Reporters and friends keep asking: “so what’ll happen when Castro dies?”
“A big funeral in Havana,” I reply with certainty.
One other sure thing: anti-Castro exiles in south Florida will throw a mammoth party. On July 31, Fidel revealed he would have surgery and ceded temporarily responsibilities to his brother Raul. Little Havana’s streets erupted in celebration. Politically, Fidel again showed he has ability to induce obsession in his enemies, thus making it difficult for them to think clearly – apart from questions of bad taste. Fidel’s stature will continue to cloud south Florida’s political reality.
The Cuban American National Foundation appealed to Cuba’s civilian population and military forces to rise up and overthrow the tyrannical regime. “Today Iraq; tomorrow Cuba!”
No uprising occurred. Indeed, despite loud headlines and lead stories in the U.S. mainstream media of impending crisis, Cubans behaved with calm when the man who has presided over their destiny for 47 and a half years went under the knife.
NPR reporter Tom Gjelten, in Cuba during the Non Aligned Movement meeting, predicted the next Cuban leader would have to fulfill the Cubans’ demand for more consumer goods. Did he take a poll and forget to mention it? How did he determine how the population would react to the post-Fidel government?
The CIA shared the media’s vapid ignorance on Cuba. Former Agency Cuba expert Brian Latell opined: “It cannot even be said with confidence that Raul [Castro] will want to be more than a transitional leader. Raul will not enjoy the pounding pressures and crises that make Fidel’s adrenaline surge and typically induce his best thinking.” (“After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader,” 2005)
Latell never met Raul, or Fidel; nor has he visited Cuba.
“Rumors” lead him to conclude that Raul has less intelligence than Fidel, lacks his charisma and has drinking problems. Raul has supposedly expressed preferences for reform policies. More rumors?
Raul, who has commanded Cuba’s military for nearly five decades, “lacks the confidence of the military that he commands, which is perhaps the most respected institution in Cuba,” averred a Washington Times editorial. “Should Raul face resistance from the military all bets are off.” (August 2, 2006)
The key political fact is that organized opposition to Cuba’s government exists in Florida, not on the island. With all the money Washington spent on “dissidents” and on Radio and TV Marti, it has not spawned a civil society equivalent to Solidarity in Poland, which led the movement to overthrow the government. Nor has the Cuban Catholic Church played the kind of militant political role on the island that it did in Poland.
Castro, the once-in-a-Century figure has not yet passed from the stage, and may live for years longer. But the media craves the answer to what comes after him, while it ignores the obvious clues to its answer: Cuba’s institutions and its colonial and revolutionary antecedents.
After Fidel successfully underwent surgery on August 2, Bush promised he would export democracy to Cubans. Did he envision Cuba’s masses rebelling and demanding the kind of freedom he delivered to Iraq?
Instead, after Fidel’s surgery, Cuba’s overcrowded buses ran. Shops, factories and offices opened. “But why hasn’t Raul [Castro] appeared?” demanded the U.S. media. “To piss off the U.S. press,” I responded to one ignorant reporter. Raul rarely makes public appearances. If he did, with Fidel hospitalized, Cubans might think something had gone awry.
The issue of transition is not easy anywhere. Cuba will probably move from a government headed by the world’s most charismatic leader who micromanaged parts of Cuba for decades to a government in which his replacement, whether individual or committee, will not have that kind of stature. But they will share his political philosophy.
Before his operation Fidel on TV promoted “the battle of ideas.” But his urging failed to produce immediate creativity. Indeed, widespread dissatisfaction and cynicism prevail. And each month a sizeable number of Cubans get smuggled or hop on rafts to go to Florida. Don’t misinterpret. Discontent in Cuba does not translate into counterrevolutionary behavior.
Even before the Soviet collapse, my Cuban friends had begun to spend hours each day “resolviendo problems” (solving problems) related to daily needs. This usually involves buying goods on the black market. One Cuban sells people’s property to other Cubans for his profit.
All Cubans understand they live under a virtual state of siege, but to attribute lack of free speech, assembly and press to the U.S. blockade trivializes Fidel’s “battle for ideas.” How to coincide a campaign to promote critical thinking if the state threatens to jail or punish some of those who ask critical questions? In films like Strawberry and Chocolate or Guantanamera Cuban cinema raised profound questions about the course of their society. Such critiques do not appear, however, in the daily press, radio or TV.
