Tag Archives: Fidel Castro

After Fidel?

I took an extended vacation from blogging this summer,* and this felt okay until last week, when someone tweeted that Fidel Castro had died. My rational mind knew that this was probably not true. The likelihood that the news of Fidel’s death would hit Twitter before international news sources seemed slim, and false rumors of Fidel’s death have circulated in the past. But this didn’t stop the rest of my brain from zooming away into a strange, frantic oblivion where I began to sweat, as if I had a fever coming on. A friend had texted me the news and I raced to Google to find that the rumor had already been squashed. It took several minutes for my heart rate to return to normal.

What caused this to happen? I am not Cuban, nor do I live in Cuba. The effects of Fidel’s death, when it does come, will be indirect for me. They will not mean a change in my way of life, an end or a beginning in my path. It will be an intellectually overwhelming thing, and an emotional one. But it is the uncertainty of what will follow that sent me down this road.

Photo by Leon Kasparov, CC BY-NC-SA

Fidel’s death won’t be like the many events over the years that have caused Washington wonks to gather task forces on post-socialist societies, exiles to gas up their motor boats for a 90-mile trip and resort executives to pack their guayaberas up and book a seat on the next charter flight to José Martí Airport. These moments—Mariel, the balsero crisis, the collapse of the USSR—came and went, but Fidel and the revolution continued onward. Somehow, Fidel’s strange combination of shrewd and misguided policy efforts have pulled the nation along, but Cuba’s survival isn’t just about policy—it is rooted in the complex, wondrous dimension of Fidel as a political and spiritual leader.

I had the great privilege at the University of Chicago of studying with the Mexican journalist and memoirist Alma Guillermoprieto, who has written several fine essays on el comandante. She opened a 1998 New York Review of Books essay on Fidel in old age with the following sentence:

“If you are in the neighborhood of forty years old and Cuban, Fidel Castro has been at the center of your heart and thoughts, for however small a second, each day of your life.”

So what happens when this omnipresent, unavoidable leader, the father of Cuba’s national project, is suddenly gone? When that leader—whose voice has dominated the radio and the pages of the newspaper for decades, whose face appears everywhere on paper, concrete, the walls of giant cement apartment buildings and on the chests of young men proud of their leader or uncertain of how to do anything but show love for the patria by burning an image into their skin—is suddenly gone, it will be a shock. Identities, opinions, morals, life goals are all built around an idea about Fidel, whether you love him or despise him or fall somewhere in between. He has often been compared to a religious figure—he has been worshiped and loathed and mythologized in a way that is much more personal, much more spiritual, than any other political leader in recent history.

I’m not sure what will happen when Fidel dies, and I’m scared to find out. To think that  his absence will instantly give rise to a tide of liberty for Cubans is too simple. Of course I think things need to change in Cuba. I have written in the past about how difficult (and necessary) it will be for Cuba to re-structure the state so that it does not control every good and every industry and every activity down to the level of bicycles and ice cream and shoe repairmen. But I don’t see Fidel’s death as the key to these kinds of changes. There is no guarantee on this great improvement in the lives of Cubans that so many people assume will follow.

And then there is the question of identity, of what will happen to the island’s social fabric when this person is suddenly gone. Who will you spend your time hating? At whom will you direct your salute? Who will you worship? From a policy perspective, it’s going to be difficult. Spiritually, it may be even more complex.

*I spent most of this summer on an unexpected break from half-wired. I finished my work in Chicago, packed up my things, moved to San Francisco, and began a job with the Center for Democracy and Technology. July and August took more out of me than I expected. But half-wired is now officially back in action.

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Sleeping at Martí’s feet

Last Sunday, people celebrated International Worker’s Day around the world, and in Havana. Seven years ago on May 1, I saw Fidel Castro speak for the first time in my life.

Late on the night of April 30, my American friends and I had walked to the famous steps of the University of Havana’s main campus, where we had been told to come before the big day. We arrived to find hundreds of students dancing to reggaeton in the darkness, and passing little boxes of rum from one mouth to the next. Around 2 a.m., the party transitioned into a chaotic scene of student leaders distributing tiny leaflets with revolutionary chants written on them, small paper flags, and red t-shirts for everyone to wear. And we then began our march to the Plaza de la Revolución, a sea of red moving steadily down the avenue.

Plaza de la Revolucion, la Habana. By Reno Massola. Labeled for reuse. http://renomassola.blogspot.com

When we arrived, we found the section reserved for university students and moved towards the front of the area. As if waiting to buy tickets for a Bruce Springsteen concert, or the year’s most coveted Christmas toy—both things they surely had never done—our classmates laid their jackets on the ground, curled up, and went to sleep. No one had warned us about this part of the event. We watched for a while, perhaps overly fascinated by the sight of several hundred young Cubans sleeping before the larger-than-life statue of José Martí that sits at the Plaza’s center.

