Several years ago, I slept in a hammock on a volcanic island in Lake Nicaragua for three days with six dollars. The six dollars got me food and a beer on my second night but, surrounded by rural fishing and farming families who had not yet fully embraced a monetary system, I felt lavish. Then, in the island’s school, I saw two photographs: one of Fidel Castro and one of Che Guevara. I wondered what the photos meant to those people.
Fidel Castro has stepped down from power in Cuba after 49 years at the helm. I won’t even begin to take a stab at breaking down the political significance of this event. Let the pundits go at it. But from personal experience, I can say it means a lot to a lot of people, for better or worse, throughout Latin America, many who could care less about the day-to-day political affairs described in newspapers. A symbolic era has just ended, but I doubt Castro’s picture is coming off of that schoolroom wall in Nicaragua anytime soon.
I was invited to the school along with two of my friends to be a judge at an English-singing contest. The winning team would advance to a regional competition where scholarship money was the grand prize. It was a big deal. We took our seats at a table inside a crowded and stuffy classroom, the temperature outside approaching 100 degrees with heavy humidity. I remember dozens of kids, from all ages, neatly dressed in baby blue school uniforms, staring at the strange gringos in the front of the room. We were a zoo exhibit without the bars.
I don’t remember all the teams or all the songs, but I clearly recall the utmost seriousness that took hold every time a song began. It meant more to them than I understood. Scholarship money. A chance to get off the island, maybe see the city. The winning team sang a rendition of the pop reggae hit “Red, Red Wine” without a hint of an accent. Behind the singers hung Castro’s photo.
The schoolmaster saw me staring at the photo and said something about free education, a bastion of Cuban culture. He said nothing of Cuba’s repression or lack of freedoms because, as with anywhere you go in Latin America, the concept of Castro is based on selective analysis. He is as you view him: a hero, a heartless tyrant, a voice for the poor, an oppressor. But everyone knows of him, with thousands of his photos hanging in thousands of other classrooms. And despite today’s power shift in Cuba, that won’t change.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.