THE opening sentence of a report in The Washington Post last Saturday encapsulates some of the lazy prejudices that have dogged mainstream American perceptions of a tiny neighbouring island for more than six decades.
“Sixty-two years after a band of revolutionaries set Cuba down a path of confrontation with Washington,” writes Anthony Faiola, the newspaper’s South American/Caribbean bureau chief, “the last of the Castro brothers … announced he will surrender official power.”
The “path of confrontation” was Washington’s choice. The band of revolutionaries was obviously ill-disposed towards the US-friendly dictator Fulgencio Batista and the mainly American gangsters and pimps who sustained his regime, as well as the US corporations that plundered their nation’s resources. But they would likely have responded positively to any overture that indicated their giant neighbour was willing to curb its neocolonial impulses. No such gesture was forthcoming.
The phrase “the last of the Castro brothers” hints at rule by a series of siblings. In fact, Fidel and Raúl were the only pair of Castros to have wielded power. And while the optics might have been somewhat disconcerting, Raúl was Fidel’s designated successor for decades before the older brother stepped aside from his roles as president and party leader.
The ‘path of confrontation’ was America’s choice.
It could even be argued that the family connection wasn’t paramount in that designation: Raúl was a key commander in the rebel war that culminated in the revolutionary capture of power in 1959. What’s intriguing about his trajectory is that back then Raúl and Ernesto Che Guevara, in particular, were viewed with some justification as diehard radicals with a grounding in Marxist-Leninist theory, whereas Fidel’s ideological inclinations were relatively vague. In the years leading up to Fidel’s demise in 2016, his hard-line stance on issues such as reconciliation with the US contrasted with his younger brother’s moderate “pragmatism”.
As for the word “surrender” in Faiola’s report, it may have been appropriate terminology for describing Trump’s reluctant eventual decision to move out of the White House, but “retirement” would have sufficed in the case of Raúl Castro, who has only followed a plan he flagged years ago.
That may explain why his departure from the post of Communist Party first secretary caused little surprise among Cubans. Sure, a Cuba without a Castro in charge is a novelty for everyone below retirement age, but what may come to be seen as more significant is the generational change. Miguel Díaz-Canel, who became president three years ago and now takes over as party chief, is almost three decades younger than Raúl — who made a commendable effort to repair the party’s image as a rest home for octogenarian revolutionaries.
There’s more or less a consensus that very little will change in the immediate future. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. Raúl’s overtures to the Obama administration bore some fruit with a relaxation in some of the rules relating to travel and economic exchanges, but the embargo imposed by the Kennedy administration remained in place. The Trump administration rescinded those measures, doubled down on sanctions and persuaded its allies in Latin America to expel Cuban doctors, much to the detriment of some of the poorest Brazilians and Bolivians. John Bolton even had some kind of crazy plan to impose the US writ on Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, but fortunately didn’t last too long in his post as national security adviser.
Restoration of the status quo ante was among Joe Biden’s vows on the campaign trail, but administration hacks have made it clear that Cuba is not a priority.
The island was already reeling economically from reinforced sanctions when Covid-19 struck, killing off tourism. The public health response was, not surprisingly, exemplary. At fewer than 500 deaths, the per capital toll is vastly lower than that of the US or Brazil. Cuban doctors have also been dispatched far and wide to help other countries cope with the pandemic. For instance, Cuban medical teams were deployed across Italy after the EU ignored its member-nation’s plight, and when a second wave overwhelmed Sicily in November, the local authorities instinctively sent an SOS to Havana rather than Brussels.
Biotechnology has been another Cuban forte, and specialists are trialling a bunch of vaccines. If approved, any one of them could be a game changer for the world’s poorer nations.
Cuba too may be poor, and it has many shortcomings, but perhaps it’s biggest problem remains the one Fidel outlined on the eve of the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion by CIA-trained mercenaries 60 years ago this month: “What the imperialists cannot forgive is that we are here … And that we have carried out a socialist revolution right under the nose of the United States!”
However much Cuba may change, one can only hope it retains, as a legacy of the Castro years, some measure of its internationalist generosity of spirit.
Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2021