Viewing Fidel Castro’s Revolution: 50 Years. Three Generations. One Family.


The Montes family’s story of faith and disillusion is common. Cuban families have been arguing about Mr. Castro since he came to power. His death has again produced an intense clash of emotions for many Cubans who recognize that he was more than just a political figure. He was also a brother, a father and a grandfather to various Cuban generations — a familiar presence whose ideals, whims and ego shaped everyone’s identity and daily life. Whether they wanted him around or not, Fidel was there, with his four-hour speeches, his billboards and the grandiose absolutes — “Socialismo o muerte!” (“Socialism or death!”) — that helped produce early triumphs in education and health care, along with restrictions on speech and assembly, and, later on, persistent economic failures.

His relationship to the country was remarkably personal. Robert A. Pastor, a former Latin America adviser to President Jimmy Carter, used to say that Mr. Castro was one of the few world leaders referred to by just their first names. Many Cubans have grown comfortable with calling him a complicated relative.

“You have to look at this in a very cool way — this is like the father who has been there all the time that has taken the family through thick and thin,” Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a former Cuban diplomat, said in an interview on Saturday. “Maybe at times you don’t agree with him, but most of the time you agree with what he has done.”

Yet he was not exactly a common loved one. He was also the maximum leader — charismatic but quick to anger, a guerrilla whose name Cubans were often afraid to utter. Because he ruled for decades, Mr. Castro’s impact — and the perception of it — changed over time. Cubans born before the revolution saw him as a transformative force for good or ill. Those born later, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, tend to view him as an obdurate barrier to economic opportunity and to integration with the rest of the world.

In life, he was often an enigma; in death, for Cuban families like the Monteses, he is a collage of competing images, from the inspiring young rebel to the out-of-touch old man.

The Father

Mr. Montes first heard of the barbudos, or bearded rebels, when he was picking coffee and fruit in the fields in Cuba’s eastern province of Guantánamo. It was the early 1950s, and poor farmers in the area had started banding together, revolting against wealthy landowners. Mr. Castro was among many leaders said to be demanding better working conditions.

On July 26, 1953, Mr. Castro staged his first major attack, raiding the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba, now the country’s second-largest city. Mr. Castro was caught, and he defended himself in court three months later with a lengthy speech that included the line “History will absolve me.” Mr. Montes had decided by then to move to Havana — and to root for Mr. Castro and his guerrillas.

“There was a lot of injustice back then,” Mr. Montes said. “Coups, crime. The government didn’t care at all for the people.”

Compared with its neighbors, Cuba was well off, with a per-capita income in 1958 that was exceeded in Latin America by only Argentina and Venezuela, according to United Nations statistics. But the Cuban economy was essentially stuck in place, with yawning inequality. In rural areas like those where Mr. Montes grew up, more than 90 percent of the homes lacked electricity. In Havana, the streets were clogged with a mix of shark-fin Cadillacs and ragtag beggars.

Photo

A couple in Havana on Saturday, the day after Mr. Castro’s death at 90.

Credit
Yamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After taking power in 1959, Mr. Castro promised radical change. “We have fought to give democracy and liberty to our people,” he said days after his triumphant arrival in Havana. He delivered, Mr. Montes said. Over the next few months, the Castro government announced plans for land reform to grant property to the poor, taxes of 80 percent on expensive cars and additional government spending to decrease unemployment.

In December that year, Mr. Montes was hired as a police officer. It was his first steady job since his arrival in Havana and came with free schooling, leading him from a fourth-grade education to a high school diploma. The pride he felt at his rise into the middle class can be seen in family pictures from that era, with his wife wearing new necklaces beside her smiling husband. Even in his 80s, he speaks of his first few years on the police force with the excitement of a new cadet.

“When someone committed a crime, we arrested them, but always with a sense of justice,” he said. “We didn’t abuse anyone. It was a process for everyone. It wasn’t just for the upper classes.”

