In a prior article, I mentioned a place in Havana called the Museum of the Revolution. I said that the political events chronicled in this museum are extremely important to the Cuban identity, so I'd circle back to it later. Well the time has finally come. It's time to talk politics. But before that, I'm going to take 2 minutes to make sure that everybody is up to speed on the Cuban Revolution.
The Cuban Revolution In 2 Minutes
The Cuban Revolution was one of the most unlikely success stories in modern history. Although fighting had been going on intermittently since 1953, it wasn't until 1956 that Fidel Castro (you've heard of him, right?) and 80 of his fellow rebels sailed a small yacht called the Granma from Veracruz, Mexico, back to their home country of Cuba. At the time, Cuba was controlled by the U.S.-backed Batista regime, which meant that Castro and his rebels were at a huge disadvantage. Their forces grew organically, but progress was slow, as they suffered frequent personnel losses from battles with Bastista's forces. The Bastista regime was supposedly responsible for committing a laundry-list of war crimes against these rebels at various points during this civil war, and I 100% believe it. The tide was turning, and things got pretty fucked up.
On New Years Day of 1959, Castro and his rebels successfully ousted President Batista from his Havana palace to take control of Cuba. This was a truly unexpected outcome of the Cuban Civil War. The Batista regime was backed by the most powerful and ruthless country in the world (America), and this revolution had been reduced to 80 people crammed onto a tiny boat less than 3 years earlier. It's an incredible story.
Over the past 70 years, the U.S. has made an unofficial foreign policy of toppling the governments of weaker countries in order to turn them into puppets and exert their economic influence. To my fellow Americans, if that sounds biased, then I would encourage you to do some research. It's been a long time since Americans have been the good guys in these types of situations. Most history books are filled with cryptic accounts of the U.S. bulldozing weaker nations for the sake of profits. Many of these nations have never fully recovered from these interferences.
The Cuban Revolution was by no means the only time that a weaker nation has successfully stood up to the United States; the Vietnam War immediately comes to mind as another example. However, thanks to the complex, ever-changing global dynamics that have been at play during each of these conflicts, most of these stories get pretty convoluted. The Cuban Revolution is, unquestionably, the most clear-cut David and Goliath story from this chapter of history. It's a pretty inspiring saga.
Visiting The Museum Of The Revolution
Needless to say, the Cuban government is pretty proud of their narrative, as they should be. And if you want to hear that narrative straight from the horse's mouth (so to speak), the best place to go is Havana'a Museum of the Revolution. This museum sits in a bustling square of Old Havana, in what was formerly the Presidential Palace. Yup, this is where ex-President Batista lived before he was ousted. Castro putting this museum here was, I'm sure, a satisfying last middle finger to the regime he had overthrown.
There was a long line to get into this museum, so we waited. Entry into the museum cost 8.00 CUC (8.00 USD). Once we were inside, we followed the signs that lead us through room after room full of artifacts, photographs, newspaper clippings, and text. These rooms were ordered to move visitors through time, from the beginning of the revolution to its ultimate success. It was very interesting, but I will say that, as we moved through these rooms, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the blatancy of the bias in the story I was being told.
For purposes of this revolution, I would definitely consider myself to be team Cuba... but some of what I read through these rooms threw up major red flags. For example, in talking about the casualties sustained by each side of this civil war, they described their own forces killing enemy combatants with flowery language as heroic acts of patriotism... yet repeatedly called the casualties that they themselves had sustained as "murders." Obviously history is written by the victors, so all history books are biased, but this was particularly aggressive.
Anyway, I shrugged it off, and moved on. The museum itself was beautiful and I was learning a lot as I moved through it. Some bias is to be expected. Here are a few shots from former Presidential Palace...
Behind the museum, in a separate, outdoor compound, the Granma is on display, along with other large military artifacts such as planes and tanks. Remember that the Granma is the boat that carried the original 80 rebels from Mexico to Cuba. The glass surrounding this boat prevented me from getting a great picture of it, but suffice to say, it was small. Definitely too small to fit 80 people. I was impressed. Here are a few pictures of that outdoor complex...
The thing about this museum is that it actually has a lot of exhibits about things that happened a long time after the Cuban Revolution. These events include the C.I.A.'s killing of Che Guevara, the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as a other miscellaneous instances of friction with the United States. Honestly, pretty much all of the space in this museum not filled with things from the Cuban Revolution is devoted to trash-talking America.
