The Looming End: Castro and My Best Friend

The airwaves and e-world are awash, of course, in carnivorous speculation about what Fidel Castro is suffering from.  The prurient guesses about his intestines and the conspiracy theories aren’t overly interesting; there is a surplus of talking heads to handle those angles.  The burning question of what exactly post-Castro Cuba will look like, however, is a hot and valid topic.  As I listen to the somber, proud Communist assurances that the “revolutionary project will continue” and the fanatical Miami crowing about “victory at last” and “death to the tyrant” I wonder, as I often have, just what that funny middle ground called truth will look like when the rhetorical dust settles and el Comandante is resting his ultimate rest.

According to his enemies, Castro is a cutthroat, a thug, a terrorist, a repressive tyrant that has ruled Cuba for so long only by way of brutality and threat.  To his admirers he is a strong, just, heroic leader, and the only head of any nation to successfully defy the subversion, bombast, and sabotage that the U.S. government has meted out to its enemies since throughout the modern era.  What’s not debatable is that Castro hails from an upper-middle class Cuban family and that his privilege and the accompanying education was the doorway through which he entered revolutionary, populist politics.  Therefore, loathe him or venerate him, Castro is assuredly a complex figure and, by now, a stone-cast political and cultural icon. 

It seems to me, though, that the important question isn’t what the pundits in Washington, the scorned hordes in Miami, or the ranks of armchair revolutionaries think of Mr. Castro.  The important question is—or will become, once there is space to hear it asked—is what his people feel about him.

Which way, ultimately, will his legacy swing, which image will be
confirmed by those who have the experience and the right to confirm it?

When I traveled to Cuba several years ago, I went toting a youth
full of leftist political ideology. It’s safe to say that I had placed
Castro on a pedestal. My ire toward U.S. policy was so high octane at
the time that even if I had been more aware of some of the not so shiny
policies of the Cuban government, I probably would have swept them
aside in my esteem for a man who could defy the world’s only superpower
so eloquently and successfully for so long. By some stroke of luck or
intuition, however, I did preserve the critical instinct to insist on
experiencing the nation free of the government’s influence—in other
words, I assiduously avoided the tourist track, which was not easy. But
with highly functioning Spanish, lots of smiles, determination, and
some ideological debates with functionaries, I managed to mainly stay
in the streets and close to the Cubanos—who without exception embraced
me not despite my nationality but because of it.

What I found was almost an even split: about half of the people that
I managed to draw into discussion expressed opposition to the President
that ranged from light dissatisfaction with social services to
white-hot rage at their perceived “slavery.” The other half professed
approval that ranged from a minimal confidence to deification. (It
bears mentioning, however, that his most extreme critics were also the
people who carried the notion that if you could get yourself to
American shores there would be sports cars and blonde women waiting for
you there.)

What I was displeased to discover was that the people who issued
their critiques of the President often did so in whispers. But even
those whispering were well fed, healthy, and adequately educated to
converse expertly on many topics.

There is a documentary, Comandante (HBO Films, 2003) that the
filmmaker Oliver Stone recorded a few years ago in Havana. In it, over
the course of several days, he puts very tough questions to the Cuban
leader. For his part, Castro answers without the slick slip-offs and
evasions that we are accustomed to in politicians. At times, though, he
does lapse into what seems to be earnest Marxist dogma, jabbing
bizarrely long fingernails at his interrogator to make a point,
liver-spotted brow rolling into severe furrows. At others moments he
acknowledges mistakes and oversteps that his government has made with
frank, direct stares across the desk and illustrative shrugs of his
stiff-shouldered uniform.

At one point Stone is questioning the fate of a handful of refugees
who attempted to hijack a boat to escape the island, killing the owner
in the process. Castro responds by accompanying Stone to the (closed to
the public) trial. As the accused swallow hard and try not to stutter
in the presence of el Comandante, Castro laces his fingers and listens
attentively. When Stone asks Castro what he thinks the fate of the men
should be, Castro responds that it’s not his decision to make but that
he hopes that they receive a very strong defense and are not put to
death. But the judicial system is not his to manage. The disparity
between his democratic claims and the totalitarian heft of his presence
is never clearer.

At the end of the film, to prove out his claimed mandate, Castro
wanders casually into a Havana street at sunset with Stone at his side.
In seconds he is mobbed by well-wishers who clamber for a brief grasp
of his hand or a respectful pat of his shoulder, some weeping, all
calling out their support and commitment in the sing song melodies of
Cuban Spanish.

The viewer can never know, of course, whether or not that shot was
theater. Nor can we know if all of those people descended from their
dinners of beans and rice out of true joy or out of fear at what might
happen if they didn’t. We can’t know if some were just caught up in the
rush of bodies and moment. Perhaps we don’t see a larger number of
citizens that hold back, cross their arms, scowl, or simply disappear
inside their apartments. But we know that, for the President, the
booming grin he wears is the confirmation of all he has argued.

We used to call my best friend the Fidel Castro of psychiatric
patients. She suffered a depression so deep it physically immobilized
her for days at a time. She often slept no more than five hours per
week. The sight of a homeless man could break her into pieces, then
into action, searching out blankets, food, water. She was tortured and
haunted beyond my ability to report. What I can report is that not a
single one of the top-shelf doctors or hundreds of psychiatric
medications or thousands of hours of analysis, MRI’s or diet changes
ever produced a real diagnosis or improvement. But I knew. She was
merely without a filter. She looked at the horrors of the world
everyday plainly and they eroded and poisoned her. She responded with
everything she could—prayer, heroin, poetry, humanitarian work. But in
the end she just hardened—she had to. She defended herself by closing
as many doors as she could, which is the only logical response to an
all-out assault.

Castro, since he marched victoriously into Havana in 1959, has been
defending against an all-out assault by the world’s only superpower
ninety miles west. We declared him an enemy, “the dagger at our loins,”
from day one and we never paused in our zeal to sabotage, kill, or
overthrow him. We’ve tried with bombs and bullets, exploding cigars,
poison rum, livestock plagues, diplomatic bullying, economic blockades,
and covert invasions. Nearly a dozen presidential administrations have
vowed to be the end of him. Castro has responded in the only logical
way—he closed doors, built walls, and made his own deals with those
world players who could soothe the economic agony we’ve inflicted—even
though some might not have been the most virtuous characters. He’s put
his fist down when those who echoed us in his own citizenry became too
raucous.

Ultimately, of course, the world at large will have its way in. My
friend took her last breath in an alley at age 27. Castro will have his
last sip of Caribbean air in the not-too-distant future. Whatever comes
next, whatever it looks like, will ultimately prove to be a step toward
Cuba’s opening to the dizzying, polarized, loudly debated world we’ve
created.

I can’t say what’s for the best.  But I must say that I’ve been impressed by the tenacity, the courage, and the fight.