Living with Castro

Bella Thomas
18 February 2008

The boy in the plaza was anxious and insistent. He was trying to sell us cigars. He didn't show us the cigars in his possession; he merely described them. It would be a surreptitious sale. He said he would take us to a place where they have only the best cohibas at extraordinary prices.

There were no other tourists in sight. He had fastened on us, and he seemed unwilling to let us go unless we yielded to his supplications. Since we were foreigners, it was clear that he believed us to be billionaires. And if we didn't want cigars, he could get us anything we liked, he told us. He appeared supremely confident about his network, not to say cocky. His insistence began to be a trifle irritating. He would not go away.

Having tried to deflect him, Carlos, my Spanish friend, gave in and tried to engage him in playful conversation. "My friend is trying to seek an interview with Fidel Castro". "Ah well", he replied, that is something I could not get you: that is - well - up there beyond the clouds".

Then Carlos began to be playfully provocative, as he thought. He had been disarmed into thinking he could speak of politics as he did in Europe. In the course of the banter he asked: "Tell me, in your opinion, do you think Fidel Castro needs to see a psychoanalyst?"

The response was startling if understandable. The boy's expression changed absolutely. A look of panic came over his face. He said: "Oh, of that I don't know, I really don't know". And he ran off, disappearing into the crowd in a matter of seconds. Having tried for the previous hour to give him the slip, his departure was nothing if not abrupt.

I was on my first journey to Havana, in 1994. It was the lowest point in the post-Soviet period, when Cubans were identifiable by being painfully thin, owing to the lack of available food. It was a time of desperation (the "special period" in official Cuban parlance). It was before the Cuban government had legalised the dollar and had let loose a few meagre elements of the free market: the farmers' markets, the garlic merchants and the small-time restauranteurs. And it was before the tourist trade had begun to pick up.

Bella Thomas worked as a journalist and researcher in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America, and also lived and worked in Madrid for several years. She wrote for a study group (La Sociedad Economica) that looked at communist countries in transition, and for the Washington Post, Politica Exterior, and other publications. More recently she has worked in documentary films, at the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, and organised the Engelsberg Seminar 2006, a conference in Stockholm under the auspices of the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation on the theme of the secular state and society.

Also by Bella Thomas in openDemocracy:

"Paradox regained: a conversation with an old comandante in Cuba" (20 August 2003)

The staple food rations the government had provided for each individual ever since 1962 had begun to dry up. Many people I met were surviving on a banana a day. It was just prior to the August-September 1994 raft crisis, when thousands of Cubans were given free rein to get to Florida on their makeshift rafts and rubber tyres (partly, it was thought, in a calculated effort to let the most energetic Cubans - the ones who might cause political trouble - get out).

The boy in the plaza, who was a hustler and a black-marketeer down to his fingertips, considered suddenly that it was quite possible we were informers, and he did not want to run the risk of his opinions getting in the way of his fragile business network. He didn't know whom we might tell.

Opinions on politics can get you into trouble in Cuba, and you can lose everything: - your house, your position, your possibilities - in a sudden flash revelation. "No cojes lucha," Cubans tell each other repeatedly; "Don't look for a fight; don't ask for trouble". And that is how Cubans have often got through the more difficult periods of Cuban revolutionary life. Avoidance of trouble and controversy is the key.

A country of layers

Visitors are often curious to discover how popular Fidel Castro really is amongst Cubans. The answer is by no means clear. Sometimes you are told that everyone in Cuba is a dissident in some shape or form. That those who turn out in the plaza to applaud Fidel as he makes his umpteenth speech are doing so in order to get on in their local neighbourhood committee; that if you cause trouble you will not get the sought after job as door-opener in the hotel. That you couldn't but be critical of the regime and its leader in the current conditions, but that people do not have the means or the wherewithal to be so. At other times, there seems to be a dominant sense of calm resignation, which verges on contentment, on the streets of Havana.