They even have a hall of insulting caricatures of U.S. presidents, including George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Regan, all done in the style of political cartoons. I'm aware of their many assassination attempts against Castro, and I also have some pretty negative things to say about this list of presidents, but still, I think most people would agree that this is a pretty unsubstantial use of space. And also, just, um, like, I dunno... a little immature? Just saying.
Anyway, if you've ever heard me talk about America, you know that I've got a lot of negative things to say, now more so than ever before! But even I have my limits. At the end of the day, America is still my home, so I will admit to some bias here. But, honestly, I really feel like this museum would have made me feel a little weird even if I wasn't American. Generally, people don't come to museums like this for the trash talk; they come for the history. And this museum had one item in particular that really went above and beyond to sour my sentiments.
At the last part of this outdoor area, there are a few scraps of metal on display. The sign read that these are the scraps of the American U-2 plane that Cuba had famously shot down during the Cuba Missile Crisis. Here's a picture of those metal fragments:
First of all, I want to do a quick fact check here. It's true that an American U-2 plane was shot down over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it's definitely NOT true that it was the Cuban military that did it. It was the Soviets that shot this plane down. If you want to see for yourself, here's the History Channel, Vanity Fair, National Security Archive, and the Boston Globe confirming it. So I was already frustrated that they (the Cuban government) were trying to pass this off as their own accomplishment. Fake news.
Second, and more importantly, I've literally never even heard of a government putting the wreckage of an enemy aircraft on display in a museum for trash-talking purposes. The fact that Castro felt proud enough of having "shot down" this one plane that he would put the wreckage on display in this museum says a lot more about him than it does the U.S. Never mind the fact that a person died in this plane (and that they claim to take "murder" so seriously). Even if it had been Cuba that shot it down, SO WHAT? It's one plane. The American military is mind-bogglingly huge. In the grand scheme of things, one plane is nothing. But to Castro, it was everything. I'm not even going to try to be nice about this: this struck me as kind of pathetic.
In a weird way, this plane still being on display after almost 60 years is actually a compliment to the U.S.
Look, I'm not going to waste too much of your time dwelling on how poorly the U.S. has treated Cuba. I'm also not going to waste your time dwelling on how the U.S. was the bad guy in the story of the Cuban Revolution. Nor am I going to waste your time telling you how the U.S. has been (and continues to be) the bad guy in countless other altercations around the world. You should already know that, and I've got the whole rest of Peter's Big Adventure to continue to discuss all that is wrong with America. That's not what I want to talk about right now.
What I want to talk about is the Cuban Government.
There have been (and still are) a lot of bad things happening in the world, so the idea of a revolution feels really good. Now more so than ever. I like to think of myself as a pretty progressive guy in almost all areas. And many of my fellow progressives would consider Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to be heroes. Guevara is particularly iconic. And, before I fully understood their story, I probably would have agreed. But now I'm not so sure.
I still feel that the success of the Cuban Revolution was a very cool moment in history. It was a true David and Goliath story—pure rock and roll. However, in reclaiming their country from the hands of Batista's puppet government, these rebels took on a new responsibility: actually running Cuba. And how has it been going?
MAINTENANCE: Well, to start with, have you SEEN Cuba? It's literally in ruins. It's actually shocking that Cuba continues to function as normal using the rotting infrastructure left behind by the U.S., Spain, and Batista. No government that has let their nation slip into this level of disrepair over such a prolonged period of time can possibly be doing its job well. And 2017 has seen a particularly catastrophic hurricane season for the Caribbean. I can't imagine that Havana would hold up very well in a major storm, let alone a category 4 hurricane. It's in a fragile state. But Cuba has issues with more than just decrepit-ness.
INTERNET: The internet is pretty much non-existent in Cuba. A few years ago, that might not have been a big deal, but we are well into the 21st century at this point. Lack of internet access has become absolutely crippling to participation the global economy, which is becoming more and more apparent as Cuba's fledgling tourism industry struggles to come into its own. Using the internet in Cuba is theoretically possible, but it's too expensive for most Cuban citizens. (I'll talk about more financial problems in Cuba soon.) Internet in Cuba is also very slow and subject to government spying. Yes, the Cuban government monitors all of web activities within its borders, which is very "big brother" of them. Creepy.
FREE SPEECH: Why are they monitoring what people are doing online? Well, one big reason is that Cuba has no free speech! Maybe I should have led with that one. Say what you want about America, but the fact that I am able to write articles like this one without fear of "disappearing" is pretty great, and should not be taken for granted. Free speech is profoundly important. During my time in Cuba, I made a point to use my Spanish skills to try to talk to politics with people that I felt comfortable with. When asked about their thoughts on the Cuban government, their responses never failed to leave me with a sense of uneasiness. In each case, answers came with a sense of muted exasperation. Each of these people seemed to struggle to recite something about their government that was, objectively, both true and good. I had to read between the lines in these interactions. I always felt as though these people had more to say, but something was preventing them from saying it. It was very weird.
