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Cuban Days: The Inscrutable Nation

Cuban Days: The Inscrutable Nation
Tom Gjelten

I made my first reporting trip to Cuba in 1994 to cover the balsero
crisis. Over a four-week period in August and September of that year,
about 35,000 desperate Cubans took to the sea on makeshift rafts
(balsas), hoping somehow to reach Florida. It was a time of crushing
economic pain and deep discontent on the island. The collapse of the
Soviet bloc a few years earlier had cost Cuba nearly five billion
dollars a year in subsidies, and by 1994 living and working conditions
had descended to levels not seen in decades. Mindful of the political
challenge he faced, instructed the Cuban Coast Guard not to
interfere with people fleeing by sea, no matter the condition of their
vessels. It seemed to be a cunning move on Castro's part: energy that
might otherwise have gone into political opposition would be channeled
instead into building rafts and planning a voyage across the
90-mile-wide Florida straits.

For years, Cubans had been sneaking off the island on flimsy boats,
usually under cover of darkness, but now they were free to construct
seagoing vessels in their backyards or on neighborhood streets. Most of
the balsas were of dangerously rudimentary design: heavy wooden planks
bolted to oil drums or lashed to big inner tubes, with chunks of
Styrofoam wedged in the open spaces. Some had bedsheets strung up as
sails. The balseros would drag their rafts to the water's edge and then
paddle off into the surf, generally with great fanfare. Among the
rafters I interviewed were doctors, teachers, engineers, even Communist
Party members. In all, a thousand or more people were leaving each day,
and large crowds showed up on the beaches every afternoon and evening to
watch. Vendors sold peanuts and fruit drinks. Uniformed policemen and
plainclothes state security agents observed carefully but did not interfere.

The spectators talked quietly among themselves about how sad it was that
so many young Cuban men and women felt compelled to leave everything
behind and risk their lives crossing shark-infested seas for a chance to
start new lives in a foreign land. Public conversations like that were
exceedingly rare in Cuba, and as the rafting exodus became the talk of
the land, it took on a political significance that Fidel Castro may not
have fully anticipated when he authorized it. I visited a fifth-grade
classroom in one day where the teacher had initiated a class
discussion about the balseros. She had intended to focus her students'
attention on the effects of the Yankee "blockade," but the discussion
took an unexpected turn when she asked a ten-year-old girl named Anita
what was behind the rafting phenomenon.

"The balseros say they are going because the won't let them live
in peace," Anita innocently answered, "and because they don't earn
enough to buy what they need to eat and because when they're sick and
have to go to the hospital, the buses aren't running and they die along
the way." The teacher tried desperately to steer the conversation back
to the embargo, but it was too late. "People get upset," Anita
continued, "because nothing is available in our country."

I had just come back to the United States after four years of reporting
from Eastern Europe. I had observed the sudden collapse of socialist
governments from Poland to Bulgaria, and I suspected the same phenomenon
was under way in Cuba: A regime is shown to have a shaky foundation,
people dare to challenge it, and the repressive apparatus proves to be
ineffective. I was not alone in having that thought. A few months
earlier, a cover story in the New York Times Magazine based on extensive
reporting from the island was titled "The Last Days of Castro's Cuba."

That was fifteen years ago.

I have returned to Cuba fourteen times since that 1994 visit, and I have
learned never to claim I know what will happen there. It is a
multi-layered country of conflicting forces and peculiarities, and it's
hard to read Cuban minds. I remember one occasion in September 2006,
about six weeks after Fidel became ill and turned over power to his
brother Raúl. I was at the Havana airport, waiting for a flight to
Santiago, when the evening television news began showing on the monitors
in the departure lounge. The broadcast included footage of Fidel in red
pajamas meeting in his hospital room with Venezuelan President Hugo
Chávez. I watched the faces of the Cubans around me, to get a sense of
what they were thinking. It was impossible. Though everyone was staring
at the television screen, no one said a word nor registered any emotion.
There was no whispering, no raised eyebrow, no furrowed brow. It was as
if no one wanted to convey anything at all. They were strangers to each
other. I could not imagine another country where people were so
determined to be impassive at such a momentous time in their national life.

