The Cuba Wars
Fidel Castro, the United States, and the Next Revolution
By Daniel P. Erikson BLOOMSBURY PRESS Copyright © 2008 Daniel P. Erikson
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-59691-434-6
Chapter One Die Another Day
Fidel Castro was accustomed to keeping his country immersed in a state of feverish speculation, but now the time for a decision loomed. Nearly nineteen months had passed while he tried to battle back from the illness that had forced him to relinquish power in July 2006. His health had collapsed during the early months, leaving him at death's door, but he had been gradually gaining strength and weight, and it was possible that he would live for some time more. His brother Raúl, who had assumed the provisional powers of government in Fidel's absence, had proved to be a competent administrator, but he was also growing restless. Moreover, Fidel was aware that his precarious health had ushered his nation into a strange twilight zone that had left him at the mercy of his successors, not the other way around.
Fidel had not been seen publicly in Cuba since his health crisis began, but he remained a prominent voice by writing periodic "reflections" in the national press about international issues that grabbed his attention. His first essay, published on March 28, 2007, attacked a new ethanol initiative planned by President George W. Bush and Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, which Fidel decried as a "sinister plan for turning foodstuffs into fuel" that would leave "more than three billion people condemned to premature death from hunger and thirst." A steady stream of more than fifty op-eds followed, pondering topics including global warming, the price of oil, the political travails of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the recent death of Raúl's wife, Vilma Espín, and the complicated legal dramas of Luis Posada Carriles and the Cuban Five. The most important function of these "reflections," however, was to signal that Fidel Castro was still alive.
In the waning weeks of 2007, though, Fidel began to drop hints that his days as the formal president of Cuba were drawing to a close. On December 17, he sent a message to be read aloud on Cuban television by the host of the political discussion show Mesa Redonda (Round Table). "My deepest conviction is that the answers to current problems in Cuban society," Fidel wrote, "require more varied responses for each concrete problem than the contents of a chessboard." He then added, "My essential duty is to not cling to posts, much less block the way for younger people, but to contribute experiences and ideas whose modest value comes from the exceptional era in which it was my destiny to live. I think ... that one must be consistent until the end."
Eleven days later, Fidel conveyed a similar message at the ritual year-end session of Cuba's National Assembly, even though the Cuban leader himself was nowhere to be seen. It was December 28, 2007, and Raúl presided over the meeting while seated next to a chair left empty in honor of his ailing brother. He read aloud from a letter Fidel had written to clarify his position further. Referring to his past as a "utopian socialist," Fidel reflected on the fact that "what the foreign press in Cuba have most reported in recent days has been the phrase where I expressed ... that I am not a person who clings to power. I could add that I was once, for the excesses of youth and lack of conscience. What changed me? Life itself." When Raúl finished reading the letter, the more than five hundred Communist Party delegates present rose and burst into applause. Still, Raúl insisted that his brother remained politically viable, noting that Fidel had been exercising, gaining weight, and meditating and writing regularly. "His powerful mind is healthier," Raúl said as he scoffed at the chances of political reform. "We could say in Cuba we have two parties: one led by Fidel and one led by Raúl. What would be the difference?" he asked. "That's the same thing that happens in the United States ... both are the same. Fidel is a little taller than me; he has a beard and I don't." It had long been thought that Raúl Castro would be a short-lived transitional leader in Cuba-a simple man who played "checkers" whereas his brother, the master strategist, played "chess." In those terms, Fidel Castro was now paradoxically both one move away from being checkmated and still in full control of the chessboard.
In February 2008, the National Assembly was scheduled to meet to ratify a new Council of State, which is the island's highest governing body. The president of the Council of State is the top role in Cuba's government-and the person who holds the position is also the president of Cuba-although it is arguably a less powerful post than the head of the Cuban Communist Party, which is described in the constitution as "the highest directing force of the society and state." The meeting to choose a new Council of State takes place every five years, and in the past Fidel's selection as president was a foregone conclusion. The Cuban leader's poor health and cryptic writings had raised the possibility that he would seize the opportunity to formally pass the presidency to his brother and end the provisional arrangement that had endured since the summer of 2006. Still, many doubted that Fidel Castro, the most Machiavellian leader in Cuban history, would relinquish his grip on power before he drew his last breath.
