Inside Fidel Castro’s hometown – What next for Cuba?
Inside Fidel Castro’s hometown: What next for Cuba?
After over 50 years of isolation, Cuba may finally be ‘coming in from
the cold’. But what does this mean for Fidel Castro’s country – and what
do the people in his hometown make of it all?
By Georgia Birch, Biran8:00AM GMT 28 Mar 2015
Muriel Ramirez has lived her entire life in the shadow of the vast
yellow hacienda that sits on the outskirts of the Cuban village of Biran.
As a child, she heard how her parents had attended the lavish funeral of
Don Angel, the Spanish immigrant who owned the palatial home and its
25,000 acres of pine forests and sugar plantations. As a schoolgirl, she
was indoctrinated in the glories of the man who grew up in that farm.
And now, as an adult, she works at the hacienda, which has been turned
into a museum celebrating its boyhood inhabitant: Fidel Castro.
“Fidel was a rebel at the time rebellion was necessary,” said Mrs
Ramirez, standing in the shade of the hacienda’s adjoining wooden
amphitheatre, where cockfights were held each Sunday for the
entertainment of the labourers.
Fidel Castro visiting the house he was born in, in Biran, Cuba
But is that rebellion still relevant to modern Cuba?
She looks at her feet, and sighs deeply. Her granddaughter is turning 15
soon, she said – a huge event in Latino life, requiring an
expensively-furnished fiesta. She worries about how she can fund that,
with her minute income.
“Now we need someone to sort out our economy.”
For the first time since “the triumph of the Revolution,” as Cubans
refer parrot-fashion to Castro’s 1959 takeover, that economic
transformation may actually be about to happen. Communist Cuba is at a
In less than a fortnight’s time, the fruit of four months of landmark
diplomatic talks with its old adversary, America, will be put on show.
President Barack Obama and Raul Castro will meet at the Summit of the
Americas in Panama – only the third time that a US president has met a
Cuban leader. Now the two men could, for the first time ever, hold a
For Americans it means they can at last visit the forbidden island, and
begin to do business with the 11 million people living on the largest
island in the Caribbean.
For Cubans, it means the promise of more money, in a country where the
state employs over half of the population on an average salary of $20 a
month, and where engineers, lawyers, doctors and teachers all drive
taxis for tourists to supplement their unliveable state salaries.
Full-blooded capitalism and an end to the one-party state is not
remotely on the table. But the rapprochement with the US is a still
source of delight for the majority of Cubans – and of hope for a
brighter financial future.
“I was at home, and there was an announcement that Raul was going to
make a statement,” said Juan Miguel, who lives in the Castros’ hometown.
“Then when he started talking, well, I couldn’t believe it! It was a
split screen, Raul Castro with Obama! They had been talking!”
He gestured wildly, his eyes animated, as he sat on a bench in the
centre of the small, dusty town, recalling the emotion of the moment.
“For 50 years we don’t speak – and then suddenly, this!”
In languid, steamy Biran – 500 miles to the east of Havana – there is a
sense that things have to change.
It was here that Fidel was born 88 years ago, one of seven children of a
soldier from Galicia in northern Spain. In contrast to his son, a
champion of anti-imperialist movements worldwide, Castro Senior first
came here as a soldier to help quell the nascent Cuban independence
movement in 1895. He returned to the newly-liberated country in 1899 and
built up an estate.
“By the time I was born in 1926, my father had already accumulated a
certain degree of wealth, and he was very well-to-do as a landowner,”
Fidel writes in his memoirs.
“’Don Angel Castro’ they called him, a person who was very highly
respected, a man of great authority in that almost feudal area and time.”
The yellow wooden mansion – built on stilts, providing both cooling
breezes for the inhabitants and space for the livestock underneath –
spawned a slew of smaller buildings to cater for the 400 residents: a
post office, a bar, a school and even a hotel for passing travellers.
Forty beehives provided honey for the family. In the fields grew papaya,
plantain, coconut, oranges.
