Though long expected, the news of Fidel Castro’s demise rocked the Cuban world and beyond.
I was born in the Vedado neighborhood of La Habana, Cuba in 1961. At age 13 months my parents took me and we left the island forever. Though I remember nothing from then, my family’s history in Cuba is imprinted on me. During my first visit to Cuba in 2008, I finally saw for myself what I had seen in photos and envisioned in dreams.
As Cuban Jews we are proud of keeping our heritage alive: the Spanish language, the foods and drinks we enjoy, the gregarious family gatherings, and memories of the warm sea. My mother spoke often of growing up participating in Centro Israelita, the Jewish school, and Hanoar Hatzair, the socialist Jewish movement summer camp. My dad grew up east of Havana, in Victoria de las Tunas and Matanzas, commuting to Havana for university and to mix with other Jews who were scarce where he lived.
When my parents married in 1959 at el Patronato, the new Jewish community center in Havana, they were surrounded by the thriving community. My grandfather, Leon Reznik is named as a donor on a bronze plaque in the shul. This was all to end quite soon.
My first cousin Eduardo reminds me: as Jews we do not celebrate someone’s death. He made an exception on Saturday when he heard that el Comandante had passed. He drove two hours to mark the special day with ex-patriot friends. He celebrated the milestone as a Cuban.
Eduardo has lived in Israel since 2000, when he made aliyah from Havana. He left behind his parents and sister. His brother had already left to Spain. Eduardo says that “thanks to el Comandante,” he pushed himself to make a new life in Israel, where he has a wonderful wife and three daughters. Life is complicated in Israel, but he feels fortunate to live and express himself freely. He deeply regrets that his family is torn apart due to communism and that his parents can only rarely see their grandchildren.
He says it wasn’t horrible for his family in Castro’s Cuba, however others experienced extremely harsh times. I remember Eduardo’s father, my uncle, once telling me about experiencing the “special period,” the time between the fall of communist Russia, the Berlin wall, and when the Cuban government finally reopened the doors to tourism. Cuba was bereft of resources for many years. Its people literally became depressed and emaciated from lack of food, including my tall handsome uncle, who lost dozens of pounds. People tried escaping on rafts, in inner tubes — risking the shark-infested waters for the chance of freedom.
This terrible separation of family is a 57-year-old story in the lives of Cubans emigres and their loved ones left behind, and so Eduardo’s family and mine were divided by politics and geography for nearly 40 years.
In 1961, there were already severe food shortages in Havana. My father, Juan Bradman, the youngest judge in Cuba, served in different provinces, traveling to work in the countryside, and picking up whatever food he could bring back to Havana. Essentials soon became rationed and luxuries no longer existed. Foreign businesses became nationalized and local shops were taken over by the government. Those who had left had hardships, but counted their blessings; those left behind were stuck and made do with little. On my visit to Havana last June, we saw the ration shops and today, each Cuban citizen still has a ration card for the lowest level qualities of flour, sugar, rice, the bare essentials.
My dad calls Fidel a ruthless Stalinist dictator with a charismatic personality. He destroyed the island and should be remembered as a tyrant, rather than as a hero or savior. As a lawyer, Juan was told to help nationalize businesses and to join the party. He avoided those actions and immediately worked at getting his family out. One couldn’t stay in Cuba and disagree with the system, for you’d be thrown in jail.
There were neighborhood watch groups on each street and if you were heard or seen doing anything unusual you were reported. Everyone in Cuba learned to keep their thoughts to themselves. Today, journalists in Cuba get muted responses due to fear. My own uncle and aunt barely expressed their experiences. On our recent visit, we engaged with many Cubans and it took time to cultivate trust to elicit honest conversations. It’s difficult to comprehend that despite communism, there is a tiered monetary system and economic levels. Those we interacted with were involved in tourism and in a position to be more open than the average citizen.
My cousin Aida Melamed, New Jersey: “When I saw the news, my life passed before me. What he did to all of us, to all Cubans, is difficult to understand, that one person can be responsible for so much upheaval and pain.”
My aunt, Ana Fitter, in New Jersey, says “Fidel is dead and I’m not crying. He was a very powerful man who destroyed a beautiful country with a lot of potential. He separated families. Yes, his big accomplishment was educating youth, but the price they paid is that he jailed and killed parents, brothers and sisters who spoke against and defied his communist beliefs, without opportunity for a trial. He oppressed and starved the people without any regard for human life. I don’t see any gains besides education. They have the best medical doctors, but my Cuban cardiologist friend had a broken stethoscope. I had to mail him the part he needed from the US so his stethoscope could work.”
