For more than 47 years, Washington and the mainstream media have misread Cuban reality. This fallacious view of events on the nearby island continued on July 31 when Fidel Castro (almost 80) entered the hospital and ceded power, temporarily, to his brother Raul, 75. He also named other top Communist Party officials to head major government departments.
All adult Cubans know Raul Castro’s name, as they do the names Lage, Machado Ventura, Balaguer, Lazo and Perez Roque. These officials have for years assumed the very responsibilities that Castro assigned them in his public letter. So, the actual power transition in Cuba had begun before Castro’s incapacitating illness.
The United States government responded by warning Cubans on the island not to leave and those in Florida not to return. This demonstrated anew the government’s ignorance of Cuban reality and its disinterest in learning. The media has also misled the public. On August 7, more than a week after Fidel entered the hospital and underwent surgery, two AM radio hosts asked me why Raul Castro had not appeared in public. Raul rarely appears in public, as all Cubans know. Indeed, a public display by Raul at time of Fidel’s hospitalization might have signaled something amiss inside the government. On August 14, Raul did appear at the airport to greet Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who came to visit the recuperating Castro. Several friends in Havana told me they had not noticed his public absence.
Unreported, naturally, Cuba’s electricity and water supplies continued to enter Cuban homes and workplaces and people went to work on crowded busses, just as they did before Fidel had surgery. Successful take-offs and landings don’t make news! Several news reports noted “more police presence in certain neighborhoods.” But no reporter actually counted the cops or compared numbers of actual police on patrol before and after Fidel’s hospitalization. Two weeks after Castro’s surgery, Cubans report that all seems normal after the temporary formal passing of state power by the man who has held it tightly for 47-plus years. On August 15, Cuba’s media showed photos of Cuba’s perennial leader smiling in a sweatsuit, apparently recovering from his surgery. Within six weeks, he might again resume his duties.
So, what did all this ado mean?
In Cuba, the anti-Castro dissidents did not organize protests or street demonstrations. Miami-based Cubans danced and drank on the street when they heard the rumor–false as it turned out–of Fidel’s impending death. Well, some Cubans will use any excuse–even in bad taste–to party!
After desperate news flashes and punditry about the world-shaking importance of Fidel’s impending demise, little has really changed. Cubans on the island continue to complain about shortages, corruption, bureaucracy–valid gripes. Most of them also understand that the revolution has meant relative security. Fidel’s temporary disability will not remove their free housing, education, health care and social services. They will also continue to receive subsidized food and entertainment. In other words, daily life in Cuba seems stable, despite the turmoil produced by nearly five decades of U.S. hostility.
Bush’s message to the Cuban people revealed his newest plan to bring them “democracy.” He referred to a plan by his appointed Commission on Cuba released on July 10, three weeks before Castro entered the hospital. The lengthy report reveals how Bush intends to woo Cubans from “communist dictatorship” to “free-market democracy.” When the United States claims to be a friend of the Cuban people and offers to help them, however, a loud reality gong ought to ring in the capitals of both countries.
Bush’s Commission affirms that the United States has a duty to reassert its control over Cuba–as if somehow the Cubans had held a secret election to decide this path. In fact, Cubans know the United States government only as a threat to Cuba and a source of their hardship over decades. From the outset of Cuba’s revolution in 1959, the United States has behaved badly toward Cuba’s revolution. Washington welcomed Batista police and army officials who were known to have killed and tortured people during the insurrectionary period, from 1957 to 1958. Indeed, the United States has continued to admit Castro’s enemies. They have made a major impact in Florida but have had no influence in Cuba. The United States imported Castro’s opposition; or, Castro practiced political judo on the United States.
During the 1960s, Castro publicized the damage caused by the CIA’s thousands of terrorist missions against Cuba. They destroyed property and tried to assassinate Cuba’s leaders. In April 1961, Castro became a hero in much of Latin America by defeating the CIA’s unsuccessful invasion of Cuba by exiles at the Bay of Pigs. All Cubans learned that every administration has tried to strangle Cuba’s economy and isolate it diplomatically–and backed sporadic terrorist missions. Yet, President Bush behaves as if all Cubans on the island should know of the purity of his intentions toward them.
