August 12, 2015
Roberto Cruz: A Life of Ambivalence in the Revolution
The lives of the people of Cuba have each been affected by the Revolution. Some have
actively participated cheering on Fidel and gladly volunteering their time to better their society
and country. Others have decided they did not agree with the Revolution and left Cuba for
Miami. Still others have remained in Cuba, maybe briefly captivated by the charisma of Fidel,
not completely believing in the goals of the Revolution, but stayed and lived alongside the
revolutionary government because Cuba is their home. Roberto Cruz seems to fall into this last
category, or perhaps he falls somewhere between the lines, which are not so clear. Roberto, now
in his mid-70s, lives in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana with his wife, Guillermina, where
they host guests from around the world in their home. The Revolution has impacted Roberto’s
life, just like it has all other Cubans. He has grown up and aged with the different revolutionary
policies and ideals that have been implemented over the last half century. As a result of his
ambivalence, he has chosen to react, or not react, as each of these changes has affected his life in
one way or another. Roberto is a product of revolutionary policies and ideals, such as the “new
man”, volunteer labor, and the Family Code, whether he has completely agreed or participated in
them enthusiastically or not; the Revolution has shaped his life.
Roberto grew up in the Cuban countryside where his family was poor, but they managed
to get along. The first time he learned about the revolutionaries in Cuba was when they attacked
the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953. He recalls learning about the Moncada attacks, but was
fairly young still, so he did not fully understand their significance and the July 26th movement
that developed out of it. This had been the first struggle of the Revolution, as it brought many
people together to fight against the dictator Batista’s coup (Franqui 2003, 303). A few months
later, Fidel was put on trial for the Moncada attacks, where he gave his famous speech, “History
Will Absolve Me”. In this speech he outlined the goals of the revolution and the six problems it
would attend to - “the problem of land, the problem of industrialization, the problem of housing,
the problem of unemployment, the problem of education, and the problem of the people’s health:
these are the six problems we would take immediate steps to solve” (Castro 2003, 308). Castro’s
speech got the attention of his comrades, who, by 1958, had helped the July 26th movement
emerge as the forerunner in the struggle for a revolution (Chomsky 2015, 31). Roberto was just
finishing high school by the end of the 1950s. During the two years leading up to the triumph of
the Revolution, Roberto recalls that the University of Havana was closed because all of the
students were either out participating in the revolutionary struggle in Havana or had fled to the
mountains with Fidel. This was not the first time the University of Havana had closed due to
student mobilization for independence, as the University had also closed during the Revolution
of 1933 (Phillips 2003, 279). Students have traditionally been the first group of people to
mobilize in Cuba during revolutionary movements. By the time of Fidel’s declaration of the
triumph of the Revolution on January 1, 1959, Roberto had moved to Havana and married
After the Revolution triumphed, the university reopened and Roberto and Guillermina
both attended college becoming professors. Guillermina proudly displays a small framed picture
of her degree in their sitting room, although it is not clear what subjects they taught. After the
Revolution triumphed, the new government began making the many changes that had been
promised, one being education. 1961 was known as the year of education as the Literacy
Campaign was started throughout the country to eradicate illiteracy (Fagen 2003, 386). This
mass movement for education was a key way the revolutionary government hoped to overturn
centuries of inequality and empower the powerless (Chomsky 2015, 42). Roberto did not
elaborate much on his role as a professor. He did not seem very enthusiastic about talking about
his old profession, perhaps it was only a job to him, or maybe he had to do some things related to
the Revolution that he himself did not agree with, and it was not a happy memory to recall, or
maybe he was just tired of talking.
Roberto surely had a lot to live up to during this period of the Revolution as Che
Guevara’s idea of the “hombre nuevo” or new man was taking shape. The new socialist man was
to acquire a social consciousness and work to contribute to common life to fulfill his social duty
(Guevara 2003, 372). Che believed that the new man should do voluntary work and should be
given moral incentives to replace the individualism that capitalism had created (Guevara 2003,
373). Che stressed, “There is no life outside of [the revolution]” (Guevara 2003, 374). As the
revolutionary government later learned, most Cubans did not respond to moral incentives and did
not become the “right minded Marxist-Leninist citizens” that Che had intended (Chomsky 2015,
105). Roberto would probably fall into this category, as it appears that he did not personally
adopt Che’s idea of a new man, which, as a professor, he was certainly under a lot of pressure to
become during the Revolution. Roberto seemed very nonchalant discussing the Revolution. It
seemed as if he just complacently participated in revolutionary activities, as he had to because
that was what was expected of him, not because he was enthusiastic about contributing to the
greater good of society.
