Paradoxically, the long awaited death of Fidel Castro came unexpectedly. He retired from office in 2008 due to his weak health condition, but his body proved resilient. This year in April the 90-year-old attended the Cuban Communist Party Congress.
There were no news when his condition worsened. The death of Fidel Castro was dropped like a bomb.
I had been partying that night. “Fidel Castro is dead,” a friend told me in the midst of disco lights. Castro was the furthest thing from my mind.
In the darkness, I frantically dived into my bag looking for answers. The screen of my phone was full with messages from my Cuban family and my friends from everywhere asking me how I was feeling.
“Fidel died,” read the first message without further comment. It was my mom on my family’s WhatsApp group chat.
“The fear is such that most Cubans are not even talking about it on Facebook. Only a crazy woman posted that he is a beast and a monster,” my aunt wrote. “I also share my opinion… but on this private group chat.”
I called my mom at once. She tried to remain neutral in her reaction, still a little afraid of the consequences of her words. She had suffered from the Cuban’s government’s political repression in her youth. She lives in Mexico now, but has never forgotten.
Cubans started to post on Facebook. Many of the exiles who have become American residents have no remaining family or connections to Cuba. For them, giving their opinion was not an issue. A friend of my mom posted a comment. She pointed out Castro’s executions of the former president Batista’s supporters in the 1950s and the mass political imprisonment and displacement of thousands of Cubans that followed after the revolution. These actions are those subsequently called human rights violations by the US government.
“Castro led us to misery and the decadency of the Cuban people. He gave us ‘healthcare’ without resources and ‘education’ with indoctrination,” read the post.
“I don’t dare to click like” my mom told me about it, “but that is how I feel.”
Many Cuban exiles who still have family or property on the island, or who have interest in going back when ‘things change,’ like my mom, do not dare to publicly post their opinion.
Since Castro’s death, I have felt torn when friends ask me what I think. I grew up in Mexico as the daughter of a Cuban mother, surrounded by my Cuban relatives. As a child, Cuba was a country I only knew through my family’s whispered criticisms of the government, their joyful memories of their youth, and my short visits to see my grandmother. My perspective changed when I grew older and lived there.
From my time in Cuba I remember that my grandmother, who was a doctor, had to write medical notes to excuse my friends from going to school, so they could stay home and play with me. It surprised me that they could not skip class like I sometimes did in Mexico. Not even for one day.
I also remember Castro was always a looming presence. I was in Cuba when he fell sick years ago. I was 11 years old and heard people speculating on whether he would die or not. Some even said he had died already and authorities were keeping it secret.
As a child, every time I went I heard Cubans, even my little friends, complaining about the country. They would show their admiration for me and my sister who were yumas (foreigners) and were able to visit places in the world and experience things they only saw on T.V or heard about. They were curious about other countries and showed a deep desire to leave their own.
“I wish I could leave Cuba” my friends on the island said.
“I really want to go to Cuba” my friends from Mexico said, many self-declared communists who read Castro’s books.
Every time I visited Cuba with my mom I guiltily experienced the best of both worlds. I had a tourist experience (that differently from Cubans, I could afford) and a grassroots Cuban experience (that differently from foreigners, I had access to). I would stay in Puente Nuevo, a neighborhood in the outskirts of Havana, where I was surrounded by neighbors, family friends and my grandmother before she passed away.
When my Mexican friends eventually did come to Cuba, my sister and I provided them with that experience, leaving them convinced Cuba was a great country. They liked how nice and approachable people were. They witnessed and even experienced some hardships, but did not see the poverty that is so present in Mexico. They saw Cubans who were fed, clothed, educated and had access to free medical services. Unlike Mexico, socioeconomic divides were not obvious to us.
I, like my friends, thought I understood Cuban reality and regardless of all the criticism from my family, somehow admired it.
And then I fell in love with a Cuban.