Today Cuban leaders are again facing major political challenges. Severe
economic problems have returned, and the awkward division of power
between Fidel and Raúl Castro has again put the regime on a shaky
footing. After assuming responsibility for day-to-day governing in
August 2006, Raúl vowed to raise living standards on the island. In the
summer of 2007, he called for "structural changes" in the and
encouraged Cubans to air their grievances. But then Raúl's interest in
reform seemed to flag, perhaps due to resistance he encountered from a
recovering Fidel, perhaps to a concern that Cubans' eagerness for change
could prove unmanageable. A survey undertaken discreetly on the island
for the International Republican Institute in the summer of 2008 found
more than 80 percent of the respondents to be in favor of free market
economic reforms. Sixty percent reportedly said they would vote for
someone other than Raúl Castro if they had a choice.

Among the notable Cubans angered by the reform retreat was Pablo
Milanés, the founder of the nueva trova songwriting movement. For
decades Milanés had sung the praises of Fidel Castro and his revolution
in concerts around the world, but in an interview with a Madrid
newspaper in December 2008, Milanés said he had lost faith in Cuba's
leaders. "They are doing nothing to move the country out of this
paralysis we're in," he said. "I don't trust any Cuban leader who is
older than seventy-five. . . . Their old revolutionary ideas have turned
reactionary." To Cubans, two-thirds of whom were born after Fidel came
to power, it was a devastating charge. The fresh face on the scene
belonged to forty-seven-year-old Barack Obama in Washington, who within
three months of taking office was calling for "a new beginning" in his
country's relations with Cuba. "We are not dug into policies that were
formulated before I was born," Obama said. An African American
president, addressing an Afro-Cuban majority population on the island
and raising the prospect of better times ahead, was a dramatic new element.

If only Fidel Castro's revolution had not made Cuba such a hard country
to change.

T he debate in the United States over whether Cuba should be engaged or
isolated rages relentlessly, but both sides are in agreement on one
point: the policies of the last half century have not moved the country
closer to democracy. Advocates of the Canadian and European approach to
Cuba sa
y it's the U.S. embargo that has been a failure. Advocates of
isolation argue that fifty years of trade and tourism from the rest of
the world have brought no softening of the Castro regime. Both arguments
are correct, but both exaggerate the importance of external factors. The
explanation for why Cuba is still the way it is mostly has to do with
Cuba itself. Years of living so close to the edge have made Cubans risk
averse. A totalitarian regime has gone to extraordinary lengths to
suppress ideas and action that challenge its authority. The combination
of fierce repression and a paternalistic state has squelched initiative
and fostered a culture of passivity. Years of seeing privileges going to
those Cubans most willing to mimic the party line have produced a deep
and widespread cynicism in the country.

Living in Cuba means dealing with chronic stress due to food and housing
shortages, transportation woes, the inability to care properly for
elderly parents, or harassment from the authorities. In recent years the
harsh reality of daily Cuban life has been described by a small network
of "independent journalists" whose informal reports are transmitted
occasionally by telephone or e-mail and appear outside Cuba on and other Web sites. Most are ordinary Cubans, often
writing anonymously, who relate small but telling developments: a
soon-to-be-married couple in Santa Clara waits all night at a government
office for a document entitling them to a single night in a local hotel,
only to be told that all such "honeymoon reservations" were suspended
"by order of the national government." A man named Ricardo is sentenced
to twenty-two months in prison for driving a pedicab without a license.
Pharmacies in Havana have not received their monthly supply of sanitary
napkins. (Cuban women between the ages of ten and fifty-five should be
able to buy ten napkins per month if they have registered for the
ration, but only if the pharmacies get their allotment.) Three
government inspectors seize cigarettes and candy worth four dollars from
a seventy-five-year-old woman named Zoila, who was selling the goods at
a bus station to augment her fifteen-dollar-a-month pension.