On February 19, 2008, he delivered his verdict. The Cuban newspaper Granma published a message from Fidel that rendered his decision in no uncertain terms. "There were those overseas who, aware of my critical health condition, thought that my provisional resignation, on July 31, 2006, to the position of President of the State Council, which I left to First Vice-President Raúl Castro Ruz, was final," Fidel wrote. "Later, in my necessary retreat, I was able to recover the full command of my mind as well as the possibility for much reading and meditation. I had enough physical strength to write for many hours, which I shared with the corresponding rehabilitation and recovery programs ... When referring to my health I was extremely careful to avoid raising expectations since I felt that an adverse ending would bring traumatic news to our people in the midst of the battle. Thus, my first duty was to prepare our people both politically and psychologically for my absence after so many years of struggle. I kept saying that my recovery 'was not without risks.' My wishes have always been to discharge my duties to my last breath. That's all I can offer." Fidel concluded with the words that, after forty-nine years, brought his tenure as Cuba's unrivaled leader to its much-anticipated end. "I will neither aspire to nor accept, I repeat, I will neither aspire to nor accept the positions of President of the State Council and Commander in Chief." Fidel Castro's long reign as Cuba's supreme ruler was over.
Five days later, on February 24, the National Assembly confirmed Raúl Castro as the president of Cuba. The awkward provisional arrangement that had been speedily implemented in the summer of 2006 was no more. Cuba had a new leader, but also a familiar one, who had been joined at the hip with his older brother since their initial triumph in the Cuban Revolution in 1959. It was both a historic moment and a strangely anticlimactic one. Raúl's ascension merely finalized the transfer of power that had occurred many months earlier. Not only was Fidel still alive, defying the gloomiest predictions about his health, but he even retained his seat in the assembly and the powerful post of executive secretary of the Communist Party. While the event received significant media attention overseas, there were no celebrations in Miami, as had occurred when Fidel's sickness was first reported. A spokesman for the U.S. State Department merely dismissed the change as "a transfer of authority and power from one dictator to a dictator-lite, from Fidel to Raúl." Bush, who was caught off guard by the news while on a stop in Rwanda during a tour through Africa, announced that "the United States will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty" and voiced his support for the U.S. embargo. Even without Fidel Castro at the helm, the struggle between the United States and Cuba showed few signs of fading.
"I die just about every day," Fidel Castro told a television interviewer several weeks before reaching his eightieth birthday in 2006. "But it's really a lot of fun for me, and it makes me feel healthier." Indeed, the aging bearded leader who had ruled Cuba for decades appeared to be in fighting form during that long, hot summer. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans gathered in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution to see him speak at the country's annual May Day celebrations, where he peppered his remarks with statistics about Cuba's health, education, and energy programs and sarcastically thanked the United States for its long-standing embargo of Cuba. After more than forty-seven years in power, Castro still provoked deep and conflicting emotions within the Cuban population, where he was adored, feared, and despised-sometimes all at once. But no one doubted that he remained fully in charge of his country, a picturesque island just off the coast of the United States that was one of the world's last remaining communist regimes.
Castro loved to bask in the limelight, and controversy followed him throughout the spring and summer. In May, he became entangled in a surreal sparring match with Forbes magazine, which featured him in a special survey of the world's richest "Kings, Queens and Dictators" and ranked him as the seventh richest, with an estimated wealth of nine hundred million dollars, nearly double the estimated wealth of the queen of England. The claim sent Castro into a state of apoplexy, prompting him to make a special appearance on Cuban television in which he pounded the table and denounced his presence on the Forbes list as "repugnant slander." The magazine admitted its back-of-the-envelope calculations were "more art than science," but Castro was incensed. Accusations of illicit wealth threatened to undermine his carefully cultivated image as an international defender of the downtrodden and dispossessed, and he dismissed the Forbes statistic as a smear campaign engineered by the Bush administration and the Central Intelligence Agency. Castro then issued a challenge: "If they can prove that I have one single dollar, I will resign from all my responsibilities and the duties I am carrying out. They won't need any more plans of transitions!"
In July, Castro remained an active force in Cuba, presiding over high-level government discussions, approving a series of new joint ventures with Canadian and Spanish companies, and overseeing plans to celebrate his eightieth birthday on August 13. Toward the end of the month, Castro made a snap decision to attend a South American summit meeting in Argentina at the invitation of his close friend and ally Hugo Chávez. Castro always enjoyed the element of surprise, and it was his custom to leave his travel plans unannounced until the last minute, in part for security reasons. Some of the most brazen assassination attempts against him had occurred at international gatherings in Latin America, and this trip marked his first overseas venture since a short visit to Barbados the previous December.
