Posted on Fri, Jan. 02, 2009
Approval, discontent greet Castro revolution's 50th year in Cuba
By MIAMI HERALD STAFF
At Parque Dolores, tourist buses filled with Canadians and Europeans lugging cameras that cost two years' wages here listen to musical trios while elderly men pick through the trash.
The handicapped beg for coins under the mindful eye of a police officer. Aging newspaper hawkers trying to supplement their $9 monthly pensions sell copies of the government newspaper with the proud headline -- ``Keeps going down! Infant Mortality at 4.7!''
''Nothing in the world is better than this,'' said Raúl Ferrer, 86, a retired ship worker who spent Friday afternoon dozing on a bench.
''There is no other place that takes care of its elderly and children the way Cuba does. I quite honestly would be dead in my grave if it were not for this,'' Ferrer said, pointing to newspaper coverage of Thursday's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the revolution.
Some in Santiago and Havana who watched Raúl Castro's national address praised Fidel Castro for igniting the revolution that toppled a dictator, while others said the speech ignored the economic pain Cubans are feeling.
''He is saying nothing new,'' said Brenda, a Havana economist in her late 40s who kept making exasperated expressions as Castro spoke. ``He is saying nothing that all those people sitting there have not heard and know already.''
Others simply tuned out.
''I was not even interested in watching,'' said Regina, a housewife in her 40s. ``My husband kept calling me from the other room to go and watch it and I didn't.''
Conversations with Cubans in the eastern city of Santiago, the birthplace of the revolution, seem to mirror wider discussions -- some hushed -- about the revolution's future and legacy.
Ferrer's sister and brother-in-law were among insurgents who helped oust dictator Fulgencio Batista five decades ago. The years that followed saw a redistribution of wealth that caused the rich to flee and everyone else to become more or less poor.
''I used to be a big fan of the United States,'' Ferrer said. ''I loved it. But reading and reading, reading this,'' he said, pointing to the paper again, ``my eyes slowly started opening.''
He recounted spending 15 days in a Cuban hospital long ago and never paying a bill. Now, he is waiting for a slot in a home for the aged. In the meantime, Ferrer sleeps on a mat at a building he keeps an eye on at night.
''I am quite happy here,'' he said.
Not so for cab driver Andres. As he hoped to pick up some of the tourists near the square, he rolled his eyes hearing people talk of the 50th anniversary commemoration.
''I did not watch it,'' Andres said. 'I and most other Cuban people are tired of the lies. It's lies, lies and more lies. They get up there and talk to the Cuban people telling us, `You have to do this, you have to do that. You have to struggle.' I believe things I can see. You have to touch and feel reality. Nothing they said can be touched or felt. None of it was real.''
Francisco, 64, who sells peanuts to tourists in the plaza, praises the revolution.
''If the revolution had not won, who knows what shape this country would be in. My dad was a laborer for 20 cents a day, not a penny more,'' he said. ``Now look around. Every kid you see has a big belly and a scoop of ice cream in his hand.''
But he acknowledges a difficult life. He has to sell at least two dozen paper cones filled with nuts before he can afford a bar of soap and detergent to wash his guayabera.
''I watched the celebration of the anniversary last night on TV. It was very nicely decorated,'' he said, without a hint of irony in his voice.
A drummer singing Guantanamera to the tourists who refused to purchase peanuts proudly recounts how he was a fighter during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion backed by the CIA and squelched by the Cuban government. He shakes his head at a belligerent elderly man who puts an old plastic ice cream cup in front of tourists' tables and won't leave until they drop in a coin.
''You have shameless people who don't want to struggle. Look at that old man, asking for money when he gets the same pension as me,'' said drummer Miguel Portuondo, 64, who goes by the stage name Bocú Yeyé. ``There are women at all the nightclubs in town batting their eyelashes sweetly, acting all innocent, when really they are pretending not to be prostitutes. Why? Because they do not want to work. They do not want to study.''
Portuondo did both. He joined the rebels at age 14, distributing underground propaganda in the city. 'I was only 14, but I was not the youngest! There were children as young as 12. Of course, I did not even know what I was struggling for, but my parents' hatred for Batista was so great that they had me distributing propaganda for the rebels.''
He later fought at the Bay of Pigs, although he did not know then what he was fighting against. On Thursday, he was one of the special invited guests at the historic celebration in Parque Cespedes. He was there as a former rebel fighter and renowned local musician. He keeps all his press clippings in his briefcase to prove it.
''For me, it was a very proud occasion,'' Portuondo said. ``These 50 years have been beautiful. Sure, we have to struggle, but this country gives you what you need to struggle -- an education. I studied, became a professional musician and retired. Now I am out here working and struggling to make a few extra dollars. There is nothing wrong with that.''
''The people who criticize this system or just want to leave have been co-opted by the desire for capitalism. But capitalism does not offer any love, affection or respect for the people,'' Portuondo said.
He said he proudly watched Castro's speech, calling it ``decisive.''
''He is a man who says things as they are: Two plus two equals four, not five,'' he said. ``That's how it is, and that's how he says it. He has a lot of virtues, just like his brother.''
The names of the correspondents who filed this report and the surnames of some of those interviewed were not published because the reporters lacked the journalist visa required by the Cuban government.