Three generations of Cubans united by gratitude to Fidel Castro
After the eulogies and denunciations, the Torres family supplies a more nuanced perspective on Cubas revolutionary leader
Before Fidel Castros interment in a Santiago cemetery this morning, there have been eulogies by leftwing presidents, football stars and famous singers. But to understand the true significance of the revolutionarys death, it is more revealing to wander down a rutted alley in the little-known Havana suburb of San Miguel del Padrn.
This is the home of the Torres family, a die-hard clan of Fidelistas whose ideological leanings are evident from the name of their dog, Putin, to the blanket coverage of events mourning Castro on the television. They have signed the book of condolences, sent a representative to the memorial service at the Plaza de la Revolucin, and turned up to watch the start of the four-day funeral procession.
To anti-communist critics in Miami, they are among the millions of Cubans dismissed as gullible pawns of a state propaganda machine. But talk to them for more than a few minutes and it is evident that they have very practical reasons for admiring Castro and their views are anything but homogeneous.
Wealth, race, and particularly age complicate how the islands commander-in-chief is remembered.
The elderly matriarch, Nora Torres, sets the ideological baseline for her family. Now an 86-year-old great- grandmother, she has supported Castro since he was a rebel fighting the military dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Born in a small village near Santiago, Torres grew up as one of 10 poor black siblings who lost both their parents to disease before she was 21. In 1956 she and her husband moved to the Sierra Maestra to open a hairdressers, but their new home quickly became a battleground, forcing the couple to dig a bomb shelter in their yard. Everyone in her neighbourhood clandestinely supported the guerrillas, providing them with beds and food, darning their clothes and nursing the wounded.
If anyone had caught us, we would have been killed. We did it anyway because we were tired of the abuses by the army, she recalled, describing how Batistas troops killed two young men in the village, slashed her brother with a machete, and often robbed local homes and shops.
In 1959, when the rebel army won, she joined the throngs in the streets cheering Viva Fidel and Cuba Libre. I must have shouted the same slogans millions of times since then, she laughs. In the years that followed, the changes came thick and fast. We got what we wanted an end to abuses by the army, and the start of a government that helped us. She moved to the revolutionary town of Contramaestre, worked in the reconstruction of a hospital, and then in 1962 when all the men were mobilised during the Cuban missile crisis she joined the millions of women who moved into the workforce.
Political turbulence has often resulted in hardships over the past 50 years. Like many, she sometimes went hungry after the 1962 crisis and during the shortages of the special period in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today the shelves are still often empty. Over the years, we have faced many difficulties and our country has decayed in many ways. But we cant say that it is Fidels fault. Some of those who surrounded him thought only of themselves. Thats not revolutionary. They had a lot and they wanted more.
She would rather count her blessings a brick house in the capital with electricity, running water and a television, as well as free healthcare and education for her five children and 11 grandchildren. Without Castro, she believes it would have been impossible to live to this standard: His greatest legacy is in education, health and equality. We the blacks were discriminated against by the whites. Today we are all treated the same.
Torres is certain things would be much worse without Castro. You can never forget someone who has only done good for you. Thats how I will remember him. Im very thankful for the revolution. It has given opportunities to my children and enabled them to have good professions.
Her son, Ernesto Prez Torres, has fuzzier memories of revolution, though as a university-educated agronomist he is a product of its benefits.
He was four years old when battle raged on the Sierra Maestra. He can remember air force attacks and being forced to flee to the mountains on horseback. After the revolution, he was among the first generation to enjoy free universal education to university level.
When he was 17 his town sent him to Havana to study as an agronomist. His lecturers included experts from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He became a teacher, joined the Communist party and often went to hear Castros speeches in the Plaza de la Revolucin. His speeches filled me with hope. He was a teacher and he shared his doctrine with us, he recalls. Today I still consider myself a revolutionary. For me, it is about not being passive in the face of evolution. We should gather information, be studious and seek new knowledge. We should transform our personality and educate ourselves so we can stand as a moral and ethical example.
But he acknowledges that communisms shortcomings were all too obvious after the disintegration of the Soviet bloc. There was no soap. There was no toothpaste, so we had to brush our teeth with salt. And there were many other shortages, he recalls. To get by, the government encouraged small-scale private businesses. We adapted. We used the backyard to grow food and raise chickens and pigs.
Like most Cubans, Ernesto now 62 provides for his family by doing multiple jobs. He moonlights as a driver and carpenter and sells handicrafts. With this extra cash, he roughly triples the 600 pesos (24) monthly salary he gets as vice-president of an agricultural cooperative. Even so, it is often a struggle to get by.
The younger generation is less willing to endure such hardships. Several of Torress grandchildren are studying English so that they can migrate to the US or elsewhere. Thanks to Cubas education system, they have the skills to make it overseas, where they can earn far greater salaries.
Ernestos daughter, Elizabeth, gets about 900 pesos (36) a month as a fully qualified paediatrician. She has already been overseas once to work in Venezuela for two years. She is now thinking of a move to Brazil.
I am grateful to the revolution. Our humble family have achieved a great deal, thanks to the opportunities it created. All of us are university graduates. In other economic systems that wouldnt be possible, she says. But Im a very independent person. I do all I can for my family. If I can earn more for them elsewhere, Id do it.
Many young Cubans never saw Castro in person. He spent most of his last decade ensconced at home in the suburbs of Havana. Instead, they came of age under the government of his brother, Ral Castro, who has introduced modest market reforms, opened up travel opportunities and restored diplomatic relations with the US.
This has raised expectations of greater openings: many now want a better economy, fewer restrictions on their activities, a faster, cheaper internet, and a chance to choose their leader. However, they also dont want to lose the benefits of a socialist nation. Compared with neighbouring countries, Cuba has a literate and healthy population with little fear of crime and a strong sense of community. The key to a successful future will be to maintain the best of Castros legacy while discarding the worst.
Mara Isabel Prez, another of Noras granddaughters, completed her law degree a few years ago. She is paying the government back by doing several years of work as a local government official. But her goal is to defend people in civil rights cases.
Now 24, she has just had her first child, but still loves dancing to reggaetn and the music of the 1960s. Although she only once heard Castro in person, she joins her parents and grandparents in lamenting his loss.
Fidel was the leader of the revolution. Thanks to the changes he introduced, my family was able to develop, she says. I hope the people who are in power will press forward in the way he wanted. I am worried, but I hope we can continue on the path set by Fidel.