Besides, Castro was a popular figure in Argentina, a country still suffering from the scars of a brutal economic collapse in 2001 triggered in part by the "neoliberal" economic policies that the Cuban leader never tired of railing against. Castro had been greeted like a rock star during a visit three years earlier, and cries of "Viva Fidel!" followed him as he arrived in the country anew on July 21. "Sometimes I have to misinform even my own friends. Not even I knew I was going to come," he told a crowd at an "anti-imperialist" rally in Argentina's second city, Córdoba. He joined with Hugo Chávez the next day to visit the boyhood home of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine medical student who went on to become one of the most iconic figures of the Cuban Revolution. It was an emotional event for the two leaders, especially Chávez, who explained, "Fidel invited me to come and get to know the house. For me, it's a real honor being here." Their celebrity tour left some nearby neighbors reeling from the experience, including one Argentine housewife who commented that the uproar "has thrown the whole city into a state of shock."
Castro's Argentine tour ended on a sour note, however, when an enterprising journalist provoked him into an angry tirade by asking about a sensitive case involving one of Cuba's most noted dissidents. Hilda Molina was one of Cuba's top neurosurgeons and had been a medical superstar until the island's economy started to unravel following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. During the resulting crisis, Cuban medical care facilities were ordered to turn away needy Cubans and instead set aside beds for foreign patients who could pay in hard currency. Molina protested the new policies, which ended her glittering career in the communist system. In 1994, her son fled abroad to Argentina, but the Cuban government refused to allow her to leave, arguing that "your brain is the patrimony of the nation." Molina was unable to even meet her grandchildren, who were later born in Argentina, a situation she decried as "supreme cruelty." The plight of a grandmother separated from her grandchildren turned the case into a cause cé1èbre, and Argentine president Néstor Kirchner had repeatedly tried to use his cordial relationship with Castro to help Molina gain her coveted exit visa, to no avail.
In Argentina, Juan Manuel Cao, a Cuban American television reporter from Miami, dogged the official Cuban delegation with questions about Molina. When Castro joined the South American presidents at the summit for an official photo ceremony, the scene consisted of barely constrained chaos as photographers, journalists, and spectators jockeyed for the best view of the Cuban leader. Sensing his opportunity, the Miami reporter cried out to Castro, "Why don't you free Dr. Hilda Molina? Why don't you let her come see her grandchildren?" Fidel Castro immediately fixated on the journalist, asking, "What's your name? Who is paying you to come and ask questions like this?" The reporter volunteered that he was from Cuba, and Castro nearly flipped with rage. "I already asked you who paid you," he shouted. "Why don't you look for Bush and ask him about Posada Carriles and the crimes they have committed in his country? Cuban?! You are not Cuban. Che is Cuban. You are an intruder that is living like a mercenary. That's what you are." Most of the exchange was captured on videotape, with photographers' flashbulbs erupting in rapid succession. The stray question had clearly provoked Castro. The fearsome Cuban dictator was getting pretty thin-skinned in his old age.
Castro arrived back in Havana on July 23, and several days later he traveled down to Bayamo, a sleepy provincial capital located about seventy miles west of Santiago de Cuba, his hometown and the city where his initial assault on the established order of Cuba unfolded on July 26, 1953. On that date, Castro led a group of 150 rebels in a surprise attack on a military garrison in Santiago with the intention of igniting a movement to unseat the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The attack was a military debacle that resulted in the deaths of dozens of rebels, but it succeeded in launching Castro as a major national figure at the tender age of twenty-six, and he later defended himself in a famous speech titled "History Will Absolve Me." He spent nearly two years in a Cuban prison before winning early release in 1955 and leaving for exile in Mexico, and in December 1956, he captained a barely seaworthy vessel named the Granma from Mexico to the southern shore of Cuba to relaunch the revolution that would eventually bring him to power on January 1, 1959. Castro christened his revolutionary organization the 26th of July Movement, in honor of the date that marked his first military excursion. As president, he made that date a national holiday in Cuba, and he commemorated it with a major speech annually.
On July 26, 2006, Castro arrived in Bayamo, which is located in the province of Granma, named after the boat he piloted back from exile. The two-lane road to the city is marked by a billboard featuring a sketch of his beloved boat next to the words WHO COULD WRITE THE HISTORY OF CUBA WITHOUT THE HISTORY OF GRANMA? That day marked the fifty-third anniversary of his first attempt to seize power, and Castro's rousing address lasted nearly three hours before one hundred thousand flag-waving Cubans. Dressed in his trademark olive uniform, he boasted of how Cuba's health care system resulted in long life expectancy. "I don't know how many thousands of citizens of this nation have even reached their one hundredth birthday," Castro declared, "but our little northern neighbors shouldn't get scared: I'm not thinking of working at that age." Castro meant it as a joke, but he was in fact delivering his final public speech.
Excerpted from The Cuba Wars by Daniel P. Erikson Copyright © 2008 by Daniel P. Erikson. Excerpted by permission.
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