Fidel decided to retire from almost half a century of leadership this week. I saw him last in April 2001. “The worst is over,” he told the person next to me in the hallway. “The issue is developing socialism.” Poking his finger into my chest, he asked about the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, and the state of poverty in the areas — far worse than anything Cubans went through.
His worldly concerns stand in stark contrast to Cubans who daily headed north for more prosperity.
Last May in Havana, some whose fathers served in Angola, asked me about life in the United States. Those in their 20s and 30s felt frustrated. Some had the PhDs and Masters degrees and worked at jobs beneath their education and skill levels. The biggest complaint was how they spent parts of their day “resolviendo” problems of material existence.
Last year, a veterinarian who drove a taxi in Havana asked me if the United States was indeed the paradise that she and her friends imagined, that wonderful place seen in movies. Letters from friends and family who had migrated indicated that most of them liked it better. I told her that in Miami I saw Cubans cleaning toilets and mopping floors at the airport while others drove Cadillacs.
“Which one will you be?”
She shook her head. She didn’t know. She would think more about leaving.
In Miami, I asked a waitress in a Cuban restaurant. You want to return to Cuba?
“Some days,” she replied. “I felt less tense there, although I got anxious trying to get food, soap, shampoo. Who knows?”
Cubans arrive each week in Florida, but not all the new arrivals enter Paradise. Indeed, rapid social mobility for people without U.S. college degrees — the vast majority of immigrants — has slowed to a crawl. According to a Brookings Institution study, in 2004 “only 15 percent of Miami’s households are in that income bracket ($34,000 and $51,000),” compared to 20% nationally.
For African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Nicaraguans, and Haitians median household income in Dade County was at least $20,000 less than “white median household income.” Cubans fare somewhat better. The original anti-Castroistas, Batista supporters, moneyed and professional classes, came with material assets and education. Their children and grandchildren benefited from their original and accumulated wealth — some of it stolen from the Cuban Treasury. Batista military officials hijacked planes and ships to haul stolen loot to Florida shortly before the revolutionaries seized power. Rather than charge them with theft and airplane and ship hijacking, the U.S. government welcomed them and never returned the stolen money.
Subsequent migrations brought the less affluent, many of whom have joined Miami’s immense underpaid class in underpaid service and retail trades. The Brookings study revealed that “wages, regardless of industry sector or occupation type, are lower in Miami-Dade than elsewhere.”
A native New Yorker, driving through Miami slums, doesn’t get it. The monster-sized airport, the flashy hotels and modern office buildings, the art deco Miami Beach area speak to affluence. In almost all black Liberty City and Little Haiti one doesn’t see rotting tenements, the trademark of northeast cities. Nor do homeless people huddle over subway grates in mid winter ice. Yet, in 2004, Miami ranked as the city with the lowest median household income: $24,031. Newark, NJ ranked second poorest with $26,309. The national median income is $42,000.
Some 10 million people drop in and out of the Miami area during the year. Millions of others know it from the “Miami Vice” series, where cops and drug dealers dress in super mod outfits, or from “CSI Miami,” in which expensive technology dominates the set. Miami tourism promoters sell beaches and weather. The celebrity-rich own homes and yachts there. The hotels thrive on conventions and cruise ships await the eager vacationers who might spend one night at a five star hotel before boring themselves into a stupor at sea.
The rich adore the place. At DeVito’s restaurant in South Beach (yes, Danny’s place) the entrees range from $40-60 — not counting drinks or salads or deserts. On Valentine’s Day the tables began filling early. Those who peel the onions and potatoes and dump the restaurant’s garbage don’t earn the price of a meal for an eight hour shift. Miami’s media median household income ranks lowest in the country: $23,483.
Some of the low income earners came from Cuba. Some of the homeless are also Cubans. One Cuban woman, a “Peter Pan” kid — a CIA-Catholic Church operation that removed thousands of Cuban kids from their parents to the United States in the early 1960s — said she “rediscovered my Cuba.” Her first return visit in 1994, during very difficult economic times, “showed me that the values on the island were better, more caring. In the United States if you’re poor you have few resources. In Cuba you have some safety net and you always have family.”
