Fidel Lives

Fidel Lives

Few Americans, especially those in government, know much about Cuba. And nowhere is that more evident than in the coverage of Fidel Castro’s illness and the transition of power.


On July 29, 1953, three days after the failure of the audacious assault on Santiago de Cuba’s Moncada barracks, Fidel Castro was dead. The Cuban newspaper Ataja said so.

His obituary has been at the ready ever since. Editors have reached for it over and over, only to put it away again. With each premature burial, the obituary gets a little longer. Another sentence was added to it on July 31, 2006, when the world’s longest-running head of state temporarily transferred various administrative functions to his brother Raúl and to other officials, as provided by Cuban law, while he underwent and recuperated from surgery for intestinal bleeding.

Until they can run Fidel’s obit, the editors don’t know what to print.

They want him dead.

They really want him dead in Miami, where he is deeply hated in an extraordinarily personal way. For decades the headlines there have read: Castro will fall in six months. Castro has cancer, he has Parkinson’s, he fainted, he’s dying, he’s turning 60, he’s turning 70, he’s turning 80.

As the post-July 31 honking and waving died down, Republican Congressman Lincoln Díaz-Balart of Florida threatened the Cuban military with a hit list. “The military in Cuba is going to have a choice in the upcoming days and weeks and months,” Oscar Corral of the Miami Herald quoted Díaz-Balart as saying. “They either stand with the Cuban people or their names will be on a list of infamy that the Cuban people will have access to in the future…. It’s very important for the military to know that it’s certainly not on [sic] their interest to get on that list.”

The media war with Cuba employs spectacularly belligerent rhetoric. It has long been standard US government practice to refer to the Cuban government as a “regime.” Regime change in Cuba is official US policy, codified in law as of 1996, when Bill Clinton signed the deliriously expansive Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act. As per that law, a Cuban government that includes Raúl Castro is specifically unacceptable as a “transition government.” So is any government that jams the propaganda broadcasts aimed at Cuba by Radio and TV Martí. Permitting them is a legal condition for recognition by the United States.

One regime threatens another. A Google search turns up 464,000 hits for “Castro regime,” but “Bush regime” yields 1.4 million. On August 3, in a statement rhetorically addressed to the Cuban people, George W. Bush reinforced Díaz-Balart’s threat: “We will take note of those, in the current Cuban regime, who obstruct your desire for a free Cuba.”

Former United Nations ambassador Ricardo Alarcón is presumably on Washington’s list of henchmen (the word is used in official United States discourse), since he is President of the People’s Power National Assembly. When Alarcón was interviewed by phone on August 2 for NPR’s All Things Considered, interviewer Michelle Norris decided that Raúl Castro was supposed to have spoken in public by then. She pressed Alarcón on it, asking, “When will the people of Cuba hear from him?”

He answered, “We don’t operate on the basis of entertaining the American media.”

The United States wanted drama. Havana was calm.

On December 31, 1958, Fulgencio Batista remained at the presidential palace in Havana as tanks sliced through the lines of Fidel Castro’s insurgent forces at Santa Clara, smashing them and killing 3,000. At least, that was the lead international story on the front page of the Chicago Tribune the following day. In reality, no such thing had happened. Batista had fled, leaving behind an empty treasury.

When Fidel Castro’s obituary is finally published, it will have to tell how, in the 1990s, Cuba withstood the violent economic contraction occasioned by the disappearance of the Comecon alliance, pursuant to which not only the Soviet Union but also the German Democratic Republic, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and others had figured as its trading partners. While in 1992 Miami Herald writer Andrés Oppenheimer was publishing his book Castro’s Final Hour, Cuba was sharing out broadly among its people what economists like to call “austerity,” without mortgaging itself to the infamous World Bank/IMF structural adjustment programs. The country came out of it staggering but on its feet, with its system intact, although at the terrible cost of a populace traumatized by long-term scarcity of food and other basic goods, and dispiriting waves of emigration. Since then Cuba’s economy has continued to improve, though it does not yet seem to have reached its peak level of postrevolutionary prosperity in the late 1980s.