Early the next morning, the loudspeakers that marked the perimeter of the Plaza began to boom with the energetic voice of a man who we could only assume to be a charismatic Caribbean incarnation of Big Brother. This was the official state wakeup call. The plaza was now filled with battalions of soldiers and servicemen, delegations of PCC party members from each province, and countless habaneros, already fanning themselves in the early morning sun.

We listened to speech after speech, watched unusually patriotic salsa dance numbers between speeches, and observed the crowd, until it was time for Fidel. Those who were not standing, stood. Children were lifted onto shoulders. The plaza became a shimmering field of little paper flags, waving vigorously in the humid spring air. Fidel moved gingerly, but without assistance, to the lectern, his green comandante uniform making him almost indistinguishable from the rows of soldiers in the foreground. He spoke for two hours, periodically reaching peaks at which the crowd would shout, ¡Viva la revolución! ¡Viva Cuba libre! I don’t remember much of the speech now, and I don’t know that it was particularly remarkable, as his speeches go. But I remember that I understood every word he said. Fidel’s voice and diction were impeccably clear, clearer than any Cuban I had heard speak since I’d arrived four months before. His ruthless, unflinching commitment to the triumph of this Revolution seemed palpable as ever. One could see that like a great performer, he understood how to move people.

Though he went on for about two hours, people began to leave thirty or forty minutes into his speech. When he was finished, the applause quickly faded and the crowd began to flow outward, down the many streets that lead to the Plaza. As we made our way home, my American friends and I listened as the speeches continued. Aging loudspeakers (that I had never noticed until that morning) hung from the telephone poles on each street, emitting the tinny sound of every speaker, and each and every slogan. You could hear the revolution for miles.

Today marks the inauguration of embedded photos on half-wired! I certainly won’t be able to do this with every post, but I’m hoping to add some color once in a while from now on. Enjoy.

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A future with ham and cheese?

When Fidel remarked last summer on how the country’s economic system “doesn’t even work for us anymore,” he set the tone for the sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), which concluded this past Tuesday. The roughly 890,000 members of the party convened in Havana to discuss and vote on changes in the nation’s economic system. Remarks made at the Congress reminded me of my struggle to understand Cuba’s quasi-Marxist economic system, which began when I was a student at the University of Havana in 2004.

During that semester, most of my interest in the economy revolved around the challenge of feeding myself each day. On one corner near the University’s main campus, there were two small business operations run out of store windows: one sold fresh juices and peanut butter bars, and the other sold ham sandwiches. The sandwiches consisted of two slices of ham on a potato bread bun. No toppings, no condiment. These bocaditos made you feel like you were eating a bad joke about the so-called “Cuban sandwich” that appears on so many restaurant menus in the US. But they were better than peanut butter bars alone.

One afternoon, a friend and I found ourselves in Old Havana on the prowl for a quick lunch. We located a vendor similar to the one near school, and each bought a sandwich. But in these sandwiches, we found two slices of classic (indescribably bland) Cuban cheese.

“You know, ” my friend said to the vendor, “we usually buy our sandwiches from a guy in Vedado. But his sandwiches have ham,” she told him. “What if you had ham and cheese on your sandwiches–then you might sell a lot more. You two could collaborate! That way you wouldn’t have to buy more food.”

“But it’s a different zone,” he said again. “In this zone, we have cheese for sandwiches. There where your friend is in Vedado, they have ham. This is how it works in this city. If I had ham and cheese, it would upset the equilibrium. It would unfair for the other vendors.”

Before, we had supposed that the only problem at hand was scarcity of resources. But it was more than that–it was an economic logic that we had never seen in practice, and a social code (“it would be unfair to the other vendors”) that we’d read about as a theory, but evidently had never imagined in real terms.

I thought of this exchange when I read in Escambray, a newspaper in the Sancti Spiritus province, that a proposal had been raised at the PCC conference to change how construction is compensated. The newspaper’s website reported that “[t]he delegates…agreed that to achieve greater efficiency in the construction sector, it would be appropriate to pay according to the results and quality of the work…” I’m sure nothing could sound more natural to most readers, but as the sandwich story illustrates, the idea of linking the quality to price, or compensation, is novel in many labor contexts in Cuba.

Bold ideas have come to the fore at this Congress. On Monday, PCC members voted unanimously to impose term limits (two, of five years each) on high-ranking elected government officials–a proposal introduced by Raul himself. They also voted to make it legal again for Cubans to own, buy, and sell homes. It’s hard to know what this will mean in real terms, but if it is what it sounds like, it will mean real change. More on this very soon.

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