Most of the stories simply draw attention to quotidian problems and
grievances, but taken as a whole they illustrate the tableau of
frustration and hardship against which Cubans struggle and explain why
the selective allocation of favor and privilege can be such a powerful
control mechanism. People live so precariously that the prospect of
dramatic change frightens even those who want it. "We have so little," a
friend in Santiago once told me, "but that only means we cannot afford
to lose what little we have."

For the past two years, the existential reality of Cuban life has been
beautifully and daringly chronicled by the thirty-three-year-old blogger
Yoani Sánchez, who manages to sneak her short commentaries onto her
"Generation Y" Web site,, via friends with
Internet access, often in tourist hotels. Some of Yoani's posts are
angry, some are funny, all are irreverent.

I argued with a lady in line for malanga root. She wanted to let her two
friends cut in, but I figured that if they did I wouldn't get my ration.
In the end I let the two old ladies cut the line and didn't even insult
them when the clerk announced, "It's closed, there's no more!" It
depresses me to get into a fight over food, which is probably why I'm so
skinny. When I see myself reduced to fighting for food I feel badly and
prefer to come home with an empty shopping bag. Of course my family
offers no thanks for my pacifism.

To console them, I bought a few boxes of bouillon cubes, which has come
to be the most common food in this city. When some confused tourist asks
me what a typical Cuban dish is, I say I don't remember, but I know the
most common recipes: "Rice with a beef bouillon cube," "rice with hot
dog," or the delicacy—"rice with a chicken and tomato bouillon cube."
This last one has a color between pink and orange that is most amusing.

Few Cubans dare to express themselves so clearly. Sánchez spent two
years living in Switzerland, where she gained a perspective on her Cuban
life. She returned to Havana with a new conviction that Cuban citizens
should feel free to say what they think. The country's officials
ridicule her for having virtually no readers on the island (mostly true,
because only 2 percent of Cubans have access to the Internet, one of the
lowest rates on the planet), but that is beside the point. Yoani Sánchez
does not write to her fellow Cubans as much as she writes for them.

I am aware that I have been silent, that I have allowed a few others to
govern my island as if they were running a hacienda. I accepted others
making the decisions that touch us all, while I hid behind the excuse of
being too young, too fragile. I applauded—like almost everyone—and left
my country when I was fed up, telling myself that it was much easier to
forget than to try to change something.

The example Yoani sets with her writing clearly troubles the Cuban
authorities. She has won international awards for her writing but is
prohibited from leaving Cuba to receive them. State security agents hang
out at the door to her apartment building, taking note of her comings
and goings and anyone who stops by for a visit. In December 2008, Yoani
and her husband Reinaldo were summoned to the local police station and
warned against going ahead with a meeting they were planning with fellow
bloggers. "You have transgressed all limits of tolerance by associating
with counter-revolutionary elements," they were told.

The accusation was important. For fifty years, Cubans who have dared to
criticize the government or the Cuban leadership have had to worry about
being labeled "counter-revolutionary," as though their only choice was
to endorse the "revolution" in its totality or join the ranks of its
enemies. Fidel Castro himself laid down the central principle in a 1961
speech to Cuban intellectuals: "Inside the revolution, everything.
Outside the revolution, nothing." In Cuba, there is no gray area, no
undefined civil space that is not claimed by the regime. Every public
action must fit within the framework of the revolution and affirm it.

I saw how this essentially totalitarian idea works in practice when I
reported on Cuba's response to Hurricane Ivan, which swept across the
western end of the island with winds exceeding 100 miles per hour in
September 2004. In Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago the storm had killed
twenty-five people and left 150 injured. But not a single Cuban was
killed or injured, due to a highly organized evacuation. The United
Nations cited Cuba's actions as exemplary for other developing nations.

