A Zimbabwean's Memories of Castro’s Cuba
Alex T. Magaisa
Like most Zimbabweans of my generation, I did not care much for birthday celebrations when I was growing up. Each year, the day just came and went, like all others. It wasn’t particularly significant nor were there any great expectations. But in 2015, as I approached my 40th, I wanted to do something different but certainly not a party. That something different turned out to be an unforgettable trip to Havana, Cuba.
I had often spoken about Cuba. I had read about it, the iconic figures of its revolution and its plucky resistance for decades against the biggest power of our time, the US. As a youth, I had owned a few Che Guevara T-shirts, emblazoned with that iconic image. One day, I would love to visit Cuba, I had promised myself. I guess it was said often and loud enough for my family to hear so that when my 40th arrived, it was the great gift that was delivered to me.
And so it was that I spent a few days in Havana and the experience will live long in the memory. It was a strange but beautiful experience. But, perhaps the most important characterisation of my impressions is that it left me thoroughly conflicted.
From the safe distance of Harare, far away from Havana and growing up as a young man, the legend of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution had a romantic pull. These were young men who decided to challenge an oppressive system, overcame it and decided to follow their own independent path. In addition, they had gone out of their way to help others, including ourselves, in various parts of the world. They were heroes in my eyes and I always felt pity that Che had not lived long enough to see the fruits of his struggles.
Yet after my trip to Havana, I was left with more questions than answers. Above all, I felt pity for the ordinary people of Cuba, whose situation was not unlike our own back home in Zimbabwe – best encapsulated by the African proverb that when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. It also got me to understand why we clash so often with our fellow African brothers and sisters, who are convinced that our leader, Robert Mugabe is a hero, while some of us think his reign has been a complete disaster. I suppose it is easy to speak of a leader in such glowing terms, showering praise and accolades, when his or her rule and policies do not affect you directly on a day to day basis.
On the one hand, Cuba is an attractive, romantic story of the small chap who refuses to be bullied on the playground. He doesn’t stop there. When he sees others being bullied, he goes out to help them and oft-times, they overcome. It’s the story of a chap who punches well above his weight. Despite a decades-long trade embargo, orchestrated by its big and powerful neighbour, Cuba has developed great public education and health systems, built on socialist beliefs and values. It has exported these skills to countries in need, such as Haiti, Namibia and my own country, Zimbabwe.
Yet for all its heroics within and away from home, the Cuban Revolution has not been nice to all its own people. It’s been a one party state ruled with an iron fist since 1959. Opposition to the regime lives in mortal danger. The revolution is an important historical phenomenon, the ideas it espouses are revolutionary, it represents an alternative view of the world – another religion in a world where the humanist religions of liberal democracy and capitalism have dominated. But beyond that romantic story, there’s also an ugly and painful side.
As a Zimbabwean who has grown up under the leadership of Mugabe, the conflict goes deeper. Is it possible to admire Fidel Castro and at the same time despise Robert Mugabe? I have observed that most of my contemporaries are caught up in this dilemma. They express reverence for Castro but utterly despise Mugabe. But are they really different? Both men led their respective countries to freedom against big odds and they used armed force to do so. Both stayed long in power – Castro for nearly 50 years and Mugabe is well into his 36th year as Zimbabwe’s only leader. Both have fought fiercely against the West but in doing so, they have also violently suppressed internal opposition. Castro ran a one party state and it was Mugabe’s dream, although he never quite achieved it at law. Both suppressed civil and political liberties and have been driven by a belief that they know what’s best for their people. While they both nurtured good education systems, large numbers of their citizens have voted with their feet, frustrated by the limited opportunities and human rights violations and left for pastures new. Cuban exiles in Miami celebrated the death of Castro, and some Zimbabweans in the Diaspora vow they will also celebrate Mugabe’s demise. Both have been subjected to a variety of sanctions, with the US-led trade embargo going back decades and Zimbabwe having an Act of Congress named after it: the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act. Both are outspoken and have used public platforms, such as the UN General Assembly gatherings, to condemn and castigate the West, earning them praise in some quarters and ridicule in others.
