COLUMN FORTY-ONE, JANUARY 1, 1999
(Copyright © 1999 Al Aronowitz)
[This story was originally published in TROPIC, a Sunday Supplement of THE MIAMI HERALD]
(Copyright © 1995 THE MIAMI
Reprinted with permission of the author.
HAVANA, Dec. 31, 2005 -- I feel lost and alien, and I have no idea what I'm doing here, on a balcony of the Havana Hilton, once more renamed, watching the fiery multicolored stars exploding in the midnight sky and listening to the wailing sirens of ships in the harbor and the waves of raucous music that seem to come from all over the city.
After 25 years of exile, I have returned to the land I swore I'd never step on again. When first the port of Mariel, then the coast of Pinar del Rio, and then the whole island disappeared under the horizon that hot summer of 1980, standing on the aft of the American trawler on which the police tossed me, amid the half-naked, demented wretches from Mazorra Hospital, I swore by my father's bones never to come back. Never.
But then, in the winter of my life, I fell into the belated trap of nostalgia. All the defenses so painstakingly erected during a quarter of a century crumbled under the battering ram of the repressed memories, evolved into an irresistible torrent, and I, the cynic, the renegade, the foreigner at heart, overwhelmed, took a plane and returned like so many others.
The long and narrow island is supposed to be free now, after those elections that at first I refused to watch, switching channel after channel---they were ubiquitous! flooding the ether with ludicrous details, eclipsing the usual famines and massacres around the world---until I gave up, and succumbed, too, before the avalanche of anchorpersons, reporters on site, Castrologists, pundits and all manner of experts who, later, proved unanimously wrong.
People of my generation still remember in detail what they were doing when they heard the news of John F. Kennedy's assassination. But for me, as for the 18 million Cubans on and off the island, the death of Castro on Friday, Oct. 17, 2004, was nothing short of a cataclysm. For decades to come in this new century, Cubans will qualify the dates in their lives as before, during, and after Castro, so deeply he changed and influenced our collective and personal destinies. He left no one untouched, the same as he left no one indifferent.
True, in his old age he had disappeared from the daily affairs of what was only a decade ago a communist shambles and is today a not booming but stable capitalist state on the way to becoming a fair replica of the Cuba of 1959, casinos and brothels included. But his power was felt from the shadows. Maybe he spent half a year unheard of and unseen, and the rumor mills would inevitably start treading outlandish speculations. But news of his death proved always a gross exaggeration, and there he would reappear, on some anniversary or other, or a rubber-stamp parliamentary session, larger than life, with carefully trimmed white beard and Savile Row dark business suit, erect and carrying well his 77 years. This was no feeble Franco, decrepit Mao Zedong or senile Deng Xiaoping, but still The Man in Charge. So much so that his resigned vassals as well as his sworn enemies assumed he would live forever.
When both state TV channels substituted their programs with subdued Beethoven and Tchaikovsky concertos, so alien to Cuban tastes, the people started saying: "Raul kicked the bucket." It was general knowledge that the younger Castro, minister of the armed forces and second secretary of the nominally Communist Party, the last in power in the world, was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, a sequel to his chronic consumption of Scottish single malts. But no one thought about Big Brother's timely demise, simply because so many times before "Wolf" had been decried.
So when Raul himself appeared with puffy and lachrymose countenance in an impromptu news conference and announced: "The Cuban people are bereft: el companero nina Fidel is no more" the first reaction was incredulity, the second, pandemonium. Incongruously, it was the young, who had suffered the least the hardships of Castro's 45 years in power, who became the first to throw themselves into the streets. The unanimous, raucous cry in every throat was an almost forgotten one: "Libertad." The until-yesterday arrogant police, Makarov pistols in hand, didn't know how to react, whether to shoot at the demonstrators, or into the air, joining themselves to the celebration. But everyone was conscious that they were seeing history being made, and that nothing would be the same again.
Fidel was gone, a man who had been for some a father-figure, for others an executioner, and still for others a bogeyman, overseer of the archetypal Banana Republic, hastily quartered up in the early '90s, and owned by the transnational corporations he had expostulated against for so long. After the black decade of the "Special Period," when Cubans all but resorted to eating grass and practicing cannibalism, he emerged not weakened in his power, but in an even more despotic fashion, having rid himself of anyone who smacked of opposition. From then on, it was enough to repress once in a while, or just threaten to, to get his way: an abstract terror, like a pall, kept the gray masses silent, obedient, cowered into submission.
A policy officially deplored by the democratic governments, but tacitly welcomed by the foreign investors, especially the Americans, who had in their own back yard the cheapest work force in the hemisphere, with no trade unions to strike or give them lip. And the results were patent: After navigating haphazardly through the loss of Russian subsidies and the total bankruptcy of 1989, Cuba exhibited today a GNP of $550 per person. Roughly the equivalent of what it was in 1958 under Batista, and equal to that of the contemporary economies of Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala or Paraguay.