What I found in covering Ivan, however, made me wonder whether the Cuban
hurricane response would be replicable in a democratic society. The
Cuban news media are controlled entirely by the government and for
several days in advance of Ivan's arrival, programming was devoted
almost exclusively to instruction in hurricane preparedness. The
groundwork for the evacuation was carried out by the local Committee for
the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), a citizens watch group normally
dedicated to policing Cubans' be
havior and looking for signs of
political deviation. The hurricane response as a whole was organized by
the Communist Party, and without the strict authority of the Party and
the state behind it, the operation would have been far less effective.
Camilo Pérez, a member of the Communist Party's "ideological committee"
in central Cuba, acknowledged that the Party used the hurricane as an
exercise in social mobilization. "With our mass organizations, we're
always working to keep the people united and cohesive," he told me, "and
this is an occasion to do that around a concrete situation. The role of
the Communist Party at a time like this is to guide the society and make
sure every organization carries out its assignment."

Cubans appreciate that their government handles hurricanes capably, but
not the political control apparatus that lies behind such operations.
The CDRs are supposed to monitor who visits whom, who says what in daily
conversations, which Cubans "volunteer" for extra community work, who
speaks up in defense of the Cuban leadership in workplace or
neighborhood gatherings, who attends Party-organized rallies, and who
knows the Party line and shouts Party slogans the loudest. Based on such
tallies, the local CDR leaders recommend which households get telephone
lines and whose sons and daughters get opportunities for
studies in their field of interest. It is an effective way to control
the population, but the use of the CDRs inevitably breeds resentment
against those Cubans who are seen by their neighbors as positioning
themselves politically for personal advantage.

The politicization of public life is even seen in health care and
education. The government has devoted substantial resources to
vaccination campaigns, nutrition education, and community clinics, but
the services are delivered in such a way as to reinforce the authority
of the Party and the state. Health workers serve the Cuban revolution,
not the Cuban patient. There is no such thing as doctor-patient
confidentiality and no concept of individual patient rights. The
schooling story is similar. administrators are held to high
standards, and Cuban children score highly on standardized achievement
tests. But Cuban schools are centralized, with a hierarchical chain of
command and no parental role in governance or policy decisions. Rote
learning is the rule, and students are taught to be subservient to the
Communist Party and the Cuban state. A chill went up my spine the first
time I visited a Cuban classroom and heard the students line up in
formation and shout, "¡Seremos como el Che!" We will be like Che!

American visitors to the island often bring along ideological baggage
from their own experiences back home. I know I have. My one visit to
Cuba prior to my 1994 reporting trip was in 1980, when I went there as a
young teacher. I was curious about Cuba's implementation of its "Schools
in the Countryside" program, which had struck me—on the basis of what I
had read—as an interesting secondary education model. Each of the
schools was attached to a farm, and the students alternated classroom
learning with productive work in some aspect of the agricultural
enterprise. In theory, the students took responsibility for generating
the revenue needed to support the school and in the process learned
valuable lessons about enterprise management. The school I visited in
Cuba seemed to be working well, and I came away impressed.

It was only years later, back in Cuba as a journalist, that I learned
that the escuelas en el campo were deeply unpopular. Students from urban
backgrounds were sent to the countryside schools involuntarily, and many
parents saw them as institutions of political indoctrination, designed
at least in part to substitute the Cuban state for the Cuban family in
the formation of adolescent thinking and values. Moreover, discipline
was loose in the farm schools, and the pregnancy rate among the girls
was very high, as was the number of abortions performed in health
clinics serving the student population. Such thoughts had not occurred
to me as an idealistic young American being guided around the one school
I visited.

It is always important to evaluate Cuban programs and institutions
within their political context, not separately from it. No imperative
ranks higher in Cuba than the preservation of the political system.
Schools and hospitals are woefully underequipped these days, but Cuban
security services are still well financed. Salaries for policemen in
Cuba are half again as high as doctors' or teachers' salaries, and state
security agents are paid substantially more than policemen. Even in
times of economic hardship, the secret police have the resources to
monitor every dissident voice in Cuba.

