Growing Up in Castro’s Cuba

Mark Milke
June 18, 2009
In a strange twist of a double coincidence, Luis M. Garcia was born in 1959, the year of Cuba’s revolution, and in the town of Banes, the birthplace of deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista (born there in 1901). Garcia’s shopkeeper parents, initially supportive of the 1959 revolution, later applied to leave Cuba after they lost their small business in one of Fidel Castro’s nationalization programs. The application to leave meant that from that moment on, the Garcia family were “gusanos” – “counter-revolutionaries” – in the view of the regime.

Growing Up in Castro’s Cuba

Mark Milke
June 18, 2009
In a strange twist of a double coincidence, Luis M. Garcia was born in 1959, the year of Cuba’s revolution, and in the town of Banes, the birthplace of deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista (born there in 1901). Garcia’s shopkeeper parents, initially supportive of the 1959 revolution, later applied to leave Cuba after they lost their small business in one of Fidel Castro’s nationalization programs. The application to leave meant that from that moment on, the Garcia family were “gusanos” – “counter-revolutionaries” – in the view of the regime.
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In a strange twist of a double coincidence, Luis M. Garcia was born in 1959, the year of Cuba’s revolution, and in the town of Banes, the birthplace of deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista (born there in 1901).

Garcia’s shopkeeper parents, initially supportive of the 1959 revolution, later applied to leave Cuba after they lost their small business in one of Fidel Castro’s nationalization programs. The application to leave meant that from that moment on, the Garcia family were “gusanos” – “counter-revolutionaries” – in the view of the regime.

That designation triggered a series of harsh responses: Garcia’s father lost his local job and was sent to work in sugarcane fields far away from home. The local police soon compiled a complete inventory of the family’s possessions, including the number of socks, shirts, cutlery and cups among other items. Such personal property belonged to the state, not to the gusanos, and the police would eventually take another inventory before the family left Cuba, this to ensure nothing was removed beyond the one suitcase allowed per person.

Three years after the application to emigrate, the Garcias were finally given permission to leave. Luis’ father returned from the sugarcane fields, and the family, including Luis’ little brother, finally left Cuba in 1971. The first stop was Spain en route, as it turned out, to Australia in 1972.

Garcia, a journalist by training, has worked with the Australian Financial Review, the Sydney Morning Herald, and served as chief of staff to the Liberal opposition leader in the Australian state of New South Wales. In 2002, Garcia joined Cannings, a leading corporate communications firm where he is now a partner. He lives in Sydney with his wife, daughter, and son.

Garcia’s new book, Child of the Revolution – Growing up in Castro’s Cuba, published by Allen & Unwin, was released in Australia in 2006, and is scheduled for release in Canada and the United States this May.

Mark Milke, a member of the C2C Editorial Board, recently interviewed Garcia.

C2C: Your book is written from the perspective of you as a child. At what age did you begin to suspect your parents were correct about Fidel Castro, and that the regime and your teachers were horribly wrong?

Luis M. Garcia: I think I begin to realize that perhaps my parents were right after all at about the time my father was sent away to the labour camp to cut sugar cane – after he applied for permission to leave.

But the real realization only came once I was outside Cuba. That’s when I understood that much of what I had been taught at school in Banes was, not to put too fine a point on it, absolute rubbish – indoctrination at its most destructive. It was quite an eye-opener.

In 1979, Jeane Kirkpatrick famously observed (I’m paraphrasing) that the difference between traditional dictatorships and revolutionary ones was that in the former, dictators were mostly content to wield power, however cruelly, but usually left the traditional rhythms, routines and religions of a nation’s life undisturbed. Most days, it was only those who actively opposed a dictator that need worry. Revolutionary dictatorships, on the other hand, could leave no stone undisturbed and the results were tyrannies which created refugees “by the million.” What are your thoughts on Kirkpatrick’s observation as it applies to Cuba?

