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In Cuba, a whiff of rugged individualism

In the mountainous Sierra Maestra of Cuba, the cradle of the revolution that brought Castro to power 50 years ago, a visitor is likely to hear a rugged individualism that would resonate with Americans.
Image: Cuba celebrates 50 years of Communism.
A Cuban woman buys vegetables as a vintage car passes by on Wednesday in Santiago, Cuba. Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Juan Gonzalez loves Fidel Castro. But he is also a realist.

"The people do what they can. They don't just sit around and wait for the government to give them everything," the 59-year-old said, standing on his dusty front porch. "If they waited for the government to keep all its promises, they would have to wait a long time. Fifty more years, maybe."

It sounds like the kind of rugged individualism that would resonate with Americans, but this is the mountainous Sierra Maestra of eastern Cuba, the cradle of the revolution that brought Castro to power 50 years ago New Year's Day, ushering in a communist era of promised egalitarianism under big, all-controlling government.

Here, more than 500 miles from Havana, people tend to speak their minds more freely, even grumble openly about their privations.

They also see a growing generation gap — between elder Cubans who wholeheartedly support the communist system, and youngsters yearning for change, at a time when the ailing, 82-year-old Castro has been replaced by his younger brother, Raul, and Barack Obama is about to move into the White House.

The Sierra Maestra is where Castro and his guerrillas prevailed over 10,000 soldiers sent in by dictator Fulgencio Batista in May 1958 and eventually forced Batista to flee Cuba on Jan. 1 of the following year.

'La revolucion'
Gonzalez, from the village of Santo Domingo, was 9 when the rebellion Cubans universally call "la revolucion" triumphed.

Now, as the revolution turns 50, how does he feel about it? "The people here feel good, but not everyone has the same amount of pride," he said.

That's because the promises of a shining future have not come as fast as they may have hoped. Electricity, running water and phone service are relatively new here. Some families still live in dirt-floored shacks and wash their clothes in rivers. Carts pulled by oxen, donkeys or horses outnumber cars and trucks.

Gonzalez is charged with the upkeep of his grandfather's homestead, now a historical site. The biggest problem, he says, is a lack of public transport. The area had a single ambulance but a few years ago "it broke and some people died because of that."

Soviet engineers only brought electricity to the area in 1986.

South of Santo Domingo lies Comandancia de la Plata, the hideout where Fidel Castro directed the final rebel push. He lived in a wooden hut with a roof of palm leaves. Outside, still encrusted with bullet fragments, is the tree on which he practiced his marksmanship.

'Should be more autonomy'
Luis Angel Segura, 55, is a guide who leads tourists up a muddy mule trail to the hut. Spend a few hours with him, and long-held complaints begin to bubble to the surface. What makes him angry is not too little government but too much — farmers can only grow what the state tells them to, and only sell their produce back to the government.

"There should be more autonomy," he said. "But, as they tell us, 'we're all Cuba."'

Still, no one here misses Batista. Like many Cubans in these parts, Segura calls the pre-Castro era "the tyranny."

About 600 people live in the isolated mountains around Comandancia de la Plata. Solar panels power tiny schoolhouses and health clinics. In the farthest regions, teachers live with pupils' families and doctors make house calls. Like nearly all Cubans, people here live rent-free and get monthly rations of basic food.

The government expanded a two-lane mountain highway through the area, but there's so little traffic that farmers dry their coffee beans on the asphalt. Goats, pigs, donkeys and dogs sleep on it undisturbed.

Many families have TVs bought with government credit, but few channels reach deep into the mountains. To fill the void there are "video clubs," shacks that show pirated movies. Internet access is tightly controlled.

As in the cities, rural areas have "Committees for the Defense of the Revolution" which meet to discuss community problems. Public attendance is mandatory.

"Everything here is well organized," said Julia Castillo, a housewife in the Sierra Cristal, another eastern mountain range that was a rebel stronghold. "But people complain and nothing happens."

'Education is a gigantic weapon'
Ask Cubans to rate their education and medical care systems, and many will talk instead about Batista's day — though few are old enough to have experienced it. An exception is Ruben La O.

"Before the revolution, I couldn't read," said the 73-year-old, who fought in Castro's rebel army. "Education is a gigantic weapon. Most people don't understand that, but Fidel does."

La O was 23 and from a reasonably well-to-do family of coffee farmers when the rebels recruited him as lead singer for a quintet that performed on Radio Rebelde, a propaganda station that Ernesto "Che" Guevara founded in the Sierra Maestra in 1958.

The musicians still don olive-green rebel uniforms and play songs denouncing Batista for tourists. They live in a row of concrete houses Castro ordered built for them in 1981, and, to honor the 50th anniversary of the revolution, each has been given a new mo-ped.

"In capitalism there are no schools. Socialism has solidarity, education, health and societal development that capitalism can't fathom," said Alejandro Molina, the quintet's 69-year-old founder and guitarist.

But La O's brother Alcides, a fellow quintet member, said the lesson is lost on many younger Cubans.

"There are lots of schools and lots of people who don't want to study," he said. "They don't take advantage of all they have."

Alejandro, a farm worker who lives nearby, says the problem is not apathy but a lack of freedom.

"Solidarity? Fine. But it is no substitute for political change," said the 26-year-old, who lives with his parents and didn't want to cause them problems by giving his surname. "People are ready for new things. There's a lot of frustration."