Long lived Fidel—for way too long

I won’t pretend to add anything to the torrent of obituaries marking the death of Fidel Castro, Maximum Leader Emeritus of Cuba, at age 90. For the definitive good-bye, read Anthony DePalma’s piece in today’s Times.

I can add some very personal reminiscences, though, because for nearly 58 years I’ve lived with Castro’s words and deeds echoing in my head, alongside the sound of my parents’ anguished and implacable rancor toward him which I could not comprehend until we all grew older.  

Indeed, during my long-haired college days, when I was taken by the lefty-ish, hashish-enhanced fervor gripping American college campuses, I pored through Ché Guevara’s rhapsodies about the new Socialist Man being fashioned out of the revolutionary clay in Cuba, and even some of Castro’s hours-long harangues, as if they were holy texts.

It was exciting, fantastic stuff, in retrospect a childlike naivete on my part fueled by a secret pride in how Castro had transformed our otherwise insignificant island of six million, known mostly for whores, booze and sunshine, into a volcano of worldwide revolutionary inspiration, or mayhem, from Bolivia to Angola. Everywhere I’ve ever visited, except Antarctica, I’ve found Ché Guevara tee shirts, posters and books celebrating some aspect of Cuba and its revolution. What other Latin American country can claim that? How many other Latin American dictators have received a front-page, twenty-one gun sendoff from the New York Times?

Fidel, during his prime poster days.

Sometime during the sixties I bought three large colorful propaganda posters commemorating Castro’s 1968 campaign to produce ten million tons of sugar, which ultimately was a disaster.  I reverently kept the posters as if they were precious mementos, and later had them framed, thinking they might be worth something someday.

For a while they hanged on one of the walls of our dining room in Chicago, as so much conversation pieces, until my mom came to visit. She didn’t say much except she insisted in sitting at the table with her back to the posters. The posters have long disappeared, worth nothing to me except that, ironically, her silent, pained reaction, and my thoughtlessness, helped me appreciate the impact Castro’s revolution had inflicted on my parents and on so many Cubans.

My parents left Cuba in 1965, three years after me, and after spending several months in Madrid, living on charity handouts at a shelter for refugees, joined me in New York. Except for the singular, and significant, achievement of sending me through college and graduate school, their life in New York was no Horatio Alger replay. Both in their mid-fifties, with no mastery of English or marketable skills, they survived on low-paying jobs, my dad for decades at a non-union printing shop that at age sixty-five sent him off to retirement with no more than a pat on the back and a Social Security check. My mom, a public school teacher in Cuba, only got as far as a working as an orderly at an old people’s home despite her ferocious determination to get herself ahead and me through college. Hers was a union job that at least provided a meager pension and some medical insurance until she died.

To my parents Castro was as an incendiary a subject as Donald Trump was at many Thanksgiving family dinners this week. I once found a crinkled picture of my mother shaking hands with Castro when he visited Santa Clara, except that after their love affair soured she had taken a pair of scissors and meticulously excised Castro from the picture, as if a tumor, leaving a photograph of herself shaking hands with a hole. As for my dad, I once asked him what he thought should be done in Cuba and he said, “Mi’jo (my son), the only solution is to go back there, machete in hand, and kill every communist in the island.” No room for detente or compromise in my dad’s world when it came to Castro.

For years I chuckled at my parent’s Cro Magnon politics but as we all got older, and I retired at fifty-seven, I learned to understand and appreciate how devastating it must have been for them at a similar midlife pivot to lose everything they had spent a lifetime building to the communist hurricane that ravaged the island. Just as they thought they’d had reached a modest level of middle-class comfort, including a baby blue 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air and my dad’s printing and stationery business in the somnolent provincial capital of Santa Clara, it all vanished overnight.

Dreams of my parents: A 1954 Chevy Bel Air 

Communists dying at the blade of my dad’s rage? I could finally comprehend.

Still, I’m awed too at the impact Castro and the Cuban revolution have had on the world, even though back home the island’s economy is still spinning its wheels in the muck of one failed socialist experiment after another. American visitors are now enthralled by the old American cars farting black smoke around Havana— in my living room I have a photo I took of a Havana-plated 1957 Chevy—but I wonder if the tourists grasp how indescribably depressing it must be for the classmates I left behind to find themselves living in a decrepit tourist curio shop after nearly sixty years of revolutionary privations.

I keep a shelf-full of books about Cuba, as a shrine of sorts, ranging from antique history tomes, early takes on the revolution, Andrés Oppenheimer’s spectacularly premature “Castro’s Final Hour“—published in 1992—plus memoirs and historical fiction mostly by Cubans in exile. Amid the books is a small pewter reproduction of the capitol building in Havana.

My favorite writer is Mirta Ojito, who for a while reported for the New York Times and wrote “Finding Mañana: A memoir of Cuban Exodus,” and more recently Richard Blanco, who read one of his poems at Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration and later on the occasion of the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana. In 2014 he published Prince of Los Cocuyos, a delightful memoir of growing up Cuban in Florida.

But by far my most memorable and tragic writer was Reinaldo Arenas, who dared to live an openly gay lifestyle in Cuba and defy the crush of government censorship and persecution. He left the island in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987 and committed suicide in New York at age 47. His stirring “Before Night Falls” memoir was turned into a movie starring Javier Bardem.

So the old man, the one Cubans once admiringly called El Caballo, or The Horse, to signify his outsize physical and personal presence, is finally dead, his body cremated instead of mummified like Lenin, Mao or Ho, to be venerated by the faithful at an imposing mausoleum. I expect many reverent memorials to be held around the world, including here in San Miguel de Allende, where a small cadre of faithful Marxists sponsor occasional tours of the island to marvel at Castro’s achievements.

I must confess a certain pride in all the talent, literary and otherwise, that has emerged from the small Caribbean island during the past sixty years. I’d even admit to a perverse admiration for Castro, who put Cuba on the world geopolitical map by defying the odds, the U.S., cut-offs of Soviet aid and innumerable other calamities that would have vanquished a lesser man.

Except any such admiration is quickly extinguished by the realization of how much destruction Castro’s megalomania brought to so many people in the island, most especially my parents.


6 thoughts on “Long lived Fidel—for way too long

  1. Great post Al….and a great '54 Chevy photo. It would also be great if Fidel's death would mean something for today's Cuba, but with Baby Brother still running the place, it's like “same song, second verse”.


  2. i wouldn't hold my breath. the best that can happen there, particularly with Trump in the WH, is a slow slide toward a Vietnamese-type deal of a communist government with a more or less free-market economy. I wouldn't mind that…al


  3. Good, I'll mention that next time we have a seance. Meanwhile, next time I see you I'll have my security people pat you down to be sure you're not carrying a machete or other sharp object. Say hello to Barco; what a weird name. al


  4. The instant I heard that Castro had died, I thought of you and the emotions that you must be experiencing. Thank you for taking timeto write such a profound post from your perspective. It means moreto me then all the gibberish on TV or anywhere else.


  5. The second coming of Castro,drumph,he may do worse things to the people who voted for him.But God only 4years,if he makes it that long.Just another Nixon,crook-liar Ronnie,where am I,Bushie,wars and crashing the economy,its history yall!Get educated#UNO,GLAD WE'RE IN MEXICO.ADIOS Estados not Unidos.


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