I think Kirkpatrick was spot on in her description of a “revolutionary” dictatorship. In relation to Cuba, as soon as Castro consolidated his grip on power, he set out to radically change Cuba – and Cubans. It took him a while but he was eventually successful.

During the first 20 years or so of the regime, the concept of citizens as “uninterested observers” was never an option. To paraphrase the late ambassador, no stone was left unturned – from primary school right through to the cane field – when it came to ensuring each and every citizen became an active participant in the revolutionary machine.

So what was it that inoculated your parents against communism and Castro?

Strangely, I think the fact that they had never really been involved in politics helped. They were initially enthusiastic about the Revolution, like a majority of Cubans. But being owners of a modest but promising small business, I think they could tell pretty quickly that the economic changes Castro introduced were not going to work. They were right.

For them, the last straw was when Castro “nationalized” all small businesses in 1968, during the so-called Great Revolutionary Offensive.

So it was more than a little tragic that the Cuban people couldn’t have found some way to wean the island off the Batista regime, rather than plunge into revolution? In the 1950s Cuba was one of the wealthier (per capita) countries in Latin America . . .

Garcia: It is important to remember that the Cuban revolution was not a one-man show by any means, although Castro soon became its most recognized and powerful head. Rather, it was a coalition of largely democratic anti-Batista forces.

Those anti-Batista forces rose to power on the back of a promise to reinstate the 1940 Constitution, which guaranteed a set of basic human rights, including a free press and free and fair elections.

I suspect those Cubans who supported the revolution – probably the overwhelming majority of the population – believed that Castro would keep his word and return the country to the 1940 Constitution. He didn’t.

Did the Kennedy brothers and their actions in the early 1960s cement Castro in a way that otherwise would have been unlikely, or was Castro always going to be able to create an entrenched dictatorship given the size of Cuba and a police state’s ability to keep tabs on people?

I think Kennedy acted within the parameters of the time, namely, the global politics of the Cold War. So, it’s difficult to make a value judgement from this distance.

However, the decision to train and arm Cuban exiles, send them into the Bay of Pigs, and to then refuse to provide back-up when the proverbial hit the fan seems incomprehensible. Obviously, there was no Plan B in Washington.

There is no doubt that Castro’s “victory” at the Bay of Pigs helped him to consolidate his grip on power even further.

Since the American embargo on trade with Cuba was enacted after the Revolution, the political left has often blamed Cuba’s economic situation on the American embargo, missing, I think, the irony that the late Milton Friedman would have agreed with them: a lack of trade impoverishes people. Yet for its supporters, socialist countries shouldn’t need to trade with “imperialist capitalists” to survive and thrive, at least according to socialism’s more dogmatic proponents. What is it about the political left that allows it to have its rhetorical cake and eat it too? Blaming the U.S. but yet not acknowledging, after all these years, the failure of the model imposed on Cuba?

To their eternal shame, much of the political left have behaved to form for decades when it comes to Cuba – as unreconstructed apologists for the Castro regime. This is still the case although less so than it was say, 15 or 20 years ago.

Regardless of the American principles behind the embargo – confiscated and nationalized property can’t just be winked at – was the embargo a mistake as its allowed Castro to have an enemy and blame someone else all these years for problems that otherwise would have been placed at his feet and for which the Cuban people might more readily blame him? Wouldn’t Castro have been washed away to sea on a flood of American trade dollars long ago without the embargo?

The embargo has been a useful political tool for Castro for decades. No doubt about that. To that extent, you have to question just how effective it has been, especially when we see figures showing that the United States has now become the largest food exporter to Cuba. In other words, it’s always been an embargo full of loopholes.

However, lifting the embargo now would make no difference to how Castro has or will behave. As far as the Castro regime is concerned, political power is simply not negotiable.

In my view, the one crucial mistake made by many in the West who have called for the embargo to be lifted is this: the belief that you can use trade dollars to convince Castro to somehow change his ways. He won’t. He doesn’t need to.

