Castro’s Cuba: Revolution unto Decay

Castro’s Resignation: Historic Change or Symbolic Act

Last Tuesday, Fidel Castro, who has been confined to his bed by illness for the last 19 months, gave up the almost unlimited power that he has wielded in Cuba for nearly 50 years. Although Castro’s statement wasn’t totally unexpected, it has received considerable attention in the media and from numerous American politicians. In his letter of resignation, the 81-year-old Fidel Castro reported that he was too ill to continue as head of state and would not stand in the way of others who were ready to take over. In the letter to the Cuban people written under his name, Castro said, “I am not saying goodbye to you. I only wish to fight as a soldier of ideas.”

However, it’s not clear whether his announcement truly represents a historic change, rather than simply a symbolic political act. For example, it was not clear what future role Fidel Castro might play in the new government, or whether he would retain other powerful positions, such as head of the Communist Party. Nevertheless, he did indicate that he was not yet ready to completely exit Cuba’s political stage.

His brother Raul, 76, officially has been named president, and some observers consider him to be more sensible and businesslike. In the past, Raul Castro has talked about bringing more accountability to government and possibly working to improve relations with the United States. Political analysts in the U.S. are saying that Raul Castro, will find himself under tremendous pressures to sustain his brother’s legacy, while at the same time trying to work to break it down and provide a measure of economic and political freedom for the Cuban people. However, long-time critics of the Castro regime claim that this change will do nothing to change the human rights situation, which continues to be unfavorable, or to end the one-party state.

In Havana, many of the older generation of Cubans who have maintained their admiration for Mr. Castro and his revolution, despite the crumbling conditions of the city, were disappointed by his announcement. However, it’s also being reported that members of the younger generation, who have become weary of what they saw as promises for a better life that never materialized, are hoping that there might be significant changes, although their hopes might be based more upon wishful thinking than on a realistic view of the political situation.

Cuba Under Fidel Castro’s Power

Castro first attracted attention in Cuban political life through his nationalist criticisms of Batista and United States corporate and political influences over Cuba. He began to attract an avid following, but also soon began to draw the attention of Cuban authorities. He eventually led the failed 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks, after which he was captured, tried, incarcerated and later released.

He then traveled to Mexico to organize and train for the guerrilla invasion of Cuba, which took place in December 1956. The final phase of the Cuban Revolution occurred in January, 1959, and he assumed power immediately. Since that time, Castro has evoked both praise and condemnation (at home and internationally). Castro is frequently described by opponents as a dictator and accused of gross human rights violations, including the execution of thousands of political opponents, while his supporters have hailed Castro as the charismatic liberator of Cuba.

Domestically, Fidel Castro has overseen the implementation of a wide range of economic policies, which in turn led to the rapid centralization of Cuba’s economy: land reform, collectivization of agriculture and the nationalization of leading Cuban industries. The expansion of publicly funded health care and education has been a cornerstone of Castro’s domestic social agenda. Some credit these policies for improvements in the lives of Cuba’s citizens. Others, however, view Castro and his policies as being responsible for Cuba’s general economic depredation, and they harshly criticize him for the criminalization of political dissent and free speech, as well as for provoking hundreds of thousands of Cubans to flee the country. In addition, many have blamed his policies for the extremely decayed state of structures in Cuba’s cities, as well as for the appalling living conditions of many Cubans.

The first video presented below focuses on the 1959 Cuban Revolution, while the second one takes a follow-up look at Castro’s Cuba in 1964, five years after the revolution had taken place. The third video shows Earnest Hemingway’s home in Cuba and describes the serious state of disrepair into which it had fallen. The concluding photo-gallery contains photographs taken during the 1959 Cuban Revolution, as well as other striking photographs of the urban decay that prevails in much of Cuba today.

The 1959 Cuban Revolution

Fidel Castro’s Cuba in 1964

Finca Vigia or Lookout Farm was the only house that Hemingway ever owned outright. He bought it in 1940. From its full staff of servants to its secluded swimming pool, the finca fitted Hemingway like his favorite guayabera, the traditional Cuban shirt. But feeling devastated by the political upheaval of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, he abandoned his longtime home where he had lived in somewhat shabby baronial luxury at a 19th-century estate in San Franciso dePaula, 10 miles east of Havana. The writer and his fourth wife sailed from Cuba in July 1960, leaving behind the silver, Venetian glassware, eight-thousand books, a small collection of paintings (a Paul Klee, two Juan Gris, five Andre Masson, one Braque), along with 70 cats and at least nine dogs. Hemingway never returned.

