At the entrance to Havana’s Museo de Bellas Artes I spot (and surreptitiously photograph) an unusual portrait of Fidel Castro. “Fidel,” as he is universally called, is depicted as the white-bearded octogenarian he is today, in a distinctly civilian shirt.
The furrowed face is that of a patriarch, in three-quarter profile, hands clasped contemplatively below the chin. The expression is both philosophical and sternly judgmental. I hand over to you the revolution I have made, it says to his countrymen. We have traveled its road together, but what happens next is up to you. The eyes seem to stare beyond the viewer into the future.
The uncertainty of this future is apparent even to this casual American visitor. We are on a group tour, two dozen of us from Minnesota and Wisconsin, to benefit the Wisconsin Land Conservancy. First impression: The country is poor. Our guide acknowledges Cuba’s problems. Our biggest sources of income, he tells us at the outset, are remittances from abroad and foreign tourism; the latter, he says, is regarded by Raúl Castro as “a necessary evil.”
Cracks in the economy
Small cracks are evident in the communist economy. While the tourist hotels and tourism infrastructure as a whole are state-owned (our comfortable tour bus is made in China), privately owned restaurants, called “paladares,” are allowed in residences. A regulated market for private home sales now functions.
While the Cuban government can manage tourism and currency exchange rates to its advantage, other fundamental and long-term consequences of the Revolution may, for the present at least, be largely beyond its control.
Food is one example. There appears to be little food retailing to ordinary Cubans, and a ration system of imported food provides only part of the population’s needs. The towns and countryside have none of the colorful markets common throughout Latin America. Fresh vegetables are rare. In Havana, I walk over a mile from our hotel, through a tangle of back streets, to find only a single street vendor with a stem of low-grade bananas.
State control of agriculture and minimal wages are disincentives to production. While well-tended row and tree crops are evident on the outskirts of Havana, elsewhere farm fields are neglected and eroded. Many are overgrown with sicklebush (or “marabú” as it is known in Cuba), an invasive fast-spreading thorny tree. We see very little mechanization; horse-drawn carts with rubber tires are common even on major roads.
While our visit is too short to verify this, I suspect that many Cubans make dietary ends meet by the same “traditional” crops of the tropical poor in other lands: manioc (cassava), taro, yams and other starchy root vegetables easily grown on poor soils outside one’s back door.
An architect tells us that as people abandon the countryside to seek work in Havana, the city has an acute shortage of housing. His slide presentation includes a worrisome demographic: There is a swelling cohort of what we would call “baby boomers” and a vastly shrunken population of younger people who must soon support them – the result of wars, e.g., in Angola, emigration, and declining birthrates. Our guide recounts a rumor: The government has even considered importing young people from China or India to make up for the missing Cubans.
But age, in Cuba, does not mean loss of vitality. Cubans of all generations appear – to the visitor at least – as full of life and joie de vivre as the stereotypical oldsters of the Buena Vista Social Club. Cuba is a place of deep artistic creativity and visible excitement over the ending of its isolation. As Americans, we feel welcome.
In Havana, a stranger spontaneously greets me on a street corner with “Obama … Good!” There is an awareness of change, not only in relations with the United States, but in the lives of ordinary citizens. To borrow from Régis Debray, one senses a revolution in the Revolution.
Pride despite hardships
For all of their present and past hardships, Cubans are proud of their Revolution, its egalitarianism, its free universal education and free health care. For them, its icon is not Fidel (who eschews public display of his image) but Che Guevara, the romantic legend cut down in his prime.
Che is omnipresent, his words and image found on posters, murals and buildings. With Che, the Argentine, the Revolution centers not on the few decades of Fidel’s Cold War standoff with the United States, or even on the lives of Fidel and Che themselves, but squarely within Cuba’s – and Latin America’s – centuries-long effort at anti-colonial self-definition.
Our guide makes this clear from the first. The Cuban Revolution, he says, began not with Fidel, but with Cuba’s three 19th-century wars of independence from Spain. From this perspective, Che’s popular slogan, “¡Hasta la Victoria Siempre!” (“Until Victory, Always!”), engraved on his monument we stop to see at Santa Clara, takes on new meaning: The Revolution is not over, and there is no going back.
Perhaps that is why the artist of the Museo de Bellas Artes has cleverly pictured Fidel as he has. He has rendered conscious homage to another, very different, work: Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous self-portrait in old age. His Fidel is a Renaissance figure, whose own age is passing, but whose works will endure.
Jonathan Scoll is a retired lawyer. He lives in Edina.