It was a bucolic and privileged existence. But as with many Left-wing
revolutionaries, a privileged upbringing was no obstacle to embracing
radical politics. By the time the young Fidel was training as a lawyer
in Havana, he was railing against the corrupt and repressive regime of
Fulgencio Batista, whose links to the US included close business
relationships with the Mob, who controlled gambling and prostitution on
Indeed, such was Fidel’s revolutionary fervour that when he finally
seized power, he even expropriated his own late father’s property in the
name of the workers, sparking a family rift. Furious at her brother’s
actions, Juanita Castro, his younger sister, was soon recruited by the
CIA to help overthrow the new regime, and fled the island in 1964.
In the port city of Santiago de Cuba, where the revolution begun,
81-year-old Laura Dominguez remembers those heady days with remarkable
Living at the time in Segundo Frente, a town to the north, she was a
seamstress, and so was tasked with sewing the uniforms for the rebel army.
“We did it happily because we supported them,” she said. “We all hated
Mrs Dominguez, who now runs a guest house, remains an ardent Fidelista.
But she added: “This US deal has to be a good thing. We can’t go on like
This week, the historic rapprochement which exploded into life before
Christmas moves forward yet another small step, with a meeting in
Washington between Cuba and the US to discuss human rights. It follows,
last week, the first ever visit to Cuba from the EU’s top foreign policy
official, currently Federica Mogherini.
On the ground, meanwhile, changes are already visible. American tourists
can now come to Cuba without seeking permission from their government,
and last week, the first direct flight in decades arrived in Havana from
New York. American companies have signed deals to bring internet access
to Cuba, where at present, only a quarter of the population has access
to the internet. Until recently, it was illegal for most people to
access the web at home.
“I think that everything is being discussed in Havana now – the
atmosphere really is changing,” said Dr Emily Morris, of the
International Institute for the Study of Cuba. “There is a discussion of
electoral systems. There is maybe more space for differing opinions.
From Washington, with George W Bush, there was a hardening of the line.
But now Cubans are far more optimistic.”
Others are less sure. The ultimate goal for the Cuban regime is the
lifting of the hated US embargo – described in billboards nationwide as
“the biggest genocide in history”. But Mr Obama cannot do that without
approval from Congress – which its Republican majority will not grant.
“As long as the embargo remains, there will be very little shift at
all,” said Antoni Kapcia, head of the Centre for Research on Cuba. “I
would absolutely say: don’t hold your breath.”
Fidel himself has also expressed reservations at his brother Raul’s
overtures to the US.
“I shall explain my essential position in a few words,” he wrote on
January 27. “I do not trust the politics of the United States, nor have
I exchanged a word with them. But this is not, in any way, a rejection
of a peaceful solution to conflicts.”
Back in the town of Biran, the small café is shut. The bakery has no
bread – they offer sandwiches, but it will take a while for the boy on
horseback to fetch the goods. Shortages are rife, with the crippled
economy struggling ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the
blockade preventing many imports.
“All the pretty slogans you want,” said an old man in a stetson,
laughing at The Sunday Telegraph took a photo of a giant mural of Che
Guevara. “But nothing here to eat.”
On the hill above, the schoolchildren are singing Guantanamera – the
classic song about a beautiful cowgirl from neighbouring Guantánamo
province. Down the road is the town of Alto Cedro, immortalised in song
by Compay Segundo of Buena Vista Social Club in the song “Chan Chan.”
Of history, culture and song there is plenty; of jobs and optimism there
is rather less.
“Everyone is asking themselves what will come next,” said Mrs Ramirez.
“We hope they improve things economically, but no one knows.”
Miguel, a lawyer, had brought his family to see their revolutionary
“I respect what he’s done,” he said, stopping to inspect the Castro
family tomb. “But I’ll celebrate when he’s gone.”
Source: Inside Fidel Castro’s hometown: What next for Cuba? – Telegraph