A letter from the Online Editor-in-Chief: The dawn of a new age in Cuba
November 26, 2016
Fidel Castro has died. Finally. The 90-year-old man was the former president and leader of a nation whose people developed intense feelings toward him. The charismatic and egotistical man behind the scrawny beard single-handedly wrote a chapter in the history of communism, reshaped his nation’s foreign affairs, avoided hundreds of assassination attempts and was responsible for what the city of Miami has become: the epicenter of Cuban liberty and northernmost point in Latin America.
It all started on Aug. 13, 1926, when Fidel, then Lina Castro, was born out of wedlock on a farm in the eastern side of Cuba to a Spanish immigrant and his mistress. In 1945 he graduated from El Colegio de Belén in Havana and would soon develop Marxist and nationalist ideas. Those ideas would propel him to lead a group of guerilla fighters to overthrow Fulgencio Batista’s government on Jan. 1, 1959 and provide hope for a country that had grown tired of a negligent leader.
Soon, however, the same people who celebrated Castro’s emergence were fleeing the only home they knew, as he implemented laws that forbade business and commerce without government interference, and was responsible for the imprisonment and deaths of hundreds of thousands of dissidents. My family was amongst the group affected. Both my parents’ fathers were forced to work in labor camps for over a year before being granted permission to leave the country; my mother was bullied by students at school because her parents did not allow her to conform to the brainwashing that is taught to this day in Cuban schools, regarding the representation of Fidel and other revolutionaries in textbooks. So, my parents left to Spain and were forced to live in unearthly circumstances, in the hopes of somehow carving out a life for themselves, which they would do eventually when they met in college in Chicago.
Fidel and his government earned praise globally over the years, as his totalitarian state was somehow able to survive everything thrown its way. He handily managed The Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, which was a failed attempt by John F. Kennedy and Cuban-American troops to overthrow the government, and resulted in 118 American deaths and the long-term imprisonment of over a thousand. Soon after establishing an alliance with Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet Union, Castro was ordered to hide and target nuclear missiles toward the JFK-led U.S. in 1962 in what is now referred to as the Cuban Missile Crisis. This pivotal point in the Cold War shaped Cuban-American relations, as the USSR and U.S. reached an agreement that prevented what could have been a third world war and, in effect, set forth an embargo that is still effective today. With the embargo, came the wet-foot, dry-foot policy that gave Cubans who were against Fidel’s regime the opportunity to become legal U.S. residents if they successfully crossed the Florida Straits despite the looming presence of the coast guard.
What would follow in Fidel’s life was a continuous and unparalleled rebellion toward the U.S., as he always tried his best to annoy the 10 presidential administrations he outlived. For example, during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, he emptied prisons and mental hospitals and allowed the immigration of hundreds of thousands to Miami over a three-month period. His regime somehow also survived the collapse of the USSR in 1991, as he deemed the years that would follow the “Special Period,” in which the Cuban people were forced to ration their food and faced extreme shortages in gasoline and agriculture.
Castro’s longstanding wrath and its effects are evident when looking at my hometown, Miami. This city, which broke out in euphoria and met at Versailles in Little Havana to celebrate as one in the light of Fidel’s death has seen a facelift since 1959. Miami has gone from a city that was predominantly white in the 1950s to a city that is over 65 percent Hispanic, and a city where there are overwhelmingly more households that speak Spanish (63 percent) than households that only speak English (22 percent), according to Miami-Dade County. This city is laden with examples of the American Dream and is the true capital of a free Cuba at this moment. Although this notion generates pride for me and many other Cuban-Americans, it is far from ideal reality.
Yes, he is dead. But, his government and influence are very much alive. Progress has taken form in recent years through the thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations under President Obama, however, a democratic, capitalist-influenced society will be years in the making. Once brother and current president Raul Castro steps down in 2018, we may begin to see change. With a lack of influential allies, an economy and a population stuck in the 1950s, change is imminent and necessary. We knew this day would come. We knew Castro would die. Now, we must ask: are we nearing the end of the nightmare that is communism in Cuba and is a “Cuba libre” on the horizon?