W. MI aid worker to Cuba: Castro leaves complex legacy

Marc Bohland speaking to 24 Hour News 8 on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — While the world measures the impact of the loss of an iconic world figure, a Grand Rapids man has a much more personal point of view.

Marc Bohland, a surgical resource coordinator at Holland Hospital, first went to Cuba in 1999 to help provide medical care to people in a small village.

Since that time he has made more than 100 trips to the island nation after starting the nonprofit relief group “First-Hand Aid” where he has unique connections — and unique insight into the events unfolding there now.

24 Hour News 8 traveled with Bohland to Cuba several years ago.

Marc Bohland says the last few months have been a time of tumult for Cuba — starting with the surprise decision by President Barack Obama to ease the half century-old embargo, then there was the election of Donald Trump and now the death of the man whose name and life is synonymous with the country itself.

“Many Cubans believed that once Fidel was gone that was the beginning of the end of an era,” Bohland said.

Despite the fact that Castro’s brother, Raul, has been in charge for many years, there was a belief that the revolutionary still pulled the strings.

And while all recognize the brutal repression of his regime, he also is credited with creating a higher standard of living, education and health care for Cuba than for most in neighboring countries.

“There is a whole other set of Cubans who are what we call ‘Fidelistas’ – not necessarily married to the Communist government but big fans of Fidel, they believe he did great things for Cuba, so I’m sure is a great sorrow on their part,” Bohland said.

Fidel Castro shown in 1959. No other identification given. (AP Photo)
Fidel Castro shown in 1959. No other identification given. (AP Photo)

Bohland said with another Castro and his Communist Party still in charge, things will likely not change right away.

“Any kind of celebration over his death in Cuba would be squashed immediately. There’s probably a large military and police presence on the street today,” Bohland said.

Bohland said Cuba was not ready for the influx of European and now American tourists that have been flocking to Cuba to see it before there is a Starbucks on every corner.

He said this has not meant there are more resources for the residents of Cuba.

“What I’ve seen in the last six months to a year is actually just the opposite, the Cuban people suffering just a little more as Cuba tries to make these tourists comfortable and happy and have them have a good impression of Cuba,” Bohland said

Over time it is hoped that the benefits will trickle down from the government and the moneyed interests who will control the new development.

But until that time, Bohland says organizations like his are needed more than ever. He plans to return to Cuba early in 2017.