An Island of a Man

Fidel fades into the red

by by Liam Daniel Pierce

Fidel Castro's resignation on February 20 came less as a shock than as one of the most calculated anticlimaxes in history. After a year and a half of prolonging an official public appearance (during which he did not attend his two nationwide birthday celebrations, all his media events were held privately and his annual speeches were canceled), the seemingly invincible dictator signed a letter, published in the Cuban national press, saying that he would no longer hold place as Commander in Chief. Surely the event was inevitable, but the public still wouldn't believe he was done until he said it.

The letter was typical of Fidel: assertive, enchanting, unapologetic. Most of all, it provided a fascinating glimpse into the hiccupping dogma of a man weathered by decades of his own rhetoric. In it he heralded the achievements of the Revolution, of course mentioning only the facts that painted Cuban education and health care favorably. He made his usual jab at the US, keeping it timely by condemning the presidential candidates, without regard for the potential of a more promising era of US-Cuba relations. He asserted that he had done the best that could be done for Cuba, devoid of any concession to anything bad ever happening. And then, eventually, he got around to letting the Cuban people know that he was no longer their president, like a slow cough and a quick pivot off stage.
The least predictable element to his swan song was how he presented himself in decline. At one point, he took on an unusual air of understatement and humility: "This is not my farewell to you. My only wish is to fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas." After nearly 50 years holding the highest office in Cuba, he suddenly claimed assimilation into the ranks. Yet at the climax of the letter, he hails the power of one: "I never forget that all the world's glory fits in a kernel of corn." It's more likely that Fidel always believed himself to be that single, glorious kernel of corn for the Revolution, by no means a mere soldier in line. And to a certain extent, he's not that far off.

Myth takes
Fidel has an uncanny ability to self-mythologize, which both his adherents and his detractors can't but respect. To the outside world, Castro's decline in health has become synonymous with the decline of Cuba. This is an indication that Fidel has become synonymous with the island; he is Socialist Cuba and will forever represent Socialist Cuba. His symbol, like his image, is all-permeating.

In many ways, Fidel's iconic power is a direct product of the system he set up. The distinct boundaries between bodies of political infrastructure that we are used to in a democracy--the checks and balances of powers--by no means apply in Cuba. Democracy is supplanted by ethos, and every tier of the political hierarchy is amalgamated into one nebulous understanding of the Revolution. In Cuba, the word Revolucion is used in a purely Marxist sense, suggesting a continual process--a constantly reinvigorated reverberation as opposed to a sudden change of beat. Fidel, ever since he came in to power in 1959, has posed himself as the most central and most vibrant part of the Revolution's chord.

That charisma still pervades Cuba. One legendary tale Cubans tell to demonstrate his popularity is that of a series of emigration riots that happened late in the Revolution, in 1994. Would-be migrants on Havana's shoreline, hoping to brave the dangerous 90-mile journey to Key West, clashed violently with the police and started to arm themselves with bricks and stones. Soon after fighting erupted, Fidel was informed that the situation needed his attention and came down to the shoreline to make an appearance. Upon seeing him, the rioters, who just seconds before were ready to do away with Cuba, dropped their projectiles and began applauding vigorously for its leader. (Never mind that after Fidel left, riot police came in to beat back the crowd and haul them away.)

Fidel's myth is transcendent; he can simultaneously represent the triumphs of the Revolution and repel responsibility for its discontents. As the figurehead for Cuba's optimistic and benevolent aims, it's difficult to disagree with him in his pushes for a high-quality health care system, a 100 percent literacy rate and a home and job for every Cuban. It's the means to those ends that he doesn't make explicit, letting people know (as in his letter of resignation), careful not to expunge details, that he simply did what was necessary. What was necessary, however, became the burden of people in lower ranks; the negative effects are diffused into the central government's periphery. The bread shortage was certainly not Fidel's fault, it was the baker's. Complaints like these--all complaints--used to be lost in the hush after Fidel entered the plaza.

Buttressing decay
Can Fidel's myth persist in his legacy? While Cuba can no longer be synonymous with Fidel, it still bears the effects of his policies. His legend, which used to eclipse the myriad problems of the Revolution, might fade; the inner workings of a malfunctioning society might now be more wholly exposed. Cuba's future now rests on a conflicted economy, one that is both staunchly Socialist and divergent from the Socialist model. After undergoing a tumultuous history of recessions, where each boom in the economy meant certain decline, Fidel made large structural changes to give the economy several pick-me-ups.

Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Cuba entered a deep recession in the early '90s. In this period, later known as el periodo especial (or "the special period," a cleverly self-conscious, if not laughable, euphemism), Cuba lost the vast majority of its trade; nearly 80 percent was cut off entirely. It became Cuba's mantle to build industries around lost imports and to conserve what they could in order to sustain the economy, mostly at the cost of Cubans' daily lives. El periodo especial was an era renown for 12-hour blackouts each day, oil shortages that sent classic Studebakers to the curb and a reduction of the daily diet down to the hunger level.
For several years, Fidel urged Cuba to hold fast against the economy's rapid decay, hesitant to draw the few trump cards he held in his back pocket. Yet when conditions became severe in the mid '90s, drastic change became unavoidable. Fidel thus conceded to the capitalist model with three significant changes: he made it legal to set up small privately owned businesses, legalized the US dollar and opened the country to tourism. While the changes were successful in putting Cuba back on its feet, the last of the three proved to complicate the economy, almost to the point of no return.

A foreign affair
While the majority of Fidel's time in office was spent sealing Cuba off from foreign influence, current-day Cuba directly depends on it. The introduction of tourism caused a split in Cuba's economy, literally into half, as two currencies were developed to regulate individual gain. Appropriately, the currencies' contrasting aesthetics demarcate their use: the dull and faded moneda nacional serves an essentially Socialist purpose--the purchase of cheap food and clothing--while the purpose of the sleek and multicolored convertible is solely to contribute to the tourism industry--the purchase of luxury items, imported goods and hotel stays. When Cuba saw an influx of 1.9 million tourists in 2003, the convertible, which is just shy of an equal exchange to the US dollar, was responsible for a revenue of $2.1 billion. The one dollar bill in moneda nacional, on the other hand, is sometimes used in direct exchange for toilet paper.
Thus, for Cubans, deciding which industry to work in becomes a no-brainer. Despite the fact that the convertible is heavily taxed in private businesses, there are ways for cash flow to slip between the cracks. Take tipping, for example. A five convertible tip (albeit illegal) to a cabbie would equal 120 pesos in moneda nacional, a rate of one to 24. Not even to mention the personal gain one could acquire from a more subversive act such as embezzlement, an easy chore in the tangles of a Socialist bureaucracy.

Yet the appeal of the convertible signifies not only a lopsided economy, but also a gravitation toward the moral ills of capitalism. In Cuba's larger cities, workers with more menial jobs in production will often skip work to hustle on the streets as a jinitero (essentially a mix between a hustler and a con artist). And across the country there has been a marked increase of prostitution, despite its illegality and the Revolution's fundamental opposition to it.

Cuba's legendary Socialist infrastructure is crumbling at the hands of its split economy. Although Fidel hailed the progress of the education system in his letter of resignation, boasting that Cuba "has on average a 12th-grade education [and] almost one million university graduates," those statistics apply mostly to an older generation. The generation that grew up in the throes of el periodo especial has a higher dropout rate, either because young people want to get a jump start on the tourist industry or because the failing universal schooling system has left them disaffected. Video lessons have begun to replace live lectures, as Cuban schools suffer from a shortage of skilled teachers. Their absence can be explained by an easy question: why teach a Cuban history lesson to 7th graders for a measly moneda nacional salary when you can walk backwards through Havana and give the same lecture to sunburned Germans, generous with convertibles?

Education is not the only system suffering from the economy's sea change. Cuba's legendary health care system is also becoming lopsided. Hospitals for tourists, originally intended to prevent corruption in the socialized medical system, now attract Cuba's better doctors. With a higher salary and greater access to connections, working in a tourist hospital is clearly preferable. Simply put, Cuba's workforce is being siphoned away from Socialist infrastructure by the appeal of a new market. And it just might continue to be.

The other Castro
After suffering severe health issues in July of 2006, Fidel delegated his duties to his brother Raul Castro in a transfer that was described as temporary. During this time of pseudo-presidency, Raul essentially held the same power that Fidel had used to shape a nation. Yet it wasn't until after a year-and-a-half sleight of hand trick--when a provisional presidency turned into an official one--that Raul was granted legitimate dictatorship. In many ways, it was a symbolic gesture crafted wisely by Fidel: when you trade one Castro for another, the myth can carry on seamlessly.

But the transmission of Fidel's legend and legacy to Raul might not be such a blessing. Esther Whitfield, assistant professor of Comparative Literature and director of Brown's upcoming Cuba program, told the Independent that Fidel has become more of a "contaminated symbol" than anything. She said, moreover, that the transition of power was almost too calculated, that it "contrasts the improvised beginnings of the Revolution."

Fidel's smoke and mirrors, though effectively operated in his prime, do not hold the same strength now that he is no longer synonymous with Cuba. His harrowing, long-winded speeches, which in their later years saw the effects of senility and diminished health, will no longer be heard. And if Cuba is to survive the vulnerabilities of a Socialist model in a world driven by capital, maybe harrowing speeches aren't what it needs. It is not the Socialist spirit that needs upholding so much as the broken economy and decaying infrastructure. If Raul sheds the weight of the old regime and takes on a more dynamic approach to a more dynamic Cuba than Fidel's, he might accrue a legendary status of his own.