Maybe Cuba will finally get the chance to fulfill the promise of her revolution.
Forty-seven years ago, Cubans of all walks of life cheered the fall of the hated dictator Fulgencio Batista and lined the streets of Havana to celebrate the march of the rebel leader, Fidel Castro, into the capital. During the war, Castro played brilliantly on our moderate, democratic aspirations — promising to restore the 1940 Constitution, to hold free elections, and to launch a program of agrarian reform giving the land to the people who worked it. He, and we, called it “The Cuban Revolution.”
We were sorely disappointed. Castro never did get around to holding free elections. The Constitution was not brought back. Land “reform” amounted to replacing the big private plantations with an even bigger countrywide, state-owned plantation managed by Fidel’s supporters. Cuban peasants did not become their own bosses, they merely got new bosses. The poor got to divvy up the goods of the rich, after which they lived in about as much squalor as before.
Instead of keeping his promises, Castro and his inner circle cemented their power by distracting the public with ersatz notions such as “anti-imperialism,” and then accusing opponents and dissenters of being in cahoots with American “imperialists.” Then they started flirting with Soviet imperialists, betraying even that substitute revolutionary idea.
Remember the Nicaraguan “contras”? They were so called because in Spanish they were said to be “contrarrevolucionarios” (counter-revolutionaries), people opposed to Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution. In betraying the ideals of Cuba’s own revolution, then, Fidel himself became a veritable “contra.”
Now that the clock is winding down on Fidel Castro, the question is whether his dictatorship will manage to outlive him. Cubans are chafing under a regime that diligently seeks to keep people dependent on the state for the sustenance of both mind and body as all the schools, newspapers, and radio and TV stations are government outlets, and everyone is a government employee.
Still, even with government control of the news and tight restrictions on Internet access, Cubans know there is a free and much better world beyond their shores. But despite its decrepit condition the edifice hasn’t yet crumbled, and “el Comandante” himself is the reason.
Fidel Castro, the romantic rebel figure, is the glue that holds the system together. Famously able to hold forth eloquently for hours on end, The Maximum Leader is undeniably charismatic, and a personality cult has grown around him. Countless Cubans are loyal to Castro, but not necessarily to the ideology he peddled. As my grandmother, who never moved away from Cuba, once said to me, “I am a fidelista but not a comunista.” She’s not the only one.
The glue will dissolve when Castro has at long last gone to his richly deserved reward. His brother and designated successor, Raul, comes off as a colorless bureaucrat, largely devoid of leadership qualities. What he lacks in charisma he will doubtlessly try to make up for in brute force: he controls the armed forces and the secret police.
But no government can go on indefinitely on the strength of mass arrests and executions alone. Cubans will then have their best chance in two generations finally to finish the job of the Cuban Revolution and create an island of real liberty and opportunity.
If personal knowledge of a culture provides any guidance, one can predict that the end will be very bloody but equally brief, as scores are settled and pent-up resentment is released. Following an unpleasant transition Cuba will become an excellent place in which to invest or retire: it will boast both a relatively well-educated but seriously underpaid labor force whose incomes will take years to catch up, and millions of consumers starved for all the comforts of the modern world.
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