As a result of Che’s idea of the new man contributing to society through volunteer work,
Roberto and hundreds of thousands of other Cubans participated in volunteer work brigades. In
fact, volunteering became a condition for employment, along with support for the revolution
(Chomsky 2015, 52). For Roberto this meant cutting sugar cane for about a month every year
during the 1970s and 80s. Some volunteers went with enthusiasm to cut cane for no
compensation, while others struggled to achieve the same level of excitement (Yglesias 2003,
377). Roberto most likely fell into this second category as he has not expressed any real
enthusiasm about any of the goals of the revolution, although he may have several decades ago
and slowly lost his enthusiasm as it got more “difficult” to live in Cuba. In 1970, Roberto
participated in the ten-million-ton sugar harvest. Tens of thousands of people in Cuba mobilized,
leaving their jobs to volunteer cutting sugar cane to help the country reach its goal (Chomsky
2015, 45). This produced dislocations in the rest of the economy and other sectors collapsed as
the country’s focus shifted to sugar (Blanco and Benjamin 2003, 435). The goal of ten million
tons was not achieved, but the Cuban people did collectively harvest eight-and-a-half million
tons of sugar that year, a new record, proving that people did have the capacity to work and
achieve a collective goal beyond individualism (Chomsky 2015, 45). While Roberto was proud
to have participated in such an achievement for his country, the enthusiasm toward the idea of a
communal effort to achieve a goal did not affect him as deeply as it did others.
Roberto describes life before and after the revolution fairly similarly. He says before the
revolution there were not that many problems, but life was difficult; after the revolution, life was
still difficult, but there were more opportunities. More opportunities could be seen with the new
access to universal healthcare and education that the Revolution brought (Chomsky 2015, 43).
The Revolution also brought the opportunity to create a more egalitarian society with the
inception of the Family Code. The Family Code created a “new equality between women and
men in their social relationships” where both parents would have equal responsibilities for child
care and housework (Randall 2003, 400-402). Roberto and Guillermina seemed to try to abide by
a similar code. Guillermina would cook dinner and then Roberto would take his turn cooking
breakfast the next morning. They appeared to share the household chores, at least what was not
done by their maid. In fact, the issue of equally sharing housework seemed as if it may have
never really been a topic in their marriage. Guillermina admitted one evening after dinner that
she never had to cook when she was young; she only started cooking when they began hosting
guests in their home about fifteen years ago. This could be because they may have come from a
position of privilege in Cuban society, which may also help to explain Roberto’s very ambivalent
attitude towards the Revolution.
Roberto did express more emotion when describing the time he had been to see Fidel
speak. He reminisced on Fidel’s charismatic personality and the way he captivated the crowd,
but also somewhat cynically noted that he was a “great improviser”, as Fidel was known to give
speeches that lasted for hours at a time. Through Fidel’s charisma, the term “fidelismo” was
coined, meaning the “‘grand narrative’ of unity, sacrifice, and redemption” (Chomsky 2015,
106). It was the “cultural religion” of Fidelismo which compelled Cubans to support radical
policies and to become “self-appointed defenders of the state and moral embodiments of the
Revolution” (Chomsky 2015, 106). While Roberto may have been impressed momentarily by
Fidel’s talent of improvisation, this impression seemed to fade quickly as well.
Roberto often repeated the mantra that life was “difficult”, as this was just a fact of life in
Cuba. When the Special Period began in 1990 after the fall of the Soviet Union, this difficulty
that had always existed in Cuba, according to Roberto, increased tenfold. Roberto remembers
that this period was especially difficult; he does not have any frustration or much emotion in his
voice, as he speaks with a sort of acceptance of his lot in life. He recalls this period was
extremely difficult for many Cubans. Cuba had depended on the Soviet Union for seventy
percent of its imports, which it subsequently lost causing food stuffs and jobs in the affected
sectors to disappear virtually overnight (Chomsky et al. 2003, 595 and Eckstein 2003, 610). As a
result, there were massive food shortages and rationing put into effect to “equalize sacrifice”,
which led to hours spent waiting in long lines to get basic necessities (Eckstein 2003, 608-609).
