Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Cubans Divided by a Rush to Exits

Some scorn those who say 'hasta' to revolution and seek US visa

CUBA has a new "class struggle" - between those who say that leaving the country is a traitorous act against a Marxist "revolution" and those who shrug and say it's a logical move in hard times.

The opposing views can be held by people standing just yards apart, and represent the two sides of a decades-old debate in Cuba over the political implications of emigration.

About these ads

Julio Ortiz holds the former view. He stands watch over a blackened field of Cuba's all-important sugar harvest and gestures towards the men gathering the charred cane.

"What we're doing here is more than just hard labor, this is long hours of patriotic work for the revolution," says the foreman for the Barbados Martyrs agricultural cooperative west of Havana.

"People who expect things to be easy are the people who are against the government. And those are the people who go the the United States, to Miami," he adds disdainfully.

Not 50 yards away, standing by the side of a highway, is a young Cuban who holds the opposite view. "Alejandro," an unemployed psychologist, is hitchhiking to his home in Pinar del Rio after immigration interviews at the United States Interests Section (a scaled-back, de facto embassy) in Havana.

"I don't consider my leaving [to be] an act against Cuba," he says quietly, "but it does say that right now there is nothing for me here. It's a personal decision."

This debate has lost none of its emotional force among the most fervent backers of the communist revolution, but one that has waned for others who are less interested in political systems than in getting by in tough times.

For some Cubans, emigration is treason, the ultimate betrayal of a system they have been told since the revolution triumphed in 1959 has given them education, health-care, and economic equality. This view has held strong since hundreds of thousands of Cubans, including the island's wealthy and much of the middle class, left for exile in the US after communism was imposed.

About these ads

Last August, the official party newspaper, Granma, said: "The Cuban revolution has not turned, and will not turn, the other cheek. [The enemies] will find neither forgiveness nor reconciliation, but the steel fist of the working people."

That view is shared by a Havana cabdriver: "Cubans who leave their country are worse than the American government, because at least the Americans are doing what they believe in while these people are betraying the system that made them what they are in the interest of personal profit."

Both Ortiz and the cabdriver consider emigration a personal betrayal of Cuban President Fidel Castro Ruz, who after 37 years in power is not only the world's longest-ruling leader but also is the revolution for most Cubans.

Mr. Castro himself has sent mixed signals on the issue of emigrants - and the emigrant's turn against the revolution. Last year, Castro surprised many observers by meeting with Miami exile and anticommunist Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo. A former comrade of Castro's in the revolution, Mr. Menoyo left Cuba in 1987 after 22 years in Castro's prisons. Also last year, Cuba held its first-ever conference for the Cuban diaspora in Havana.

But more recent signs point to a hardening of the regime's ideological line. Just last week, Castro told a meeting of the ruling Communist Party's Central Committee that a "strong ideological battle" involving the whole population was necessary to turn back pressure for change, especially from the US.

Still, among most Cubans there is no condemnation of those who have left or seek to leave. "I am a supporter of the revolution, I am with Fidel, but my son left on a raft and now has a landscaping business in the US," says a retired fisherman in Santa Fe, a seaside village outside Havana. "He grew up in a different time, and we have different views on some things, but I don't blame him for what he did," he adds.

Some older Cubans are still surprised that their younger compatriots, who have known nothing but the slogan "Socialism or die," could consider leaving the island for a decidedly unsocialistic destination, the United States.

Others say risking one's life on a raft or applying against high odds to a US-sponsored immigration lottery is an indication of just how hard material living conditions have got since $6 billion in annual Soviet subsidies were lost.

This more moderate approach to the emigrants exemplifies the waning of ideology in Cuba, despite Castro's efforts. What counts most for Cubans today is simply putting food on the family table. And since in the current era of economic reform the state is helping less in that aim, and individual endeavor is counting more, the island's communist ideology confronts growing indifference.

The streets may still be filled with a kind of quaint political propaganda, but most Cubans either ridicule it or simply ignore it. The government press, the only information available on the streets or on national television, still only offers the government line, but many Cubans listen to the US-sponsored Radio Marti.

With the government now meeting with prominent Cuban exiles, as it did last week in Havana, and after last year's government-sponsored emigrant conference, more ordinary Cubans see no reason to reject their own people just because they've left the island.

"Time has passed, it's a little easier for estranged relatives to make contact now," says one Cuban-American, living in Mexico, who recently began corresponding with a Cuban uncle who had had contact with her family since the family was split by emigration after the revolution. "I also got the feeling his situation was becoming desperate and he wouldn't mind some [monetary] help," she adds.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.