Cuba’s iconic communist leader Fidel Castro died last weekend, 57 years after he turned one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries into a brutal dictatorship. For many, his death was represented a real loss to the revolutionary movement. For others, his death brings the opportunity for a change in the country—change that could eventually bring about the liberation of the island and its people. World leaders have already weighed in on Castro, with some offering praise and condolences and others condemnation. But this leaves us wondering, what do the Cuban people think about Fidel?
Most Cubans living outside the Island have a highly unfavorable opinion of the revolutionary—understandably so, since most of them are exiled because of him. A few years ago, I interviewed a couple who left Cuba in 1960 after becoming disenchanted with the Revolution, which they had once supported. Since then, neither of them had returned to Cuba. “I wouldn’t go back. I mean—I would go back to a free Cuba, but not a Cuba under Castro.” For them, Fidel was the author of Cuba’s devastation.
While I was living in Cuba, I found that most people tried to avoid talking about Fidel. The few who did were split in their opinions. Some had a good opinion of Fidel—although in an unfree society it is hard to tell whether this sort of praise is sincere. They would tell me things like, “He helped deliver Cuba from a corrupt government,” or “He has given us many things that benefit us, like education.” Maybe this is what they really believe. After all, television ads praise his accomplishments, his quotes are plastered on billboards all over the country, and seemingly every public speech cites his greatness. Children’s textbooks attribute everything good on the Island to his accomplishments, making him look like some kind of superman. After decades of this propaganda, it’s no wonder that some believe it.
Others blamed Fidel for the country’s poverty and corruption. But many made this distinction: “The ideals of the Revolution were on the right track. It was the man who brought the bad things, not the Revolution.” These people basically separated the man from the ideology. They would blame Fidel for establishing a government that steals from the people for its own advantage. “They use our money to buy their big homes and luxurious cars,” a neighbor would constantly say. Some people said the communist regime was as corrupt as Batista’s. Others would say that Fidel purposefully kept the Cuban people poor in order to remain in power.
A few Cubans did open up to me and told me their real opinions. Karel, a friend of mine who lived in my neighborhood, was one of them. He had been a pianist at a church when the Revolution happened. As eliminating religion was one of Fidel’s main goals, Karel’s church was persecuted and so was he. He was arrested and spent three years in jail, where he was tortured—physically and psychologically. After his release, he had the opportunity to leave Cuba. But he didn’t. “I did not leave the island because I want to be here when Fidel dies,” he told me. He said that he wanted to see the end of the man who had caused him so much misery.