The challenges of the Special Period, although not articulated by Roberto, can be seen in his
neighbor’s family’s story, who also now hosts international guests, including one of the students
from UCLA. This family, who is today in a very similar circumstance to Roberto and
Guillermina, had very challenging times during the Special Period. As a result of the scarcity of
money and food, this family would use the peelings of the skin of fruit to blend together and
make juice. They would also purchase clean cloth that they would then cook, garnish, and
actually eat. Cubans were undoubtedly in a dire situation, and market-like reforms seemed to be
the most obvious solution to Fidel, who defended his shift from Soviet style socialism with the
slogan “Capital yes, capitalism no” (Eckstein 2003, 613). It was during this period of change that
tourism, the “industry without smokestacks”, became an important sector on the island (Eckstein
2003, 614). Roberto’s ability to host guests in his home was a result of this Special Period policy.
Roberto’s narrative of the Special Period may not be very dramatic because he did have
family, mainly nieces and nephews, who had moved to the United States during this time. For
the Cubans, who had family abroad during the Special Period, life was slightly less difficult for
them, as they had remittances and consumer goods coming in from outside Cuba (Eckstein 2003,
614). Many Cubans, with relatives who left for Miami or other parts of the world, had previously
tried to downplay their connection to the exile community, who was, more often than not, against
the revolutionary government (Chomsky 2015, 131). However, as the 1990s went on, these old
relationships were no longer seen as a political disgrace, as they became extremely advantageous
for those who had remained in Cuba (Eckstein 2003, 615). Remittances from immigrants were
estimated to exceed net tourist earnings within the country (Eckstein 2003, 615). Roberto and
Guillermina have been one of the lucky families who have been able to weather the Special
Period through maintaining contact with their family and the inflow of their remittances. They
even got the chance to visit them in the United States for several months in the late 1990s.
Despite the many difficult times and complicated ways of life in Cuba, Roberto believes
that the Revolution has produced some good, but that there is always room for improvement
within it. This seems to be the general consensus, as many Cubans tout their universal healthcare
and education system today, but have begun to condemn the censorship that has been a tool of
the revolutionary government (Paz 2003, 661). However, Cuba has already started to become
more open as a result of the economic independence that was ushered in with the fall of the
Soviet Union (Paz 2003, 660). Out of this period of change, a positive aspect has clearly
emerged which gives heed to the revolutionary ideals. This aspect is the civil society, which
developed “out of a socialist project that generated strong upward mobility and numerous
participatory spaces characterized by solidarity and collective action on behalf of the common
good” (Dilla 2003, 653). Roberto seems to take into account these positives and negatives
together when stating his opinion on the success of the revolutionary government. He is
optimistic about what the future holds with the budding relationship between Cuba and the
United States, saying that it can only be positive for Cuba from this point on. Roberto is
especially looking forward to the economic changes that not only these new relations will bring,
but that the opening up of the Cuban government, in general, will bring into the country.
Roberto grew up within the Revolution, entering his adult years as the Revolution
triumphed and began to tighten its control, and now he is spending his retirement watching it
begin to open up and change again. Roberto’s life has been shaped by the many revolutionary
policies and ideals that were put into place under Fidel, such as the idea of the new man,
volunteer labor, and the Family Code. The Revolution was a sort of double-edged sword for
Roberto. While he describes his life as always having been difficult, the Revolution both eased
and worsened this burden during different periods. Roberto’s ambivalent attitude toward the
Revolution may be the result of many years of difficulties mixed with traces of excitement and
hope over what the Revolution once was, or it could be that he was never quite on board with the
goals of the Revolution and went through the motions doing what he had to do to survive. No
matter the case, Roberto chose to stay in Cuba and participate in the Revolution, as all Cubans
were expected to do, whether he was fully committed or not. If anything, one thing is for sure,
Roberto was committed to his country in difficult and less difficult times.
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