As a young child during Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution, Alina Fernández endured the loss of family, food and even her favorite television programs. Eventually she would lose her country, fleeing the island, and her father, Castro, in 1993 disguised as a Spanish tourist.

During the 10th Oilseed & Grain Trade Summit in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. in September, Fernández relayed her experiences growing up in Cuba, how she left, and what she saw when she returned 20 years later. Fernández relayed personal anecdotes, and often used humor to lighten a very serious and frank discussion. She returned to Cuba in 2014 to visit her mother, Natalia Revuelta Clews, who was seriously injured in a fall. Surprisingly, Fernández said she saw some changes.

“The Cuba I found after 20 years has the will to change. Small changes, but changes nevertheless, are starting to show,” she said. “The younger generation that will soon take over is going to be far away from the ideology that Castro led; it wants to walk into the 21st century.”

Small changes

Fernández noted that now there are small enterprises and local entrepreneurs, which wasn’t possible for decades. It also wasn’t possible to sell your own house, because it never belonged to you, she said.

“You couldn’t purchase a car or a cell phone, or get a room in a hotel because hotels were forbidden for Cubans,” Fernández said.

Farmers can now set their own prices and sell their products in farmer markets, she said. Even with these small changes, there is still plenty of room for improvement, Fernández said, noting that production is still run by the government.

Cuba’s economy is in desperate need for a stimulus incentive to compete in the modern world and to provide for the needs of its population, she said. Fernández said she has great expectations for her country from efforts with the U.S. to restore diplomatic relations and ease trade and travel restrictions (See related article on page 60).

“Let’s hope both countries find a common good to better serve the interests of the people,” she said. “After all, Cubans have been the victims of political failures; it’s time for a change.”

Daughter of a dictator

Fernández learned she was Castro’s daughter at the age of 10, which she said came as no surprise, given the frequent nightly visits from the dictator. Revuelta, who was married to Orlando Fernandez, had an affair with Castro, who at the time was married to Mirta Diaz-Balart. Fernández described her mother as the “toast of Havana,” with a flexible dancer’s body, long hair and hourglass figure, who could have any man she wanted.

Revuelta supported Castro and his underground organization, the Movement, which eventually overthrew Dictator Fulgencio Batista. She helped Castro find space for meetings and activities to organize the resistance and eventually store weapons.

On the morning in 1953 that Castro attacked the military’s Moncada Barracks, Fernández said her mother was in charge of distributing the political manifest. The attack is widely accepted as the beginning of Castro’s Revolution.

Many men died on both sides, Fernández said, and Castro escaped to the mountains but soon landed in jail. Fernández said her mother started writing to Castro in jail, and believes that is when the two fell in love.

“After heavy correspondence, in which their love became stronger, they met secretly, they conceived a child, and now I can take a bow,” she said.

For decades, even before leaving Cuba, Fernández was a critic of Castro and his regime. When it came time to be recognized legally as a formal descendent of Castro, Fernández said she denied such an honor.

“I pretended to lead a normal life, but it’s a circumstance from which you cannot escape,” she said.

Even though she was just a child, people would come to her with their problems and pleas, hoping she could speak with Castro, the man that had absolute power over their lives, on their behalf.

“It is hard to go to school when there is a line of people in front of your house; it’s even worse when there is nothing you can do to help,” she said. “You must be desperate if you approach a child and expect them to help.”

The revolution

Fernández said she remembers clearly the day in 1959 when her American television programs were interrupted (and they never came back) by “hairy men” called the rebels. Batista had fled the country the night before, and Castro came to Havana to give his first speech, which lasted for seven hours.

“People interrupted him to applaud and celebrate him. He was charismatic and mesmerizing,” Fernández said. “Life was so hectic at the beginning of the revolution; almost everyone agreed to the revolutionary innovations.”

One popular change was education, with a program to bring young women from the farms to Havana for education. They went back to the countryside to teach others, and became some of the best political messengers for the new regime, Fernández said.

Castro also transformed agriculture, breaking up land holdings of more than 1,000 acres and disallowing foreign ownership.

“The new laws and ideas were very popular. Fidel’s reasons for such radical measures were understood by the population,” Fernández said. “He would explain in six- to nine-hour speeches that he used to make almost daily. Cuba needed to diversify production, and Cuba needed a better plan to satisfy the growing needs of the population. He was able to explain that to the people.”

To reinvent agribusiness, Castro created the National institute for Agricultural Reform, which Fernández said was the beginning of many, many mistakes that led to the very critical shortage of food on the island. The new community farms were forced to sell to the state whatever they grew, and it was forbidden for farmers to sell to individuals, she said.

Storage, transportation and distribution of goods belonged to the state, and the system was ineffective and inefficient, leading to food rotting at the side of the roads, Fernández said. Citizens were given rationing booklets and assigned to stores in their neighborhoods.

“It was never enough,” she said, which is why the black market thrived in the nation.

Committees were formed for defense of the revolution and watched every household, farmer and neighborhood, Fernández said.

“The first two years of the revolution were full of systems aiming to control people, the economy and everything in the most absolute way,” she said.

In her own home, Castro became a nightly visitor, and became the only man in a family of matriarchs. Castro made her mother joyful, but Fernández’s grandmother called him the devil. He was never the kind of father who would fix the car or help with homework.

“He would jump from the television screen to the living room just like that,” she said. “He was overwhelming, he was everywhere at the same time.”

Not long after Batista was ousted, Castro was back on television saying some of the military were considered traitors to the revolution and were executed. The executions were too much for many Cubans, and thousands of children left the nation in what came to be known as Operation Peter Pan.

Orlando Fernández, who Alina Fernández thought at the time was her father, fled the country with his other daughter. Fernández said she was told repeatedly how her father and sister were traitors and worms.

Priests and nuns were sent back to Spain and churches closed down. Soon suppression of freedom of the press, speech and expression followed, she said.

In just one year, Castro made himself chief of the army, made the president resign, changed the law of the land completely, executed any potential enemy of the revolution, made a deal with Russia for its unconditional support, established hate for America on an international level and almost started a nuclear confrontation.

“The revolution in Cuba changed society in very dramatic ways. Everything inherited from Batista was to be restructured,” Fernández said.

Leaving the island

Eventually, Fernández married and in 1977, had a daughter. She publicly joined the dissident movement in 1989, which didn’t make life any easier. With the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Cuba became an even harder place to live, she said. The economy was ruined, schools closed and food was impossible to find. With the financial help of personal friends in America, Fernández was able to escape Cuba along with her daughter.

Fernández is hopeful that the small changes she saw in her return visit 20 years later will eventually lead to a different way of life and a different society.

“Things are starting to change. sometimes I wonder if they know how to do it, but they have the will,” she said.