Posted on Wednesday, 12.31.08
In communist Cuba, a whiff of rugged individualism
BY WILL WEISSERT
SIERRA MAESTRA, Cuba — Juan González loves Fidel Castro. But he is also
''The people do what they can. They don't just sit around and wait for
the government to give them everything,'' the 59-year-old said, standing
on his dusty front porch. “If they waited for the government to keep
all its promises, they would have to wait a long time. Fifty more years,
It sounds like the kind of rugged individualism that would resonate with
Americans, but this is the mountainous Sierra Maestra of eastern Cuba,
the cradle of the revolution that brought Castro to power 50 years ago
New Year's Day, ushering in a communist era of promised egalitarianism
under big, all-controlling government.
Here, more than 500 miles from Havana, people tend to speak their minds
more freely, even grumble openly about their privations.
They also see a growing generation gap — between elder Cubans who
wholeheartedly support the communist system and youngsters yearning for
change, at a time when the ailing, 82-year-old Castro has been replaced
by his younger brother, Raúl, and Barack Obama is about to move into the
The Sierra Maestra is where Castro and his guerrillas prevailed over
10,000 soldiers sent in by dictator Fulgencio Batista in May 1958 and
eventually forced Batista to flee Cuba on Jan. 1 of the following year.
González, from the village of Santo Domingo, was 9 years old when the
rebellion Cubans call la revolución triumphed.
Now, as the revolution turns 50, how does he feel about it? ''The people
here feel good, but not everyone has the same amount of pride,'' he said.
That's because the promises of a shining future have not come as fast as
they may have hoped. Electricity, running water and phone service are
relatively new here. Some families still live in dirt-floored shacks and
wash their clothes in rivers. Carts pulled by oxen, donkeys or horses
outnumber cars and trucks.
González is charged with the upkeep of his grandfather's homestead, now
a historical site. The biggest problem, he says, is a lack of public
transport. The area had a single ambulance but a few years ago “it
broke and some people died because of that.''
Soviet engineers only brought electricity to the area in 1986.
South of Santo Domingo lies Comandancia de la Plata, the hideout where
Fidel Castro directed the final rebel push. He lived in a wooden hut
with a roof of palm leaves. Outside, still encrusted with bullet
fragments, is the tree on which he practiced his marksmanship.
Luis Angel Segura, 55, is a guide who leads tourists up a muddy mule
trail to the hut. Spend a few hours with him, and long-held complaints
begin to bubble to the surface. What makes him angry is not too little
government but too much — farmers can only grow what the state tells
them to, and only sell their produce back to the government.
''There should be more autonomy,'' he said. “But, as they tell us,
'we're all Cuba.'''
Still, no one here misses Batista. Like many Cubans in these parts,
Segura calls the pre-Castro era “the tyranny.''
About 600 people live in the isolated mountains around Comandancia de la
Plata. Solar panels power tiny schoolhouses and health clinics. In the
farthest regions, teachers live with pupils' families and doctors make
house calls. Like nearly all Cubans, people here live rent-free and get
monthly rations of basic food.
The government expanded a two-lane mountain highway through the area,
but there's so little traffic that farmers dry their coffee beans on the
asphalt. Goats, pigs, donkeys and dogs sleep on it undisturbed.
Many families have TVs bought with government credit, but few channels
reach deep into the mountains. To fill the void there are ''video
clubs,'' shacks that show pirated movies. Internet access is tightly
As in the cities, rural areas have ''Committees for the Defense of the
Revolution'' which meet to discuss community problems. Public attendance
''Everything here is well organized,'' said Julia Castillo, a housewife
in the Sierra Cristal, another eastern mountain range that was a rebel
stronghold. “But people complain and nothing happens.''
Ask Cubans to rate their education and medical care systems, and many
will talk instead about Batista's day — though few are old enough to
have experienced it. An exception is Ruben La O.
''Before the revolution, I couldn't read,'' said the 73-year-old, who
fought in Castro's rebel army. “Education is a gigantic weapon. Most
people don't understand that, but Fidel does.''
La O was 23 and from a reasonably well-to-do family of coffee farmers
when the rebels recruited him as lead singer for a quintet that
performed on Radio Rebelde, a propaganda station that Ernesto ''Che''
Guevara founded in the Sierra Maestra in 1958.
The musicians still don olive-green rebel uniforms and play songs
denouncing Batista for tourists. They live in a row of concrete houses
Castro ordered built for them in 1981, and, to honor the 50th
anniversary of the revolution, each has been given a new mo-ped.
''In capitalism there are no schools. Socialism has solidarity,
education, health and societal development that capitalism can't
fathom,'' said Alejandro Molina, the quintet's 69-year-old founder and
But La O's brother Alcides, a fellow quintet member, said the lesson is
lost on many younger Cubans.
''There are lots of schools and lots of people who don't want to
study,'' he said. “They don't take advantage of all they have.''
Alejandro, a farm worker who lives nearby, says the problem is not
apathy but a lack of freedom.
''Solidarity? Fine. But it is no substitute for political change,'' said
the 26-year-old, who lives with his parents and didn't want to cause
them problems by giving his surname. “People are ready for new things.
There's a lot of frustration.''