Fidel Castrol: Cuban Who Made US Stand Still Dies At 90

Fidel Castrol DIes at 90
 Fidel Castro after arriving in Havana on Jan. 8, 1959. Mr. Castro’s revolution was welcomed by Cubans like Juan Montes Torre, a poor laborer at the time. “It was an emotional shock,” Mr. Montes recalled. “These bearded men, poorly dressed — they won! And on behalf of the lower classes!” Credit Associated Press
The breaking news for today from HAVANA — When Fidel Castro rode victoriously into Havana on Jan. 8, 1959, Juan Montes Torre rushed into the streets to cheer. A poor, uneducated laborer from the eastern countryside of Cuba, he had arrived in the capital a few years earlier and, like most of his neighbors, could hardly believe what was happening.

“It was an emotional shock,” Mr. Montes said. “These bearded men, poorly dressed — they won! And on behalf of the lower classes!”

Mr. Montes, who was 25 at the time, stayed loyal to Mr. Castro, who died on Friday, from that moment. The Castro revolution gave him an education, a home, and a job as a police officer who sometimes guarded the comandante himself.

But that allegiance slipped from generation to generation in Mr. Montes’s family, and in Cuba as a whole. His son’s views darkened decades ago, during tussles with the Castro government’s restrictions. His teenage granddaughter, Rocio, has spent most of her youth feeling glum about the conditions in her country. “There are too many Cubans who get up every day and struggle and struggle, and that’s it,” she said in an interview. “My dream is to leave.”

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.

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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About Chidobe Ibeji