Two compelling images of ordinary older Cubans appear in Fernando Perez’s 2003 Suite Habana, the melancholy and beautiful film that captures hard life in Cuba. One is of a 79-year-old woman who drops peanuts into paper cones and sells them on the street; the other is of a woman sitting in her rocking chair, wearing glasses with thick lenses, watching television, mesmerized by the sea of flag-waving Cubans on her TV screen. The first vignette suggests the economic difficulty experienced by many older Cubans, while the second suggests the psychological hold the revolution typically has on them. The elderly are disproportionately affected by the hardships of life in Cuba, receiving pensions on which they cannot live, residing in overcrowded homes, and suffering from shortages in food and transport (Durán & Chávez 2000). Yet many older persons retain a positive attitude about the revolution. Why is this the case?
The question emerged from a study I conducted in 2005 with 25 older persons about the importance of the revolution in their lives. My specific questions were: 1) How important has the revolution been in the lives of older persons? 2) How has it changed their lives? 3) Do older Cubans retain faith in the future of the revolution? and 4) Do they believe younger Cubans share their views about this historic event? I expected at the outset that years of exposure to adverse living conditions would have significantly diminished the degree to which the elderly identified with the major societal transformations that began in 1959.
The meaning of “the revolution” varies from individual to individual (Rosendahl 1997). It has been associated with collective participation in shared struggle in the 1960s, with acknowledgment of the state and the political class in the 1970s, and with community and solidarity in the 1990s (Gray & Kapcia 2008). “The revolution” here refers to a series of ongoing cultural, political, and societal processes set into motion in 1959 by the government of Fidel Castro. These processes included the socialization of the Cuban economy and the attempt to construct a more egalitarian social order (Saney 2004).
More than a million Cubans (11.3% of the population) are 65+ years of age (Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas 2006). Published information on this disproportionately large and growing older population is sparse (Durán & Chávez 2000; Harnecker 1996; Strug 2004; Lewis 1977a, b). Much of this literature relates to the health of older persons or to the national challenge of meeting the needs of an aging population (Branch et al. 2004; Díaz-Briquets 2002) rather than to older persons’ views about the revolution or about daily life. It is important to document those views before this age cohort disappears.
This article explores the extent to which the views older of Cubans about the revolution have remained constant. Continued identification with ideals and experiences of one’s earlier years may fortify older persons against the impact of subsequent hardship. To what extent has this been the case for participants in the Cuban revolution? Has their identification with it strengthened over time, or has it been weakened by years of hard living? In order to address these questions, we must first review how the revolutionary triumph of 1959 radically altered society and transformed the lives of Cubans.
Revolutionary Change, Present Day Scarcity, and Today’s Older Population
The standard of living in Cuba before the 1959 revolution was low for many urban dwellers, but especially for rural Cubans, who suffered from high rates of unemployment and illiteracy (Pérez-Stable 1993). Forty-five percent of Cubans had never been to school (Thomas 1971) and half of them were malnourished to some degree (Collins & Benjamin 1985). Most dwellings lacked running water, and most rural homes had dirt floors. While many residents of Havana had a relatively high standard of living, they were a minority in the country as a whole. Racism, police brutality, political corruption, and foreign control of key sectors of the economy led to frustration among large segments of the population (Halebsky & Kirk 1985).
The government of dictator Fulgencio Batista was toppled January 1 1959 by a revolutionary movement which mobilized workers, peasants and other sectors of society. In the ensuing decade the country was restructured along socialist lines. Banks and industry were nationalized, the education system was overhauled, and rural life was transformed. Universal literacy and completion of primary school were introduced along with redistributive economic measures. The majority of those who opposed the revolution and who had the necessary financial resources left Cuba for the US.
The 1960s were years of great euphoria. Che Guevara stressed the importance of self-sacrifice, personal responsibility, and assimilation of the goals of the revolution to achieve revolutionary consciousness (Martínez-Saenz 2004). Government stressed education and work as a way of achieving liberation, and promoted an ethos of volunteerism that influenced millions of Cubans to join campaigns to increase agricultural output, build houses, teach literacy, advance sanitation, and promote health through participation in mass organizations (Pérez-Stable 1993). The government promoted distributive social justice, was committed to full equality of opportunity, and ended legal race discrimination. All adults were available for political participation. Land-reform was enacted and unemployment was reduced. High quality medicine and education became free of charge and rents were drastically cut. The failed US Bay of Pigs invasion, the blockade of the island, and the Cuban Missile Crisis heightened revolutionary consciousness.
