Monday, November 28, 2016

Hero or tyrant? The truth might be in between

As the evening wore on, and my friend’s mother became more emotional, I noticed the tears well up in her eyes.

She came over and hugged me. She said she wished we could stay the night, but that was impossible.

The Communist Party official down the road would already be suspicious about the taxi which had arrived a good four hours ago.                                                    
Maybe Fidel knew when it was time to go

He’d probably be wondering why two Irish guys had pulled up in a taxi so far out from the centre of town, in this nondescript street of all streets at this particular time.  
There would be too much trouble, she said. It was probably time to go.

It had been a beautiful, emotional evening. Her beloved son had become a good friend of mine back in Galway and it had been amazing to bring her a fist-full of dollars and some good news about her grandchildren so far from home.

We had hired a trusted taxi-driver to take us to the far-off suburb, because our Spanish was not strong enough for us to undertake a four hour conversation.

Plus, she needed to be careful. I had secured the driver’s number before I even left Ireland.

Her son’s name had been blackened in Cuba.

He had jumped off a plane at Shannon, while on a flight to Moscow, in order to build a new life for his young family. We were the first visitors from Galway, his new home, in the five years since he was granted political asylum. No wonder she hugged us so intently, that she didn’t want to let us go.

Later in the trip, I visited the museum which featured a photo of her late husband, a war hero at the Bay of Pigs. He had died so young, defending his beloved Cuba, in the aborted and ill-fated US invasion which followed the revolution in 1959.

It was 1999, 40 years after the revolution. I both loved Cuba and felt profoundly saddened by the experience of visiting this wonderful island nation, full of dancers, merriment, and laughter in the Caribbean sun.

I’m not at all an expert, but there were clearly good and bad points about the Government at the time.

"Two island nations in the same sea
of struggle and hope" - O'Reilly St
It’s impossible to generalise about a country after just a few weeks of travelling around, but my overwhelming feeling at the end of the trip was that most Cubans felt stifled – they wanted an escape or a whole new way of life for their country.

And yet they respected how their Government had stood up to the might and hostility of Uncle Sam.

In O’Reilly Street, in the heart of Old Havana, we delighted in discovering the plaque which commemorated how our two island people swam in the same sea of struggle and hope. The plaque was put up a few years earlier by a trade union activist from Galway.

What a wonderful plaque to stand under before downing a few rums in the nearby bar which used to be frequented by Ernest Hemingway.

Cuba was a fascinating place in 1999. It was clear that the people were extremely well educated and the health service was one of the best in the world.

But we kept getting upset by the little inconveniences which seemed to make life such a struggle for ordinary people.

Such as Paula, fluent in five languages, who worked at the telephone exchange. Introduced to us by a mutual friend from Mayo, she was a wonderful guide during our time in the capital city.

She brought us to her home, where we were struck by the poverty, but also the generosity and friendliness of her family. We were also struck by how much admiration her father, and the older generation in general, had for Fidel Castro and the revolution.

People of his generation remembered life before Castro and they used to argue like mad that life under Fidel was so much better than under the old Batista regime, when Cuba just seemed to be a playground for rich Americans.

On the night of Paula’s birthday, in old Havana, we offered to take her out to enjoy a night of traditional Cuban music. Paula’s night was ruined, and I could see the pain in her eyes, when she was pulled up by a policeman and accused of prostitution.

Hanging out with foreigners was frowned upon and, when I protested that she was our interpreter and friend, I was escorted politely and firmly across the road. She received a sanction just for walking down the street with two Irish guys.

A few months later, she received another sanction for hanging out with my sister and a gang of Irish girls. The harsh reprimand by the policeman left her in tears. Paula’s only dream was to escape the island, and she achieved that when she managed to make it to the USA some years later.

I remember the ‘dollar’ shops being full of supplies, while there was next to nothing in the Cuban stores.

The local currency seemed worthless and, quite a few times, we met teachers and academics who wanted to become taxi-drivers – because they’d have more access to dollars.
A beautiful beach near Trinidad, Cuba, in 1999

In Santiago, in the south, I remember a frenzied attack in a dark, crowded nightclub by people who considered us to be loaded just because we were foreigners and had enough money to travel. Compared to all the local clubbers, we were rich and privileged.

