I saw Fidel everywhere when I studied in Havana in 2004. Not the man himself, but his image, broad-shouldered, bushy-bearded, on postcards and billboards, grinning slyly through rings of smoke or gazing ferociously over the horizon, finger pointed at an unseen oppressor. His words were immortalized in black and red spray paint on the ruins of art-deco high rises, baroque cathedrals, and Moorish mansions: Revolution is Unity, Revolution is Independence, Revolution is a Force More Powerful than Nature, Socialism or Death!
Some Cubans said he’d live forever. Other claimed he’d been dead for years, that the regime propped him for special occasions and stuck a cigar in his mouth, like Weekend at Bernie’s. Down the street from the peach-colored apartment complex where I lived with other US students, was a museum documenting the CIAs 637 attempts to kill him, including: exploding cigars and sea shells, poisoned milkshakes and scuba suits.
On April Fool’s day, we barged in on our roommate, Tara, who was in the middle of her siesta, and told her that Fidel was dead. Hurry! we ordered, pulling the sheets off her. There’s panic in the streets! We have to pack! Even in her semi-conscious state, Tara did not fall for any of it.
But when I heard the news of Fidel’s death on November 25, 2016, I didn’t doubt it for a second. After all, my country had just a elected president a reality TV star with the frustration tolerance of a two-year old. The sun might well revolve around the earth—or Ohio to be precise, and money could buy happiness—for just $1999.00 at ivankatrump.com. Compared to that, Fidel’s death was hardly unexpected.
Fidel did make once last post-mortem appearance, enclosed in a cedar box. The four-day funeral procession kicked off with one last rally in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, the same place where I once saw the Cuban dictator in the flesh. The occasion was May Day, 2004, International Workers Day. We had to be at the university by 3 a.m. to be in position for two mile march to the Plaza. I didn’t bring a red T-shirt so I had to borrow one from a Cuban classmate. The procession surged down the narrow streets of Havana and Vedado, past the rubble of colonial villas which had collapsed during the last hurricane. We waved our Cuban flags and chanted the slogans: Down with Bush! Down with Yankee imperialism! Viva Fidel! Viva la Revolución! There go our political careers, we joked. Another one for the CIA file! Our Cuban friends humored us, snapping our pictures with a banner that said, “Yankee Imperialism, until when?” In their world, dissent was no laughing matter. If they paraded around Havana with anti-Castro banners, they would face up to eight years in prison.
Our history professor at University of Havana told us that Cuba is not a dictatorship. It’s just that the people had unanimously chosen Fidel as their leader for the last forty-five years. In class we engaged in critical discussion of political and economic reform, drawing lessons from the failures of other Marxist-Leninist states. Our professors scoffed if we suggested that the problem might lay in Marxism itself. Obviously, we had been conditioned to think this way by our home universities, bastions of capitalist propaganda like Smith College and my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The sun was rising by the time we reached the Plaza de la Revolución. We took our place beside hundreds of students at the foot of the Jose Martí Memorial, a marble tower in the shape of a five-pointed star. Behind us rose the Ministry of the Interior, with its iconic steel relief of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and the words Hasta la Victoria Siempre, which loosely translates as Onward to Victory! The plaza filled in behind us; rows of infantrymen in olive drab; children riding on their fathers’ shoulders; handmade banners bobbing in a sea of red shirts: Viva Fidel! Cuba Sí! Yankee no! Homeland or Death! Onward to Victory! For most Cuban workers, attendance was mandatory, and enforced by supervisors and neighborhood party watchdogs. But looking around at their glowing, sleepless faces, I could detect no sign that they were not there by their own free choice.
For hours we lay on the concrete, watching the sky turn from grey to gold. Fidel was scheduled to speak at 9 a.m. but at 10 a.m. the stage was still filled with school children singing Guantanamera and reciting patriotic poetry. The pavement was heating up. I started to worry about my bladder. I knew that as soon as I went in search of a port-a-potty, Fidel would appear. What if he talked for six hours straight? He had been know to do that. When he was young, he used to talk for ten or twelve hours, at least that’s what they said.
At last he appeared, the man behind the curtain, the olive-clad, smoke-blowing Boogeyman of my parents’ Cold War childhoods. It was hard to believe they once cowered under their desks because of this man. We were about one hundred fifty feet from the podium, close enough to be sure it was the real, live Fidel, and not a stunt double. There was the wooly-beard, bushy eyebrows and aquiline nose. Despite the pronounced padding in the shoulders, Fidel looked skeletal in his rumpled green military suit. Wearing long sleeves and boots in ninety degree heat, it was a miracle the old man did not melt into an drab green puddle.
But as soon as Fidel opened his mouth and pointed his finger, he became larger than life. He launched a two hour oratory attack on the “fierce empire” and its allies, deploying the maximum number of words that could be contained in the Spanish sentence structure. His sentences fairly groaned—at least I did—under the weight of the rhetorical clauses.
“The government of the most powerful nation on earth, showing contempt for all norms concerning what the world understands as the elementary principles of human rights, created this horrible prison …” Fidel punctuated his speech by stabbing his finger in the air. “They could have used their own territory for such a bizarre contribution to civilization, but they did it on a stretch of land that they occupy illegally and forcibly in another country, Cuba, whom every year in Geneva they accuse of human rights violations.” I agreed with most of what he said, but I found his melodramatic style hard to take seriously. To me he was a telenovela dictator, fabulous but unbelievable.
Twelves years later, Fidel is dead, believe it or not, and without any help from the CIA or the Miami Mafia. There is no panic in the streets of the Havana. Even in 2004, the island nation was heading slowly in the direction of democracy, if not the form of democracy American capitalists envisioned for it. Fidel’s successor, Raul, has already announced that he will step down at the end of his current five-year term. For the first time in my life, authoritarianism looms larger on this side of the straits.
In place of olive fatigues, our telenovela tyrant wears a black suit and red tie. His trademark is the hair—or hair-like substance—covering his head, not his face. Beside him, Cowboy Bush, of whose in-eloquence we were once so earnestly ashamed, appears a refined statesman. We don’t have to worry about the President-elect speaking for ten hours straight, but a one hundred forty character tweet could bring us to the brink of war. Behind Trump’s eye-roll-inducing rhetoric there is no ideology, only self-interest. But like Fidel, the Donald is larger than life. He presides over massive rallies with similar showmanship, whipping his supporters into a frenzy: Build that Wall! Homeland or Death! Lock her up! Onward to Victory! Make America Great Again!
Anna Laird Barto spent a semester in Havana, Cuba, when she was an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She later received an MFA from Emerson College in Boston. Her work has appeared in Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments, Newfound Journal, EDGE, Gulf Stream, The Boiler, Sliver of Stone, and Juked. She lives and writes in Franklin County, Massachusetts, where she is also a caseworker for a local nonprofit and a children’s yoga teacher. Visit her at annalairdbarto.com.