From the outside, especially in Washington, Mr. Castro seemed to be upending Cuba’s justice system, summarily executing opponents and filling Cuban jails. Mr. Montes, however, said he saw a police force once viewed as a collection of corrupt thugs becoming professional. From 1959 to 1962, Mr. Montes said, Cubans all over the country were eager to serve Mr. Castro.

But there were enemies close by — mostly wealthier Cuban exiles who had fled when Mr. Castro began nationalizing property. They had the support of the United States, and when their attack came at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, Mr. Montes was guarding the home of Celia Sánchez, a famous guerrilla fighter and Mr. Castro’s longtime lover and confidante. Around 4 a.m., Mr. Montes said, there was a flurry of activity inside. Moments later Mr. Castro emerged, surrounded by armed escorts. “He looked calm,” Mr. Montes said. “No one knew what was happening. No one knew they attacked us.”

The Cuban missile crisis and the American trade embargo only strengthened the siege mentality that Mr. Castro relied on for decades, as he argued repeatedly that Cuba must remain under tight control lest the northern imperialists invade and turn the island into an American fief. In an interview in late 2012, Mr. Montes said he had never questioned that assessment, even when he was with critics of Mr. Castro’s authoritarian ways. In 1970, during the government’s effort to harvest a record 10 million tons of sugar, Mr. Montes helped guard 300 political prisoners forced to cut sugar cane. Mr. Montes said they did not seem to be bad people. “But,” he said, with what sounded like a touch of disappointment, “they were wrong.”

He said he had often felt the same way about relatives who at times were critical of Mr. Castro, including some who had moved to the United States. “The revolution is a process,” he said. Shifting in his seat, on a flowered couch at his home in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana, he looked toward his son’s house next door. “They don’t see things very clearly,” he said. “They don’t realize that they have the greatest opportunity in the world; they have the opportunity to study.”

He said he wished younger Cubans in his family could see the broader context. “We were a poor, uneducated, humble family before the revolution,” he said. “Then there was a change. It’s a radical change that’s still maturing.”

The Son

The entrance to Juan Carlos’s home is covered in green vines with bunches of bitter grapes. More than a decade ago, he ran a private restaurant, or paladar, beneath the greenery. He also used to rent rooms to tourists until he developed a new business in which he uses his newly acquired Spanish passport to travel to Panama to buy clothes and other items to sell in Havana.

He is a member of what might be called the “resolver” generation — those who learned to resolve or negotiate their way around the shortages, regulations and inefficiencies of Cuban socialism in its later stages. If his father’s image of Mr. Castro and the revolution was shaped by the changes of the 1950s or ’60s, his views have been sculpted by the transition from the flush 1980s to the scavenging ’90s.

The shift was significant. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost a patron that had provided around $4 billion a year in credits and subsidies. The economy contracted by 34 percent from 1990 to 1993, with chronic shortages of fuel, soap, food — just about everything.

Cuban officials acknowledged in 1990 that the country had entered a “special period.” The implication was that Cuba would need to make some exceptions to the norm. In 1993, Mr. Castro legalized the American dollar and allowed Cubans to become self-employed in dozens of industries, especially those serving tourists. Scholars still debate the degree to which Cuba adopted capitalism in that period, but Juan Carlos was one of many who took advantage.

He was 31 at the time and had already become frustrated with the way the Castro government worked. In his 20s, he worked at Cuba’s customs agency, as his father had after his tenure on the police force. What Juan Carlos saw, he said, was an antidemocratic system that rewarded silence instead of initiative. He said his frustration peaked in the late 1980s when he was rebuffed by Communist Party officials for gathering recommendations from colleagues for improving the agency. He believed he was doing what socialism revered: organizing workers. “But the party guys,” he said, “they just told me: ‘That’s not right. Here are the things we are going to talk about, and you, don’t stand up and talk.’”

Juan Carlos shook his head and laughed as if expressing a sentiment that Cubans have long relied on to describe run-ins with the government: “No es fácil” — it’s not easy.

