18 December, 2007

The Castro Story after Castro

It seems that to write about Cuba has become a pastiche these days. It is equally true that for some us, writing about and living the Cuban story has been a fascinating story-- a story often interpreted as the tale of a few romantic radicals and other times as the tale full of tragedy and despair. Romance, like life, is a bittersweet story rarely ending happily.

The facts about the 1959 Cuban Revolution, as always, and the "truth" about it are somewhere in the middle, shaded in half-truths and half-lies.

When Castro and his bearded rebels gained political power that fateful night of December 29, 1959, there was much theatrics similar to the vitriolic sort of political experience Cubans have known since Cuba's independence from Spain in 1896. Cuba's political reality since its independence never matured to the level that it could produce anything other than what it had, sudden spurts of well-intentioned politicians boasting of lofty ideals that never came true and which always, without exception, ended in political corruption. As Ramon Eduardo Ruiz wrote in his now classic book, Cuba: the Making of A Revolution, the revolution, its ideals and aspirations did not represent a radical break with the past; it was a continuance of the past developing to the point where Fidel Castro could, literally, claim himself to be one day dictator for life, Communist or not. And when that happened, it was irrelevant if he believed in his socialism or whether he was just an opportunist.

The fact that Castro played upon the myths and lore of Cuba's realities didn't go unnoticed by many. Some, including members of the Communist party, saw him as bad news. His political maturity and left-wing ideals, fomented after he gained power, was subtle, a test of wills and luck he balanced until, finally, he moved on to the Soviet camp, proclaiming, one night, that he'd be a Communist until the day he died, while a white dove perched quietly on his shoulders. The strange combination of messianic leader turned savior turned daemon has lasted to this very day.

But communism, just as much as capitalism for that matter, was never much a part of Cuba's political reality before or after 1959. What Cuba had, at least politically, was a dependence on US interests as much as it depended later on Marxism until, finally, it sold its soul to Fidelismo, a political movement in need of research as much as the Third Reich has been.

Hence enters into this Shakespearean political scene a man with great appetites, large intellect, and a vision for himself which was as much opportunism as luck, to paraphrase Georgia Anne Geyer in her book Guerrilla Prince; a man none of us have been able to get rid in more than a quarter of a century; a man still on everyone's lips. And, coincidentally, whether you loved him or hated him, this man was also very smart. His intellect drew upon a rich eclecticism that oversaw the construction of a society divided and torn by complexity on all sides, worldwide, wherever there is a Cuban. It was a society built on a legitimized form of Machiavellian strata. The fact that it was a legitimized police state made it worse.

For good or bad, Castro has outlasted eight American and five Russian presidents. It set into a motion a geopolitical change that not only changed the dynamics of present-day Cuba, but South Florida and the world beyond.

Today, each of us has gotten used to the old doddering dictator. What most see in Castro, at most, is an intelligent but decrepit though benevolent head of state. A man hard from being perfect, but someone for whom many don't see him as the devil incarnate as many of my older members of my family saw him. Of course, there's a new generation to whom the post Cold War realities of present-day living is just part of the annals of history. Something interesting, but relegated to the pages of yellowed newspapers, like watching reruns of I Love Lucy.

No one is immortal and just a few days ago Reuters announced that Castro, a man who has not been seen public in 16 months, might have submitted his resignation as head of Cuban government.

My elemental duty is not to hold on to positions and less to obstruct the path of younger people,” the 80-year-old Castro said in a letter read on the Cuban state-run television program, La Mesa Redonda. Castro continued by saying that his duty is “to contribute experience and ideas whose modest value comes from the exceptional times that I have lived through.”

This comes on the heels of the death of his sister-in-law, Vilma Espin, who passed away of an undisclosed illness on July, 2006. Up until then, there has been no official report of any death in the much tight-lipped Castro family. Espin was married to Raul Castro, to whom Castro ceded power to as head of state in 2006. Castro, though, still holds the posts of president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, and first secretary of the ruling Communist Party.

But neither were Raul Castro nor Vilma Espin, nor anyone who may replace any of them as head of state, can fill the gap of Fidel Castro himself; even had Castro died and the Raul-Vilma duo could have filled the gap and entered a decade of some sort of centrist socialist country, this posture couldn't have lasted for long since the center of the dynamic that became the Cuban Revolution could have outlasted its "Top Dog", Fidel himself.

Some years ago I wrote a book about returning to Cuba, Rediscovering Cuba: A Personal Memoir. My ideas then, as much as they are now, have changed little. Cuba's present-day reality is complex, too complex. Many people have an interest in Cuba's future, and many have a stake and a moral right, too, at rewriting its history. At the time that I published my book, I sent a copy of the book to one of Castro's sister, Juana Castro, who lives in Southern Florida and who has never seen her brothers since the early 1960's when she left Cuba. In the brief conversation she and I had, what I found in her is the same type of closely-guarded testimony of a Cuban who not only is divided between family love and the divisions all too common for the Cuban people. Juana Castro congratulated me on the publication of my book. I said that I was honored that she'd taken her time to call me. The conversation was polite, but distant. She knew I could have thrashed and demonized the family whose name she bears, the Castro name. I honestly hadn't. But what I found in her was that when it comes to speaking about Cuba, there are no easy answers. I refrained from asking too many indiscreet questions about her brothers, about her family, about her views on Cuba. She herself kept mum about saying anything at all. Hence the intractable silence, the impasse that exists between two countries, two people, and misunderstanding amonng generations subtly divided over an issue that in the past was easy to ascertain as one cause, with one name-- with one common hatred.

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