A little before midday on Saturday 26 November, I was walking across Havana’s Central Park. A group sat on one of the benches beside José Martí’s statue was having a heated discussion. As I got closer I overheard someone say to one of the teeming masses of foreign visitors in the square: “No, my friend, we’re talking sport. You know, baseball.” The look of surprise on the visitor’s face when processing what he had just been told made me ponder what his question might have been and the impact of the response, only a few hours after Fidel Castro’s death had been announced.
In terms of predictions, the abundance of forecasts about Fidel’s demise and the disappearance of socialism in Cuba warrants inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records. There were never so many reports of someone’s death as there were for the Historic Leader of the Cuban Revolution – the title by which he was referred at the time of his passing. He was reported dead after the assault on the Moncada Barracks in 1953, and on the disembarkation of the yacht Granma in 1956. According to declassified documents in the hands of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, up until 1975 alone, there had been eight failed CIA-sponsored assassination attempts, designed with collaboration from Anti-Castro organizations and the Mafia. According to Cuban State Security sources, this figure is nearer 600.
Throughout his 47 years at the head of the Cuban government, he maintained an active work schedule with an average of a mere three or four hours sleep, tackling more national and international issues than any other Statesman of his era. During this time he faced the constant pounding of ten U.S. presidents, and their destabilization and isolation tactics, as well as unending conspiracies from his political archenemies in the south of Florida. Not everything he did was a victory. He suffered hard knocks like the failure of The Ten Million Ton Sugar Harvest in 1970 and the economic and ideological collapse which came with the end of Soviet socialism in the 90s; setbacks such as the Cuban revolutionary collaboration efforts in Venezuela and Bolivia in the 1960s; the cost of 15 years of war with the powerful South African army in Angola; defeats of allies like the Sandinistas in 1980s Nicaragua; the deaths and imprisonment of Cuban collaborators during the U.S. invasion of Grenada; the strategic isolation and abandonment which ensued with the Soviet debacle. When in 2006, aged 80, he became seriously ill, his opponents celebrated his imminent demise. He nevertheless lived almost a quarter of a century after the publication in the early 90s of the best-selling Castro’s Final Hour.
FIDEL and CASTRO
The word “Castrism” sounds like something made up by foreigners, in Washington, Madrid or Miami, not in Old Havana or Palma Soriano. To the ears if any Cuban, referring to him as “Castro” clearly denotes a distant or overtly hostile attitude.
This difference is key to understanding the significance of his leadership. His leadership has not been perceived by Cubans as being like that of a politician, a president or a figurehead, but as that of someone who has always evoked personal sentiments.
Whether they have approved wholeheartedly of all his policies or they have blamed him for everything that is wrong in Cuba, what they hold in common is an attitude towards him that is personal. The same is true of those socialists who, without becoming renegades, did not always agree with his decisions, and it is also true of the majority of Cubans who may have moved abroad and continue to recognize the value of the revolution’s achievements, which they would be debunking if they were actually exiles rather than emigrants.
The Cuban on the street has seen Fidel Castro as somebody who can equally inspire the national basketball team in a game, speak about energy-saving cookery, or send a Cuban doctor or teacher on a humanitarian mission to Pakistan, the marginal districts of Caracas or the slums of Johannesburg. Even those who have been suspicious of his motives saw him as “the man of 1000 resources”, who maneuvered skillfully in the face of adversity and took decisions in the midst of a stream of crises, without losing his assurance or vision. The trust he had built up with the people of Cuba throughout his leadership helped in maintaining cohesion amongst Cubans in times of difficulty like the introduction of the Special Period. The experience he had gained equipped him with the skill of “having seen it all before”, being ahead of the game, and being a master at riding out the storm: “When he is saying that, he must have a card up his sleeve that he is keeping for the right moment.”
Fidel Castro has embodied what experts call the country brand of Cuba, for which Cubans are acknowledged in the most distant corners of the planet. Although it upsets his enemies, from his position as the head of the country, he made Cuba visible all over the world, and became one of the greatest Statesmen of the 20th century. His passing is not only a matter of interest for Cubans, but also for countless people across the globe. However much some people attempt to thrust parallels upon us, the nature of his projection of Cuba make it completely erroneous to compare him with Spain´s Franco or Chile´s Pinochet. Unquestionably, Fidel represents something else for Cuba and for the world.
WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN WITH FIDEL GONE?
As we now know, not one of the political transitions abroad, cases like Spain, Chile, Poland, Romania, can be compared as being remotely similar in terms of the ongoing reforms in Cuba. These reforms have nothing to do with the Helms-Burton Act or any Plan for Democratic Transition in Cuba, upheld by the Clinton and Bush administrations.
If one looks closely at the current Cuban leadership, one will notice that, below Raúl, a whole host of new leaders has emerged in key decision-making positions of government and the island’s political hierarchy. At the recent 7th Party Congress (April, 2016), every new member of the Political Bureau was under 55 years of age, bringing the average age down from 70 to 63. Similarly, the average age of State Secretaries dropped from 59 to 54, and the average age of the Party Secretaries from the 15 provinces remained 46. So, in the same way as Raúl’s appointment as Fidel’s successor in 2006 was no surprise to the Cuban people on the island, it is no mystery that Vice-President Miguel Díaz Canel (almost invisible to the media outside the island) is the successor to Raúl if anything happens to him, and the most likely presidential candidate for the next elections in 2018.
Above and beyond this generational shift, economic, social, ideological and political changes adopted in the reforms approved in 2011 and 2016 have transformed Cuba more than many other transitions elsewhere proposed as examples to be followed. The last of the significant portends: “While Fidel is still alive, and we do not have a post-Castro Cuba, the relations between Cuba and the United States will remain unchanged,” faded in December 2014.
After so many enormous challenges, predictions and threats, Fidel was able to die in peace, resting assured of having fulfilled his life’s work. If a post-Castro Cuba does exist, it will be the one that he himself fostered.
Havana, 25 November, 2016.
Translation: Jackie Cannon