Saturday, 26 November 2016

Castro: Memories of Cuba and a Crisis

So Fidel Castro has died.

You have to be at least sixty to recall how his name instilled dread during those thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. At the age of twelve, I was too young to understand the Cold War and why the Soviets planned to install ballistic missiles on Cuba 90 miles from the shore of Florida. I don't recall that anyone at school helped us youngsters to comprehend it, and not having a television, the only visual content I had to go on were grainy images of warships in the ocean on the front page of the Daily Telegraph.

But I do remember, very vividly, what those days were like. On my crystal set I would listen to the BBC Home Service each day and feel the increasing sense of gravity in the way Alvar Lidell and his colleagues read the headlines. From what I was hearing, the world stood on the brink of nuclear war and all because three men, Kruschev, Kennedy and Castro were embroiled in a stand-off that focused on a Caribbean island far away. Each night I would turn the light off and pull the bedclothes over my head somehow feeling protected and safe, while wondering if the world would still be there when I woke up next day. It was my first real awareness of fear.

We all have to learn at some stage in our lives what it means to be afraid. I can be grateful that I learned it a lot later than some. But even when the crisis was over and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief, the status quo ante was never going altogether to be restored. Once you have learned fear, it's always there somewhere inside you, ready to be reawakened by the next crisis that comes along. The Cold War era provided plenty of opportunity for this. Not many years later, we had a screening at school of the film The War Game, a BBC docu-drama that was considered too frightening to be broadcast on TV. What shook me in that now famous film was the way in which the apocalyptic suddenly explodes on to the ordinary, on to streets and homes that looked utterly familiar from my upbringing in the London suburbs. Memories of Castro and Cuba came flooding back. By then I had found Christian faith. I recall that evening sitting on the top deck of the 102 bus that was taking me home praying with a fervour I have seldom equalled since.

I never dreamed I would one day travel to Cuba. But in 1991 when I was working at Coventry Cathedral, I was invited to go to Havana by the Anglican Bishop of the island to present a Cross of Nails to the Cathedral. Cuban Anglicans, supported by Episcopalians in Florida and other American states were doing excellent work in building bridges with local groups of revolutionary workers. They wanted to associate this with the Cross of Nails, Coventry's famous symbol of reconciliation and peace-making. The end-game was to be the lifting of the American embargo which was increasingly regarded on both sides of the water (apart from militant Cuban expats) as anachronistic and punitive.

Getting to Cuba in those days was a bit of a joke. I had been leading a choir tour of Jamaica, just a hop and a skip from Cuba. I had to fly via Miami. Officially in the days of the embargo, no US flights were allowed into Havana but it was an open secret that each morning in the small hours, unlisted flights would make the short journey. At Miami I had to sign an undertaking not to spend US dollars in the island. I wondered why, as a British citizen, I was subject to US law. Explaining at check-in that the large steel Cross of Nails I was carrying was not a Damoclean weapon but a religious symbol taxed my powers of persuasion to the full. The plane was full of Cubans returning home to see their families. The safety briefing seemed more casual than usual as if no-one really cared about this flight-that-shouldn't-be-happening. Once airborne it was a bumpy hour that ended with a sickening thud as the plane dropped heavily on to the runway at Havana.

I loved Cuba. The Bishop and the Cathedral community could not have been more hospitable. Havana is a beautiful colonial city with a marvellous array of heritage buildings which, because of the embargo, have not been razed to the ground in the name of "progress". Huge Buicks, Pontiacs and Cadillacs roamed the streets, rusting, ancient and colourful, their chromium glory faded somewhat, oddly patched up with ill-fitting parts, but reminiscent of Hollywood's golden days.

I could tell you about the (almost empty) Museum of the Revolution, the crumbling baroque churches, the beach at Varadero where the Bishop on a whim decided we must spend a day, the watering hole Ernest Hemingway would frequent, and the sugar processing plant we visited (I'd hoped to go to a cigar factory but this was said to trespass on state secrecy). Nowadays the island is well-known to travellers in the Caribbean, but 25 years ago it all seemed exotic and faintly deviant because of the difficulties westerners encountered in getting there.

But what I most fondly recall were the streets thronged with beautiful people - so many of them young - in whose faces I read confidence and contentment despite the difficulties the country was facing. We spent a day with a cohort of students who were helping build an apartment block in downtown Havana. Perched on concrete beams and upturned crates, we drank strong coffee and listened to them as they told us about their lives. They were warm and friendly, grateful for our interest. They were proud of what Cuba had achieved against all the odds. They pointed to a poster on the wall of Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother and Vice-President who had overseen the development of Cuba's economy since the revolution in 1959. They spoke proudly of its health and education systems. They told us that their country had one of the highest literacy rates in the world; and if you were going to fall ill, Cuba was the place to do it. They told us that they were all atheists, but they appreciated the support of the churches and were willing to work with anyone for the welfare of their people.

I knew not to make hasty judgments on the basis of a week's visit. While there was a lot to be impressed by, there were also questions that wouldn't go away - about the limits placed on the personal freedoms most of us take for granted, about the regime's attitude to religion, the media and human rights, about a political system whose successes seemed to come at great cost to those who lived under it. But the biggest problem appeared to be the iron fist of their mighty neighbour across the Straits of Florida. If only the USA could begin a more constructive conversation with Cuba, based less on the stick and more on the carrot. Well, that would never have been easy with the memory of 1962 still vivid in the minds of the leadership. It's to Barack Obama's credit that at long last, the relationship has begun to be repaired. We must now hope that Donald Trump will not bring back the bad old days.

Today there have been reports of celebrations in the streets of Miami at the news of Castro's death. You can understand the feelings of the expat community, I suppose. But it still seems an oddly inappropriate response to a death, however much that particular constituency loathed the Cuban revolutionary and all that he stood for. But in the face of unhealed memories, wouldn't it be better to stop and reflect? Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls in Havana in 1940. He quotes John Donne in the novel's epigraph (in the original script): "Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

As I think back to those thirteen days in 1962 and a youngster's brush with mortality, I find myself pondering past and present once again. I am thinking and praying, not without a certain sense of foreboding, about a future that looks increasingly uncertain. Castro the dictator was undoubtedly a flawed leader with a very partial vision of the things that make for peace. But that he had a profound influence on twentieth century history can't be denied. There are lessons to be learned if we want to build a better, safer world for our children and grandchildren to inherit. "Those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it" said George Santayana in a saying made famous by Winston Churchill. That seems more true than ever on a day when memories are rekindled as another name passes into history.

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