I was doing my undergraduate degree in Amsterdam and because he could not leave Cuba, I would take every opportunity to go see him. I did an internship, participated on a community project and spent every single holiday for two years in Cuba. When I graduated in 2015 I moved to Havana for five months to get my Cuban citizenship. During that time I evolved, both legally and culturally as a Cuban: I left with a Cuban passport and was able to overcome the daily challenges Cubans experience. I moved to an apartment with my boyfriend and even adopted a dog.
Wi-fi was emerging in Cuba when I arrived, but that only meant I could access the internet in public spaces, often crowed and with poor, if any, connection. I would sometimes have to go back to the wi-fi spot three times the same day to send an e-mail. When I did my daily grocery shopping I would often encounter there were no eggs to make breakfast, no detergent to wash our clothes, or no oil to cook. I would then walk under the sun, sometimes for over an hour, going from one market to the other to find what we needed for the day. I learned how to cook for my dog, as every Cuban I know does because dog food is hard to find and expensive.
Sometimes cooking rice, potatoes and meat for a growing Belgian shepherd, finding and cooking food for ourselves or solving a problem (like a flat tire or a broken water pipe), would take us the whole day. Sometimes there would be no running water, for reasons beyond my understanding, so we had to move temporarily to other houses for a couple of days. There were days the elevator would break down and we had to walk up 17 flights. Every step I wondered how my elderly neighbors did it.
My boyfriend had the immense privilege to own a car he had inherited from his dad, who worked for the government. He started to work as a driver for a pimp and his ‘girlfriend’. The pimp was an evil looking guy nicknamed El Negro. He had slightly dark skin, a pointy nose and characteristically uplifted eyebrows. Despite his looks and his ‘job’, he had a very sweet personality. I remember the first time he came to our apartment for a visit I gave him a nutella-banana sandwich. He was exceptionally grateful for the chocolaty spread I had brought from Mexico, something he had never tasted before. From then on, I would prepare one for him avery time he visited. Maybe because of this reason, he and his girlfriend really liked me. I would sometimes go with my boyfriend when he drove them.
In one of those rides the girlfriend bragged about how a couple of nights back a client from Mexico had given her a brand new iPhone and 600 dollars. All she had to do was dance.
“I didn’t even have to go to bed with him” she said proudly.
Her boyfriend was overly excited about this as well. The episode had apparently boosted her confidence and she wanted to go back to the club to find more clients, even though it was around 2 am and she was coming back from a jugada, (a move), as they would call her encounters with men. El Negro was not very happy with her idea.
“I don’t care what you say Negro, I am going,” she said with conviction.
She did not go.
I knew from my boyfriend that she always gave him the money she earned. To me, it seemed like by going against his orders, she was trying to find a way to emancipate herself. She wanted to earn the money the way she wanted, even if by the end of the night she had none of it in her possession.
In Cuba the monthly average salary is 23 dollars. Even if you have the money, finding some things, like an iPhone, isn’t easy. Getting 600 dollars and an iPhone in one night gives an unmeasurable power that many women (and men) strive for more than anything in life. Not only prostitutes and pimps but most people I know in Cuba are obsessed with material things out of their reach, things they would often know about from their tourist friends, who were like a window to a world they knew they could not explore.
Days after, I was sitting at my balcony with a friend from Mexico, enjoying the breeze and discussing politics. I was sharing my thoughts about scarcity in the country and what it leads Cubans to do and believe. He was one of those friends fascinated with the island. During his stay he had interviewed every Cuban he could, using his go-pro camera for a documentary project he was working on. He said he wanted to better comprehend the country he admired so much.
He was trying to explain to me how I was wrong on questioning whether what the revolution had achieved was worthy.
He nodded and said that in Cuba every person can find someone that they love to form a family, have a roof to sleep under and food to eat. Every Cuban can be confident that their children will receive an education and will never die because they don’t have enough money to pay for medical services. This is something that certainly cannot be said for most countries, including Mexico and the United States.
“What is more important in life than that?” he asked.
“Certainly not an iPhone” I thought.