In the 1970s and 80s, the Cuban economy became heavily dependent on the Soviet Union. The subsequent Soviet collapse had a catastrophic impact on living standards and led to rising unemployment (Cole 2002). Income was insufficient to meet basic needs (Togores 1999). Deteriorating housing and sanitary conditions resulting from limited availability of construction materials contributed to higher rates of disease. The health of the elderly was especially affected (Garfield 1997). Housing construction was stagnant. Cubans call this time the “Special Period.”
Cuba has slowly emerged from the worst effects of the Special Period. However, salaries remain low and there is widespread dissatisfaction with shortages or deficiencies in food, medicines, transport, and other aspects of daily life (García 2007). Youth in particular are said to feel alienated (Generación Y 2008). Older persons, however, are perhaps the most affected by today’s hardships. Many were forced to retire early as the economy shrank, but then had to take on part-time work in order to survive. The buying power of pensions and of social assistance decreased, and subsidized ration cards covered less of people’s basic needs (Uriarte 2002). Older Cubans are particularly affected by a shortage of medical supplies. They typically live with their families out of economic necessity and due to lack of housing, which can lead to intergenerational conflict (Durán & Chávez 2000).
President Raúl Castro has recently introduced a number of reforms to address these hardships while attempting to preserve the achievements of the revolution (Cuba News Agency 2008). These include removing existing salary caps for many types of employment, raising salaries in general, and giving cooperatives and private farmers unused state land in an effort to increase agricultural production. Most recently the Cuban parliament proposed increasing pensions and postponing the retirement age for both men and women by five years (Cancio Isla 2008).
Study Sample and General Responses
I interviewed 25 older Cubans in Havana in the summer of 2005. Participants had to be 60+ years of age and to have lived in Cuba all their lives.* Of the 25 study subjects, more than two-thirds were female. They ranged in age from 62 to 105; median age was 74. Over half were married and living with a partner. All had children and most had grandchildren. Six had a university education and had completed 12 years of schooling. All of those who had held jobs were now retired. Eleven of the women had never been employed. Only one study participant reported he was affluent before the revolution. The participants, having stayed in Cuba, may have been predisposed in favor of the revolution; my concern, however, was to understand how and on what basis their initial views evolved over time. Here are their responses:
How Important Has the Revolution Been In Your Life? Most persons responded that the revolution was of great importance in their lives because it benefited them economically and socially. They expressed pride in Cuba’s education, literacy, health care and family doctor programs, in its vaccination campaigns and affordable housing opportunities, and in the universal access to cultural events. They noted that the revolution taught them the importance of hard work, self-sacrifice, and cooperation, and stated that their admiration for it has remained strong from the beginning.
How Did The Revolution Change Your Life? Almost all the persons interviewed said the revolution increased their wages, gave them new educational opportunities, reduced their exposure to racial discrimination, and raised their consciousness about economic and social justice. A small number stated that the revolution did not necessarily improve their standard of living and that they initially reacted to the revolution with a degree of indifference.
“The Revolution Has Brought Us Good Things and Bad Ones.” Many respondents said that despite the revolution’s achievements, ordinary Cubans face problems related to lack of money and the high cost of basic necessities. “The revolution has brought us good things and bad ones” was a common response. However, respondents were quick to add that the good brought by the revolution outweighed the bad, that no perfect society exists, and that the country’s leaders are human and therefore sometimes made mistakes that have produced hardships.
The most frequent complaint was that monthly pensions were too small, especially since food prices have increased in recent years and many basic items must be paid for in dollars, not Cuban pesos. Respondents said they did not have the money to live independently from their extended families, even if housing were available. Other complaints included overcrowded housing in need of repair, inadequate public transportation, and older persons’ perception that they needed to keep their thoughts to themselves when they conflicted with those of younger household-members. Some complained that Cuba’s famed health care system had become strained by the sending of thousands of doctors to Venezuela. Nevertheless, no respondents stated Cuba should stop sending doctors abroad; in fact, they expressed pride in this type of humanitarian aid.