For many in Miami, New Jersey and elsewhere, Fidel Castro’s name evokes the executions of the first days of 1959, the political prisoners, the confiscated small businesses and big plantations, the family home left behind. To them, he is the tyrant who enslaved the Cuban people and condemned Cuba to perpetual poverty and dilapidation. Given that Cuban Miami is overwhelmingly white, and Havana today is perhaps 60-70 percent people of color, he is, for some, the man who gave Cuba to the negros. Miami’s intensely focused political and financial clout has dictated US policy toward Cuba, which is, as the old saw goes, not a foreign policy but a domestic one, aimed at currying favor with Florida–a balancing act of tough talk and impotence.

Now is the time to strengthen the embargo, the Cuban-American right has insisted for decades, with the power of popular hatred at their backs and sacks of money to drive the point home. Squeeze Castro harder, and the regime will crumble. The rightful owners will return. Anyone who wants to do business in Cuba will have to talk to us. Our experts in Florida stand ready to show the Cubans how Freedom™ and Democracy™ work. We will support our preferred electoral candidate with money, media and message. Our liberators will be welcomed with flowers by a grateful people.

The Miami right, which counts Jeb Bush as a core member and eagerly claimed credit for the 2000 electoral victory in Florida, has long been frustrated by what it perceives as Washington’s inaction. Its players were gung-ho for war in Iraq, where the scenario was the one that had long been urged for Cuba: Take out the dictator, unplug the institutions, discharge those who made the country function, move in US institutions and companies, privatize the assets, supervise elections. From that point of view, Iraq was a rehearsal, and, incredibly, it still looms as a prototype, albeit one that needs tweaking. Jon Lee Anderson’s “Castro’s Last Battle” in the July 24 New Yorker–another in the long string of Fidel Castro obits–included this remarkable statement by Florida Republican Senator Mel Martinez: “I looked for lessons from Iraq, for things the Cubans will need. For instance, a governmental structure should remain in place.”

In the days after July 31, more than 150 journalists from various countries were turned back at the airport after trying to enter Cuba without the required journalist’s visa. The exclusion of reporters from Cuba was not, it should be noted, total. Those already in Havana continued to report. Nor was the refusal to allow a sudden invasion by a wave of journalists an improvisation. Well-defined security procedures were in effect.

Instead of giving a speech, Raúl Castro mobilized tens of thousands of troops to be at the ready after July 31. “We could not rule out the risk of somebody going crazy, or even crazier [loco, o más loco todavía], within the US government,” he said. In response, State Department spokesman Tom Casey nyaa-nyaahed Raúl, who has held positions of the highest responsibility in the Cuban government for forty-seven years, as “Fidel’s baby brother” and “Fidel Lite.”

United States visitors sometimes think Cuban officials are paranoid on the subject of US intervention. On the other hand, these paranoids really do have enemies, and the US government is being run by the people other Republicans used to call “the crazies.” If you were responsible for Cuba’s security, you’d take very seriously the arsenals of the north, including the ones in private hands.

Cuba has never had a 9/11-style breach of security, and not for want of enemies. Washington knows Cuba is prepared. Shock and awe could be unleashed against Havana from the air, but Cuba could never be occupied on the ground. The island’s defense is organized block by block, across its 700 miles, and the Cuban army, headed by Raúl Castro, is woven into the fabric of the society. Much of the adult population has military training, and many defenders could be armed in short order.

Nor does Cuba’s defense only guard against armies and terrorists. The Cubans can evacuate 2 million people and their animals quickly when a hurricane approaches. Cuba’s competence at domestic security and its preparedness for disasters contrast painfully with that of the US Department of Homeland Security, a massive instant bureaucracy that substituted for accountability after 9/11, and proved as phony as a three-dollar bill when put to the test in New Orleans.

The man who posed with a guitar while New Orleans drowned explained why he didn’t know what was going on after Fidel Castro’s surgery. “Cuba is not a very transparent society,” he said, “so the only thing I know is what has been speculated.” The last part was surely an understatement.

