Memories of Cuba

By Steve Siciliano

The news of Fidel Castro’s death last week brought back memories of a trip my wife Barb and I took to Cuba about ten years ago with a Grand Rapids based charity called First-Hand Aid.

The organization solicits volunteers to make periodic trips to Cuba to deliver much needed medical supplies to hospitals and clinics. Our group of travelers stayed in Havana with Cuban families during the weeklong visit. We ate meals with them in their homes and drank Bucanero beer and Havana Club rum with them in cafes and bars. We were chauffeured around the country’s beautiful but often crumbling capital city in 1950s-era Fords, Chevies and Buicks. We witnessed first-hand the economic impact that 50-plus years of Castro rule has had on the Cuban populace.

One of my most poignant memories of that trip was of the day we delivered the medical supplies we carried to the island in our luggage to a children's cancer clinic in Havana. The heads of a number of young patients were heavily bandaged and we were told that removing an eye was the only recourse that doctors had for treating certain cancers. The children clutched the little stuffed animals that we gave them while their mothers sat silently on hard folding chairs next to their beds. That same day we went to a ration store that had practically nothing on its shelves.

In November of 1956, Fidel Castro and a group of 81 rebels, among them his brother Raul and a young Argentinian doctor named Che Guevara, departed from Mexico on a leaky 60-foot cabin cruiser. Two weeks later they landed on Cuba’s southern coast and from there revived the revolt against the authoritarian regime of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista that had been quelled three years earlier. Castro and the surviving rebels of that failed attempt were jailed. “Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me,” he famously stated at the conclusion of his trial.

Castro’s second attempt at ousting the cruel and corrupt Batista succeeded but his promise of holding free and fair elections was never fulfilled. Political opponents were summarily executed, personal property was seized, industry was nationalized and a one-party socialist state was created. In response, the United States instituted a trade embargo that continues to this day.

There are those who maintain that the embargo is the root cause of Cuba’s continued economic problems. They argue that the embargo should be lifted and I agree that it should. But we must also remember that it was Castro’s policies that instigated the embargo and it’s the stubborn adherence to these failed policies that is perpetuating the appalling economic condition of common Cuban people.

When viewed in that light it must be argued that Castro’s revolution failed and it is in that light that Fidel Castro’s historical legacy must ultimately be judged.

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