Do You Have Faith in the Future of the Revolution? The respondents uniformly expressed faith in the future of the revolution and its leadership. They believe that Cuba will continue to support the right of its citizens to universal healthcare, free education, low cost housing, and social equality – all achievements of the revolution.
Below we present three individual stories that illustrate the impact that participation in the revolution has had on people’s identification with its ideals. These three cases were selected because their accounts are particularly vivid and articulate and because their views are generally representative of the larger study group.
Alicia, a 78-year-old social worker, struck me immediately as a caring, introspective, and sensitive woman. This impression deepened during the course of our interview, especially when I heard her description of the miserable living conditions of poor Cubans living in the countryside prior to the revolution and when she spoke about political repression and suffering during the Batista period. I perceived her sadness when she began to talk about the virulent racism in pre-revolutionary Cuba, of which she herself was a victim.
Born in Havana and raised by parents of modest economic means (her father was a musician and her mother a school teacher), Alicia lived with her seven siblings and her parents in the neighborhood of Old Havana until she married. She was painfully aware of political repression in Cuba when she was growing up. She remembers the cries of jailed political prisoners coming from the police station located near her family home: “One felt the pain of these people being tortured. It was horrible.” She added:
We were afraid to go out on the street at night for fear of being rounded up by the cops for no reason. Caramelo, the police captain at the jail, worked closely with Batista, and when Batista traveled through our neighborhood with his entourage, nobody was allowed on the streets. If you were caught on the block, they would round you up.
Alicia is Afro-Cuban and remembers the racial discrimination she suffered prior to the revolution. Her first job was as a saleswoman in a clothing store in downtown Havana. She noted how white women coming into the store frequently rejected her offer of assistance, preferring the help of a white salesperson. She recalls the humiliation she felt as the result of such behavior.
Alicia’s life improved significantly after the revolution. She and her husband were able to acquire an apartment that was affordable despite their modest incomes, thanks to the revolutionary government’s urban reform laws that reduced rents. She started her career working in the Ministry of Social Welfare, which was created after the triumph of 1959. Her first assignment was at a milk distribution center where poor mothers received milk for their babies free of charge. She met with these women to assess their needs for support services. Alicia noted that this type of social assistance for poor mothers did not exist before the revolution. She stated that she felt fulfilled by helping the women who came to the center. She appreciated receiving her salary in a timely fashion, noting that prior to the revolution employees sometimes did not get paid on time as rampant corruption depleted bank coffers. She was subsequently employed at the local governmental level (poder local), where administrators worked closely with neighborhood organizations.
The Ministry of Public Welfare recognized Alicia’s considerable abilities and appointed her to an important position at the municipal level when a system of municipal government was created in 1976. Next, she was named Chief of Social Work for an entire province. For the last 25 years she has been a union representative for social workers in healthcare within the Cuban Confederation of Workers (CTC). She is proud that she has helped many fellow workers advance in their careers.
Alicia noted that the changes brought about by the post-1959 government were hard won:
Those [pre-revolutionary] years were hard, hard, very hard! There was Batista, Grau, Prío, then Batista once again! These were wretched governments. None of these presidents cared about this country at all. They only existed to take away the little bit we had. The peasantry lived horribly. I learned this when I participated in the alphabetization campaign. The leaders didn’t care!
Alicia attributes the benefits of the revolution to the dedication and hard work of countless Cubans like her. She believes it is important for parents to teach their children about the energy and sacrifice on the part of her generation that went into building the revolution and sustaining it through difficult times, including the Special Period. She hopes this knowledge will help enable a younger generation to preserve hard-won revolutionary accomplishments. “To develop, and move ahead, one must work, and that is what Cuba and the younger generation must continue to do,” she stated. Alicia acknowledged that young people complain about the difficulties of life in Cuba. She noted “Young people watch TV. Those who travel see things abroad that they want here but which are not available. Young people want everything, but don’t want to work.”