Washington's policy helped vitiate Cuban freedom. Even before Washington backed the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the CIA had mounted assassination attempts and sabotage efforts directed at Cuba’s economy. Terrorism was joined by a trade embargo. These aggressive actions continue, but do they justify after almost 48 years of revolutionary education a continuing state of intolerance for dissent?
What will induce post-Fidel governments to extend greater trust in sharing governance to their educated population? Or will they simply continue to “give” them health care, education and subsidies for necessities? What responsibility do citizens owe to the governing process? Fidel and the Party have mobilized people around U.S. threats, -- “the Helms Burton embargo tightening, Elian Gonzalez, and Bush’s interventionism -- but they have not encouraged free societal debate about how each sector, each block would deal with Bush’s blatant interference in Cuban internal affairs.
Last year, God apparently told Bush to direct Cuba’s transition through the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, co-chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. Their July 10, 2005, report said that the United States must “ensure that the Castro regime’s succession strategy does not succeed.”
This Commission smelled like a rotted Platt Amendment, which the U.S. Senate tacked onto Cuba’s Constitution in 1902, allowing Washington to intervene at will in Cuban affairs. The Cuban revolution arose from such annexationist notions. Yet, U.S. threats still spread anxiety waves and sometimes lead the government to arrest “dissidents.”
In 1968, I filmed the documentary Fidel. In it he said that full socialist democracy will occur when every Cuban participates daily in political life. Now almost no Cubans can express themselves politically about foreign or economic policy. Under Fidel, however, Cubans became a proud and healthy nation. Their soldiers carved a permanent niche in African history, Cuban doctors forged a record of selfless sacrifice throughout the third world, artists, writers and athletes also etched their names in the world’s creative annals. Fidel’s will and vision led Cuba to this.
When Fidel passes, according to a new chiste or joke, “Fidelismo without Fidel” will reign. That leaves “ismo.” In fact, Cuba has stable institutions and a growing economy. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has made substantial investments on the island, as has China. U.S.’ plan to isolate Cuba have fallen apart with Chavez and newly elected Bolivian President Evo Morales. Indeed, most of Latin America formally recognizes and has routine commerce and exchange with Cuba despite decades of U.S. pressure to prevent it. Cuba even has a trade agreement with Brazil and Argentina, an accord that rejects the U.S. embargo. Last year, drillers discovered a sizeable and rich supply of oil off Cuba’s coast, an energy problem solver, a source for investment and foreign exchange.
Cuba’s healthy and educated population doesn’t want to start paying rent, or tuition. Indeed, what sane person would trade free health care for HMOs – part of Washington’s “privatize everything” scheme?
Unlike most Latin Americans, Cubans enjoy substantive rights. Despite the constant refrain (“no es facil”) Cubans don’t work as hard as their neighbors, nor suffer anxieties that they’ll have no access to health care, or go homeless. Cuba’s transition team of experienced Communists can strengthen socialist institutions by opening up discussion on key decisions to its educated population.
Several former U.S. officials have asked for advice on future U.S.-Cuba policy.
I respond: First, get a policy rather than assume the eternal application of the Monroe Doctrine. “Make contact,” advised a New York Times editorial. Follow with “a prompt lifting of the economic embargo could strengthen the mistreated Cuban middle class and help it to play a more active role in the future political transition.” (August 2, 2005)
The Times’ editorial writer did not define this “middle class,” which historically owns property; not so in Cuba.
Some on the left refuse to criticize Cuba. They often compare Cuban infant mortality or education to that in the United States. But the left should expect more from the place where socialism first arose in this Hemisphere.
In 1989, Fidel executed admitted narco-traffickers General Arnoldo Ochoa and Colonel Tony LaGuardia. In 2003, Cuba jailed 75 "dissidents." When those events occur, “Cuba hurt." (Eduardo Galeano)
We expect bad behavior from Bush, but when Cuba violates socialist principles, we feel sick in the soul. Cuba matters. That’s why I write critically about it – and the great man who forged it as a proud and socialist nation. Cuba’s friends don’t deny. They offer critical support.
This article originally appeared in Progreso Weekly