'If anyone asks, you didn't see us, Ok?' - Pants nearly scuppers revolution
To say Fidel Castro has ‘stepped’ down is something of a euphemism, is it not? By all accounts Fidel has not been doing a lot of moving at all in the last year or so; hence the reluctant departure from the Cuban presidency. Presumably this course of action was only arrived at after exhausting all the cloning possibilities. Is it just me or does it strike others that officially handing over the premiership to little brother Raúl, who at seventy-six and cast from identical DNA, is hardly new blood? Seems well… not exactly a revolutionary thing to do?
Would it be uncharitable to speculate that the Castro hegemony has been characterised by its ultra-conservatism? I mean, what kind of putz wants to keep the same job for sixty years? There are no Pulitzers for observing that the ironic signature of ‘liberation’ movements in the last millennium was the immediate and permanent curtailment of liberty. But why has Cuba kept up the pretentious fear of capitalist ideological corruption for so long after the Russians let the whole silly business crumble with the Berlin Wall? Whereas it’s certainly true that the USA remains a clear and present danger to world sanity, it’s surely not because Americans have a TV in every room.
It’s plainly not a dynasty Castro wanted either. He has half a dozen sons. He could have passed the mantle on, Nehru/Ghandi style. Clearly Fidel wants to live forever, and that forever to remain in 1959, like a communist Disneyland, if such a thing is conceivable. It’s a classic case of having nothing to fear but fear itself. The Havana of Cadillacs and Cohibas is the one most tourists, including the travelling Pants, are familiar with. And it’s not an unattractive picture. A cynic could see the place as a giant stage where every resident one encounters is simply playing the part of a cheerfully stoic citizen. But it’s kind of hard to do that on a daily basis without betraying some signs of strain and, by and large, resident Cubans seem like a happy lot.
You could argue, and I obviously would, that when people are denied freedom of movement or expression for purely political reasons, then all aspects of citizenship are compromised. But it doesn’t seem like that when you’re there. I’d be willing to bet that there are plenty of Cubans, especially amongst the elderly, who don’t feel deprived because there’s no McDonalds in their neighbourhood and they never got to holiday in Dubai.
There’s no question that Cuba has suffered from chronic economic mismanagement for nearly two generations and is in a much worst fiscal state than it needs to be. But it’s also true that the education and health services are some of the best in the world. Given the political will, the Castro administration was always capable of competence. They had to be doing something right to survive nearly sixty years of embargoes from their powerful and manipulative neighbour, even after the demise of their economic patron, the Soviet Union.
I do feel for young Cubans. Who’d want to be stuck on a tiny island, no matter how picturesque and politically stable, when there’s a whole world out there to explore? Contrary to popular belief, American television is shown in Cuba. CNN is available on cable as are some movie channels and HBO if memory serves. Mandatory punishment for the slightest sign of dissent is always raised as a human rights issue, correctly so too. We had one tour guide who had no compunction at all about expressing his disapproval of the beloved leader, often hinting that he at least believed Castro was sitting on a considerable personal fortune. We could easily have shopped this guy if we’d wanted. He was hardly guarded with his views. I’m not suggesting that this constitutes freedom of speech in the way we appreciate it, just that the personal risk of voicing disgruntlement might be overstated. And I actually don’t remember seeing many police in the streets, either. It seems to me that even in its paranoid and isolationist state, Cuba would always have been a far more desirable place to live than the Chile of Pinochet, the Argentina of Galtieri or the Spain of Franco.
I visited Russia in the 80s and met quite a few young people. Hey, I was young myself then. They weren’t dissimilar in attitude to the Cubans I met. There was a sanguine acceptance that communism, despite its faults, was not a bad way to run a country with a lot of poor people in it. Of course it would be infinitely better if those at the top didn’t instantly turn into paranoid megalomaniacs, but no system is perfect. Given that within minutes of democratisation, the bulk of Russian wealth passed into the hands of a clutch of oligarchs who could think of nothing better to do with it than bid for football teams, you have to wonder whether it’s worth exchanging the treasury for the right to take your passport on the odd outing.
People will have a quality of life no matter what the restrictions. I personally think a complete absence of supermarkets is no great hardship. In fact, I might be willing to give up considerable personal freedoms in exchange for the demise of Walmart and Tesco. When it comes to consumerism, less is definitely more in my view.
If ever there’s a space to be watched, it will be Cuba in the next couple of years. There are already changes underway with the arrival of some foreign businesses and relaxation of restrictions on private enterprises. The introduction of paladars, (restaurants in people’s homes), is welcome as the state-owned eateries do unspeakable things to lobsters that would be considered criminal anywhere else in the world. I’m very glad I went there while Fidel was still standing. I did watch a couple of hours of one of his legendary filibusterers and very entertaining it was too. I have a feeling history will be much kinder to Castro than it’s been to any of the other twentieth century dictators. He was after all Che Guevara’s best mate and it just doesn’t get cooler than that.
Picture by Ozmicro