But Castro will figure in the history books not for any economic achievements; on the
A fantasy about
contrary, he utterly ruined the successful and dynamic economy he inherited by implanting wasteful, inefficient, centralized Stalinist control, and with his megalomaniacal projects and foreign wars. He will be remembered instead as the eternal survivor against all odds and despite all predictions. Neither the hostility of a dozen U.S. administrations, spurred by the once politically powerful Cuban-American community, nor the most bizarre attempts of assassination and rash palace revolts could topple him. He died, in what amounts to a paradox, with his boots on and in his own bed.
The king was dead, but there was no heir to cry "Long live!" to. Nobody could stomach Little Brother, starting with the military hierarchy, who saw him as the cowardly assassin of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa and Col. Antonio "Tony" de la Guardia, back in 1989, in the great purge that decimated the cadre of those in both the armed forces and the Interior Ministry who dared to ask for democratic reforms. Raul was feared, yes, but also despised. So after scarcely three months as figurehead of state, he went to golden exile in his latifundium in Galicia, in the north of Spain, to engage in his favorite pastime, hunting. And no one took the trouble of explaining how his Purdey 12-gauge shotgun accidentally shot him in the back.
And then, the brief interregnum of the so-called National Salvation Front headed by generals Colome Ibarra and Rosales del Toro, whose only aim was to maintain against all odds a hypertrophied army and state security apparatus that swallowed together 80 percent of the national budget. But keeping the troops on a diet of McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken proved unrealistically expensive, and besides, military regimes had been passe in this hemisphere for at least 30 years.
So after securing good pensions for all the gorillas in question, and a general, unconditional amnesty for the torturers, they washed their hands and the inevitable ensued.
Castro's embalmed corpse, bedecked in his old Commander in Chief regalia, was unceremoniously dumped into the family crypt in Gibara, in the sticks of Oriente province. Free and democratic elections, supervised by the U.N., the Organization of American States, the European Parliament, and whoever wished to supervise them, were convoked, the first non-Mickey Mouse balloting the Cubans had exerted in 57 years. Aye, and there was the rub: 10 candidates after the dust cleared, all wanting to be the real McCoy, the president of the Second Republic, and all giving, more or less, the same sales-pitch. So whom to vote for? Old habits die hard, and Cubans were used to 99.8 percent turnout single-candidate elections.
The camps were from the start clearly divided: the six presidential aspirants from "abroad," and the four local hopefuls. The front-runner from "abroad" was a portly billionaire, who had the biggest war chest, whose picture was everywhere, and whose jingles and slogans made in Madison Avenue floated in the air no matter where you turned. His main appeal was his financial savvy, which made him the undeclared but logical option of the restless foreign investors.
Less sleek were the campaigns of the two former political prisoners, who, in the old Marti and Chibas tradition, pledged a nationalist revival and the cleansing of ubiquitous public corruption. And, who knew for sure? Maybe the settlement of old scores. Their strong suit was a moral one: having spent a quarter of a century in Castro's jails, followed afterward by their unwavering---some said narrow-minded and shortsighted---opposition to any dialogue with the aged tyrant. They prided themselves on speaking no English despite their long exile in Miami, and spared no gibes on this account against the fluent businessman.
Running behind in the "foreign" pack were the three literati: a former Marxist-Leninist philosopher who had seen the light on the road to Damascus; a lady poet who promised feminism and gay liberation in a stifling macho society, and, the most substantial of the trio, a well-known journalist and not-so-good novelist who defined himself as a Social-democrat and advocated a welfare state.
Then came the local boys, themselves divided into two well- defined, antagonistic camps. First, the two human rights activists, those who stayed behind and tried to fight the dictatorship Mahatma Gandhi style, only to find that Castro was no Lord Mountbatten or Harold MacMillan. Known popularly as the dialogueros, their public image was somewhat tarnished after 20 years of monologues appealing to reason, forgiveness and national reconciliation, that were to Castro like the buzz of flies in his ears.
And at long last, came the good and the bad commies, now both renamed Socialists. The "bad" ones were all the way for keeping the status quo, and carried behind them the weight of the army and the nomenclatura. Not to be taken lightly. Their candidate was a glib former foreign minister and president of the rubber-stamp parliament, whose main electoral claim was having kept his hands clean during his 45 years at Castro's service. He never pulled the trigger or beat anyone, just lied through his teeth, but then that's what diplomats are paid for.
The darkest horse in the whole melee were the "good," or rather less harmful commies. Nobody took them seriously, and they were dubbed "the pedocrats" because all had started their careers in the Communist Youth. Their leader was still called by everyone "Robertico," despite his 50-odd years, and was regarded as an arriviste, a smart-alecky, sleazy thug, that gained Castro's favor with his organizational skills: Robertico filled the Plaza de la Revolucion before Fidel's ranting, apocalyptic speeches, by the simple expedient of selling there food and beer to the starving and thirsty habaneros.