Over several years, I followed the treatment of three brave Cubans in
particular. Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a former diplomat and government
economist, was imprisoned in March 2003 after publishing critical
commentaries through CubaNet, which at the time was receiving some
indirect U.S. government funding. Raúl Rivero, a former Communist Party
journalist who once directed the National Union of Cuban Writers and
Artists, was arrested in the same crackdown. He had organized the first
network of independent journalists in Cuba. Hilda Molina was the first
female neurosurgeon in Cuba and the founder of the Center for
Neurological Restoration, which became world famous for its experimental
surgical treatments for Parkinson's disease. When Fidel asked her to
devote her clinic services exclusively to foreigners willing to pay in
hard currency, Molina refused, especially because he also asked her to
be more aggressive in promoting her surgical treatments than she thought
medically wise. To defy Fidel Castro in Cuba is to invite serious
repercussions. Her clinic was taken away from her, and she was barred
from practicing medicine and prohibited from leaving Cuba. (Under
international pressure, the Cuban authorities in June 2009 finally
agreed to let Molina travel.)

The lesson Cubans take from such examples is not to challenge authority.
The result has been a culture of passivity in Cuba, from top to bottom.
Generally, there is little to be gained and much to be lost by taking an
initiative without knowing whether it will be welcomed by those higher
in the chain of command: better simply to fit in.

It is not necessarily shameful to do so. There is much to be
accomplished in Cuba, and many professionals care about their work.
Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Raúl Rivero, and Hilda Molina toiled for decades
in responsible positions within the political system. All were loyal
Communist Party members who believed in the Cuban revolution. The doctor
assigned to the school I visited in January 2000 struck me as a
dedicated professional who clearly took seriously his responsibility for
overseeing the health of the students. On that same visit, I met a
teacher who made all her instructional materials by hand, because there
was no budget for worksheets or other accessories. I have also met
historians, museum curators, and scientific researchers who take
professional pride in their work. The uniformed Cuban policemen with
whom I have had contact have been unfailingly polite and disciplined. A
critical question for the country's future, however, is whether Cubans
will dare to venture out of their safe zone, to speak up when they see
something that needs changing. W
hat distinguished Espinosa Chepe,
Rivero, and Molina from their professional colleagues was less their
ideology than their courage and self-confidence. For average working
Cubans, the inclination to conform is even more deeply felt, fostered by
a highly paternalistic state that provides for Cubans' basic needs
without nurturing individual responsibility.

With passivity comes cynicism, of course. Raúl Rivero once told me that
many people who offered to write for him as "independent journalists"
were mostly interested in getting their byline on a story so they could
take it to the U.S. diplomatic mission as evidence they were
"dissidents" and therefore entitled to political asylum in the United
States. "Sometimes I feel like I'm running a travel agency," Raúl said,
after several of his "journalists" emigrated.

On that occasion, in January 2000, Raúl also told me he worried that
some of his writers were collaborating with the secret police. In fact,
when he was arrested three years later, the main witnesses against him
were two undercover state security agents who had long worked for Rivero
as "journalists," Odilia Collazo and Manuel David Orrio. I interviewed
them a few weeks later. Orrio had specialized in documenting flaws in
the Cuban economic system. I had been impressed by his critiques,
especially with respect to the practice of Cuban , and I told
him so. "Thank you," he said, beaming. "I predicted all the problems
with the Cuban industry." To my amazement, he said he would like
to find a way to continue working as a journalist, apparently seeing no
irony in the fact that he had just helped send his mentor to prison.

Odilia Collazo had a similar attitude. During her undercover years, she
had specialized in documenting abuses in Cuba. Like Orrio,
she proudly said she would not take back a single word of what she had
written. "Every year I made a human rights report for the [U.S.] State
Department," she said. "It was the most complete report of human rights
violations prepared in this country. Anyone who came here with that
report would know that what they had in their hands was the truth." It
did not seem to trouble Collazo (code-named "Tanya") that she had been
working for the number one human rights violator in Cuba, the state
security agency. When I met her, she had two state security medals
pinned on her red t-shirt. She had earned them by incriminating Raúl
Rivero, but she could not bring herself to say a bad word about him. "I
admire Raúl Rivero," she said, her eyes tearing. "I love him. He's a
wonderful person, a person with a good heart. He gave what he had to
support a cause. When he won money from some journalism award, he always
shared it with us, all the people who worked with him."

