The Last Pilgrims to Havana

Visiting Fidel Castro used to be a proud rite of passage for Latin American leftist leaders like Peru's Ollanta Humala. Now it's an act of charity.


HAVANA — There was a moment in history when Cuba was a beacon for the Latin American left. A now remote past when the Plaza of the Revolution was a beacon for the dozens of progressive movements that crossed the continent. "The island where utopia triumphed," many thought, the place that showed the way for revolutionaries and idealists everywhere.

Those were the days when young people kept posters of Fidel Castro in their rooms, believing that the dreams of so many years of proletarian struggle had come to fruition in the Caribbean. Our cultural centers filled with writers and artists, born from the Río Bravo all the way to Patagonia. And some of those who would later become the region’s political leaders came to study in schools across the country.

The infatuation with the Cuban process eventually fell victim to events; the executions, purges, and censorship of the early Castro era led millions of admirers to realize that "Red Cuba" was living not under the old ideals of Marx and Engels, but rather under authoritarianism. The excessive presence of the Soviet Union in decision-making, the Kremlin subsidies, and the high costs in political independence paid for them alienated the faithful followers of years past.

The apex of disappointment came in 1968, when the treads of the Soviet tanks entered Czechoslovakia, and Fidel Castro — before the stunned eyes of those who had raised him up as the indisputable emblem of the Latin American left — gave his blessing to the military action. Something irreversibly snapped that day, shattering the link (based more on emotion than reality even in the best of times) between Castro and a good part of the progressive world. The honeymoon was over.

But compared with the right-wing dictatorships spreading across the southern cone of the Americas, the Cuban Revolution still offered a little light at the end of the tunnel — flickering, it was true, but still phosphorescent. Eminent visitors from elsewhere in Latin America continued coming to the island from all over to get their picture taken with the leader in olive green. Landing at Havana’s airport, placing a wreath on a statue of José Martí — the man Cubans call "The Apostle"– or joining those on the dais during some popular parade, all were common events on the agendas of these foreign friends. 

Nor could anyone miss the marathon conversations with Castro, who left his visitors from abroad dumbfounded by his knowledge of agriculture, genetics, space exploration, or biotechnology — not to mention historical details he would know about his guests’ own countries. The chat would be accompanied by advice for whatever group or political power could take control in that country, and finally put an end to capitalism. Thus, the chief officiant of the left catechized the new shoots who would spread Marxism across the continent. Returning afterward to their respective countries, they would report that they had been in the sanctum sanctorum of socialist Cuba and repeat, over and over, the words they had heard from the Maximum Leader.

But even this personal adoration finally crumbled. Other voices arose in Latin America, less orthodox and more democratic, voices that also defined their projects as "revolutionary," "citizen," and "progressive." They had the advantage over the old patriarch, however, in that they had submitted themselves to the scrutiny of the ballot box and — for better or worse — lived with opposition parties and a press that disputed their positions. Now Castro’s island has become like a room in a museum, with half-empty display cases where few see themselves reflected. To visit the seat of its government and take a snapshot with its president can now represent a blemish rather than a credit on one’s record.

It was precisely to this mummified Cuba where Peru’s president-elect, Ollanta Humala, arrived last week — and the brief nature of the ascendant leftist’s visit speaks volumes. In decades past, a lengthy and personal visit to Cuba would have been the centerpiece of Humala’s first continental tour, but instead he was only in Havana for a few hours, a lightning-quick visit marked by formality. Unlike his hosts, the Peruvian dignitary represents a left that has faced elections against other forces, that has had to make concessions to its adversaries to achieve power, and whose time in the presidential chair will be limited. Although the Peruvian leftists felt, or feel, some sympathy for Cuba and its leaders, they know that keeping their distance is healthier for their own project than would be excessive concomitance.

But Humala’s presence here reminds us that the pilgrim cannot complete his journey without passing under the shadow of the ruined temple in which he once believed. He sat at the table with Fidel Castro, but this old man in Adidas pajamas is no longer someone who validates by his contact; quite the opposite. Humala had come to testify that the charismatic leader of old is still alive. But in a museum, only the gaze of the visitors restores the splendor of the pieces on display.

<p> Yoani Sánchez is the Havana-based author of the blog Generation Y and the recently published book Havana Real. This article was translated by Mary Jo Porter. </p>