This time there has been no music or hugs or saucepans or cries of freedom. If in 2016 the death of Fidel Castro was celebrated like a carnival in Miami’s Little Havana, the formal announcement of the departure of his younger brother Raúl from power is lived in silence, with less fanfare and more skepticism in the Cuban exile capital. . “As long as the historic ones are still alive, they will continue ruling in Cuba. Those they put in power are like puppets that move them,” says Humberto López, 82, one of the directors of Brigade 2506, the organization of veterans of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, of which this Saturday marks 60 years.
In April 1961, at the age of 22, López was part of the largest attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro by arms, in which a thousand and a half Cuban exiles participated. Although the landing ended in failure, the survivors of the group, who were captured for almost two years in Cuban prisons and later released, are celebrating the anniversary of the invasion these days with an eye on what is happening in the Communist Party Congress. which is celebrated in Havana. “I don’t think there will be many changes. It is going to follow this same nomenclature that it has commanded for 60 years until the cycle of life takes them away,” says López at the headquarters of the 2506 Brigade museum, in front of a wall full of photos of the fallen: the “martyrs who died fighting for the freedom of Cuba”, in the center; and those who died later —in other wars like the one in Vietnam or due to age— on the sides.
For a long time, Cuban exiles dreamed that the death of Fidel Castro would mark the end of the regime for which they had to leave the island. But the long illness of the leader of the Cuban revolution allowed a gradual transition of power to his brother Raúl. Fifteen years after he was put in charge of the Government —which he left in the hands of Miguel Díaz-Canel in 2018— and about to take over the leadership of the single Cuban party, it is being shown that it is possible to think of a Castroism beyond the Castros. “The Cuban system and government is more than a surname. Whether we like it or not, there is a mechanism that goes beyond the personality of the leaders, which does not mean that for the new generation of leaders it is not a challenge, “says Michael Bustamante, professor of Latin American history at the International University of Florida (FIU).
Author of the book Cuban Memory Wars (The wars of the memory of the Cubans) that explores how the traumas of exile shape the perception of history on both sides of the Straits of Florida, Bustamante argues that, regardless of the changes announced in the Communist Party Congress, there is not much hope among Cubans in the United States . The island is experiencing its worst economic crisis in 30 years, hit by the atrocious effects of the pandemic on tourism and the tightening of Donald Trump’s sanctions (which Joe Biden has kept in force until now).
“I believe that the departure of the second Castro from power will allow Cubans to imagine a Cuba without the dogma of what that surname represented,” says Guennady Rodríguez, a lawyer who arrived in Miami in 2013, with a little more optimism. After leaving Cuba with a study scholarship —something he was able to do thanks to one of the opening measures approved by Raúl Castro to eliminate exit visas for those who wanted to travel—, last year this 39-year-old Cuban created 23 y Flagleran independent platform to offer current content with a more progressive vision than that of the hard core of exile.
“Most of us who work there believe in the engagement (cooperation) between the two countries and not in a policy of isolation that has not produced results”, defends Rodríguez, who trusts that Biden will fulfill his promise of a greater rapprochement with Cuba as a way to promote changes on the island towards a greater plurality and democratization of society. “I am quite disappointed with the slowness with which Biden has acted. There is no way to justify prohibiting a person from sending remittances to their loved ones who are in need,” says Bustamante, the FIU professor, referring to the decision of the new Administration to maintain some measures taken by Trump that make it difficult for Cubans to send money home to their families.
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“Time has proved us right”
However, the academic acknowledges that in recent years, with the Trump presidency, the attitudes of Cubans in exile towards some practical issues have hardened, such as sending remittances or travel by Cuban-Americans to the island, which Former President Barack Obama had relaxed in the historic process of thawing with Havana. According to the latest public opinion poll conducted by the FIU, at the end of 2020, 54% of Cubans and Cuban-Americans in Miami supported the embargo against Cuba compared to 31.6% who were in favor of that measure in 2016.
“The facts have shown that Obama’s decision was a failure and, based on that, this administration has been very cautious about having any kind of relationship with Cuba,” says Humberto López, the Bay of Pigs veteran. “Maybe it will come to something softer: flights to Cuba, some cruises, but this Administration is not going to come to what Obama did,” he opines.
What almost everyone in exile seems to agree on is that there are two cracks through which a thread of hope can be glimpsed that things will change in Cuba: on the one hand, the critical voices that have emerged on the island in recent months who ask for a more open society and, on the other, internet access that offers a window to Cubans of what happens outside the island.
“The problem they have, which is more serious than the invasion, is the Internet,” says Rafael Montalvo, another of the Bay of Pigs veterans. “Nowadays they can’t capture people’s minds. The internet becomes a vehicle open to the entire population. Everyone is on and they want a change”, he affirms, surprised by the proliferation of sites made on the island with critical comments towards the regime.
Sitting with three other ex-combatants at the Brigade 2506 museum headquarters over McDonald’s hamburgers, Montalvo says he doesn’t think they lost the battle 60 years ago. First, because the combatants managed to return to the United States after being freed in Cuba. And second, he says, because the political development on the island reaffirms to them that the fight they waged then made sense.
“Time has proved us right. Communism was a disaster. We came back, we made our lives, we were successful, but nobody forgets Cuba or the purpose that is still valid today, more valid than ever. And everything that Castro said: the brigade was painted as mercenaries, CIA agents, worms, assassins… today it is obvious that we were not that. We were idealists”, he defends himself.
Six decades after that episode, Montalvo is aware that the road to the end of Castroism in Cuba for which they fought is a long one, but he says that he does not lose hope of a change in the future: “How long did it take you [los españoles] get rid of the Moors? How long did it take us to get rid of the Spanish? We have only been 60 years”.