The olive green military jeep that carried Fidel Castro’s ashes broke down. It is fitting. In a country where everything is a façade, it took the death of a tyrant to pull the curtain back. For a moment, the world got a glimpse of the rigged reality that is CastrOz, an impoverished island jail. The mechanics in charge of the Jeep must have trembled in fear as secret police pushed it to its final destination. This was the ultimate joke at Fidel’s expense—and jokes have been banned in Cuba for over 50 years.
Fidel Castro banned humor before he banned free press or free libraries. He banned humor before he outlawed Christmas for over 30 years. He banned humor before he incarcerated, tortured, and executed his enemies and every priest who opposed him. Satire became a crime before he sent gay people to labor camps.
“Irreverence is the lifeblood of freedom,” said Simon Schama, a Columbia University scholar. Castro understood this and immediately moved to silence any source of humor related to himself. A few months after he became Cuba’s dictator, Cuban satire MAD-like magazine, ZigZag, ran a cartoon with Castro in it, surrounded by people he considered undesirable.
He shut down the magazine. Soon after, the beloved Cuban comedian Leopoldo “Trespatines” Fernandez made an on-stage quip about a picture of Castro: “And that one there, we have to hang him very high.” Castro forbade any more performances by Fernandez.
Over the next 50 years, no more jokes were told in public in Cuba. It is rumored that Fidel meticulously checked “Granma,” Cuba’s official newspaper, every single day to ensure proper, serious, and sober treatment of all of his ideas.
But in private, Cubans kept laughing at the dictator’s expense. As dissident Yoani Sanchez recently explained: “Laughter, banter, kidding around have been group therapy on this island where the frustration and dissatisfaction is exorcised by humor.”
After the Revolution, inside the island, Cubans’ humor became dark. “A European asks a Cuban, so, how are things? The Cuban replies: ‘Well, I can’t really complain.’ So, the European replies: ‘So, things are good, eh?’ The Cuban looks around and whispers: ‘No, I can’t really complain.’” “Why are there no swimming pools in Cuba? Because everyone who knows how to swim has already left the island.” Or, “As the small jet lands at Havana’s Jose Marti Airport the pilot announces: 'Welcome to Cuba. Please set your watches back 50 years.'”
My parents left Castro’s Cuba for the United States. I grew up believing in the power of humor. Humor gave relief to my parents’ aching for their homeland and the endless demands of their immigrant lives. Without it, the poverty of exile and the unrelenting heat of a Puerto Rico house without air conditioning might have suffocated us entirely. Jokes about our situation, our culture, and our dogged reluctance to jump into the American melting pot gave us courage.
Hardship disappeared on Sunday evenings when my family listened to the records of exiled Cuban comedian Guillermo Alvarez Guedes. My otherwise conservative and proper Roman Catholic family allowed these records, filled with jokes that were (at best) inappropriate, because they believed that they signified freedom. In the long run, these irreverent jokes were about freedom from tyranny, freedom from the hardship of exile, freedom from remembering all that had been left behind. We were laughing at everything that made us sad, uncomfortable, and afraid: old age, illness, death, and Fidel Castro.
When it comes to getting through the darkness, the ability to laugh at it is powerful. But we need much more than that to get all the way through. We need light. We need to fill ourselves with that which makes us truly human—the freedom to have deeply held convictions and be able to live according to them.
In Castro’s Cuba, the freedom of humor went first. Then speech and religion. Castro wanted nothing but empty hulls that existed only to obey him.
Humor is the beginning of the come-back. So it gives me hope when Cubans in the Island laugh. But it remains to be seen if the death of the dictator will allow enough space for Cubans to claim the rest of their rights.
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.