“Poverty in every childhood poisons the brain,” Paul Krugman opened his February 18 New York Times column, quoting a report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In the United States poor kids feel like outcasts and therefore suffer “unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impact their neural development.”
One understands poverty in most third world countries. Even though income disparity is wildly askew, the total wealth remains insufficient to provide each citizen with basic needs. In the United States, Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty did reduce the rate of poverty from 23 to 14%. “But progress stalled thereafter,” wrote Krugman.
I think of the smug criticisms of Cuba’s inability to provide sufficiently for all of its citizens while Washington poured untold hundreds of billions into wars in Vietnam and Iraq. I think of the hundreds of billions poured into ridiculous weapons systems that defended no one against anything and never will and the little uniformed kids singing the anthem outside of a Cuban school in Havana and little Cuban-American kids in Miami whose parents or parent has yet to rise above the poverty line.
The anti-Castroites won’t have Fidel to kick around any more, but the “post-Castro” era features Raul Castro still in charge and few basic institutional changes in the forecast.
In Miami, I’d seen the same desperate Edward Munch Silent Scream look on Cuban faces that I’d witnessed in Havana. A woman waiting for the bus stared vacantly into space as if her lover had left her, her kids had died, and she just didn’t know if she could continue. In Miami I saw a similar expression on a tired middle-aged woman serving the Cuban coffee through a window. She complained her feet hurt, she couldn’t subsist on $9 an hour, and her husband only made $12 an hour as a security guard. “How can we live like this?” she asked me or herself.
“Do you think about going back?”
She shrugged. A non-starter! She, like 1.5 other million Cubans had made a decision to leave and they have to live with it. Some love it, some accept it, and some regret it. All will admit that Fidel Castro changed their lives.
How will Cubans assess him now that he can’t carry out the duties of office because of health? In nearly half a century Castro led Cuba from U.S. informal economic colony into nationhood — sovereignty. Cubans defeated a 1961 U.S.-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs, followed by thousands of CIA-led terrorist attacks and survived the 1962 Missile Crisis. By the 1970s, Cubans began to enjoy good health and high levels of education — unique for most third world countries.
When Castro went to the hospital in July 2006, nothing changed in Cuban daily life. The revolution exacted a price: divided families, absence of procedural freedoms and a struggle against harsh reality since the Soviet collapse.
Castro has become an interesting literary figure in his recuperation. Castro’s will, vision, and perseverance helped put Cuba on the stage of history — despite great efforts from Washington to keep it down. For this, Castro stands as David against Goliath.
That Cubans risk their lives to leave the island for better opportunities in Florida show that Cuban socialism is struggling, but far from dead. While Castro remains alive, even bed-ridden, he will use his agile mind to improve the world’s last experiment in socialism.
His successors will be chosen from a pool of capable men and women. Raul in his late 70s will not endure much longer. Look for Carlos Lage and people from his generation to assume leadership; government will become more committee-style.
Fidel was the father of modern Cuba. Think of the thousands of Cuban names etched in honor-rolls throughout the world in science, medicine, sports, art, film, literature and music. Cuban doctors saved lives in Pakistan, Vietnam, throughout Africa the Middle East and Latin America.
Under Castro, a nation without strategic resources changed history in southern Africa. In 1987-8, Cuban troops in Angola defeated the apartheid South Africa forces and thus forced the opening that allowed Nelson Mandela to become President. A Cuban tank unit fought in the 1973 Middle East war. Castro’s ideological sons now serve as elected presidents of several Latin American countries America; more distant relative govern other countries — ones the U.S. used to control.
The U.S. isolated Cuba in the 1960s. Now, Cuba relates to the rest of the hemisphere — save for the United States. Castro also changed the United States by exporting his enemies — to his larger enemy. In turn, Cuban-Americans in Florida, especially in the 2000 elections, changed U.S. destiny.