So it was easy to see why people condemned Cuba as a Communist dictatorship, where freedom of speech was frowned upon, in the 1990s.

But I was also struck by the fact that the extreme poverty so evident in other Latin American countries was not evident on the streets of Havana, Trinidad, Santa Clara, or Santiago. The glaring inequality I’d later see in places like the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, or Panama simply didn’t exist here.

There was great joy, too. A night out in a bar could become a wonderful celebration of music and the Cubans taught us Irish lads how to party. The live music was out of this world.

They might not have been free to travel, but they seemed to have great knowledge about the wider world and were very enlightening to talk to once they gained your confidence away from prying eyes on the streets.

But the oppression was stifling, too. Residents of Havana used to refer to policemen as “Palestinos”, because they came from rural provinces and therefore were a people without a home.

It was impossible for a local to travel from one end of the country to another without a special permit, which meant that we were far too aware of our own privilege as white foreigners touring their beautiful island by taxi and train.

I felt like a cheat when somebody showed me how to convert my dollars into pesos, enabling us to take advantage of even lower prices than the ‘normal’ tourists.

In Trinidad, it was disconcerting to be propositioned by beautiful young girls who were desperate for dollars. We could fool ourselves that they were interested in our Irish charms, but there was a palpable desperation for hard currency at that time.

Cubans loved rum, sex, and music but, while Americans were banned from travelling, we noted a thriving ‘sex tourism’ industry among Canadian men who had flown over for some winter sun.

This was just after the ‘special period’ when the collapse of the Soviet Union left Cuba vulnerable and impoverished.

A political mural in Santiago de Cuba, where Fidel's Funeral
is set to take place.
The US embargo was 40 years old at this stage and it was clear to us that it was having a huge negative impact on ordinary people, most of whom remained defiant in the face of US imperialism.

Florida, of course, was only 90 miles up the coast and the island was under intense scrutiny and pressure from the US Government at the time.

From speaking to ordinary people, it was clear that Fidel Castro was no hero to the younger generation. That status was reserved for Che Guevara, who wasn’t given the chance to grow old when he was executed by a US-backed death squad in Bolivia.

And yet we admired Fidel’s strength of character and resilience in the face of such hostility from his giant neighbour. A lot of people loved him, even if many of the younger ones could see no future on the island.

So this morning, listening to Senator Ronan Mullen, on the radio I was pretty sickened to hear the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, being condemned for sending condolences upon the death of Fidel Castro.

Let’s not forget that most of the hardship endured by the Cuban people was as a result of the US economic embargo.

Or that the biggest prison camp on the island, at Guantanamo Bay, was in a militarized zone controlled and run by the Americans.

Or that the CIA made over 600 attempts to murder a leader who had a huge popular mandate when he first came to power.

Amazing how the people who are so concerned about human rights in Cuba now had nothing to say when prisoners were being renditioned illegally through Shannon Airport for internment without trial at Guantanamo Bay.

Will the newspapers who screamed “Death of a tyrant” this weekend use the same language when George W. Bush and Tony Blair eventually depart this planet?

Because those two leaders caused far more hardship, and took far more innocent lives, than the man who led Cuba in the midst of such hostility for so many years.

My own personal – and extremely limited – experience of life under Fidel Castro was profoundly sad and yet it was clear that members of the older generation, in particular, had huge admiration for their leader.

Fidel was neither a demon nor a hero. The truth, of course, was somewhere in between.

But I don’t need to hear an Irish Senator, who has no real mandate from the people, tell me that the President of my own country has no right to mourn the passing of a man who stood up to US imperialism for almost 60 years.

Because of him, the crass consumerism so evident across poor Caribbean holiday destinations does not exist yet in Cuba.

The island has a rich cultural history and is all the better for the absence of McDonald's and Burger King on every street corner.

Without the US-led embargo, life would have been so much more tolerable for the wonderful people we met back in 1999.

In the wake of the Apple Tax fiasco and the use of Shannon Airport as a ‘warport’, perhaps he could even teach our leaders a thing or two about how a small island nation can stand up for itself when faced with a global superpower.

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland.

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