On our first day in Cuba last month, we were wriggling along a dusty road through verdant tobacco fields and old fincas, when suddenly we were compelled to pull over. There they were. Silent, still, and huge.
El Che y Fidel.
Guevarra and Castro were staring at us, their faces on an enormous billboard. They were as impressive as I'd imagined.
We had landed the night before, and this is the first image I remember of Cuba.
For my winter break from Columbia University, my parents and I and some friends chose to close the century of ideologies by visiting one of the last Communist regimes. Much the way people rush to attend an exhibit before it ends, we'd decided to see Cuba before Castro is gone.
I have never been socialist, not even a lefty, although I am French and 24. I may be a dreamer, but not an idealist. For some reason, I'd always pictured Chile's Augusto Pinochet as a ruthless tyrant, but never Castro.
To me, Castro was more of a Latin version of a David thumbing his nose at the American Goliath. The revolution of 1959 liberated Cuba from Batista, the dictator who'd turned the island into "the brothel of the United States." Guevarra embodied the image of a revolutionary spirit never turned into a system, and Havana was a city I felt very attracted to.
Having read Hemingway, I was primed to fall in love with the place. But the romance evaporated in my 20 days there. I expected to feel the rhythm of a Latin city, the whole salsa fantasy. But I was disappointed. With a cop on every corner, Havana would make New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani green with envy. I was expecting fireworks and all-night parties in the still-warm streets for New Year's Eve - instead, I was asleep by 2 a.m. The city was calm and silent, almost sulking. The regime had forbidden any street celebration.
Instead, marches were organized by the government to "Bring Little Elian back to his desk." One clerk I met told me she and her colleagues at a state-owned company were ordered to attend the demonstrations. She chanted with thousands of other Cubans, but, she asked, "Did I really have the choice?"
Having learned in school the definition of Marxism, I was ready to find no social disparities in Cuba. But the dollar has never been so almighty there. Barmen and tour guides, paid in dollars, are the wealthy; doctors, lawyers, and professors, remunerated in pesos, the poor.
What struck me most was the psychological violence. Cubans I met were constantly wary of what they were saying. The best place to talk, they told me, is in the street. They left me with the impression they feared the regime was eavesdropping on their thoughts, as if their minds could be bugged while they slept.
I met some dissidents who had refused exile. The description of their daily life scares me: a succession of threats, intimidation, and detention. I only grasped their reality when I realized I had been tailed by the "political police."
Before I went to Cuba, Castro's assertions that there were no political prisoners in Cuban jails, only criminals, wasn't something I completely believed, but it didn't affect my romantic judgment of the place. So when Elizardo Sanchez, a human rights activist, showed me the detailed list of 344 dissidents in prison, I was shocked. Mr. Sanchez spent 8 1/2 years in prison for "diffusion of enemy propaganda."
Like me, Sanchez was a romantic and believed in Castro, in the beginning. "It was a revolution of the youth. Even Castro was young," he told me. But Sanchez broke with the revolution when Castro backed the bloody Soviet intervention in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1968.
He realized the regime had turned into a repressive system 32 years ago. I just did.
On the way back to the airport, I passed the same huge billboard, only this time, I saw the faces of dictatorship.
*Guillaume Debr, who grew up in Paris, is a graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and an intern in the Monitor's New York bureau.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society