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