In the week following Fidel Castro’s death, reactions have been mixed among those who remember his reign or are still influenced by it. For many, Castro was a symbol of Cuba's hope for strong leadership in a new era of prosperity following the Batista dictatorship. But for others, his legacy represents unfulfilled promises and relentless control.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: In Cuba, a procession with Fidel Castro’s ashes is approaching the city of Santiago, where the dictator who died last Friday began his revolutionary journey nearly 60 years ago.
In partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, special correspondent Nick Schifrin and producer Zach Fannin look at Castro’s legacy and the future of the island, starting along the route of his final journey.
NICK SCHIFRIN: The road to Fidel Castro’s final resting place was lined with the revolution’s faithful, for whom it’s never too early to be wrapped in the flag.
With the military that Castro created circling overhead and leading the way, his ashes drove by into the morning sun. For more than 55 years, Castro was Cuba’s indispensable force, and many here expressed a sense of loss; 93-year-old Zoila Andreu Sain needed help from her 66-year-old daughter, Ailsa. They live together on the parade route.
They were joined by a third generation, 23-year-old Giselle Gallego. This family’s revolutionary faith hasn’t faltered.
GISELLE GALLEGO (through translator): My admiration for Fidel comes above everything. He wasn’t just a leader for the Cuban revolution, but a leader for the world.
NICK SCHIFRIN: The two matriarchs show off their favorite photos, a younger son, Eugenio, at the commander’s side. Fidel made him the head of a housing development program, and provided the family with opportunities they have never forgotten.
AILSA NEREY ANDREU (through translator): Women stopped being domestic objects and were given the chance to work, all thanks to the revolution and to Fidel.
ZOILA ANDREU SAIN (through translator): I love Fidel. I love him very, very, very much. He fought for Cuba.
NARRATOR: They had marched right across the island in a triumphant progress, joyfully acclaimed all the way.
NICK SCHIFRIN: January 1959, Castro and his men seized Havana and overthrew the Batista dictatorship. So began the hero’s myth. He’d descended from the mountains and convinced people he was Cuba’s destined savior. For his fans, that origin story still holds.
ZOILA ANDREU SAIN (through translator): He took everything that was bad, and made it better. He will continue to do so from the cemetery where he will rest.
NICK SCHIFRIN: But 30 miles outside of Havana, Fidel Castro’s legacy is not as universally positive.
This is Hershey, named after the American chocolate baron, today, population about 3,000. Castro’s 1959 revolution promised a better future. Here, as in many small towns across Cuba, the economic promises of the revolution have not been fulfilled.
The train used to arrive here with Cubans from many towns. Today, it brings only a few locals, just enough to keep 29-year-old Carlos Gonzalez afloat. He sells tiny, folded pizzas for 20 cents.
CARLOS GONZALEZ, Hershey, Cuba Resident (through translator): We struggle every day. I wake up at 3:00 a.m. to be able to afford food, afford clothes, and keep on going.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Garcia’s oldest client is the city’s oldest resident; 92-year-old Amparo Dejongh was the first person born here.
Who’s this? That’s you?
AMPARO DEJONGH: Yes.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Wow. Wonderful. And what kind of town was Hershey?
AMPARO DEJONGH (through translator): It was conceived to be perfect, in housing, in education, in social order.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Her photos show a model town created exactly a century ago. Hershey’s sugar mill was one of the world’s most modern. After the revolution, Castro nationalized the factory and all other American property. Eventually, the economy collapsed. Today, the factory is a heap of rust. Once prosperous streets are dotted with homes long abandoned.
Dejongh blames ineffective local government officials.
AMPARO DEJONGH (through translator): The political machine is very big. Here, they appoint a leader and he does whatever he wants.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Residents are thankful for the revolution’s positive advances. The racial segregation that Hershey imposed on its workers has been replaced with apparent racial equality. Residents receive free health care, and students get free education.
But, for many, the economic future remains bleak.
When you think about 1959 and you think about what this country has been through since then, do you view the legacy positively or negatively?
He didn’t want to answer that question. His fear, says dissident Carlos Millares Falcon, is widespread.
What would happen to you if you criticized the government publicly?
CARLOS MILLARES FALCON (through translator): Automatically, they would drive me to the headquarters of internal security very fast.
NICK SCHIFRIN: In his living room, Falcon keeps American and European flags. He says Cuba lacks Western freedoms of speech, participation, and multiple political parties. That keeps criticism rare and the opposition fractured.
In March in Havana, President Obama spoke alongside current President Raul Castro. Obama argued that normalizing relations would force the Cuban government to liberalize. But from January to October this year, the government is reported to have detained 9,125 people, more than quadruple the 2010 number.
CARLOS MILLARES FALCON (through translator): The pressure on us has increased. I don’t think Fidel’s death will create any policy change. The government will maintain the same policy of zero tolerance.
NICK SCHIFRIN: But 22-year-old Alejandro Rodriguez says zero tolerance doesn’t mean zero evolution.
ALEJANDRO RODRIGUEZ (through translator): For us young people, we do need a change. We’re tired of the same old, same old.
NICK SCHIFRIN: In Cuba, the Internet is rare and expensive. So he collects the entertainment people can’t get, and copies it onto hard drives, called packets. They’re full of local musicians who pay to be in the packet, alongside illegally copied TV shows, and bad shark movies.
The packets are delivered by bike messenger. Unless the Internet opens, the packet will only get more popular, and Rodriguez predicts that’s not coming anytime soon.
ALEJANDRO RODRIGUEZ (through translator): The packet will last. I don’t see an end to it right now.
NICK SCHIFRIN: In many ways, Cuba’s stuck in the past. But people seize whatever openings they can find; 80 percent of the country works for the government, but, in the last decade, Jesus Reyes and half-a-million others have been allowed to go private.
He’s trained as a nuclear physicist. His wife’s a biologist, and, together, their job was finding a cure for cancer, but that only paid each of them $40 a month. So while she stayed in science, he’s driving a taxi.
JESUS REYES, Taxi Driver (through translator): Unfortunately, we have an inverted pyramid here. The people who give more to society make less money, and those who give less make more.
NICK SCHIFRIN: He and his 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air can make four or five times what he made as a government-paid physicist. He wishes that wasn’t the case. He still believes in the revolution’s principles, but he believes that Cuba needs to change.
JESUS REYES (through translator): It’s one thing to hold static, like we are today, without perfecting or improving, and it’s another thing to slowly improve. That’s what people like me aspire to, where our individual values are acknowledged.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Castro always said that revolution was a process and that change was inevitable. But holding onto the revolution’s principles means that whatever change does come is likely going to come slowly.
For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Nick Schifrin in Havana.