There are others who will always defend the comandante-en-jefe who has done important things in terms of "social justice", in terms of healthcare or education. To establish which attitude lies beneath which is not always immediately obvious.

For the truth is that opinions about the man are themselves extremely complex. This might be said of any opinion about a political leader in any country. But in Cuba, the layers of contrasting opinion are far more interchangeable. Some will only divulge their scepticism about Castro in private when they are comfortable that you are not an informer.

At moments of anxiety, some display a loyalty to the leader which you thought never existed. Fidel's voice, his words, his stream of consciousness, his intonation, his stock phrases, his onslaught against the United States, has so filled the imagination of Cubans in their every waking hour for the last forty-seven years that it is not so easy to dismiss him or to doubt him or hate him in the way that other people opine about their political leaders in other places.

Alongside the anxiety evident in the boy in the plaza, Castro is also capable of inspiring in the same person fear, awe, apprehension, resignation, disgust and a certain sort of admiration for putting Cuba on the map. But in the absence of free expression, it is difficult to see which is the dominant emotion.

A woman who worked in the ministry of culture once took me aside at a party on the same visit and told me that the most interesting feature of contemporary Cuba was the psychology of Cubans. The sheer nerve that it takes to survive in Cuba today has triggered a measure of extreme ambivalence, not to say schizophrenia, in ordinary citizens and especially vis-à-vis their politics, she explained. "If you were to tread on that man's foot with intent - in a malicious way", she told me darkly, pointing at a man beside her, "he would never respond in the way any normal person would: you would think he would at least enquire why you had done such a thing."

Here, in Cuba, he would have to laugh it off: he would be too worried to accuse you, because he would not be able to be certain "where the accusation would take him". In an environment where the state runs every aspect of daily life, every situation is potentially connected. Cubans, she went on, would go laughing into battle, not because they are particularly merry but because they are too afraid to accuse anyone of anything.

When Fidel goes

Pre-revolutionary Havana was famous for its atmosphere of intrigue and danger, for the men with guns on the street, and for the air of conspiracy and recklessness. In contrast, Havana is now on the surface a quiet, tame, friendly city. As a foreigner one can be charmed by these qualities until one senses the foreboding that underpins that friendliness, and the knowledge that in fact people are not actually allowed to take initiatives for themselves. But people who live under dictatorships are often friendlier than those who live in democracies. (For example, people often noted the change that had come over Spain once Franco had died, and the eruptions of anger on the street that would not have taken place when the dictator was alive).

Another man I got to know in Cuba explained to me that meetings of more than six people were technically illegal unless you had an application from the local "Committees for the Defence of the Revolution". And that if he had wanted to set up an NGO with some innocuous motive, such as for bird-lovers - or say "the lovers of la paloma the dove", it would not be permitted, lest it were a cover for a more sinister counter-revolutionary intent.

It is only when details like this are pointed out, that one understands the ominous presence of the state that is embodied by a single man and some of his erstwhile comrades in the Sierra Maestra (Raúl Castro being the last survivor of that particular gang).

Reinaldo Arenas, the great Cuban writer, made this point most graphically. He was a gifted and driven provocateur who was driven insane by the absence of freedoms to be as he wished to be: he was a Cuban homosexual who got away on an earlier boat lift from Cuba in 1980, the exodus known as the "Mariel boatlift". In particular he noted what the Cuban government did to homosexuals and decried the brutal treatment meted out to them. He spent several years in prison in Cuba, and then when he got to the United States developed Aids and died without having the requisite healthcare provisions which meant that his death was especially painful. He wrote a memoir about his life in Cuba and his subsequent escapades in the United States.

His enthusiasm for the US had dried up by the end, but he wrote the memorable line in his memoir, Before Night Falls, that evokes the difference between his two lives. "The difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream. And I came here to scream".

When Fidel eventually goes, there may be many people prepared to scream.

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