Alicia says she remains optimistic about the future of socialism in Cuba, because older Cubans have experienced the revolution’s benefits. They are not interested in returning to conditions as they existed under capitalism, and she affirms that they will fight to preserve their gains.
Guillermo, 81, has an air of dignity about him, and remains quite handsome and robust despite his age. He was eager to discuss his life-history and his experience with the revolution. At times during our interview, he spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully, lowering his voice and taking on a pensive expression, such as when he described his early years before he committed himself to the revolution. At other times, his voice would rise, and he would speak with excitement about his revolutionary accomplishments, his face beaming with joy as he described what he had done.
Guillermo had a long and successful career as an administrator in the Ministry of Transportation and Public Works, retiring in 1999. His parents earned relatively little money when he was a child on the Isle of Pines. Later, his mother was a teacher and his father a surgeon who ran a small medical clinic in Havana. His father charged little money to his patients, most of whom were poor. The father’s class consciousness developed further in the years leading up to the revolution. He eventually joined Fidel Castro’s forces in the Sierra Maestra Mountains where he was a surgeon for the guerrilla movement.
Guillermo stated that he earned a great deal of money before the revolution working as an administrator for a US-owned construction company that had a road-building contract with the Cuban government. He enjoyed the good life and explained that he did not hold revolutionary ideas at the time. However, he eventually became critical of Batista’s regime and the corruption and misery it produced. “What did Batista bring us? Misery, persecution and death,” he said. He was also influenced in his thinking by his father and by his father’s revolutionary peers. Melba Hernández, a hero of the Cuban revolution, was one of his father’s colleagues who had a big impact on Guillermo’s views about the need for radical change in Cuba.
Guillermo began to secretly mimeograph revolutionary materials at his workplace for the urban underground movement. He took advantage of business trips to Venezuela to raise money for arms-purchases for the July 26th Movement, the revolutionary organization headed by Fidel Castro. He also transported weapons in his car for use by the underground.
After the revolution Guillermo was given a responsible position with the Ministry for the Recuperation of Misappropriated Funds (Ministerio de Recuperación de Bienes Malversados), set up to confiscate the money of those who were accused of counterrevolutionary activities, who had abandoned the country, or who were discovered to be working in opposition to the interests of the new society. “It was then that I really began to feel like a revolutionary,” Guillermo said. He subsequently held a high-level administrative post concerned with road-building and other public works. He had the opportunity at this job to occasionally meet with Fidel Castro. He once observed Castro talking for four hours with the construction workers about their road-building activities. After that, Fidel spoke with Guillermo at length about the system of food distribution for the employees. Fidel’s expression of concern for the wellbeing of the workers left a great impression on Guillermo; he felt that Fidel had the interest and ability to solve the many small as well as large challenges facing Cuba. “Can you imagine Fidel spending all that time talking with us?” he commented.
Guillermo stated he has never regretted the loss of his large income after the revolution. He rejected the offer the government made to him to live in a large house which had been owned by one of Batista’s military commanders. “We made the revolution so everybody would live well. We did not make the revolution to live off it,” he commented. He was instrumental in lowering salaries for himself and for his workers after 1959, because he thought they were too high and that this was unfair.
Guillermo worries that current hardships in the country may breed discontented youth who are overly exposed to the materialistic values of the US. He laments that today’s youth seem impatient for change, and are not sufficiently familiar with the sacrifices of his generation. However, he is convinced that Cuba’s youth would come to the island’s defense if it were threatened by the United States.
Guillermo acknowledged that Cuba has economic problems and that its leadership has made mistakes. He considers it unfortunate that the island has to depend upon Venezuela, China and other countries for aid. He believes that some socioeconomic inequality exists in Cuba, that the government’s policy prohibiting Cubans from staying at tourist hotels is wrong [a policy rescinded by Raul Castro since this interview took place], and that workers do not earn enough money. Guillermo indicated that his son Roberto wants a better quality of life, and that he understands his son’s viewpoint. He said he would not try to stop Roberto from leaving the country if he wished to do so.
