On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro’s rebel forces attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba – the first shots fired in what became the Cuban Revolution. With each passing year the guerrillas who fought alongside Castro and Che Guevara are fewer. Many who survive continue to support the cause of the revolution unconditionally. Their children and grandchildren, especially those born during the economic crisis Cuba has faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union, see things differently. Those who haven’t already left the island increasingly express frustration as the economic situation worsens and hope for a brighter future grows dim. Who are the revolutionaries now? I traveled to Cuba to ask both the old and young generations what they see as the revolution’s legacy. —Harvey Maltese (pen name)
Victor (Alamar, Havana): I was fourteen years old when the revolution was declared. Growing up, I felt the Batista dictatorship in my own flesh – I saw the misery it caused. My dad was a union organizer in the sugar factory. He went to jail several times. We were poor. But after the revolution my father could own the house we lived in. I could get a scholarship, study in Havana.
I was always a revolutionary – back then most young people were. But today a lot of young people are influenced by the internet, where 90 percent of what you’ll see is biased against countries like Cuba. It’s a tough time. But although it’s not easy, I’m happy being a revolutionary. It still lights up my soul.
Reinier (Victor’s son): Young people can see the world is changing. I agree that the revolution was great in the beginning, I think it turned into something different. I don’t want to fight anybody and I don’t want to ever carry weapons. Being a true revolutionary, for me, is to do things better, whatever you’re doing. That’s my revolution.
Fabian (Centro Habana): I am twenty-six years old. I never went to university, I never had a proper job, I struggled to express myself verbally, and that’s why I started painting. To try and tell my truth. To share my dream with people.
It’s hard to dream in Cuba. Many people feel trapped. I don’t think about the future much – it’s about surviving each day at a time. If you look at the streets, things aren’t going well. And even though revolution is supposed to be about change, about things getting better, we’re still stuck in the past. Maybe because we weren’t here before, the young need to make our own changes, our own revolution. But the older generations don’t listen to the young.
I try to keep evolving, to learn as much as I can. And to treat other people well. That’s my way of being a revolutionary – it’s the only way I know.
Maria (Santiago de la Vega, Havana): I saw the revolution begin when I was about twenty years old. It was late in 1956 when I saw a boat landing at the Playa Las Coloradas. An officer in Batista’s army was there too. He told me, “Wait here, there are some rebels arriving.” It was Fidel. I hid some of the rebel fighters in my home. Later, I left my home and went to the Sierra Maestra mountains where they were based. I gathered information about the movements of Batista’s army.
What made me take the side of the revolution was the crisis ordinary Cubans were going through. We were hungry, our needs were neglected, and we felt abandoned by the government. I knew if Cuba didn’t change my son would never go to school, never be properly fed, nothing. I became a revolutionary in those days. I am ninety now. I will stay a revolutionary until I close my eyes for the final time.
Susel (Maria’s granddaughter): I am twenty-one years old. My grandmother is a courageous person. Sometimes I think about all the hard times my father had to endure because of my grandmother’s choices, and my feelings are more complicated. But most of the time I take strength from her courage. That’s how the revolution was made, I think – through actions like those that my grandmother took back then.
There’s a crisis for ordinary people today – different from the one my grandmother lived through, but still a crisis – and I’m trying to make a positive change in response, like she did. My boyfriend and I run a community project in the town where we live. We’re starting a farm and building a space on it where artists and musicians can work. Whether it’s painters, singers, or just people in the neighborhood, everyone is welcome.
Misael (Granma Province): I was twenty when I joined the revolution. At the time, I worked with donkeys transporting merchandise. I was living here when Che Guevara came to the Sierra Maestra. I asked a rebel I knew to introduce me. That’s how I became second-in-command of supplying Che’s battalion. Che used to talk a lot with me about politics, which back then I didn’t know anything about. I wanted to join the revolution because of the brutality of Batista’s army. They killed my sister-in-law, and they tried to kill me, many times.
Later I went to Havana and Fidel made me a first lieutenant in his new army. But I didn’t like the army. I told Che I was going back to the mountains to work with my donkeys again. He told me I was crazy. I went back anyway.
I am about to turn ninety-six. I still don’t like politics. But being a revolutionary is still everything to me.
Raul (Granma Province): I joined the revolution when I was fourteen years old. My family had a small farm, so we weren’t the poorest of the poor, but I still had to work as a child – chopping sugar cane, selling charcoal. There was misery everywhere in Cuba – only those who lived through it can truly know. In my eyes, the revolution was truly great, because it swept all that away.
When a rebellion began in the Escambray Mountains against Fidel’s new government, they called for volunteers to defend the revolution. I went into the mountains in 1961, as a scout, and stayed there for one and a half years. The mountains were filled with enemy fighters. There were many deaths.
I’m seventy-nine now, and I’m still a fighter, a combatiente. Even though I’m an old man now, I haven’t changed. If it was necessary, I would go back and fight.
Luis (Alamar, Havana): I am twenty-four and work as a pizza chef. My grandfather fought in the revolution when he was only seventeen years old. He followed his brother into the revolution, and he lost him in the war. Revolutions are about change, making a better world. And that was the dream that my grandfather and his brother fought for. But between then and now that dream got diverted, things went onto a different path, and in Cuba today I don’t think you can see it any more. Nowadays the revolution is just some people hanging on to power.
And the people who fought for the dream are forgotten – people who fought in the Sierra Maestra, in the Escambray. They’ve been forgotten by the veterans’ associations and by the government. If my grandfather didn’t have my grandmother and his children, he’d be alone. If that’s what happened to our elders who made the revolution, what will happen to us?
My grandfather helped make a big change in his time, a complete change. Everyone could learn to read and write, see a doctor, get an education. The revolution gave houses to many families that lived in terrible conditions under the dictatorship. And during the 1980s, thanks to the USSR, there was food, economic stability, jobs. But I was born in 1998, and I have only ever known blackouts, unemployment, bad transportation. Only problems, and the problems never get solved.
So many people are homeless – it feels like we’re back to the days before the revolution. Maybe things are repeating themselves. We need a new perspective. The dream of the revolution was the dream of change, of going in a new direction. I think we have to do that again, take another turn, go onto another road. A road that will take us somewhere where no one is forgotten.