Chaired by Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, Bush’s Cuba Commission foresees a “transition to democracy”–not the succession of one Communist dictator to another. Translating this, I read that the United States will guide Cuba’s political reform. Alongside a U.S.-style electoral system and U.S.-style parties, Washington would also privatize Cuba’s economy. For educated Cubans, the vast majority on the island, the report resonates with the language of the 1902 Platt Amendment, which engraved in Cuba’s first Constitution the right for the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs as it saw fit.
The Commission report reads as if Cubans would naively warm to Bush’s plan. The Commission members must think islanders have grown weary of having free rent and would welcome an onrush of Miami-based exiles to privatize their homes and apartments and charge them rent. Instead of getting free education and health care, they would no doubt improve their standards by shelling out to profit-making enterprises to buy these services, as they would for entertainment, utilities and transportation, which the socialist government subsidizes.
Does Bush think Cubans are stupid or crazy? Despite the hardships of daily life, the absence of a free press or political parties, most Cubans understand that Castro built these public services. Moreover, they will tell any visitor that the revolution put Cuba on the historical map. Hundreds of thousands served in military actions that changed the course of southern African history. Until the Cuban revolution, Latin American nations didn’t dare vote contrary to U.S. desires in the Organization of American States or the United Nation.
Under Castro, Cuba opened 13 medical schools that produce more doctors abroad than the World Health Organization. Its athletes, artists and scientists have etched their accomplishments in the minds of people all over the world. When Pakistan was struck by an earthquake, Cuban, not U.S., doctors poured in to help, as they did in Honduras when Nature punished that country.
These facts–not the lack of freedom, which is a serious issue–should serve as context for Fidel Castro’s letter delegating power to his brother Raul.
Castro has spent much of his recent months days talking on television, promoting “the battle of ideas” and hosting state functions and dinners. His ceremonial duties hardly leave him time–poor sleeper that he is–to intricately manage all important affairs of state. The formal delegation affirms the status that all Cuban knew Raul had. He has remained at Fidel’s side, albeit also in his shadow even before 1953, when Fidel led a band of rebels to attack Fort Moncada in hopes of catalyzing an island-wide uprising against dictator Fulgencio Batista. Raul accompanied Fidel to Mexico. He served as number two in the guerrilla band that fought and won the revolution in 1959. He has been the man in the wings for almost 48 years, a well-known quantity who will not make Cubans nervous.
Even if he should die, other veteran leaders know their jobs. No power vacuum will arise that eager Florida exiles will fill. The country will not fall into paralysis after big state funerals in the coming years, just as it didn’t when Fidel entered the hospital in late July. Cubans know this, as do observant visitors.
Over the next month Raul will chair the informal decision-making committee. Raul’s health is rumored to be less than perfect, but more important, he does not possess the charisma to command consensus. If anything, decision-making will require more time in Fidel’s absence.
In 1968, while filming “Fidel,” a PBS documentary, Fidel told me that “socialist democracy should assure everyone’s constant participation in political activity.” This insight is incompatible with fatherly control–even for the people’s “own good.” Paternal attitudes sapped initiative from Cuban society. By “giving” people what they needed without demanding mature responsibility and by maintaining control of virtually all projects, the Communist Party and government helped depoliticize the very people they had educated.
For the sake of the Cuban people, U.S. citizens should hope that democracy will flourish in Cuba. After almost five decades of unsuccessful and damaging policy, it’s time for someone in the U.S. government to scream: “Attention: Our policy has failed. Let’s try acting responsibly.”
The embargo and travel ban have achieved hardship for Cubans and inconvenience for U.S. citizens. Washington once ran Cuba’s economy and supported a dictator obedient to U.S. needs. It’s time to let Americans go to Cuba, erode the embargo and open the island to cultural and political currents that might bring pleasant and democratic winds of change.