I realize Castro won’t change just because the embargo is lifted but wouldn’t more money “sloshing” around at least give Cubans some degree of additional freedom lacking now? The Chinese government hasn’t changed just because China has embraced capitalism – but – it could be argued the Chinese now have more access to the wider world and additional freedom because they possess more money as individuals and companies? Wouldn’t that be helpful to Cubans as well and eventually provide a measure of independence from Castro’s regime?

You are right about the changes we have witnessed in China since the Communist leadership embraced a capitalist economy.

But that is the key difference with Cuba: regardless of the U.S. trade and commercial embargo, the Castro regime has categorically ruled out embracing capitalism in any form.

There may well be many good reasons to argue for a lifting of the embargo but to think that an influx of American dollars will somehow encourage the Castro regime to move towards a democratic system is naïve in the extreme.

Castro and his heirs have made it clear that political power is simply not negotiable.

Canadians endlessly hear about the Cuban health care system from the regime’s proponents, that’s it’s so very good. What’s the reality of health care in Cuba, both for patients and medical professionals?

I think the Cuban health system is better than health care systems in most Third World nations. But the point is that it was always better. In fact, before 1959, Cuba was ahead of several European nations when it came to key indicators such as infant mortality rates and life expectancy. Those nations have now caught up with Cuba and moved ahead. Same with education.

But even if we assume that the Cuban health system is superior to that of Haiti or Rwanda, is this an excuse for Castro’s record in other areas? I don’t agree. As Carlos A. Montaner has said, such excuses are akin to saying that Nazism wasn’t so bad because, after all, Hitler put an end to inflation and constructed the best highway system in Europe.

Let’s move away from economics to faith and human rights. Back in the mid-1990s, some friends from an Edmonton church ventured down to Cuba and came back arguing there were no restrictions on religious freedom. What is your take on religious freedom in Cuba at present?

As I describe in my book, unlike the Albanian communists, for instance, Castro never “abolished” religion. Churches have remained open and relatively free to preach the Gospels – but only within the confines of the church and never, ever, in competition with the regime.

In the early years of the revolution, Castro also confiscated all religious properties (except for the actual churches, temples, etc.), closed down all Catholic schools and media outlets, and expelled hundreds of mostly Spanish priests and nuns.

For many years, declaring yourself a believer was seen as a terrible weakness that excluded you from public life entirely. In fact, Catholics in particular, were barred from joining the Communist Party as recently as the early 1990s.

There has been some relaxation on this front, especially following the visit by the late John Paul II. Whether this constitutes freedom of religion is another matter.

Speaking of naïve, one of Canada’s past Prime Ministers, Pierre Trudeau, got along famously with Castro.

Sadly, Trudeau was not the first or last Western leader to fall for the Castro charm. Politicians from both the left and the not-so-left have been successfully wooed by Castro for the best part of fifty years. It’s a source of great disappointment.

Trudeau’s son, Alexandre, wrote a piece on Fidel Castro last summer in Canada’s largest circulation daily, the Toronto Star. He argued Castro was a “great adventure . . . a great scientific mind,” someone whose “intellect is one of the most broad and complete that can be found” and “an expert on genetics, on automobile combustion engines, on stock markets. On everything.” Trudeau even went so far as to write that Castro’s “monumental intellect makes Fidel the giant that he is. He is something of a superman” and that “Cubans will always feel privileged that they, and they alone, had Fidel.” Are you familiar with the article by the young Mr. Trudeau?

I read that piece by Trudeau Jr. when it was first published and thought it was meant as some sort of parody at first. Then I realized he was serious. Dead serious.

Armando Valladres was sentenced to 30 years in prison merely for refusing to display a communist desk card which attempted to downplay Castro’s communism (in order to gain broader citizen support) . Several years ago David Horowitz noted that Valladres, “Like all of Castro’s political prisoners . . . was tortured and humiliated. He was made to eat other men’s excrement and forced to watch his friends die . . .” Why has the political left and some human rights groups been so unconcerned about human rights abuses in Cuba, but instead run to the rhetorical barricades to defend Castro again and again?

