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TheStar.com - Once and future Fidel - Opinion

Posted June 14, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Politics.
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One of these days, Castro will die. But at 78, he seems as much in control as ever after 45 turbulent years of one-man rule

HAVANA—Here’s a joke that goes down best with a jolting gulp of Cuban coffee or a shot of well-aged rum.

It turns out that George W. Bush dies while still in office. The doctors freeze his body. Eventually, in the year 2104, medical researchers figure out how to revive the corpse, and so they bring the former U.S. president back to life.

Bush yawns, stretches, gets up. He goes over to an Israeli guy. He says, “What’s new in the Middle East?”

“Everything’s great,” the man replies. “We came to a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Now everyone is happy.”

“Excellent,” says Bush. He approaches an Iraqi fellow. “How are things?”
“Couldn’t be better,” says the Iraqi. “We live in a democracy now. Everybody gets along.”

He catches sight of a Cuban, and he calls to him, “Compaņero, how goes it in your country?”

The Cuban hurries over. He’s very intense. He grips Bush by the arm.

“I’ve got a strong feeling about this thing, amigo,” he says. “I can feel it in my bones. Any day now, I swear to God, Castro is going to croak.”

Cue a round of jaded laughter, as the band launches into yet another rendition of “Guantanamera.”

The truth is, our anxious Cuban is right.

Someday, Fidel Castro Ruz will indeed succumb to the ravages of time, thereby ceasing to be the president of Cuba. But it isn’t likely to happen today.

Or tomorrow. Or the day after that.

“Wow,” says Bush.

Now 78, with a hunch in his posture and his famous beard turned gray, el maximo lider of Cuba’s 11 million people remains very much alive, and he seems as firmly in control of this Caribbean redoubt of communism, sugarcane and old cars as he has at any point during the 45 long and turbulent years of his rule.

Across the length of Cuba, from Los Arroyos in the west to Baracoa in the east, Fidel Castro is still lo mas pegao ó which is the Cuban way of saying that he has got it together.

“One of the reasons Fidel has been so successful is, he doesn’t care what anyone else does,” said a U.S. official in Havana.

“He does what he wants.”

Or, as a popular Cuban saying puts it: Donde manda capitan, no manda soldado.

Where the captain rules, the soldier does not.

The captain of Cuba has ruled with a vengeance, sticking to his socialist guns in stubborn defiance of the most powerful country on Earth, while somehow avoiding dozens and perhaps hundreds of attempts on his life, many of them sponsored by the U.S. government itself, in what late president Lyndon B. Johnson once described as “a goddamned Murder Inc. down in the Caribbean.”

With a survival record like that, the former guerrilla leader is hardly likely to bend, buckle or compromise his principles now.

“No one can deny he is a great man who has always been in the front line of combat, as we Cubans say,” observes Miguel Alvarez, chief adviser to the president of Cuba’s national assembly.

“The absence of Fidel ó it’s going to be noted.”

That’s putting it mildly. In fact, when it comes to Castro and the running of Cuba, there are those who say the two concepts are downright redundant.

“There isn’t really a Cuban government,” says a European diplomat in Havana.

“There’s just one guy. This country is micro-managed by just one man.”

Many people in the upper ranks of Cuban officialdom would debate that point, but even they concede that Castro today is as central to the exercise of power here as he was in 1959, when he and Che Guevara marched down from the steamy jungles of the Sierra Maestra in eastern Cuba to take control of the island, following the ouster of dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Still, at least one thing has changed since then.

The long and sometimes bloody political chess match that has been waged for the past 45 years, pitting Castro against a succession of U.S. presidents ó 10 of them so far ó is now finally entering its end game.

Increasingly, the chess match has turned into a death watch.

“I think it has, a lot,” says the U.S. official, who goes on to employ a euphemism that’s commonly used here to refer to Castro’s death.

“Some have concluded there is only `the biological solution.’

“They know the guy is getting older.”

The guy may continue to get older for quite some time, because the Castro clan of Santiago de Cuba is notoriously long-lived. Castro has two older siblings ó a sister, Angela, and a brother, Ramon ó both in their early 80s now and both reported to be healthy.

For his own part, the president has his good days and his bad.