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A gathering in Havana on Saturday. Younger Cubans tend to view Mr. Castro less favorably than older generations do.

Credit
Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press

He left his job just before the Soviet Union’s collapse. Over the next few years, he found work in hotels. When Mr. Castro legalized small restaurants, Juan Carlos decided to open one with his wife, but there was a problem: He needed permission from the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, the neighborhood party watchdog, and the group had not met in years. So he nominated himself to lead the group and got his neighbors to support his candidacy.

“I became the president so I could open the restaurant,” he said.

The Castro government was never far away, however. The 1990s led to relative economic openness, but in fits and starts as Mr. Castro and his brother Raúl, who took over presidential powers in 2006, limited change. Businesses must stay small under laws that restrict how many employees can be hired. Supplies must be bought from the government, and crackdowns are common.

Even as relations with the United States have improved, peaking with reopened embassies and President Obama’s visit this year, the economic life of the island remains constricted by Cuba’s loyalty to central control.

“It’s like an accordion — they open a little, they close,” Juan Carlos said. “But they never open it up all the way.”

Success, then, has tended to play favorites. Economic and racial inequality, after improving in the early years of the revolution, has gotten worse since the 1990s. Cubans with small businesses and more lucrative jobs in tourism are typically lighter-skinned, with advantages built up over time. Some have relatives in Miami. Others have connections in government or, in the case of Juan Carlos, Spanish ancestry and a home in Vedado with extra space.

He acknowledges that he has done relatively well through much hard work. During one winter visit, he popped a tape into a VCR, showing his daughter’s quinceañera — her 15th birthday party — at the Hotel Nacional. The girl, Rocio, wore a light floor-length gown and thanked her parents as the guests drank and danced. It looked like a small prom. But for Juan Carlos, and especially for his daughter, one night of fun is nowhere near enough to create contentment.

The Granddaughter

Rocio dreams of becoming an art historian. Tall and thin, with a few pimples covered in makeup, she described Cuba with the nuanced sophistication that comes from a good education and plenty of time to think things through. In her eyes, Cuba is purgatory, and even before he died, Fidel Castro was a specter of the past, studied in textbooks more than seen.

“Fidel had an enormous vision,” she said.

And yes, there a lot of things she says she loves about Mr. Castro’s Cuba: the breezy liberty of the streets, crime-free and rarely snagged with traffic; the emphasis on education and culture. She said she sometimes feared that violence would return once Fidel and Raúl Castro were gone.

But mostly, as she has grown from adolescence to adulthood, she has wanted to leave. Her older sister already lives in Spain. Her best friend went to Miami for a vacation one summer and stayed, telling Rocio about the crowded shopping malls and the impressive facilities at her new school. Most of Rocio’s friends, she said, hope to get out of Cuba as soon as they can.

“My generation, we’re not worried about politics or ideals,” she said. “We just want to get out. Abroad you can achieve so much more. You can be recognized for your work, internationally, by the world.”

Fidel Castro’s era of speeches, ideology and Cold War standoffs is not what today’s ambitious young people want. Like many young Cubans, Rocio mostly wants Cuba to catch up. Why is there no open and affordable access to the internet? Why can’t she easily get on Facebook to say hi to her sister in Barcelona? Why is it so hard to visit the Louvre, in person or virtually?

“I think everyone has a right to get the information they want to think and study,” she said.

She said that the American trade embargo clearly did not help, but that most young people considered their own government responsible for creating a society of limits. “Fidel and Raúl started out with a good idea,” she said. “They just didn’t achieve what they said they would achieve.”

She wants the same thing her grandfather and Fidel Castro wanted when they were young: radical change and a fair shot at making a life for herself on her terms. The changes of the past few years under Raúl Castro, allowing more private enterprise and travel, offer some hope, she said, “but it’s not changing at the pace it needs to.”

Fidel Castro is gone — “He was a man of the 20th century,” Mr. Montes said in an interview on Saturday night — and his granddaughter has long been ready to move on. “We don’t have time to wait,” she said.

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