Orrio and Collazo are extreme cases, but they exemplify all those Cubans
who work to keep the regime in power even while personally acknowledging
the fraudulence at its core. When I asked Collazo how she could justify
the imprisonment of Oscar Espinosa Chepe and Raúl Rivero, knowing as she
did that their criticisms of the Cuban system had been well-founded, she
answered simply, "They were on one side and I was on the other." Truth
was irrelevant in the game she played.

Between the risk averseness, the repression, the culture of passivity,
and the deep cynicism, it is no wonder reformers in Cuba get
discouraged. But Yoani Sánchez says she runs every day into another
person who has become disillusioned.

"There are those who turn in their Communist Party cards and emigrate to
live with their married daughter in Italy, or those who choose the
peaceful work of caring for their grandchildren and waiting in line for
bread. . . . I sense this conversion—slow in some, dizzyingly fast in
others—all around me, as if under the island sun thousands have shed
their skin."

If Cuba is to change, the impetus is likely to come from the top. Some
contours of a scenario are already evident. A decade and a half of joint
ventures between the Cuban state and foreign corporations have produced
a constituency for Cuba moving toward a more capitalist orientation.
Many of the Cuban technocrats who work in the mixed enterprises know
they stand to benefit personally from a major transition to market
economics. Among them, for example, are the senior Cuban employees of
Havana Club International, the highly successful French-Cuban enterprise
that produces and markets Cuba's Havana Club rum around the world
(except in the United States). A couple of years ago I asked one
high-ranking Cuban at the enterprise whether he saw a bright future for
his rum company. "Well, he can't live forever," was his cryptic
response. His meaning was clear. This was a government manager who
probably owed his job to his Communist Party connections. His candid
answer hinted at the extent to which the Cuban nomenklatura are biding
their time, eager to leave behind the fifty years of economic stagnation
that Fidel Castro has left them.

One untold story is what, exactly, lay behind Raúl Castro's abrupt
dismissal in March 2009 of Carlos Lage, the executive secretary of the
Council of Ministers, and Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, along
with several other senior officials. Lage, 58, had effectively served as
Cuba's deputy prime minister and was widely seen as Raúl's likely
successor. Pérez Roque, just 44, was also seen as a future leader. In a
newspaper column after their dismissal, Fidel suggested (without naming
them) that the two officials had been seduced by "the honey of power."
Both men are said to have been secretly recorded at social gatherings
making derogatory comments about various Cuban leaders, including Fidel
and Raúl. In their public speeches, of course, Lage and Pérez Roque had
lavishly praised the Castros and emphasized their determination to
defend the Cuban revolution against all enemies. If in reality they were
only interested in the pursuit of their personal political interests, it
suggests that the competition for power in the aftermath of Fidel and
Raúl's departure from the scene will be intense.

I suspect that change in Cuba, when it comes, will be less sweeping than
some in Washington—or Miami—have called for. Cubans have learned to
depend on their government to meet many of their needs, including free
(if often shoddy) medical care, and there will be continued demand for
social welfare services, no matter who takes power. On the other hand,
it is hardly clear that Cubans will be as reflexively jealous of their
independence as some Cuba experts predict. Cuban nationalism has been a
powerful force on the island since the earliest days of the struggle for
independence from , but it has almost certainly been weakened by
fifty years of Fidel Castro harping ad nauseam on the U.S. threat. One
dissident Cuban, writing anonymously on the CubaNet Web site in 2004,
argued angrily that the Castro regime "has destroyed any nationalist
sentiment among the youth sector of the population. . . . Emigrating to
the United States or waiting for Fidel Castro to die, those are the
favored options in Cuba. If there were a referendum to choose between
sovereignty and annexation to the colossus of the north, the independent
Cuban nation would perish unnoticed. And this is the crime that his
will not pardon."

As for the Cuban people, years of suffering and buried resentments could
produce an eruption of anger in the post-Castro era, but it is not clear
who would be the targets. Yoani Sánchez imagines Cubans "with a stick or
a knife under the bed, waiting for a day they can use them . . . against
those who betrayed them, denied them a better job, or made sure their
youngest child could not study at the university." But in the
post-Castro era there could also be animosity toward those Cubans who
return from years in comfortable exile and try to reclaim their
grandparents' properties or lecture their Cuban relatives over their
failure to have opposed Fidel more energetically.