Because they don’t care? Because they are blind? Because they know that defending Castro makes them immediate members of the anti-American global club? It’s a good question. I ask it myself all the time and still have no sensible response.

Looking back on his behaviour over the decades, is Castro a tyrant who merely cloaks himself in Marxism as a convenient excuse all these years for not holding elections, or a deep-down committed Marxist ideologue whose tyranny followed from that?

In the early days of the Revolution, Castro denied openly that he was a Marxist. So did Che Guevara, by the way. Once secure in power, Castro told Cubans he had been a Marxist all his life. So, at some stage, he must have been lying.

Personally, I think he was an opportunist rather than a deep-down Marxist ideologue. I think Marxism was a convenient label. It doesn’t make him less of a tyrant, of course.

And Castro has outlasted just about everyone on the world stage, including dictators that had even more of an iron grip than he appears to have. How does he do it?

Because he changed Cuba to suit his purposes – the theory of the “revolutionary dictator” Kirkpatrick talked about. That meant inventing this amazingly resilient myth of the little island besieged by the bully boy from the North. It worked in the early 1960s and it still works today.

When Castro dies, Raul Castro is next in line to take over. Will anything change?

I believe change is inevitable, whether promoted internally by Raul Castro and his supporters or by outside forces. But I fear it will take some time. We’ll have to wait and see. I am hoping for a flowering of democracy, as happened in much of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, or in Spain after 1975.

Or how about this option: You have contacts within Cuba. Would Castro ever face a Ceaucescaeu-type end? Is there a “popular” view of him, for or against, or a number of starkly divided camps with widely divergent views?

It’s hard to tell. Those Cubans in Cuba I speak to are desperate for change, but after 50 years of consistent propaganda they fear the uncertainty of what may come next.

But it’s hard to tell if this is a view shared by a majority.

Don’t forget that just weeks before he was finally and spectacularly deposed by his own people, Ceaucescaeu was still able to get a million “supporters” to turn up at mass rallies to applaud and eulogize him. It’s the nature of dictatorships: nothing ever is quite as it seems.

Why do some in the West not yet treat Castro and others of his politics and dictatorships with the opprobrium we properly gave to fascists like Hitler or Mussolini? Why does Marxism receive a pass and a yawn among many in our intellectual and media classes?

I have often wondered that very question myself. I don’t have an answer. I suspect there may be an element of anti-Americanism involved in that attitude, at least in the past fifty years or so. Also, there is still a view in the West that Marxism was a “lesser” evil than say, fascism, contrary to the available evidence. People who have lived through communism understand this, which is why the push for democratic change in Cuba is being backed by the governments of the new democracies in Eastern Europe, such as the Czechs, the Estonians, Slovaks, and so on.

What is your most vivid memory of Cuba? And have you ever been back since your family left in 1971?

My most vivid memory was leaving. I didn’t want to leave behind my home, my family, my friends and relatives, my school. And I could tell my mother felt the same way. You must understand that at the time, it was made absolutely clear that once you left Cuba you could never return, not while Castro was in office. It was truly a one-way ticket. As I recount in my book, those last few days in Havana and the plane trip to Madrid itself remain very vivid memories. With the benefit of hindsight, I’d describe them as bittersweet. In the mid 1980s, while I was working as a journalist, I applied to visit but the permission I required never arrived. I suspect my being a journalist may have been a factor.

If Cuba is one day free of Castro and you are free to return, what’s the first thing you would do in Cuba?

I’d love to walk the streets of Banes again. I have a mental map of the place and I can’t imagine it’s changed all that much.

Luis M. Garcia’s Child of the Revolution – Growing up in Castro’s Cuba, (Allen & Unwin), will be released in Canada in May 2007, $21.95, 248 pp.

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