Alberto and I have wandered down the street to get a café con leche. It’s 7 a.m. in the Cuban coastal town of Varadero. A few people mill around. There are two middle-aged men and a woman accompanied by two teen boys in surfer shorts and tank tops with hip-hop hairstyles. As we near the outdoor counter, a wiry old soldier clad in blue fatigues and looking like a revolution-era artifact rides up on a Chinese “Flying Pigeon” bicycle. One of the boys gestures at soldier and he scowls, yelling something back. He then takes the walking stick strapped to the back of his bicycle and slams it down on one of the tin tables. Everyone turns and the teens laugh loudly. The soldier rushes them, but he has a bad limp. He waves his cane at them menacingly. The boys laugh even harder before scattering.
Eventually an older man half-heartedly tells the teens to stop teasing the soldier. They don’t. Instead, they run to a safe distance behind the stand and continue taunting him. He still limps after them, waving his stick. Finally, he returns to the counter — and extracts a plastic-wrapped pistol from his holster. He begins loosening the plastic covering around the gun.
The barman tells him to put it away, which he does.
“Don’t worry, he’s crazy,” the barman tells us.
The fuss continues for about 10 minutes until another older man calls for an end to the bickering. The soldier mounts his bicycle, again yells at his tormentors, and finally peddles away.
I feel as if Alberto and I have just witnessed a parody of social change in Cuba — creaking symbols of a revolutionary past being challenged and discarded by a younger generation hungry for change. Like many, I worry that American-style capitalism will aggressively sweep through the island, returning poor but level Cuba to pre-revolutionary despair and inequality.
Both the American Revolution and the Fidel Castro-driven Cuban Revolution of the 1950s attempted to discard colonial oppression and create new societies driven by the people and for the people, though Cuban change eventually took a different path. The popular socialist revolutionary government that seized power in 1959 did little more than create a “strongman” state built around Castro and Che Guevara. Che became the uprising’s larger-than-life martyr even though he didn’t die in Cuba, or even during the revolution. Like many other Communist regimes, the Cuban version fell far short of its promise to create a fair, equitable and inclusive society, particularly toward its LGBT citizens, many of whom were sent to labor camps without trial.
According to the Mexican daily La Jornada, Castro has acknowledged persecuting gays and lesbians during the 1960s and 70s. “There were moments of great injustice, great injustice!” he was quoted as saying. “If someone is responsible, it’s me.”
Cuba decriminalized homosexual acts in 1979. In contrast, it took the U.S. until 2003, when the Supreme Court struck down the Texas “Homosexual Conduct” law, by extension making same-sex sexual activity legal in every U.S. state and territory.
There are efforts afoot in Cuba to legalize same-sex unions. Mariela Castro, Raul Castro’s 49-year-old daughter, who heads Cuba’s Center for Sex Education, recently sponsored a ceremony in which Protestant clergymen from the U.S. and Canada blessed a group of gay couples as part of official ceremonies leading up to the Global Day against Homophobia on May 17.
The Cuban revolutionary identity, built on the image of the bearded, cigar-smoking, gun-wielding macho freedom fighter, was repeatedly marred by social injustice. Perhaps with a focus on human rights and corresponding support from the U.S., Cuba may be able think differently about its identity and future direction, avoiding the fate of so many other false democracies and strongman states in the region.
In the much-praised 1994 film “Strawberry and Chocolate” (Fresa y chocolate), set in Havana in 1970, gay artist Diego tells straight university student David, “I’m a part of this country like it or not! And I have the right to work for its future… Without me, you’re missing a piece…” — an essential piece.