RockOrange managing principal Miguel Piedra was coincidentally in Cuba visiting family this weekend when news broke that Fidel Castro had died at the age of 90. A Miami native whose parents both fled Castro’s Cuba before he was born, Miguel spoke with Cubans on the island about what the dictator’s death might mean, and authored this dispatch from Havana.
HAVANA — For most of my life, stories of Cuba, as told to me by my grandfather, existed in a singular context: “Cuando Fidel se muera”(“When Fidel dies”.)
Fidel Castro, the revolutionary-turned-dictatorial tyrant, was a dark, defining figure for the million-plus families who fled Cuba after his rise to power in 1959. My family, including my grandfather, was among them. For those living in exile, there was a sustained hope held for a time when Fidel, a brutal dictator who persecuted his own people and enriched himself along the way, would shuffle off this mortal coil.
Friday night that time came, and by pure coincidence I was in Cuba visiting relatives along with my parents — both exiles of Castro’s revolution — as well as my wife and two children.
Unlike many who have made their way to the island in recent months as relations have begun to normalize with the U.S., this was not my first time here. As a young journalist, I visited Cuba in 1998 to cover then-Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the island. It was the first time a Pope had visited the country since Castro’s revolution. The stories I heard and told there came to define me in many ways — a child of exiles, a new visitor to a place that felt faintly like home. Clearly it had a profound effect, because I’ve had the privilege to return several times since, most notably as part of the U.S. Delegation for the opening of the U.S. embassy in July 2015. Although I left my reporting career behind years ago, I once again found myself occupying the role of journalist last weekend, talking to everyday Cubans who shared their beleaguered indifference. Who can blame them? They’ve seen so much.
Cuba has changed dramatically in the 18 years since my first visit, to be sure, but is it primed for the kind of change so many are expecting now — especially considering our own incoming administration’s stated stance?
The day after Fidel’s death, quiet resignation and emotion wafted over the island. Glimpses of international and U.S. news sources were scarce on the island Saturday, but of the few images that pervaded I saw the packed streets of my hometown, Miami, engaged in jubilation, triumph and excitement. Many Cubans, like my grandfather, had waited decades for this moment, and many more believe Castro’s death could mark a new beginning for a post-Fidel Cuba.
But in Havana, signs of jubilation, triumph and excitement were not immediately visible. There were no overt acts of celebration, protest or mourning. Instead, the iconic street square there was eerily still, devoid of the foot traffic normally found on a Saturday afternoon. On the typically bustling streets of the capital city, you would be hard-pressed to find one of the diesel-burning automotive relics of pre-Castro Cuba that usually pack this place. There were few people walking the streets of the city’s famed boulevards and parks, which over the past year have become hubs of social activity thanks to Wi-Fi connectivity.
On state-run television, the tributes dominated coverage. Interviews with Castro’s friends, national historians and top ranking members of the Revolutionary Party ran around the clock. On Saturday morning, a university professor was interviewed on the state-run broadcast after spending the night working with his students to monitor media coverage of Castro’s death. He said, “Fidel is our hero. His death reinforces our commitment to fighting for the Cuba he dreamed of, the Cuba we all dreamed of.”
That sentiment is at odds with the common Cubans who were willing to speak about the historic news Saturday. None shared the viewpoint of an idyllic Cuba born of the revolution. Instead, there was a palpable indifference.
“We’ve been expecting this for over a decade,” a middle-aged female tour guide said. She, like others in this story, would not go on the record. “For almost 10 years [Fidel’s] been out of the public eye, so for us it’s always been a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’. In fact, for years, we always joked that he was probably already dead.”
For others, there is a feeling that they have already been living in a post-Fidel Cuba, at the same time speculating that having left so large a mark on the island, there may never actually be a post-Fidel Cuba.
“For us, nothing really changes,” said a 52-year old baker who was visiting the capital city from the western provinces. “It’s more of the same. We continue to struggle, but find ways to keep going to do what we need to do. Last night’s news changes nothing for most of us who are struggling.”
Martica, a 56-year-old housekeeper, said, “Nothing is going to happen. We’ve known [his death] was going to happen for a long time.”
An independent business-owner, who did not want to give her name, and is part of Cuba’s new, slowly growing private-enterprise economy, said she was not interested in signing the late leader’s condolence’s book on display at Revolution Plaza. “It’s hypocrisy,” she said, echoing the sentiment of many. “He never really loved this country, because if he did, he wouldn’t have spent the past five decades destroying it.”
Meanwhile in Havana, as the afternoon turned to early evening, not a single person walked Quinta Avenida, and Calle 70, like most streets, remained empty. Along the rows of embassies that dot the area, many foreign flags remained flown at full mast — Spain, Argentina and Russia were three notable exceptions.
As the day winds down, I am brought back to a moment Saturday morning, as the news sunk in, my mother clung to a battery-powered radio, in tears and shaking uncontrollably. After reassuring her that, no, the airport would not shut down, and, no, we would not be stopped from flying home safely, she paused for a moment before saying, “That is not why I’m crying. I’m crying because I left this country a few days after my 15th birthday, and ever since that day I have prayed for this day to come. Tomorrow I will celebrate my 65th birthday, and this day has finally come. Almost 50 years to the exact day, and I get to see this here in Cuba? This is too much for me to even comprehend.”
Frankly, the emotion was almost too much for me. As I reflect on my time on the island seeing a Pope visit, a relationship thaw, and a dictator die, I’m filled with something that, to call hope, would be an oversimplification. It’s tenuous, a mixture of dread and cautious optimism, tinged with that loose feeling you get when you wake up from a falling dream only to find you’re still in a falling dream. Where there is death, there is usually resolution — but not in this case. I realize the dichotomy of sadness and joy in my mother’s trembling voice is born of this contradiction. Good or bad, anything could happen in Cuba tomorrow.
And that’s when I realize the ambivalence and trepidation is a symptom of a half-century-plus dictatorship. It’s a natural reaction to change in the face of friends and family disappearing and your very thoughts being monitored. It’s because that’s how these people must live. That’s what it means to be a Cuban now.