Anniversary celebration of the victory of the Revolution. Credit: Courtesy / Larry Hufford

In response to the death of Fidel Castro, many demonstrators and Cuban-Americans have demonized the longtime Cuban political leader as if he had been the worst dictator in the history of humankind. This is only one side of the story – and not necessarily the side the majority of Cubans stand on.

As a professor of International Relations, I studied with students in Cuba on two occasions in the late 1990s. One trip began with a week in Haiti, where there was no functioning government at the time. In the capital city of Port-au-Prince, garbage was piled 15-20 feet high in intersections. The marketplace was full of rats running over produce and meat. There was no potable water being delivered and no operational sewage system. At night we would hear gunshots, so we stayed indoors after sunset at the homeless children’s shelter where we were housed.

The rural areas we visited were marked by total deforestation and an absence of produce being grown. The only medical doctors to be found were from Cuba. None were from the United States. In short, conditions were horrific.

From Haiti we flew to Cuba, and the students’ tension visibly faded upon landing. Cuba under Castro was obviously authoritarian, but it was not a Third World country. Cubans did suffer after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when basic necessities were in short supply, but people were not starving or organizing to overthrow the Castro regime.

The purpose of the Cuban Revolution was to create a society with great emphasis on education and health care. In these areas, the Castro regime was, and remains, quite successful compared with most of Latin America. The Cuban people have a high literacy rate, and perhaps the greatest export of Cuba is the medical doctors sent to other countries to serve the poorest of the poor.

One of Cuba’s major sources of income at that time was a medical system advanced to the point where Latin Americans who could afford it would travel to Havana for specialized treatment and surgery. The wealthiest Latin Americans went to the United States for treatment, but Cuba provided an option for the non-wealthy.

At that time, the Cuban government had begun to allow a few families to become entrepreneurial. For example, we could dine in a small, privately owned restaurant with a maximum seating of 12. There was also a market where farmers could bring a certain percentage of their crops or livestock to sell. Spain and Canada were investing in Cuba, and the tourism industry was in an early stage of development.

Market where farmers could sell meat for private profit. (Note that this market is in Cuba, not Haiti. Hufford mentions a Haitian meat market in his op-ed.)
A Cuban market where farmers could sell meat for private profit. Credit: Courtesy / Larry Hufford

Cuba was and is not a democratic society, but it could best be described by the title of Maria Lopez Vigil’s book Cuba: Neither Heaven nor Hell, one of the works I assigned my students to read. While Cuba does have a healthy, educated population, the system has failed to provide sustainable job opportunities for many completing their studies. There is also an obvious limit to basic civil liberties.

Cubans expressed a desire for change, but not through outside interference. They were well-informed about U.S. efforts to overthrow the government and to assassinate Castro. Discussions with Cubans of different backgrounds and educational levels yielded the consensus that they wanted change to occur at a pace their government could control.

Cuban people were well aware of the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, so they understood that rapid political and economic change should not occur simultaneously.

Among those we met, nationalism was prevalent. Many hoped that the country could become a model of evolutionary development from authoritarianism and a state-planned economy to a more participatory political culture with increased entrepreneurial opportunities. They were also clear on what they did not want to happen:

  • They did not want the Cuban political and economic system to be handed over to who they called “the Miami boys.” In other words, they were against a return to the days of Castro’s predecessor, right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista.
  • They opposed becoming the 51st state of the United States and did not want the U.S. to dictate the speed or type of change coming to Cuba.
  • They did not want their economy to immediately be taken over by multinational corporations or to become “Cuba, Inc.” Instead, they supported development of small and medium-sized entrepreneurial ventures owned by Cubans who had not left the island.
  • They did not wish to see their country return to the tourism of the Batista period, which was focused on casinos and prostitution.
  • They did not want evangelical Christians flooding the island in an attempt to “save them.” However much they might have disagreed with Castro, they had a deep sense of the common good that would transcend individual salvation.

The death of Castro presents an opportunity for the U.S. to build on the renewed relationship between the countries, a result of President Barack Obama’s efforts. This relationship needs to solidify and grow so it can be one of mutual respect.

Children in an elementary school in rural Cuba.
Children in an elementary school in rural Cuba. Credit: Courtesy / Larry Hufford

The U.S. should allow Cubans to fully control the change that is coming to their country. Currently, the U.S. is not a political or economic model that the Cubans should exemplify. If Americans take seriously the phrase “government of, by, and for the people,” then that should be our export to the Cuban people.

Larry Hufford, Ph.D. is a Professor of Political Science and Graduate Program Director of International Relations at St. Mary’s University.