For the exile hard-liners, there has been just one issue: bringing a
quick end to the Castro dictatorship. Val Prieto, whose Babalu Blog is
widely followed in exile circles, opposed the relaxation of remittance
restrictions in a December 2006 posting, arguing instead to keep the
pressure on the regime, even if it meant more short-term suffering for
ordinary Cubans. "Let Fidel take care of the Cuban people," he wrote.
"And if the Cuban people remain content with that, if they are content
being slaves, being second class citizens in their own country, being
beggars of tourists and foreigners, living in squalor, with no hope and
no future, scrounging for food and selling their asses and souls for
scraps, then there is nothing else to say." But there are not many
Cubans on the island whose politics are so pure that they are ready to
risk everything to challenge their government. If those few are the only
Cubans who deserve the exiles' respect, the prospects for reconciliation
within the broader Cuban nation are not good.

I will know Cuba has changed when there is a new ideological tone in the
official discourse. From the earliest years of his revolution, Fidel
Castro had nothing but scorn (or worse) for those Cubans who didn't
entirely share his vision. The 10 percent of the Cuban population who
chose to flee their homeland rather than live under Castro's dictatorial
rule were gusanos (worms) or worse. "What do the ones who left signify?"
Fidel asked in a 1962 speech to Cuban medical students. "It is the same
thing as squeezing a boil. Those who have left are the pus, the pus that
was expelled when the Cuban revolution squeezed the society. How good
the body feels when pus is eliminated!" Cuba will be on a different
course when words of reconciliation replace the vitriol.

Another sign will be when the country's leaders stop urging Cubans to
embrace war, suffering, and death. In the early, more optimistic, years
of the revolution, Fidel Castro held out the promise of a better life
for Cubans, even predicting at one point that "our production of milk
will exceed that of Holland, and our production of cheese will exceed
that of France." But after the collapse of socialist solidarity, Fidel's
rhetoric changed. In 1991, he warned that Cubans should be ready to
"live in hell" if necessary, and a year later he said they should be
willing to commit "the last drop of sweat and the last drop of blood" to
defend socialism.

The U.S. government, meanwhile, will be watching for signs that the
Cuban leadership is open to friendly relations with Washington. Fidel
Castro has been locked into an adversarial relationship with the United
States throughout his rule, even seeing it as a necessary element in the
regime's identity. "A revolution that was not attacked would not be a
true revolution," he wrote in 1961. When Cuban leaders no longer see an
existential need to have an enemy across the water, the prospects for
U.S.-Cuba rapprochement will be much improved.

Barack Obama has already set the stage, with his call in April 2009 for
"a new beginning" with Cuba. The problem is Fidel, who is on a
ten-president winning streak with Washington and is not inclined to
start over. On the day following the Obama administration's relaxation
of U.S.-Cuba travel and remittance policies, Fidel chose to devote his
regular newspaper column to the anniversary that week of the 1961
CIA-directed Bay of Pigs invasion. "That date cannot be forgotten,"
Fidel wrote. Not by him or his generation perhaps, but most Cubans had
no more recollection of the invasion than Barack Obama had.

With his pouty responses to Obama's rise, Fidel showed only that he was
losing his famed political touch. In an October 2008 commentary, he
wrote that the United States was too racist to allow a black man to
become president. Obama's subsequent victory and the national
celebration around his inauguration only made the eighty-two-year-old
comandante look foolish and mean. He later offered some grudging words
of praise, but when Obama charmed his fellow leaders at the Summit of
the Americas, Fidel complained that the young U.S. president seemed
"conceited." It was not a charge likely to stick with his fellow Cubans,
who are yearning for something on which to pin some hope. The future is
unknowable, and it will take a combination of favorable developments for
change to come. And yet, one by one, the pieces are falling into place.

Tom Gjelten is a correspondent for National Public Radio and the author
of Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause.
World Affairs Journal – Cuban Days: The Inscrutable Nation (25 July 2009)

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