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In one of the most famous tangos of all time, Carlos Gardel sang about “returning, with the withered forehead; the snows of time, silvering one’s temple.” When it comes to the Cuban Revolution, which has just turned 50, very few people can actually return to those distant days of 1959. Save perhaps the Castro brothers and a meagre number of his septuagenarian ruling elite, we have all been told or have read about Cuba and its revolutionary experience. Regardless of whether we love or loathe them, we must conceive of those memories critically, for they speak as much about Cuba as they do about us.
If something is certain about the revolutionaries that overthrew the pharaonic regime of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba 50 years ago, it is that they managed to change the world—and that they have lasted. Armed more with romantic idealists than ammunition, including men of the calibre of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the guerrilla movement led by Fidel Castro slowly but steadily challenged Batista’s rule in the late 1950s, promising an end to the dismal inequality and extreme poverty in Cuba. Following their victory, the revolutionaries became symbols of an enduring resistance against America and its values less than 100 miles from U.S. soil. Fidel Castro and his regime have since outlasted 10 U.S. presidents, the fall of the Soviet Union, Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms in China, and both the civil rights movement in America and the election of the first African-American president. Despite history, it seems, Cuba marches on.
But what marches on in Cuba and who marches on with Cuba?
Revolutionary propaganda notwithstanding, the failure of the revolution in Cuba is, at this point, obvious. A dictatorship subservient to the U.S. was replaced by one momentarily subservient to the Soviet Union, and consistently subservient to itself. In a move reminiscent of monarchical succession, Fidel Castro gave up power to none other than his brother Raúl two years ago. Despite the deleterious effects of the economic blockade on the island in place since John F. Kennedy’s administration, the regime’s economic decisions have not created tangible benefits beyond healthcare and literacy. Poverty remains widespread, education limited, and free speech censored; barges still head from Havana to Miami, not the other way around. After the 1990s reforms, Cuba has a dual economy where those who cannot access currency convertible into U.S. dollars cannot afford basic necessities. As a result, incentives are so perverted that one can see women with Ph.Ds driving 1960s vintage cabs in Havana because that is the only way to afford toothpaste and shampoo.
Moreover, those leaders in Latin America who cite Cuba as their inspiration seem only to be moved by a similar sense of hypocrisy. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is a case in point. In honor of the 50th anniversary some days ago, he pledged to fly the Cuban flag forever, next to the mausoleum of Simón Bolívar, a key independence fighter of the 1810s. He said: “Cuba is part of this nation, of this union.” But in truth, Chávez’s regime is rooted in his desire to perpetuate his own unchecked power to the detriment of democratic institutions. Bolivan President Evo Morales, meanwhile, declared his “respect…and admiration for Fidel,” at a time when La Paz’s crackdown on political opposition and his economic policies are isolating his country from most foreign markets. Perhaps most tragically, the terrorists of the Colombian FARCs speak of equality, but fund their devious state-within-a-state through cocaine rather than communitarianism.
At the official celebration in Havana on January 1, Raúl Castro warned that, “outside forces cannot destroy the Cuban Revolution.” In a way, he is right: Aggressive but ineffective moves by the U.S. and its allies in the last 50 years, including the blockade, assassination attempts against Castro, and the Bay of Pigs, have only strengthened the autocratic regime. But Castro neglected to mention that there is nothing left to be destroyed but false memories. The Cuban Revolution was destroyed long ago by men like Fidel and Raúl Castro, men who took up the bastion of worthy ideals like education, enlightenment, and opportunities for all only to betray them for their own personal interest. As they became what they most hated, their socialism showed symptoms of the worst kind of individualistic and corrupted ethos. And those around the region who choose to remember a tragic revolution in positive light share a similar duplicity.
When asked in an interview about the greatest revolutionary force, Che Guevara said: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” Killed in battle, Guevara never got the withered forehead or silvered temple Gardel sang about. But perhaps he was lucky to go, for he was spared the sight of the utmost lack of love his brothers-in-arms, and those who still adulate them, have come to show the world. What marches on in Cuba is thus little more than apocryphal memories in support of hypocrisy.
Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a former Crimson associate editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears regularly.
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