the revolution in the sandy stretches of South Beach, in the Versailles restaurant, and in the McDonalds and Burger Kings that dot Miami. It is understandable that they would wish to celebrate the death of someone who died peacefully in his bed, whose revolution has continued fairly unaltered since his retirement, and whose survival they have contributed to with endless remittances.

I feel a profound sorrow for President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Their tenure in the White House was marked by extraordinary grace and dignity, and by an unyielding desire to create an inclusive society. Their elegance will be sorely missed. I am also profoundly sorry for Hillary Clinton, perhaps the best qualified person, despite her faults, to ever run for the presidency of the United States. In the end, her gender, Wiki-leaks, the FBI director’s inappropriate letter shortly before the election, and the continuous demonizing of her actions proved too much to overcome. I am old and it does not much matter for my future, but I fear for my grandchildren, for all those who live in this great country. If Cuba is not the answer, surely some of the things that we saw there could serve as a model for making the United States a more egalitarian society, one in which gun violence, misogyny, anti-immigrant discourse, homophobia, and racial hatred are not the guidelines for organizing its citizens and creating a just social order.

At the end of his famous speech after the attack of the Moncada army base in 1953, Fidel Castro stated: “History will absolve me.” I do not know whether history will absolve him, but he will certainly be remembered as one of the most significant and influential figures of the second half of the twentieth century. Ruling a small island in the Caribbean with around six million people when he came to power, Fidel remade Cuban society and influenced the course of the world. He remains an inspirational figure in many African countries, many parts of Latin America and, yes, even in Cuba, where we witnessed the sorrow of many after his death was announced. As to Mr. Donald Trump, his history is still to be written. For the sake of the country and the world, let us hope that it will not be a sad history, that it will not be a history that consumes the world. But from what we have seen so far (his cabinet nominations, for one), I do not think that history will absolve him at all.

La Habana and Los Angeles, 2016  

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