Lack of transparency is indeed one reason few people in the United States know much about Cuba, but I refer here to the opacity imposed by the Bush regime. It is a measure of how bad George W. Bush has been that Bill Clinton’s dismal record on Cuba can be viewed with some nostalgia. After 2003 the United States moved to shut off cultural and intellectual exchange between the two places, trashing a whole generation of work in progress that was collectively giving us a remarkably detailed portrait of Cuba. Musicians from the island had become a frequent sight in US cities, but no Cuban music groups have been allowed in since 2003. Even Cuban-Americans–a community with more diversity of opinion than it is given credit for–may now only visit close relatives in Cuba, and only once every three years. Marazul Charters, a major travel provider to Cuba, flew 7,000 travelers from the United States to Cuba last year, down from 38,000 in 2003. The consequence of all this is that few people in the United States have up-to-date knowledge of Cuba. That’s what I call lack of transparency, and it was very much on display in the news reports of August.

Hundreds of thousands of US citizens saw Cuba firsthand prior to the end of 2003, when the United States stopped so-called “people to people” travel to Cuba, and educational travel was easier than it is now. They saw a lot. Cubans face serious problems, and they want something better than they have. No es fácil (it’s not easy) is the phrase you hear repeated in Cuba as if it were a coro in an ongoing son. Salaries don’t cover all the basic needs, and it is necessary to resort to an informal economy that is largely criminalized. There are clearly marked limitations on permissible public discourse. Independent newspapers don’t exist. Cubans assume their phone conversations are monitored. On the other hand, infant mortality is low, the sick are cared for, people have good teeth and live a long time, no one is homeless, the children are in school, the streets haven’t been taken over by AK-47-wielding drug dealers and when hurricanes come, the elderly and infirm are moved out of harm’s way instead of being left behind to drown.

You’re free to disagree with any of what I’ve just said, but please, only if you’ve been there. My point is: If you can’t see it in action for yourself and make up your mind on the basis of personal experience, you have to get it from the media. If you’re in Miami and you speak Spanish, you might get your information from El Nuevo Herald. Two of its staff writers and one freelancer were canned on September 7 after the paper’s English-language namesake, the Miami Herald, blew the whistle on the fact that, in what has become a familiar pattern, they, along with journalists at other publications, had received payments from Radio/TV Martí. These taxpayer-financed entities, whose programs are received by few Cubans, are a long-running patronage piñata for Miami. Like the Voice of America, they are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, whose chief, Kenneth Tomlinson, retained his job in a September 13 party-line vote after it was revealed by the State Department’s inspector general that he’d been running a horse-racing operation out of his office in Washington.

The issues that Cuba insists on–most hotly, the cases of the Cuban Five and Luis Posada Carriles, both of which have to do with terrorism directed against Cuba from the United States–are treated as very minor matters by the US press, whose readers remain largely unaware of them. The general thrust of embargo-era coverage of Cuba has been to reduce a country of 11 million people to the easily demonizable Bearded One. For decades, we have read of “Castro’s Cuba,” reflecting a journalistic tilt toward seeing the country as if its celebrity head of state owned it. Forbes lists him as one of the world’s richest men–perhaps the single thing in the US press that has most offended him–by ascribing to him the island’s assets.

Behind much of what we read is the same unexamined assumption underlying US policy: that the Cuban Revolution is the fantasy of a superannuated lunatic, and when he is gone it will blow down with the first strong wind. It is long past time to examine that assumption.

The people the US press calls experts were surprised to see that the Cuban government displayed considerable stability in August. The word some commentators are using to describe the present phenomenon is “institutionalization,” as if Fidel and Raúl Castro, along with many others, had not dedicated much of their effort over the past five decades in Cuba to creating institutions and locking them into place.

Despite the difficulties imposed by the United States embargo, Cuba is not isolated. As of 2004, its hard-currency business has been conducted in euros instead of dollars. The Canadian company Pebercan is exploring Cuba’s recently discovered offshore deposits of oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico. On September 10 India’s ONCG Videsh signed a joint-venture oil exploration agreement, and there are oil deals with companies from Malaysia, Norway and Spain. Cuba exports cobalt, and, with the third-largest nickel reserves in the world at a time when the price has tripled, it has a joint venture for nickel mining with China. It is difficult to see how China, already Cuba’s third-largest trade partner, will not play an important role as the Chinese economy continues to expand. The United States, meanwhile, continues to be frozen out of Cuba by its own policy, which affects some regions and sectors of the US economy more than others.

Especially isolated by the embargo of Cuba is the US Gulf Coast. Trade with Havana had been a cornerstone of New Orleans’s economy since colonial days, and the Port of New Orleans, a key indicator of the city’s viability, took a serious hit from the imposition of the trade embargo of Cuba by President Kennedy forty-four years ago.

