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
BY YOANI SÁNCHEZ | JULY 27, 2011
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.