Guillermo believes that the quality of life in Cuba will improve and that one must hold on to the spirit and the revolutionary values within oneself, while government leaders attempt to resolve the country’s problems. He recognizes that many Cubans have inadequate diets and that the country needs to produce food more efficiently, but he also attributes many of the economic problems to the US trade embargo. “Holding on to your beliefs in the future of the country is what gets you through the hard times,” he noted. He repeated the story of his father who performed surgery on his patients even when they did not have the money to pay. “My father taught me to be giving in this way and I have made those views my own.”
Guillermo retains faith in the revolution despite its shortcomings:
I am a revolutionary and I will be one until I die. Because Cuba is a country that tries to give everyone what it can on an equal basis. It is on a path where someday soon there will be no robbing, where there will be genuine equality, where everyone will live with tranquility, without difficulties.
Guillermo has disdain for the US government’s position that Cuba must transition to democracy. “When Bush speaks about ‘transition to democracy’ this means for us a return to the past, to robbery, misery, that a few people live well, and that the rich own 80% of the wealth of the country.” And he added, “I know this country has economic problems, but we can’t win the battle to overcome these problems overnight. We are dealing with the embargo.”
Celia, like Alicia, is an Afro-Cuban woman in her late seventies and a former social worker. She dresses artistically, with antique jewelry. She impressed me immediately with her seriousness; her expression was sparkling. Throughout our interview, she spoke rapidly as if afraid there would not be sufficient time to tell me about her many accomplishments as a professional and as a community activist. Her narrative was detailed and lucid, showing a prodigious memory and strong identification with the revolution.
Celia was born in Cienfuegos (on Cuba’s southern coast) to a family of poor workers that included carpenters and shoemakers. However, she and her four siblings received a good education. Her brother became a well known magistrate in Havana who was a member of the People’s Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Popular or PSP), as were other members of her family. Celia helped her brother in his political work from the time she was 14. ”This was the beginning of my activism,” she noted. She went on to study music at the Amazonian University in Santa Clara and later attended the University of Havana where she received an advanced degree (licenciatura) in social work.
After the revolution, Celia held a number of positions aimed at improving public health and the social conditions of the poor. She worked closely with health workers from the Ministry of Social Welfare on campaigns to eradicate diphtheria and malaria, and to reduce diarrhea-related death and disease. “When we began to work right after the triumph of 1959, we saw people living in truly horrible conditions; their houses were in terrible shape, many people were homeless and slept outdoors on newspapers in front of stores.”
Celia played a significant role in administering sanitation and immunization campaigns in the Havana municipality named Tenth of October, which included work with polyclinics, old age homes, mental health programs, and hospitals. She was a member of numerous social work commissions. She established the first national Cuban social work congress and was an adviser to the technical training schools created to prepare social workers for employment in medical settings. She helped run mass organizations in her neighborhood, including a local office of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) and of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). She also established a Grandparents’ Circle or social support group for older persons in her community.
Celia is grateful for what the revolution has given her:
I always fought for the good cause, and the revolution gave me the chance to put my knowledge into action. The revolution has allowed me to live a life of comprehension, which helps me to understand, analyze, and act on the problems that exist in my country. I had fewer opportunities before the revolution. I was a teacher in 1952 but I never had a permanent classroom to teach in. Fidel gave me the chance to use my knowledge.
Celia acknowledges the material hardships people face, but she emphasizes how much worse things were for millions of Cubans prior to the revolution:
He who has not lived the past cannot analyze the present and the past was horrible, horrible. Today’s problems are organizational ones, not problems of socialism. Sure remnants of racism still exist in this country. Racism is old and deeply rooted in our culture. Racial prejudice reflects the limitations of some individuals, but not that of our socialist society. Racism is not Fidel’s policy.
Discussion and Implications
The older persons I interviewed have identified with the values of the revolution since its inception. The revolution transformed their lives in positive ways, and they are optimistic about its future. Nonetheless, their views about the revolution have evolved over time; they acknowledge the limitations of the process at the same time that they praise its accomplishments.