Not too long ago, the finca and its contents were in serious decline. Conditions were so bad that the National Trust for Historic Preservation named it as one of its 11 most endangered landmarks in 2005, the only building outside North America to make the list. The roof leaked water into the interior walls, causing mold to grow throughout the house, which lacked basic climate controls like dehumidifiers. The foundation was shifting, the stucco was peeling and steps were crumbling. The property even lacked a modern security system.

For now, through a unique partnership of Americans and Cubans, the main house has undergone renovation and is said to be in good shape, but there’s still much work to be done. The swimming pool, Hemingway’s landlocked fishing boat and the Guest House all remain in a severe state of disrepair.

The Bell Tolls: Hemingway’s Cuban Home in Decay

Music/The Buena Vista Social Club:

Castro’s Cuba: Revolution and Decay

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An Angel in Queens

Jorge Muñoz: An Angel in Queens

Each weekday, starting at 7 in the morning and continuing until 7 at night, weary-looking men dressed in threadbare jackets and worn running shoes gather at the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and 73rd Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, under the gloomy shadow of the el. Swiveling their heads as if watching a tennis match, the men scan each passing car, in the hope that a driver will stop and offer up $100 in exchange for a 10-hour day of grueling labor on a construction or demolition project on Long Island.

But offers of work are few these days, and competition for jobs is intense. As winter approaches, a man can easily spend the entire day shivering and desperately hungry, because these day laborers, many of them from Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America, are not only poor immigrants in need of work; many are also homeless, or nearly. “We come here to look for work,” said a 47-year-old Ecuadorean named Carlos Suarez as he hugged a cheap leopard-print comforter that serves as his bed. “There is none. What can we do?”

Mr. Suarez says that he has sometimes gone days without eating and has on occasion survived only on bread. But for the past three months, he has eaten at least one hot meal a day, thanks to a former illegal immigrant who, with the help of his mother, has become a guardian angel for these workers. The man, Jorge Muñoz, is an elfin 43-year-old who goes by the nickname Colombia, a reference to the country from which he emigrated 21 years ago. Every night around 9:30, he arrives at the intersection from his home in Woodhaven, driving a white pickup truck laden with enough home-cooked fare to feed the dozens of day laborers who congregate there.

For many New Yorkers, Thanksgiving is a weekend to indulge in a brief stint of volunteerism at a church or soup kitchen. For Mr. Muñoz, the holiday is just another night devoted to feeding his unofficial flock. “Every single night, Jorge is here,” said one worker, his leathery face peering out from a hooded sweatshirt. “Doesn’t matter. Rain, thunderstorm, lightning. He do that from his good will, you know.” “He feeds everybody, make the stomach happy,” the worker added. “He’s an angel.” “He got no life,” his sister says. “But he got a big heart.”

When Mr. Muñoz’s truck pulled in, several workers pressed their faces to the tinted windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of dinner. Hopping into the back of the truck, Mr. Muñoz began untying steaming containers filled with hot chocolate and foil-covered trays of homemade barbecued chicken. As the workers accepted Styrofoam containers stuffed with hearty portions of chicken and rice, they thanked him as respectfully as if he were a parent, never mind that the 5-foot-2 Mr. Muñoz, with his buzz cut and boyish grin, could pass for 20-something.

God bless you,” one burly worker said as he dug into his meal. “I haven’t eaten in three days.” Mr. Muñoz replied with a smile, “You can eat here every day at 9:30.” The relationship between Mr. Muñoz and many of the men he feeds is personal. “Uribe, you want more coffee?” he asked as he saw a familiar face. “Simon, do you want seconds on this pasta?

In a way, Mr. Muñoz seems to need these men as much as they need him. His unofficial meal program gives meaning and focus to his life. He is as eager to help his motley clientele as they are to be helped. “I know these people are waiting for me,” he said of the emotions that fuel his quixotic and perhaps obsessive crusade. “And I worry about them. You have to see their smile, man. That’s the way I get paid.”

Jorge Muñoz: An Angel in Queens

Adam B. Ellick has written a much more detailed article about Jorge Muñoz in The New York Times, which interested readers can access here.
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