Earlier this spring, he had to cut short at least one speech because he wasn’t feeling well, and the local rumour mill ó referred to in Cuba as la bola, or the ball ó went crazy. But, a day later, Castro was back to delivering his customary three-hour addresses, and the excitement quickly subsided.

“He’s really up and down,” says one foreign observer in Havana.

For reasons of health, Castro renounced his beloved Cohiba cigars many years ago and appears to be in sturdy shape for a man his age. He is said to live simply for the most part, aside from a penchant for fine food and good wine.

According to American author and Cuba expert Ann Louise Bardach, he rarely drinks to excess and ó strangely, for a Cuban ó he does not like to dance.

The president does, however, like to work and maintains a punishing daily schedule, scoffing at suggestions that he might someday retire. When it comes to his personal security, he leaves almost nothing to chance.

Take Quinta Avenida, the handsome green boulevard that slices through western Havana.

Ornamented with topiary ficus shrubs, casuarinas and scarlet-blossomed flamboyant trees, this is the route most commonly used by Castro’s fleet of vehicles as they carry the president to appointments in the capital.

It is now illegal for private cars to stop anywhere along its length, except at traffic lights ó a measure aimed at thwarting would-be assassins.

But not even the most stringent security measures in the world will be enough to stave off the inevitable.


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`This is a situation that’s completely decadent, propped up by the will- power of just one man’
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Whether his death occurs next year or in 10 years ó or in the year 2104 ó Castro eventually will die, and the prospect of his demise has now become the fulcrum on which Cuba’s future rests.

As long as the comandante is alive, almost no one expects much to change here, either for the better or for the worse, as Havana and Washington remain locked in their long, unyielding battle of wills, each blaming the other for the stand-off.

Although food sales to Cuba were approved in 2001 ó albeit, on a cash-only basis ó Washington has shown no other signs of being willing to weaken, much less lift, its decades-old embargo on Cuban trade and investment.

Last month, it imposed new political and economic sanctions against the island.

For his part, Castro has steadfastly refused to give way on what he considers to be fundamental issues.

In fact, the Cuban leader often seems more interested in raising tensions than in reducing them, as appeared to be the case in 1996, when he ordered his fighter jets to shoot down a pair of civilian, U.S.-registered aircraft that had ventured into Cuban airspace to drop anti-government leaflets.

Four Cuban-Americans were killed in that incident.

“Those who know Castro say he will never react to pressure, as long as there’s another way out,” says the European diplomat.

As long as Castro is around to oversee it, his quixotic life’s work ó a tropical contraption of clotted central planning, fierce nationalism, inadequate bus service, free education and medical care, and lots of foreign tourists ó will continue to propel the island’s people toward a dimly perceived horizon.

The president’s sometimes-vague revolutionary pensees ó It is ideas that illuminate the world; we will emancipate ourselves by ourselves ó will continue to inspire or browbeat Cuba’s people from billboards scattered here and there.

Meanwhile, the U.S. economic embargo, first imposed in 1961, will remain in place, along with an arsenal of punitive American laws that are ostensibly aimed at bringing the Cuban government down but that seem to have precisely the opposite effect.

And ó just as they have for 45 years ó resounding barrages of harsh, aggressive rhetoric will continue to rattle back and forth across the narrow saltwater strait that separates Havana from the United States, where roughly one in 10 Cubans now resides.

Among the rest ó those who still dwell in Cuba ó a substantial number still seem to support their leader, as they demonstrated last month when more than a million people answered Castro’s call and thronged onto the Malecon, the long boulevard that separates Havana from the sea, to march in protest against the latest U.S. sanctions.

Some were no doubt obliged to show up, but others came of their own free will.

“Castro is one of the world’s most successful dictators,” says the U.S. official, a grudging note of admiration creeping into his voice.

“He’s got good people skills. You don’t get to be one of the longest-standing dictators in the world if you’re not good with people. You can’t shoot ‘em all.”

But you can shoot some, and Castro has demonstrated more than once that, when necessary, he is willing to let the bullets do the talking.

Last year, three Cuban men found that out pretty quickly, after they attempted to hijack a ferry on Havana Bay in hopes of chugging across the blue swell to Florida. Within several days, all three were tried, convicted, and dead.

A particularly infamous Cuban execution, one that continues to reverberate here even today, occurred in 1989, when a top interior ministry official, Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, was taken out and shot following a secret trial.

