Vignettes From A Communist Utopia

Fidel Castro died last night at age 90. My first reaction upon reading the news this morning was “Good riddance!”

As I recount in We Wanted Workers, I have many not-so-wonderful memories of growing up in the very early years of Castro’s Cuba. It has always pained me to see Americans who are so ignorant of what a communist dictatorship is about singing praises to the Castro regime. It pains me even more to see people who should know better, like Pope Francis, saying that the “death of Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro was ‘sad news’ and that he was grieving and praying for his repose.”

My family owned a small clothing factory prior to the revolution, and that factory was quickly confiscated after Castro’s takeover. Here are some personal and random vignettes of what it was like to live in a revolutionary utopia from the perspective of someone who was 10 or 11 years old at the time:

  1. The Bay of Pigs invasion took place just a few days after my father passed away, and I stayed at my grandmother’s house for two or three weeks during those tumultuous days. Because my grandparents had been the titular owners of the factory, part of the political harassment included middle-of-the-night visits by a squadron of soldiers, ostensibly to search the house for counterrevolutionary material. I will always remember being lined up with my family against the wall with soldiers pointing machine guns at us while other soldiers searched.
  2. I learned about flash mobs early on in my life. One of my aunts was particularly religious. She and I end up going to church one Sunday morning probably in late 1961 or early 1962. While the mass is taking place, a mob of anti-Catholic protesters gathers around the church and blocks all exits. The angry mob makes the parishioners walk through a long serpentine of insults, screams, and spit as they exit the church.
  3. In the days before credit cards and electronic transfers, all transactions were made in cash. Castro quickly found a simple way of confiscating “excess” cash. The currency was changed overnight. And everyone had to turn in their old paper currency for the new paper currency, with some limits being imposed on the amount of the transactions. There was a miles-long line on what I think was a Saturday morning, as the entire Cuban population was turned into beggars for the new currency.
  4. Another aunt married a low-level navy officer in pre-Castro Cuba. I remember my cousin’s christening (I must have been 4 years old). My cousin’s godfather was her father’s commander. I have a vivid memory of the commander, dressed in his impressive uniform with all types of gold medals and military awards. The commander came to a family gathering every year or so as I was growing up, always dressed impeccably in full military regalia. He was arrested very soon after Castro’s takeover. My aunt visited him in prison. I recall hearing some very bad stories about what went on inside the prison, but cannot remember any details. I do remember my aunt’s description of how this man had only been in jail for a matter of days, but had already aged several decades. He was executed summarily by firing squad a day or two after my aunt’s visit.
  5. After the factory was confiscated, my family’s capitalist past made it very hard for them to find employment. They survived (until the exit visas finally came) by selling furniture and jewelry. But in Castro’s Cuba, a snitching family in each small neighborhood had the job of keeping track of the neighbors that were suspected of counterrevolutionary activities. When the exit visas were finally approved, my family was handed a list of all the furniture that Castro’s spies had seen hauled out of my family’s house, along with a bill for all that furniture. “You,” they were told,”didn’t own that. It belonged to the state.” Many decades later I sensed the same attitude in President Obama’s infamous “You didn’t build that” remark.

My memory bank is full of such vignettes. But I know there are far worse stories to be told, documented, and kept alive to ensure they do not disappear into the ether. Communism is evil and Castro was one of the devil’s agents.

Most people I know ask me what I think about President Obama’s opening to Cuba. I honestly don’t know the answer to that. There are sensible points to be made on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, it’s not clear that providing an economic lifeline to the communist regime is a good idea. On the other hand, many generations of Cubans have suffered enough.

However, any faith I could have on the wisdom of what Obama has done disappears the minute I remember this picture:

obama-chavez

Our soon-to-be ex-president sure seems to be very friendly with some very unsavory characters–and the particular character in this picture was certainly no friend of freedom and the American way.

In my humble opinion, this tweet perfectly encapsulates the correct response of anyone on the side of justice and liberty:

 

Author: George Borjas

I am a Professor of Economics and Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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