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Three April '05 Letters From Cuba

Second Letter
Third Letter

Viva y Habla Fidel!
by Glen Roberts
April 22 2005 from Cienfuegos

   When I saw Fidel on the Havana malecon last May, his climb to the platform top was slow, and his opening voice was weak and old. But he strengthened quickly, and his speech, directed at the U.S. Interests Section across the street, was intelligent, well organized and, for Fidel, succinct. When he climbed down and led off that day's protest march against ongoing U.S. provocation, which would have to be a long one just to string out all the people who were completely jamming Vedado, he looked OK, strong enough, straight enough. People around me checked their watches and several people told me later that he had spoken for 25 or 26 minutes.
    A few months after that, he took his famous fall, and I saw it several times on TV in Argentina, because the Miamistas had declared they knew he had something or other since they said he fell like a manikin without trying to catch himself, and the Argentine TV station, to demonstrate how little effect facts have on Miami conclusions, were proving over and over that he'd fractured his right arm and wrist because he reacted normally and that he'd regained his feet with remarkable self possession and stoicism. But his fall was related at least in time to his age.
    Now, Fidel is supposed to speak on TV, from a chair, every Thursday night, but, in reaction to a series of provocations, he has been on twice or thrice (or more) a week (it's getting to be every night) since I've been in Cuba. His appearance varies, but he starts out looking from very to alarmingly old, even confused, slumped in his chair, constantly reaching his left hand into his shirt as if to check his right shoulder. He rarely moves his right arm or hand. He fumbles with the mike, with papers, sometimes turns pages he doesn't really look at. At his worst, he brushes oddly at his head and neck, mumbles, stops speaking for 5, maybe 10 seconds, as if lost or overcoming some pain or breathing problem. He can often be heard through the mike breathing heavily. But he speaks for anywhere from an hour to five hours and gains strength and coherence as he goes along. He finishes looking steadier, more relaxed, pronouncing firmly, sitting up straighter. And during the standing ovation and patriotic music at the end, he stands fairly easily and straight and looks old but OK.
    His speeches take place in a large room, big enough to be a small theater, which is appropriate because he's not conducting government; he's making a speech. He sits on a stage behind a long table in the center of a row of other seated officials, as if at a board meeting, facing a live audience of government officials and bureaucrats, many of the people who are really the government now, and also other interested faction leaders and citizens. That all the seats in the forum are well spaced and equipped with wide desktops makes the audience look like participants. But only Fidel talks while I don't know how many people, but certainly a lot, just sit - for hours - as if attending a solo violin performance.
    In the casa where I stay, la patrona and the handyman and sometimes the housekeeper (and sometimes I - doing as the Romans do) sit in front of the TV and listen. If I'm in a bar or cafeteria with a TV at the time, it's on and on the speech, and, as their jobs permit, employees are watching and listening, and Cuban customers are watching and listening, apparently paying at least as much attention as they would to a soccer game. If I'm in a taxi, the radio is probably on the speech and, if I don't say anything, the driver is listening.
    TV watchers speak to each other in normal tones, even call out to each other across the room, as they think they need to. They walk in and out, but they listen, too. Once in a while, I see two or more of the audience on the TV screen conferring briefly, and sometimes, not often at all, the camera catches someone walking out - maybe to the bathroom.
    One camera is usually just on Fidel, but several cameras also roam the large room, sometimes zooming and switching views, watching the watchers. I watch the watchers on the screen and those around me. Some look bored. The handyman sometimes falls asleep. Some on the screen or in front of public screens look deeply engrossed, some look worried, some look forever charmed, some dazed, some amused. When Fidel speaks satirically, enough people to seem like everyone laugh. La patrona laughs if she's in the room. The handyman laughs if he's awake. The housekeeper considers the speeches excessive, doesn't watch much, and doesn't laugh. When he says something they've been waiting or wanting to hear, there is extended and sometimes fierce applause by the audience on the screen.
    The first Thursday after I arrived, I thought he might explain something I wanted an explanation of, like the monetary plans for next year, but I guess I was still suffering the same illusion Washington and Miami cling to - that the speeches are a government procedure. They aren't. They are Fidel Castro's symbolically very important announcements, reactions, answers to the world. They may be Fidel's last stand, and, if they are, they are very important indeed, since Fidel has definitely been the most historically significant, most impressive political figure of the last century. But they aren't government in action. They aren't even very informative (though they would be to Americans). They are really performances, proof that Fidel is still there, which is important to the Cubans because, while Fidel doesn't actually run Cuba, he is still the conscience and backbone of the revolution. He is still Cuba's father - and, in a philosophical, not religious, way, he is a kind of pope, shared by catholically faithful revolutionaries all over the world.
    But when Fidel reacted to U.S. efforts in Geneva to censure Cuba, there was a delegation in Geneva led by another very capable official talking to the assembly there for Cuba, conducting seminars on the side, handing out booklets explaining Cuba. And there was and is a capable Cuban representative in New York always speaking officially to the UN for Cuba. On the island, there are, besides state councilmen and cabinet ministers, and provincial, municipal, and CDR leaders, and the Communist Party structure, a flock of mass organization and special group leaders, all actively involved in the state in ways that are never explained to Americans. A large part of the state's work is done by the Juventud (the young Communists).