I have often accused fellow Africans of lionising Mugabe at the expense of his people. I have argued that they overlook his indiscretions and gross failures, just because they think he’s taking a principled stand against the West. No doubt, like the demagogue that he is, he makes some bombastic statements against the West, which fellow Africans love to hear because their own leaders are probably too timid to say the same things. But for many of us Zimbabweans, we know that words bring nothing to our tables and that we pay the price, so whatever he says at those international forums is of little benefit to us. But if we lionise Castro, are we not also ignoring the plight of ordinary Cubans who have had to carry and endure the cost of his long rule?
How then can I express reverence for Castro while at the same time condemning Mugabe? Fair enough, Mugabe destroyed his inheritance, so much that his own daughter chose to fly to the Far East to deliver her first child, while Castro maintained arguably one of the best health-care systems in the world despite a wide array of sanctions. Castro seems to have remained faithful to his political beliefs, living the realities of what he preached, whereas Mugabe has vacillated – his life and what he says are completely different. Castro had faults but they were committed in the course of fulfilling beliefs that were deeply and devoutly held. It is hard to say the same of my President, who spent years happily cosying up to the same West that he now castigates at any given opportunity. Mugabe threw a fit after the relationship broke down, but Castro seems to have been consistent from the beginning. Perhaps evidence will show that he was no different from his friend Mugabe – saying one thing but doing another.
Yet, while it might surprise many from the Western world, there are deep reasons why Africans have some sympathy with Castro. When our independence and dignity were at stake, Castro was one of the few who stood up with us. Despite their own troubles, the Cuban people stood with us when we fought the scourge of colonialism. We don’t forget that too easily. In his autobiography, Joshua Nkomo, who had a closer relationship with Castro wrote, “We had to get outside support for our liberation struggle, and if we could not get it from the West we would have to ask for it from the East. At the time the only thing I did to put this to the test was to call at the Cuban Embassy, explain our problem and ask for their support. The Cubans were interested and sympathetic … I was assured that Castro himself was committed to ending colonialism in Africa. This was a commitment which the Cubans have fully honoured … The training they gave our soldiers was better and more realistic than that offered by almost any other country, and I’m deeply grateful for it …” (88)
Indeed, when Nelson Mandela became a free man and led South Africa after apartheid, one of the first world leaders he embraced was Fidel Castro. Western leaders who had previuosly called him a terrorist had embraced him. But the great man knew his friends. One of them was Fidel Castro. It was the great man’s tribute to a man who had done so much for South Africa’s freedom. The same goes for Namibia and Angola. Back in Southern Africa, we are grateful to Castro and the people of Cuba for their assistance towards freedom.
It is these contributions by Castro and the people of Cuba which ensure that he has an important place in our collective story, his shortcomings notwithstanding. I say this knowing too well that someone somewhere will probably echo similar sentiments regarding Mugabe upon his death: that he had many shortcomings and hurt his people, but that he was their hero. Then again, this is probably true of every person, in particular, political figures. Many Britons regard Winston Churchill as their greatest leader, yet those who lived under the Empire have very different views. Nelson Mandela is probably the most widely revered figure across the world but there are some Africans who today think he did not do enough for Africans during his presidency. There is rarely consensus around the great figures in history.
And so it is with Fidel Castro. The few days I spent in Habana left bitter-sweet memories. As you emerge from Jose Marti International Airport, named after the country’s greatest and most revered icon, the founding father of the Cuban nation, you are greeted into a world that harks back to the 1950 and 60s. The fleet of 1950s iconic cars is a beautiful sight, yet it is also the first mark of a country that has been left behind by the rest. The roads are beautifully paved but the buildings on either side tell a pitiful story. Rows and rows of dilapidated concrete. It is easy to see that this was once a beautiful and modern city in the 1950s and 60s, with amazing architectural designs and iconic buildings. The tall Hotel Havana Libre is one of the most symbolic buildings in the city. Built as the Hotel Havana Hilton, it soon became the temporary headquarters of Castro and his revolutionary comrades when they took over Havana in 1959. But years of neglect have left most of the buildings tired and in a sorry state. It’s like a town that time forgot and left to the elements. Getting it all back to life one day will be a herculean exercise but once restored, I have no doubt Havana will be an alluring destination.
Driving through Habana, I couldn’t help but compare it to what I had left behind in Harare. My home city is falling apart at an alarming rate. This is where we are going, I thought to myself, with a shake of the head. Twenty years ago, things were looking bright in the Sunshine City, as Harare was once called. But now, the buildings are an awful sight. You look around and there is not a single construction crane in sight, not even a digger fixing the road. Compared to our neighbours, Harare is now 20 or 30 years behind. Bulawayo and other smaller cities are even worse. It was sad to see the grand buildings of Havana literally falling apart, yet my pain was more because of my thoughts of Harare and other cities back home.