MONEY: Cuban citizens get a government allowance of about 25 USD per month, and that's pretty much what they have to live on. Granted, 25 USD goes a lot farther in Cuba than it does in the U.S., but it's still a small amount of money. It's just barely enough money to ensure survival. Most of the rest of people's reported income is taken in taxes, and for this reason, Cuba is extremely poor. It's poor enough that hanging used diapers on clothes lines to be reused is a common practice among parents. I've definitely got some Socialist leanings, but on a fundamental level, I still believe that people need to be able to control their own circumstances. If working hard won't result in a better life, then what's the point of doing anything? A government controlling the livelihood of its citizens the way Cuba does is not equity; it's a God complex.
ETC: On top of all this, in the years since the Cuban Revolution, Castro's government has been guilty of doing some other things that are truly and objectively bad, including executing political opposition, selling the blood of these victims on the black market, actively oppressing the LGBTQ community, oppressing religious activities... the list goes on.
By now, I've met quite a few people who have had a lot of positive things to say about Castro and the Cuban government, and these people have brought up some good points. Cuba is extremely safe. Cuban citizens, for the most part, have all that they need to survive. Cuba has a great public healthcare system. And the plight of the working class is a real priority for the Cuban government.
On paper, these are some significant and compelling things. But these things have come at the cost of even the most basic freedoms. I will concede that the Cuban government has done a good job of making sure that their citizens (a) have access to adequate healthcare, (b) are relatively safe, and (c) do not starve, but that's not enough. That's the same level of care that I provided to my childhood hamster. I always made sure that it was safe, that it had food, if it was sick, I would take it to the vet. That hamster had a great life, so long as all it wanted to do was eat, sleep, and repeat. In the same way, it's great to be a Cuban citizen, so long as all you want to do is survive and stay in the exact same spot you were born. But to be human is to aspire to more. No government should stand in the way of that.
Advocates for Castro sometimes fire back by saying that the biggest reason why Cuba is so poor and in such as state of disrepair is the economic sanctions placed on them by the U.S. I'm not going to deny that these sanctions must have made things more difficult, but WAY too much time has passed for the U.S. to still be used as a scapegoat here. It's been almost 60 years. Clearly there are some bigger issues with the Cuban government, and if you ask me, this is one of the most interesting...
The Cuban government still identifies itself as "The Revolution." If you visit Havana, you will find political propaganda sprawled everywhere, all saying things like...
"60 Years Of Victory!"
"Continue The Revolution!"
"Cuba Is Ours!"
These sorts of phrases might have made some sense 2 or 3 years after the Cuban Revolution, but NOW? The Cuban Revolution was a long time ago! It was cool when it happened, but at what point do the rebels officially become the government? At what point does the Castro regime become responsible for what is happening in its own country?
Here's a fun fact: the United States was also founded as the result of a successful revolution against (what was at the time) the most powerful nation in the world. It was, in some ways, the Cuba of its day. Does that mean that America can also call itself "the revolution?" Of course not—not anymore! The moment America's Revolutionary War was over, America's "Founding Fathers" took responsibility for running the country they had created. To identify themselves as "the revolution" after the revolution had already ended would have de-legitimized their newly founded nation. Unfortunately, in many ways, America ended up turning into sort of a monster, but America being bad doesn't make Cuba good.
The sad truth is that there are no good guys in the story of the Cuban Revolution.
You can argue about who is worse for eternity, but at the end of the day, it's all pretty bad. And, if you ask me, the sooner we stop feeling compelled to take sides in conflicts like this and instead start thinking for ourselves to call it like it is, the sooner things will change. Unfortunately, as it stands today, most Americans have been indoctrinated to believe that Cuba (or, the Cuban government at least) is bad. Likewise, most Cubans have been indoctrinated to believe that the American government is bad.
And you know what?
They're both right.
This is the final article in our series on Cuba, and I want to end it by saying a few words about the amazing people that I met during my time here.
I have nothing but good things to report about Cuban people. They were strong, resilient, kind, interesting, colorful, and proud, but above all, they were not put-off in the slightest by my American passport. They treated me as a fellow human, and that was profoundly encouraging to me. Our governments can sling mud at one another all they want, but I hope that there never comes a day when the PEOPLE of our two nations stop being friends.
For real though, the Cuban Revolution was rock & roll.
They stuck it to the man.