With Fidel Castro apparently on the verge of death, I returned to Cuba to visit old friends. Little has changed over recent years and life for most Cubans remains harsh. Yet western visitors continue to romanticise the placeby Bella Thomas / June 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
When Javier heard the news on the radio last July, his first reaction was to go out and buy 15 packets of cigarettes, in case any ensuing tension lead to scarcities in the city. Then he returned to his flat to wait and to watch. He stayed inside for several days. Many others did the same. Fidel Castro had handed over power to his brother, Raúl. It should have been momentous. There were rumours of further political change, there was speculation that the comandante en jefe was actually dead, there was talk of jubilation in Miami, but all was quiet on the streets of Havana.
The subsequent months have been like a continuous Sunday evening, says Javier: quiet, expectant, but laced with an underlying anxiety. “Nothing really has happened, nothing really has changed.” He looks at me knowingly. We rock to and fro on his rocking chairs and ease back into our old ways. “Es igual, Bella, es exactamente igual.” It’s exactly the same as it was.
In spite of his intestinal illness, Fidel Castro has stage-managed yet another brilliant manoeuvre to ensure the survival of his 48-year-old regime—to act out a rehearsal for his eventual death, to hand power to his younger brother Raúl, and to be there to witness the consequences. Some have described it as an ensayo of what might happen: an essay, a trial death, almost a magic realist death in which the ambiguity of a living death paralyses those left behind. It is a way, too, for Fidel to see how his influence may be perpetuated after he steps aside.
There is speculation in Havana that Fidel, aged 80, will take up the reins of power again next year when he is properly better. But in the meantime, from his hospital bed he has been writing long, furious articles in the state press on the genocidal instincts of the US. He may not be appearing in public, his speeches may not be aired on television each evening, but his presence is felt. His new best friend, the president of Venezuela, delivers the news of his gradual recovery before anyone in Cuba knows anything: a sign that in spite of the strong nationalist element to Castro’s regime, it is Hugo Chávez, rather than Raúl, who now plays dauphin to the revolution.
I returned to Havana this April, after an absence of several years. I went…