A friend, Julia Goldberg, Miami: “It was about time. I thought it would never happen! A dictator, a tyrant who hurt, killed, and destroyed the beautiful island. It might be the beginning of freedom, but right now, I do not see change. I’ll be happy when that happens. Fidel Castro, the Father of Fear, should go directly to Hell. Cubans in Miami are celebrating his death and hoping for a brighter future. This moment might be a good one for Cubans in Cuba to get together and protest. Change has to come from them. Fidel had charisma and was a genius and planner. His followers are called “Fidelistas.” Lets hope that Raul without Fidel won’t be the same.”
A Cuban Jewish engineer who prefers anonymity says he’s “in the middle…I don’t hate him, let him rest in peace. I don’t love him because I loved him too much during the revolution. Cuba needed a change from Batista. We Jews lived marvelously during Batista, but there was a lot of corruption. When Fidel came into power, most of the Jewish population left, not because he was ever anti-Semitic; on the contrary, Fidel went to visit El Patronato, the community center, twice for Chanukah. I never expected the revolution to be so bloody. He killed Batista’s people, we lost liberty and freedom we had in the beautiful island, he took away our way of life. We would still be there if there wasn’t a revolution in Cuba. He provided free education, medication, hospitalization, home visits by doctors, good things and also bad things. Fidel’s famous quote is ‘history will absolve me.’ Unlike those in Miami, I didn’t wish for Fidel’s death. He took away from me and I came to NYC.”
Betty Taubenfeld was recorded on Miami’s channel 23 celebrating on the famed “Calle Ocho.” She’s “happy, but worried about the Cuban people and wishes the problems will be solved by the next president. I hope that Fidel’s brother will soon depart, liberty will come and people will be able to come and go to Cuba as they please.”
Joseph, a friend who requests anonymity, left Cuba in 1969, well after the regime was in power. He “couldn’t care less about the death of Fidel after 60 years. Nothing is going to change at all. The older generation is practically gone and the new generation has been brainwashed under extreme repression. When Stalin died after killing millions, it took so long for change, until Germany opened the border. Cubans won’t know how to run a democracy and those who want to change things are afraid. Even when Raul goes, the mentality of the people is hard to change. It’s like the Nazi era with no freedom of speech. You must follow the leader and are being watched like a hawk all the time until you make a mistake. The ‘Women in White’ protestors have a lot of guts, but it won’t help.”
My cousin Moira says, “Castro is dead, but the damage is done. As the daughter of Cuban parents who left in the wake of Castro’s revolution, I regret my parents did not live to fulfill their dream to see the day Castro died. I witnessed the decades of Castro’s regime, especially when I visited the Island with my parents 10 years ago.
Nearly every Cuban in Cuba or in the diaspora is glad Castro is dead. We are relieved as we have waited desperately for decades! we remember the suffering and death he has inflicted on thousands upon thousands of Cubans, whose hope for a better Cuba ended up with militant socialism. Buildings and homes are falling apart, medicines, basic necessities, electricity and internet are a luxury, while it is rumored that Castro accumulated in excess of $900 million. Cubans own no property, or businesses; they are allotted only what the government gives, and media is government controlled. food rations are so lacking that without a black market, they would starve, all while tourists enjoy the best restaurants and accommodations that Cubans cannot dream of visiting.
Cubans who emigrated penniless to start a new life elsewhere were stripped of all their property, and forever dream of the Cuba where they grew up. The island will forever be scarred by the evil of Castro. If Cuba is lucky and the stars align, it will take generations for the country to be restored to any semblance of the beautiful, social and economically advanced island that it was.”
Having witnessed young Cubans engaging in Havana’s growing art scene last June at the repurposed old building complex La Fabrica, I must admit I’m hopeful for Cuba’s future, though I believe it will take much time for significant change. I was told by a savvy Cuban I met in June that the next leader after Raul will still have the communist party mentality. It will take a new generation to have a leader who is fresh thinking. President Obama wished his people-to-people missions would give Cubans and Americans a way to interact and exchange ideas. Who knows what our president-elect will soon enact, I fear he may turn the clock back on relations and we and the Cuban people will be back to square one. Only time will tell.