    Americans, to whom the only conceivable purpose of government is to facilitate business while staying out of the way of business and to protect business interests by meddling openly or secretly, diplomatically or forcefully in international affairs by any means including war, can't easily grasp that since the purpose of the Cuban state is different, the shape of the state and what constitutes the state's work is different, too. But Cuba's purpose is to make life good for all the Cuban people - to move the revolution forward, hopefully relentlessly even if slowly, "poco a poco" everyone here says, toward the eventual achievement of communism. So when mostly Juventud "volunteers" rebuild or repair houses destroyed or damaged by a hurricane, replacing the lost houses with better ones, they ARE the state in action. And so are cowboys milking cows, directors making movies, and bankers squeezing surcharges out of tourists.
    All business is state business, and the responsibilities of the bureaucrats and their chiefs who fill the theater when Fidel speaks are so complexly varied, it may be easy for them to lose their sense of direction, as I believe has happened in the tourism project, where making the business grow has become more exciting for some than getting enough dollars and euros to buy things Cubans need that the island doesn't adequately produce. I believe there are young would-be lions in the actual Cuban government whose readiness to move foolishly and treacherously to the right is checked only because they would be ashamed to do that in front of Fidel. And I believe those officials in the live audience who applaud most fiercely when Fidel assures them that Cuba will not compromise the revolution are showing their fierceness to their fellows and reminding them that their father is still with them and that they are still with their father.
    They are doing their jobs now on their own under the direction of appropriate cabinet ministers and etc. They are definitely not being briefed by Fidel about what to do. They, not Fidel, are running the state, but they still need Fidel as a conscience and a compass, and as a battery recharger. This is what I believe, based on the Cuban realities I'm objectively in touch with here in Cuba. No, it's not what Miami says, but Miami is as full of baloney as George Bush and the Republican party, and that's an objective though somewhat sanitized metaphor.
    It could be, though, that Fidel's current speeches are historically more important than I'm making them sound. In an otherwise blind world, he is the only chief of state intelligent enough, respected enough, and courageous enough to confront the obviously fascist and dangerous Bush administration as it should be confronted. He is setting an example the whole world needs to follow. That's a credible view that legitimizes the role of the official audience in Havana, and both they and Fidel may very clearly see it that way.
    Fidel's mind isn't gone. He definitely rambles, repeats himself, says things that everyone knows, takes hours to say something he could have said in half an hour. When he declares that Cuba, if attacked, will prove invincible, and that America will suffer more casualties than they did in Vietnam, I cringe and wish he would give it a rest. But he is generally coherent. Someone (I saw a woman's by-line once, the names of three cooperating writers another time) writes summaries of his speeches for Granma, actually very much reduced versions, and these versions, by scrubbing out all the redundancy and eddying, make his speeches clear, organized, intelligent. The writer or writers don't change them; they only chip away the excess marble to reveal the statements within. And the statements are important, and if history goes on, history may decide they were very important.
    Since I've been here, Fidel has spoken about the pope and the pope's relevance to Cuba way too much and too often to hold my attention, and he definitely revised, improved, and overdid the pope. But he had a point, that the pope (to some extent apparently; I don't follow popes) supported Cuba against Washington because Cuba's position is historically and ethically superior to Washington's. He also made it clear that Cuba is fundamentally unaffected by anyone else's approval or disapproval and not about to turn religious. He has also spoken a lot about the hypocrisy of the UN Human Rights Commission, about the cynical misuse of that organization by the U.S. and about the remarkable contrast between what Washington says and what Washington does. While counting up Cuba's support in Geneva and lambasting, not at all diplomatically, the sycophant governments who fail to reflect their own people's support for Cuba, he both boasted of Cuba's certain moral triumph over the U.S. in Geneva and assured everyone that Cuba doesn't care if it is censured or not. The revolution won't be surrendered or compromised. To underscore U.S. hypocrisy and to literally bring a charge of criminal misbehavior against the U.S., he has spoken repeatedly about a terrorist who killed a lot of Cubans and other people (maybe while working for the CIA), escaped from jail in Venezuela, and, while the U.S. pretends to be fighting a holy war against terrorists, entered Florida without being arrested.
    Cubans freely laugh about Fidel's half-hour long discourse on the number of eggs Cuban hens are laying (see Chapter Ten of Cuban Notebooks), and most Cuban intellectuals - militants, not dissidents - that I talk to agree that Fidel should have retired at 65 and been replaced, not by his brother, but by a younger man who could deal with the hens and their eggs in five minutes but, for sure, by an authentic revolutionary like Fidel, who says the same things.
    However, they also agree that, while George Bush or some other fascist barbarian like him is in the White House, Cuba cannot and will not surrender Fidel. And this makes for a tense situation, because Bush has four years to go. That's why the audience in the theater looks so worried and why they applaud so fiercely. He's not really a full-time working president anymore. But he's still Fidel. He's a flag that won't happily be lowered.

Glen Roberts,;
formerly of San Diego and Morro
Bay, California, now
(in April '05) a homeless traveler.