A courageous, capable and popular man, Ochoa had long been one of Castro’s most trusted and competent officers, but he had run afoul of his leader somehow.

There are those who say the case involved drugs, while others insist Ochoa had simply become a bit too popular and so posed a political threat to Castro. Either way, he had to go.

Of Fidel Castro, it has often been said that he rarely forgets and almost never forgives.

At the Ernest Hemingway museum just outside Havana one recent afternoon, a Cuban guide reacted with excited recognition, after a visiting reporter described to her a famous boxing match in Paris in the 1920s between Hemingway and Morley Callaghan, in which the underdog Canadian knocked down the swaggering American, causing Hemingway to sever the friendship forever.

“Just like Castro!” the guide exclaimed before putting a hand to her mouth and ducking her head in shock at what she’d just said.

Especially when they speak of him in less than glowing terms, Cubans often avoid referring to Castro by name.

They simply draw one of their hands down from their chins, to suggest the presence of a beard, and everyone knows exactly whom they mean.

It is much less common for anyone here to refer to Castro’s younger brother, either by hand signals or by name.

Now 72, beardless and not nearly as comfortable in the limelight as his older sibling, Raul Castro is Cuba’s first vice-president, commander of its armed forces and his brother’s anointed successor, the man most likely to inherit Fidel Castro’s revolution.

That, at least, is the plan. But diplomats and other observers here differ about how easy ó or even feasible ó it will be for Raul to keep the revolution going once its founder and chief architect no longer bestrides the island, dispensing expert and wordy advice to just about everybody on just about everything.

“This is a situation that’s completely decadent, propped up by the willpower of just one man,” says the European diplomat.

“No one coming afterward can sell the Cubans what Fidel is selling them.”

Others disagree.

“He is a critical figure,” a long-time foreign observer says of Castro, “but I’m not sure that things are going to collapse immediately after his death. I wouldn’t bet on rapid, radical change.”

For their part, Cuban officials vow that the revolution will carry on with or without Castro’s physical presence, his political cunning or his famous predilection for involving himself in almost every aspect of the country’s affairs.

Alvarez at the national assembly notes that many of the current ministers in the Cuban government are young men, a number of them in their 40s ó men such as Felipe Perez Roque, the foreign minister, and Raul de la Nuez, minister of external trade.

“This tends to guarantee a continuity of leadership,” says Alvarez. “There can be no doubt that there will be leadership.”

Still, with Castro gone, there are likely to be conflicts and disputes at or near the top ó with no figure of unquestioned authority on hand to resolve them.

“For the first time, there will be no ultimate arbiter,” says the U.S. official, who predicts that the revolution will begin to fall apart soon after Castro draws his last breath.

“It’s elite splits that normally lead to some new direction.”

On the other hand, since launching a daring, if ill-fated attack on an army post in Santiago de Cuba in 1953, Castro has overcome more than a few apparently overwhelming challenges. After his bungled storming of the Moncada barracks that year, Castro was captured and tossed into prison and seemed certain to rot there.

No one would have predicted then that just six years later, Fidel Castro Ruz would march into Havana to take charge of Cuba, much less that he would remain in power for the ensuing 45 years ó and counting ó after surviving even the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But so he has.

In light of all this, it does not seem unthinkable that Castro might somehow contrive to order events even after he is dead ó in effect, to rule Cuba from the grave. It’s a sure bet that he would like to.

“Candidly, I don’t really think anything will happen,” Castro told American author Bardach not long ago, reflecting on the prospect of his death.

“The government would very quickly adapt. We have all the political and legal mechanisms in place. The life of the country wouldn’t be halted for even a minute.”

This isn’t what Washington wants to hear, of course. But ó who can say? ó maybe Castro has worked out a way to do the impossible.

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Member Comments

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On June 14, 2004, publisher wrote:

A great look forward yet still there is disagreement as to what Cuba will be like a year after He is gone.

One thing I am pretty sure about is that anyone looking for opportunities in Cuba, needs to have an established presence IN Cuba.

Any entrepreneur or company trying to set up in Cuba AFTER Castro is gone will find it tough to break ground.

Start establishing some sort of relations now if you want to be doing any business there in the future.