With the news over the weekend of Fidel Castro’s death, our thoughts went back to 2000 when we visited Cuba with a National Newspaper Association study mission group. It was a memorable trip.
When visiting foreign countries, what we remember the most is the people. We found that in the year 2000, while Castro was still a strongman dictator, and the people were very poor under his form of communism, and opportunties were few, the average Cuban had a carefree attitude.
The people love their music. Even small restaurants had combos and other musical groups were playing in places where the public, especially visitors, would gather. Many Cubans appeared to accept their fate of living in a communist country, with little hope of having anything better in their standard of living. You couldn’t say they were happy, but just resigned to their fate.
We were with Cuban journalists during the entire trip. Two of the journalists stand out in this mind. One was a young, handsome former military officer who was a devoted Communist who also had authored a book or two. He was a very serious man and intelligent. The other was a man about age 65 who was nearing retirement. We asked him if he was a card-carrying Communist. He laughed and said, “I never joined the Communist Party. They never forced me to join.” What was unusual, to me anyway, was the fact that he had served in posts in Washington, D.C., and at the United Nations in New York. We assume they were highly responsible positions, yet he was not a member of the party. When asked if he could get by in retirement on his small government pension, he replied that he would be OK. He also was a happy-go-lucky guy. Castro never had a total communist Cuba. It is socialistic, with a dictator.
One day we had a young guide, about age 25 or so. He could speak several languages, including very good English. We took him to dinner one night. He ate like it was the last meal he would ever have. He said he only had meat about once a month. He was building his own computer. We asked how long would it take to get all the parts needed to build his computer. His answer was, “About five years.” His answer to another question we heard in other communist countries. It had to do with the lack of freedoms. The guide said as long as he was not “political” the government did not bother him.
Everybody has heard about the automobiles they put together. They were basically 1940s and 1950s U.S. models and had parts and bodies from many different makes. The buses were newer models.
We visited a new medical school that had been a military base outside of Havana, on the ocean, with very nice sand beaches. The students were not Cuban. They were from neighboring islands and Central American countries. We made a comment that the Cuban people really seem to like Americans, and we found that surprising since relations between the two countries are not good. A student, a young man in his late teens or early 20s said, “We like the American people, but we don’t like your president or the CIA.” One student said Americans don’t take part in their government because they don’t vote. We found out the medical students were using textbooks from the 1950s.
We visited the Bay of Pigs where the CIA-backed invasion took place, and it was a swampland, an unlikely location for an invasion. When President Jack Kennedy called off air support for the invasion, it failed. That attack was ill-advised and poorly executed.
Some groups that visited Cuba were able to meet with Castro. We did not. We did meet with the No. 3 man in government, Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly. He said a major issue for Cuba was resumption of normal relations with the U.S. Remember, that was in 2000. It still is an issue. Alarcon was asked the same old question. What will happen when Castro dies? His answer was that “nothing will change.” He added there is a line of succession, but did not elaborate.
We did visit the offices of the daily Communist newspaper. We were told they don’t print every day, however. Very open, they said often they don’t have the money to buy newsprint (the paper newspapers use).
We remember the Cuban ladies, many of whom are very attractive. The skin color of Cubans varies from light to dark.
Another fact uncovered was that the Cubans, for the most part, hated the Russians, who came there to help them.
Most of all, we remember the poverty in Cuba. We came home believing we should have normal relations with Cuba, which would be the best way for the people to have a better standard of living, and that Communism would eventually die. We still feel that way.
As to what will happen with Castro’s death, it’s anybody’s guess. Castro had resigned in 2006 due to poor health and he appointed his brother Raul as president. Raul now is 85. He said earlier that he will resign in 2018.
We look for factions to vie for power in Cuba, and what will happen is unknown. We don’t expect another Bay of Pigs invasion attempt!