We observed, for example, that Alicia was aware of political injustice in Cuba since childhood. Her participation in the revolution through her social work career contributed to a deepening commitment and identification with the revolutionary process over time. Celia and Guillermo also developed a growing commitment and identification with the revolution throughout the course of their adult lives. But all three of them have also experienced directly the limitations of the revolution, including having lived through the Special Period; and we have seen that their attitudes about the revolution have come to reflect a critical appreciation and understanding of its process. Thus, despite their commitment to the country’s revolutionary ideals, they believe that not all of Cuba’s troubles can be blamed on the US, that their country’s leaders have made mistakes, and that it will take patience, time, and hard work to overcome Cuba’s many economic and social problems.
The degree of optimism about the revolution that Alicia, Celia, and Guillermo express reflects an attitude that we found to be common in the larger group of persons in this study. One might question the optimistic viewpoint of older Cubans given the ongoing hardships they face. However, the responses I collected suggest that older persons’ memory of how difficult life was in Cuba before 1959 and their pride in the revolution’s accomplishments have fortified them in the face of present conditions and allow them to be hopeful about the future. None of our respondents expressed cynicism towards the government or its leaders, even though they acknowledged that the revolution “has brought us good things and bad ones.” However, it is impossible to predict for how much longer their positive identification with the revolutionary process will allow them to cope with adversity if conditions do not improve soon, or if they worsen in the future.
Agricultural underproduction and food shortages, poor housing, and other problems pose challenges for Cuba’s leaders. President Raúl Castro acknowledged this in a speech to the National Assembly in July 2008, in which he expressed his belief that socialism and the positive achievements of the revolution will continue, but also stated that socialism and equality do not necessarily signify egalitarianism (Castro 2008). A number of his proposed changes follow from this interpretation of socialism, including his call for a removal of caps on state salaries, allowing for productivity bonuses, giving unused land to private farmers, and encouraging other limited private market activities.
President Castro’s proposal for changes, in addition to the improvements that the government has already made such as strengthening the country’s electrical grid and putting more buses on the street, suggest that Cuba’s leaders are interested in keeping a revolutionary process alive through the introduction of reforms. Can the experiences of older persons like those in this study be brought to bear in this effort? Can older persons’ experiences with revolutionary change help inspire younger people to recognize and preserve what their forebears helped create, while attempting to resolve existing shortcomings? Or, is there too great a difference between the generations in their perceptions of the revolutionary process?
We believe that the older generation’s commitment and accomplishments can indeed serve as a model, but it may be useful for the government to directly promote intergenerational dialogue for this purpose. The younger generation lacks historical memory of the corruption, racism, and social injustice that existed in Cuba prior to the revolution. We noted Celia’s statement that “He who has not lived the past cannot analyze the present, and the past was horrible.” This may make it difficult for younger people to appreciate such benefits as the country’s free healthcare and educational systems and other legacies of the revolution. This is especially true now, at a time when increased economic dependence, a rise in foreign tourism as a source of hard currency, and the existence of a black market and a two-tier economy have increased socioeconomic inequality and threaten to erode some of the accomplishments of the revolution.
Older persons’ views about the triumph of 1959 reflect their long-term involvement with the revolutionary process and their thinking over several decades about how this process has transformed their lives and the country. They also understand how global events, including the US embargo, economic dependence on the former Soviet Union, and the current international economic crisis have contributed to economic problems in Cuba. This understanding might be useful to a newer generation as it helps build a form of socialism that corresponds to Cuba’s particular economic and social realities.
Alicia, Celia, and others we spoke with felt fulfilled by having contributed to their community and to their country, by having participated in mass organizations like the Federation of Cuban Women, and by having performed socially useful work, such as involvement in alphabetization and health campaigns. We noted Celia’s belief that this involvement helped her to better understand and analyze the country’s problems. Similar involvement may also be important for the younger generation, to increase optimism about the revolution while they work to address its challenges.
*This was a sample of convenience; subjects entered the study through a snowball sampling technique. I interviewed 8 participants with the help of administrators at two senior day programs (casas de abuelos) and 7 participants through contact with Cuban colleagues. I explained to these 7 that I wanted to interview individuals who held a range of views about the revolution. They introduced me to 10 acquaintances. Three potential subjects declined to be interviewed. I stressed that the open-ended interview I was conducting in Spanish was voluntary and anonymous and would not involve payment. Interviews lasted between 1 and 2 hours; they were recorded and transcribed. Ages given are as of 2005.
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