In Havana there were so many idle people. People doing nothing. Just roaming around or sitting idly in the city’s squares. Yet they were incredibly lovely people. I spoke to a few who could string together lines of English. They had no work to do. It was incredibly hard for them. But I was awed by the beautiful hospitality of the people of Havana. This too, brought reminders of home. Zimbabweans are very nice and peaceful people. The other place where I had seen such generous hearts was Accra, the capital of Ghana. One thing in common was that in that sea of problems, the people were still generous and welcoming, a reminder of the resilience and flexibility of the human spirit.
One evening, as we walked back to our hotel with our guide – a fine young chap called Pedro – I saw small groups of young men and women huddled hear the walls of the hotel. I asked Pedro what they were doing. “Internet”, said Pedro, whipping out his small phone to illustrate his point. His English was limited, and my Spanish was non-existent so oft-times we filled the linguistic gap through improvised sign language. The internet is severely restricted in Cuba. Keen to catch up with the rest of the world, young men and women free-ride on hotels’ wifi service and the evening is a good time when there is less traffic. I remember that people used to do that in Harare a few years ago. They would sit in African Unity Square to ride on free wifi service from the Meikles Hotel. Internet data bundles and free wifi in some food outlets have made things better. Havana is yet to catch up.
The death of Castro marks the end of life of one of the colossal figures in history. There are any opinions but one sure thing is that he made his mark. Thousands of Zimbabwean teachers were trained in Cuba. It was not easy for them given the challenges that Cuba went through during those years. But they came back and taught a generation of young Zimbabweans who have go on to do well. We are thankful to the people of Cuba for their generosity. There is an important lesson here for the aid industry: Castro did not give us fish. Instead, he gave us skills to catch fish. Bags of grain given as food aid fill the stomach, but they are quickly exhausted. Skills are more enduring. For years, Castro sent medical doctors to Zimbabwe, to plug the gap in the health sector. At one point, Zimbabwe had just one pathologist and he was Cuban.
Given the various sides of Castro and how Mugabe compares, it is understandable that some of us find ourselves conflicted. We want to thank Castro for his assistance, but we also understand that he was not very nice to some of his people. I stand with people who have challenged Mugabe’s leadership and if I were doing that in Cuba, I probably would be in exile too, given the prohibition of opposition there. No wonder why I have felt seriously conflicted. Noah Harari’s Sapiens, The History of Humankind, has a partial answer to the conundrum. He says we humans have an amazing capacity to believe in contradictions at the same time. We can believe in an omnipotent God, who is powerful and all-knowing, but we can also believe that there is a Satan, the devil who is responsible for evil. But how and why is Satan allowed to do this? Believing that the two exist helps us resolve the conundrum of the existence of good and evil and ascribing responsibility for it. Otherwise how would believers ascribe the authorship of evil to God?
I will have to accept the reality that Castro was good for us, but that he was not so good for many of his own people. This indeed is how others will see Mugabe, and I will have to accept that.
In the Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Square) in Habana, there are monuments in honour of great figures in Cuba’s history. There is a tall plinth, the Jose Marti Memorial. Then there are two images, one is the well-known iconic image of Che Guevara. On it are the equally famous words, “Hasta la Victoria siempre” (Until victory, always).
The other is of a figure that I did not know before my Havana trip. His name is Camilo Cienfuegos, another of Castro’s revolutionary comrades. On it, are the words, “Vas bien, Fidel” (You’re doing well, Fidel). Apparently, he used to say those words as Castro gave his long speeches. They were words of reassurance.
There was no monument in honour of Fidel himself, despite his long years in power and total control of the little island. I guess now the time has arrived for him to join his comrades at the Plaza de la Revolucion.
I hope to return to Havana one day and I hope the people will be as generous and beautiful as they were the first time. But I hope too, that their country will have moved forward, that there will be more opportunities for the young men and women of Havana and they won’t be huddling by the hotels’ walls to ride on the free internet service. One of my most treasured T-shirts has “Viva Cuba” inscribed in front. I fell in love with Cuba and I wish the country well.