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Cuba after Castro

Latin America and the Caribbean

Image by AK Rockefeller

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 Ra l. Little Havana’s streets erupted in celebration. Politically, Fidel again showed his 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.

Pundit chatter and media ignorance

NPR reporter Tom Gjelten, in Cuba during the recent 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?

Fidel Castro

The CIA shared the media’s vapid ignorance on Cuba. In his 2005 book, After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader, 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.” Latell never met Raul, or Fidel nor has he visited Cuba.

“Rumors” led him to conclude that Ra l has less intelligence than Fidel, lacks his charisma and has drinking problems. Ra l has supposedly expressed preferences for reform policies. More rumours?

Ra l, 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 an August 2, 2006 Washington Times editorial. “Should Raul face resistance from the military all bets are off.” Who’s betting?

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 T.V. 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 kept running. Shops, factories and offices opened. “But why hasn’t Ra l 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.

US provocation and Cuba’s defensive stance

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 T.V. 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 behaviour.

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 own 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 advance 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 T.V.

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 with 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 of Cuban society would approach Bush’s blatant interference in their 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 states that the United States must “ensure that the Ca-stro 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 out of resistance to such annexationist notions. Yet, U.S. threats still spread waves of anxiety and sometimes lead the government to arrest “dissidents.”

“Fidelismo without Fidel”

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; their doctors forged a record of selfless sacrifice throughout the Third World; their 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, “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. plans 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 and 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 neighbours, nor do they 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 an August 2, 2005 New York Times editorial. Follow with “a prompt lifting of the economic embargo,” which “could strengthen the mistreated Cuban middle class and help it to play a more active role in the future political transition.” 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 of 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 hurts” (Eduardo Galeano). We expect bad behaviour 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. Viva Fidel!

Saul Landau was an American journalist, filmmaker and commentator. He was also a professor emeritus at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught history and digital media.

This article appeared in the November/December 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Canada: A New Imperial Power?).


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