Despite Washington’s hostility, Havana has been cultivating relationships with individual states of the United States and in August signed a deal for farm products from the Navajo Nation. In March 2005, not six months before Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco headed a three-day trade mission to Cuba. Congress in the last Clinton days passed a bipartisan measure permitting food and agricultural exports to Cuba, albeit for cash only, no credits. United States agricultural produce can be sold and shipped to Cuba much cheaper than Cubans can buy it elsewhere, so it’s a good deal both for Cuba and for US farmers and the ports that handle the trade. Though the Bushists have sought to impede implementation of these exports, the Port of New Orleans was at the time of Blanco’s visit to Cuba handling 56 percent of permitted shipments–nearly $200 million worth of goods a year, a fraction of what it could do if there were no embargo. Blanco and three state senators lunched for two hours with Fidel Castro and picked up $15 million worth of food-and-fiber business for Louisiana with the Cuban agency Alimport.

Scrapping the embargo of Cuba would help jump-start the Gulf Coast’s crippled economy. But influential elements in Florida, including the President’s baby brother–Dubya Lite, we could call him, inspired by the State Department’s level of discourse–wouldn’t like it.

The US government has on its payroll a Cuba Transition Coordinator, as if planning the future of another sovereign country were the most natural thing in the world. His name is Caleb McCarry, and he manages the day-to-day operations of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, a “Cabinet-level commission” established by George W. Bush in 2004. Forget transparency: Only part of the commission’s July 2006 report was made public. The rest of it was delivered directly to the President of the United States in a secret annex.

What’s in the secret annex? One hundred and fifty journalists have not been hopping on planes to find out. The Cubans, who would be derelict in their responsibility to their own security to assume anything but the worst, would very much like to know.

Perhaps a clue to what’s in the secret annex could be gleaned from the August 18 announcement of the appointment of thirty-two-year intelligence veteran J. Patrick Maher to the new high-level post of “mission manager” for Cuba and Venezuela. There are five other mission managers, covering counterterrorism, counterproliferation, counterintelligence and one for each of the two undestroyed Axis of Evil countries, Iran and North Korea.

Then, on September 13, the Miami Herald reported that since July 31 the United States had “quietly set up” five “interagency working groups to monitor Cuba and carry out US policies.” One of the five groups is “strategic communications,” which “seeks to ensure that Cubans understand US positions.” According to the article, many members of these groups are working together at a State Department office in a “war-room-like” setting.

Fidel Castro’s confinement came six weeks before he was scheduled to host the fourteenth Summit Conference of the Movement of Non-Aligned Nations, which began in Havana on, of all days, September 11. Delegations, including dozens of heads of state, arrived in Havana from 118 member countries (by way of comparison, the United Nations has 192). The Chinese conferred with Latin American ministers. A high-level North Korean delegation attended, as did Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi. Pervez Musharraf (Pakistan) and Monmohan Singh (India) met to restart the Kashmir peace process, stalled since the July 11 Mumbai bombings. The US government declined an invitation to send an observer. NBC’s Brian Williams, reporting from “Castro’s Cuba,” bluntly characterized the gathering of leaders from all over Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia as “some of America’s biggest enemies on the planet.” Most of the media interest turned on whether Fidel Castro would speak. He did not, though he did meet individually with several heads of state, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and India’s Singh, who spoke with him for forty minutes about a range of issues and afterward told the India press, “I felt I was in the presence of one of the greatest men of our times.”

Through archival clips and soundbites, Cubans have continued to hear Fidel’s voice while he has been away. Famous for his endurance, he could recuperate and live to contend with an eleventh US President and, who knows, a twelfth. Or not. The irony is, it doesn’t matter if Fidel Castro dies, because he already has achieved a kind of immortality. History may or may not absolve him–it depends on who writes the history–but he will not disappear, any more than Che Guevara did. He will remain as an inevitable point of reference for revolutionaries, including those who have participated in the unprecedented political realignment of the past few years in Latin America, and as an indispensable boogeyman for the right.

Meanwhile, hold off on the obituaries, because Fidel Castro is still alive. And so is the complicated phenomenon that has developed over the past few decades in Cuba, which we can refer to simply as the Cuban Revolution.

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