Experiencing Cuba in the Wake of Fidel Castro’s Death

Havana Cuba Fidel Castro on building

By Angela Broderick
Dec. 2, 2016

Havana Cuba Fidel Castro on buildingIt’s been a very quiet week in Cuba.

The country entered a period of mourning when Fidel Castro, Cuba’s polarizing revolutionary leader, passed away last week on November 25th. As a sign of respect, Cubans have been mandated to cancel public events, abstain from selling alcohol, and refrain from playing music. In a nation where music plays such an integral role, this is especially poignant.

A young Cuban jazz singer who guides musical experiences for Crooked Trails tells us:

“The worst thing is that they put some hard measures for the people: no music in the house, no alcohol, all the cultural places are closed. All this for 9 days, and that makes people sad because the Cubans need music to cure the sadness.”

This Sunday, December 4th, will mark the end of the 9-day period of mourning in Cuba. Radios and clubs that fell silent after Fidel’s passing will once again turn on the sound systems and warm up the bands. But the impact on Cuba, and on Cuban people, will continue to unfold.

Crooked Trails traveler Stacy and four friends were in Cuba last week, finishing their trip in Havana the day after Fidel died. Back home in Seattle a few days later, she related her experience:

“Havana was very subdued when we returned. There was no music and no dancing, which was quite strange to experience after having just been there when both were present everywhere. It would have been very interesting to be at Revolution Square today.”

She was referring to a large memorial gathering that was held in Havana’s Revolution Square, attended by thousands of Cubans wishing to mourn publicly and pay tribute. Among them was Mauricio, one of our partners in Cuba, who contacted us to share his sentiments:

“Cuba is in shock after Fidel Castro´s passing. And I know you are receiving different news from the mainstream media and politicians who have all labeled Fidel as a ‘brutal dictator’, ‘a murderer who killed thousands of people’, etc. But in Cuba, most of the people think in a different way and we are paying our respect out to him.”

Mauricio sent us articles from foreign writers, which he felt provided “another vision on Fidel, for you to understand why most of the Cuban people love and see him as a great man and now are spending hours to parade and see his picture at Jose Marti Memorial in Revolution Square and all over the country, without any pressure to do that, totally volunteer.”

The articles he sent included this one from the Canadian-based Centre for Research on Globalization, which asserts:

“For all its problems following the revolution, Castro had several large successes that seldom are viewed in western media. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, more doctors per capita, and a lower infant mortality rate than the U.S. It frequently is one of the first countries to offer medical aid to disaster stricken areas, recently notable being Haiti… Castro allowed a limited free enterprise system for agricultural practices, creating what should be a model sustainable, healthy, environmentally friendly farm base. Thus overall, Castro has had a positive impact on the world.  He proved to be flexible yet resolute leader, he stood up to the power and greed of corporate America, he created a society – that while limited in its political expression – that is healthy and well educated.”

If you are surprised by these sentiments, you are not alone. As CT traveler Stacy put it:

“I think we all went to Cuba thinking that everyone there hated Fidel. We found that was not the case at all. This may be different for other economic levels, but the people we spent time with (and spoke to after he died) were very sad by his death. They credit him with giving them a lot like healthcare, education and the ability to have their own businesses. Everyone talked about how smart he was and how he was constantly trying to learn more.  Our “house mother” at the beach was the one who told us about it, and she was in tears. Fidel spent time in her community having a meal with people there and getting to know them.”

The thing is, determining who Fidel Castro was is not nearly as important as understanding what his passing means to Cubans — and of course, it means different things to different people. Almost nothing in this world is truly black and white, and propaganda in many forms abounds. Many Americans know little about today’s Cubans; the misconception that Cubans do not have internet or smartphones, and are cut-off from the world, is common. Likewise, propaganda in Cuba portrays Americans as evil and claims the U.S. embargo lies at the root of all problems. As we’ve seen both in history and playing out again today, it’s not only wrong to make such sweeping assumptions about a group of people, it’s also dangerous.

Here in the U.S. in recent weeks, there’s been an ongoing dialogue about the new era of media and the importance of being an informed and engaged citizen. This certainly applies to travel, and our role as global citizens, as well. Seeing the world through the shaded lenses of media does not allow for all the subtleties and paradox that are inherently human. It’s a flat representation of a multi-dimensional reality.

Perspective is truly one of the greatest benefits of travel. The education a traveler receives when you connect and communicate with real people in real places is what paints a fuller spectrum of perspective. In Cuba, you’ll encounter differing opinions of Castro; when you speak with those who stayed, lived through the revolution, and gave up a lot to be Cuban, you’ll find many who love him. When you speak with the youth, you may find frustrations from lack of opportunities due to restrictions on the press and on working outside of the country; they also do not have first-hand experience of the historical corruption. Certainly, it can bring up more questions than answers. But allowing your in-country experience with local people to inform your sense of a country’s identity provides context, which is grounded by the experience of their day-to-day life.

As Mark Twain famously said:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

This holds true now maybe more than ever. Travel allows us to take a broader view of humanity – bringing in new and different perspectives on life while also highlighting our universal commonalities. It is a powerful way to come to greater terms with what it means to be an American, and a global citizen, today.

Pack your curiosity, but leave your preconceptions at home.

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One Comment on “Experiencing Cuba in the Wake of Fidel Castro’s Death”

  1. Thank you crooked trails. We stent time in the country of Cuba and loved the people..
    Travel makes one love the earth as a whole. We are all different but the same.
    Cheers and happy traveling

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