The grateful Comandante made Robertico foreign minister for a while, but he was hampered by his lack of Spanish, as he only spoke the Cuban dialect. And after some other failures, the political starlet fell from grace, like many a favorite before. And now he had the gall of entering, too, the historical fracas. While the other nine candidates perorated ponderously on topics such as external debt, hyperinflation, social security, national reconstruction, the restoration of morality---every subject under the fierce Cuban sun except taxes---Robertico's program couldn't be simpler: "Vote for me and we'll have a ball . . ."
No wonder CNN, ABC, CBS and the likes wouldn't give him an inch of footage, and Time and Newsweek begrudged him even a wee feature. The opinion polls changed by the hour like the temperature chart of a malaria case, but the only point they agreed on was placing him always at the very bottom.
But the pundits were missing something. None of them had given thought to a curious phenomenon: After half a century of miscegenation, 80 percent of the population of the island was black or mulatto, and all 10 candidates were white. And another factor had been lost in the pontification. Behind the indecision about whom to vote for, what lurked in Cuban minds was in reality the fear of a power vacuum and having to sail, for the first time, the uncharted turbulent seas of freedom. None of the potential presidents seemed a reliable shipmaster, the steady skipper to give the con to. So for all the polling, nobody knew the first thing about which way the Cuban people would lunge on election day.
And nobody but cunning Robertico noticed that the eve of the balloting was Dec. 17, San Lazaro's Day. Also known as "The Old Man" and "Babalu Aye," a saint dismissed as apocryphal by Vatican hagiography, but to whom Cubans, even the more sophisticated, turn in moments of danger and uncertainty. He was represented by an old, white bearded leper, supporting himself on rustic crutches, whose sores were licked reverently by the ferocious attack dogs sent against him by an evil rich man. And every year, defying religious persecution and outright police intimidation, the faithful would walk many miles, some on their knees or carrying heavy burdens, to his small sanctuary, beside the Leper Colony of El Rincon, to make a promise to The Old Man or thank him for a miraculous grace.
Never in Cuba's history had so huge a crowd gathered for the annual pilgrimage. People came from as far as Oriente province, all waiting for a sign. The poor, the humble, the blacks, the peasants, the have-nots, those of simple faith. Those who had suffered for five centuries, first under the Spanish yoke, and later under native tyrants, Castro the worst of all. Those whose opinion was never asked, but taken for granted.
The penitents came and came in throngs from the early hours, and if they expected a miracle, they got it. Because when the sun rose, they saw who else but Robertico, barefoot, with naked torso, dressed only in sackcloth pants and carrying a heavy wooden cross while two masked men lashed his blue and bleeding back. When all was said and done it was only the underdog, the loser, who thought about atoning and asking forgiveness for his complicity in two generations of malevolence, for our complicity, mine included, because all that is needed for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.
In petrified silence, the crowd opened before him and thus, amid a human sea, he went mile after mile on his lonely way, stumbling sometimes on his blistered feet, covered entirely in sweat and dust and blood, the only sound the sharp snaps of the whips. It took him almost three hours to reach the sanctuary, and then he put aside the cross, entered the chapel resplendent with hundreds of votive candles, and knelt and prayed for a while before the image; then, covering his back and shoulders with a white towel, stood outside at the top of the steps, looked around and shouted the right words, those who no one else but him had said: "I swear by God and by St. Lazarus that while there's life in me, never again will this country see a tyranny . . . "
It was enough, and he and his two masked tormentors climbed into a waiting black Mercedes that disappeared hastily, escaping from the encroaching, maddened, roaring crowd. The crude images of his self-imposed punishment traveled round the world, electrifying all who watched. Some said that Cubans were savages, others that it was a vulgar electioneering gimmick, a grotesque, blasphemous charade, and still others, that he was an illuminate, sent by divine providence. Cardinal Ortega y Alamino sternly reminded his flock that the real St. Lazarus had been a French bishop, and the one on the crutches was no saint at all. No matter. That night all the churches overflowed, and all along the sleepless island the bata drums thundered in honor of Babalu Aye, who himself had chosen The Man.
There was almost no need to count the votes, and the observers and the computers specially brought were rendered useless, such was Robertico's landslide. He was invested in a ceremony where all heads of state of the hemisphere were present, except American president Pat Buchanan, who wanted the United States to keep a low profile.
And now The Man himself was delivering a New Year address on TV, wearing the tricolor presidential sash over a business suit, boyish and grinning, a beatific smile under his trademark thick mustache. I turned it off, and started packing my bags. I had seen enough. ##
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