I haven’t been in Cuba since January 1998, when John Paul II visited the island prison. And I have no intention of returning until the brothers Castro and their gang are sad memories. The recently deceased Maximum Leader, you see, took great offense at my description of the papal visit in Witness to Hope, and denounced me publicly in quite colorful language shortly after the book was published. So I don’t fancy a return engagement in Cuba until the odds on my return to the U.S. without being delayed have improved considerably.
But the fact that El Jefe finally relieved his long-suffering people of the burden of his presence did turn my mind to the impressions formed during a week in Havana, Camaguey, and Santiago almost 19 years ago. And the thing that sticks in my memory most powerfully — and which I’ve not seen commented on by others — is how ridiculously juvenile the Castro revolution has always been.
By the time I got to Havana in 1998, I’d spent enough time in Communist countries (and countries that had recently freed themselves from Communism) to know what to expect when wandering about the streets: crumbling buildings, their windows held together with masking tape; empty pharmacy shelves; scrawny children and worn-down old men cadging cigarettes, one of the few forms of negotiable currency. The devastation the Castros had wrought in the Cuban capital, which should be one of the world’s most beautiful cities, was strangely if colorfully underscored by a vast array of vintage American cars from the 1950s, some of them in quite good shape thanks to the cannibalization of their cousins. But the DeSotos and Studebakers aside, Havana in 1998 wasn’t all that different from the seedier sections of East Berlin in 1987 and Moscow in 1990, or the tougher areas of recently liberated Warsaw and Prague in 1991.
The Cuban difference was the propaganda, which was both ubiquitous and juvenile in the extreme: posters and billboards everywhere, each denouncing the perfidious Yanquis, the broader conspiracy of imperialists, and the U.S. embargo, all illustrated in idiotic cartoons that looked as if they’d been drawn by a twelve-year-old with a serious attitude problem. As Father Richard John Neuhaus said when we were walking the streets of Old Havana and seeing one display after another of callow, faux-ideological passion, “This is what your country looks like when it’s been run for 40 years by vicious teenagers with machine guns.”
The ne plus ultra of Castroite infantilism was (and, I imagine, still is) the Museum of the Revolution. Its exterior garden featured bits and pieces of Major Rudolph Anderson’s U-2, shot down on a photo-reconnaissance mission during the Thirteen Days of October 1962 — the harrowing two weeks when those teenagers with machine guns turned out to be teenagers with nuclear weapons and the world hovered on the brink. Inside, on the first floor, was the Rincon de los Cretinos [Cretins’ Corner], a slab of concrete on which were displayed garish cartoon figures representing the ousted dictator Fulgencio Battista, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush (but not the then-regnant POTUS, Bill Clinton — a nod of respect, or at least recognition, to another arrested adolescent?). The worst was upstairs, however. For there was the blood-stained burlap bag in which the corpse of Che Guevara had been carried down from the Bolivian mountains after his execution. Reverently displayed in a glass case, it was obviously intended to imitate the Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be the burial shroud of Christ. A few seconds’ disgusted contemplation of that blasphemy sent me out of the museum in a hurry, figuratively shaking the dust from my feet and wondering why the Kennedys hadn’t finished the job in 1961.
This nationwide display of juvenile viciousness in Cuba suggests, in an ironic way, the appositeness of some of the encomia bestowed on Fidel since his demise (not least by another adolescent-in-a-man’s-job, the prime minister of Canada, the Right Honorable Justin Trudeau, MP, who beatified Fidel as a “legendary revolutionary” who made “significant improvements to the education and health care of his island nation”). For there has always been something terminally unserious about the Castro Revolution — murderous and cruel, to be sure; devastating in its effects, without a doubt; but ultimately more theatricality than substance. And those who lift up Fidel Castro as someone to be emulated despite his, er, flaws thereby brand themselves as terminally unserious. It’s all adolescents, all the way down.
The evening we arrived in Havana in 1998, the Spanish-speaking leader of our group put himself at the end of the line to help with any immigration or customs hassles that might ensue. There weren’t any, so Mario Paredes, then the director of the Northeast Catholic Hispanic Center, finally went through the intake routine and put through the x-ray machine, in addition to his luggage, a large case carrying a gold chalice that Cardinal John O’Connor had had made as a gift to the Church in Cuba. The security goon at the x-ray didn’t recognize the image on his screen and asked Paredes to open the case for inspection. Mario did so, and the Cuban picked up the chalice, admired it, and thinking it a soccer trophy, asked, “What team is it for?”
That’s what the Castro Revolution had accomplished a year short of its 40th anniversary: It had not only impoverished and immiserated the people of Cuba, it had culturally lobotomized a lot of them. But as Richard Neuhaus said, that’s what happens when your country’s been run for four decades by vicious teenagers with machine guns. It’s now been close to six decades, and it’s hard not to imagine that the antiphon in the hearts of many Cubans on the day Fidel’s ashes are buried is Psalm 13.1: “How long, O Lord?”
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethic s and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.