Yale Professor Reflects on Life in Cuba Under Fidel Castro
Carlos Eire discusses the late dictator’s legacy with the Register.
Carlos Eire has firsthand experience with the reality of life in Cuba under the communist rule of Fidel Castro. The Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University is the author of two acclaimed memoirs, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, which describes his childhood in Cuba, and Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy, which traces his struggle to adapt to American life, after he is sent with his brother at age 11 to the United States in 1962 to escape Castro’s Cuba.
In that memoir, his painful transition results in a spiritual conversion, aided by The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis’ spiritual classic that was placed into his travel bag as he left his homeland. Amid the emotional pain and cultural alienation, the young immigrant accepts the graces that accompany a full surrender to God’s mysterious purposes. “We’re seeds sown on fertile sinking soil,” he writes. “Dying is our lot, but not our end.”
In a Washington Post column marking Castro’s death last Friday, Eire argued that much of the world refused to acknowledge what Castro really was: one of the world’s most brutal dictators. On Nov. 25, Eire spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond about his reaction to Castro’s death and the repressive regime he built and defended, which forced an estimated third of Cuba’s population to flee their native land.
Some say that Castro’s death will bring closure for Cuban Americans like you. Do you agree?
No, not at all. As a matter of fact, it is a kind of sad moment. Just about everybody I have talked to feels the same thing: This came way too late.
You think of all your relatives — parents, aunts, uncles — the people who have already passed away and wanted this to happen a long time ago, but Fidel Castro got to live longer than they did.
His death is a landmark. It is the final period on the last sentence of a long book. You close the book.
Psychologically, I feel like the world is a better place now without him.
I feel like a weight, the metaphysical weight of evil, has been lifted from the world. His presence is no longer polluting the world, though other nasty people are still here.
You describe him in The Washington Post as one of “the most brutal dictators in modern history,” and you expressed frustration with his gift for exploiting the “human thirst for myths and heroes.”
The statements of condolence by world leaders, including our president, [suggest] Castro is up there with Mandela. The most nauseating of all was the statement of the prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, who applauded Castro’s “tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people.”
Didn’t Castro tap into a willful denial of his brutal record by fellow travelers who sympathized with communist ideals?
The myth is that communism, socialism and totalitarianism are effective ways of wiping out poverty and inequality.
The myth that propels every socialist, including Bernie Sanders and all his supporters, is that you can construct a society in which everyone shares and shares alike. There is no private property, and every one pulls their own weight.
But, as everyone knows, including those who live in monasteries, you can’t force people to be monks.
There is also something else — a kind of bigotry — at work. It arises from the notion that a socialist system is the best the Third World can hope for.
Those who take this position live in nations with free markets and bountiful food production, with every right to speak their minds and debate openly. But they believe that others in the Third World are incapable of handling [these freedoms] and need a strong leader.
In the case of Cuba, the myth-making comes with an added twist, what I call a total ignorance of the history of Cuba. Most people who praise Fidel think Cuba was a Third World country when he took over, but it wasn’t. He ruined a prosperous country.
Did the disconnect between the truth about Castro’s Cuba and the myths protecting his legacy help fuel the political passions of Cuban Americans, who emerged as major opponents of any thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations?
Most people who lived something they know to be horrible feel a compulsion to make sure it doesn’t happen again wherever they are.
As a group, Cuban exiles are politically divided, but they do tend to be politically active. For 50 years, Cuban immigrants have been arriving in waves, and the recent arrivals are very different from the first wave of immigrants, who knew Cuba before Castro. Those arriving now have never known anything else.
What will the Cuban government do now, move toward the U.S. or consolidate power under the present leadership?
Thanks to President Obama’s decision to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba, the Cuban government has already consolidated power more than they had ever wished possible.
Since the so-called normalization process [was announced in December 2014], things have deteriorated politically and economically in Cuba.
The number of arrests has spiked, and the number of supposedly self-employed Cubans who were given permission to operate small businesses, like selling flowers and grooming dogs, has been shrinking.
One place to get information and read essays about these developments is “Translating Cuba” [an English-language blog that publishes translations of Cuban blogs].
Are there pro-democracy political movements within Cuba that need support now, as Castro’s death provides a possible opening?
The U.S. should support a group called the Ladies in White, Damas de Blano — women, most of them Afro-Cubans, who are the wives, sisters, mothers and daughters of political prisoners.
Every Sunday, for several years, they have gone to Mass and then marched afterward, following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of nonviolence [to effect political change]. In the past, they have been beaten up and arrested, and now the police don’t let them leave their homes and constantly harass them.
If the Ladies in White were allowed to protest openly, there would be a ripple effect, because they are linked to political prisoners and others who want an open society.
What can the U.S. government do to foster the development of the private sector in Cuba?
There is no private sector or civil society. These groups cannot get together. Cuba is about the size of Pennsylvania, but it is long and spread out. It is hard for local groups to get together because there is no freedom of movement or assembly. Americans would be stupefied to know that just about 2% of the people have access to the Internet.
Pope Francis visited Cuba last year and met with Fidel and Raul Castro. But dissidents said he should have spoken out on their behalf. What should he do now to promote human rights, including religious freedom?
He should condemn all totalitarian regimes, right, left and center.
I realize that popes have to walk a fine line, and he doesn’t want to foster greater persecution of the Church.
But he should call for immediate change in the repressive policies of the Castro regime.
In the wake of Castro’s death, President-elect Trump tweeted that he would roll back the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations if it was a bad “deal.”
He should reverse all of Obama’s executive orders and increase the sanctions on Cuba. That will hurt the Castro regime.
Cuba used to have the Soviet Union as its sugar daddy, and then Venezuela, which is about to implode. The U.S. should not become Cuba’s sugar daddy — sending millions of tourists to the island and granting credit to purchase agricultural products in the U.S. The embargo forced Cuba to buy those products and other things with cash. Lifting the embargo will give them access to credit, and since Cuba won’t be able to pay [back its creditors], the U.S. taxpayer will ultimately have to pay.
In the wake of the Cuban revolution, you were just 11 years old when you were among 14,000 Cuban children sent without their parents on the Operacion Pedro Pan airlift to the United States. Your memoir of your struggle to adapt to American life, Learning to Die in Miami, describes the brutal impact of this process on many Cuban immigrants. Did you ever question your parents’ decision to send you to America?
I thank God every day that they saved me from hell. I have met my counterparts who were not able to leave until later, and they had miserable lives.
What goes on in Cuba is no different than slavery, and my parents wanted to protect their children, just as parents would want to protect their children from slavers.
In Learning to Die in Miami, you describe your desperate struggle to survive and your gradual embrace of your cradle Catholic faith. Does that color your recollections of the past with a deep sense of hope?
The totalitarian regime is like a religion, with its own spirituality. If you believe in anything that transcends the material world, you are the enemy.
In America, people can choose, and not everyone takes the same path. My brother says he is an atheist. But I am thankful that I was able to escape and receive the freedom to be spiritual.
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.