Report from Cuba on Fidel's Transition
[Note from CarlD: This is a down-to-earth report on the closing on an era. Fidel has been the leader of Cuba for my entire political life, and the very first demonstration I went to was a 'Hands Off Cuba' vigil of twelve of us at Penn State during the Cuba missile crisis.
Later, representing SDS, I had a chance to meet with Fidel. At the Cultural Congress of Havana in 1968, Dave Dellinger, Tom Hayden and I were whisked away to a safe house, were we sat up with Fidel late into the night, discussing everything under the sun. He wanted to know our opinion of McGovern, Dellinger wanted to know about Che and Regis Debray, Hayden and I asked to start what became the Veceremos Brigade, and Fidel bugged me to explain 'hippies' to him, and I tried my best.
He is a remarkable man, with a photographic memory, wide knowledge and keen insights. Cuba will change after him, though, as brother Raul is already looking into the socialist market economy in China and Vietnam, but will undoubtedly make any reforms 'in the Cuban way.' We should all wish Fidel and Cuba well, and double our voices against the blockcade.]
By Marc PoKempner
Subject: Castro's resignation
I thought you all would be interested in a bit of news from Cuba. I have read some of the US reports and, understandably given the bias, they don't get it right---though they have captured some of it.
There was no "police presence" that I detected whatsoever. Everything was completely normal. The so-called "independent journalists", supported by the US and Journalists Without Borders, have been floating a lot of totally fabricated stories lately about arrests, etc.
So be skeptical of all such sources, and keep in mind that one of the express strategies of the Bush administration is to destabilize Cuba from within. The most ridiculous of these was a report last week by an "independent journalist" that a young student was yanked from his home in Las Tunas after criticizing the government in a meeting at the university. Nothing of the kind ever took place. He stood up in a meeting and voiced some concerns and criticisms in an auditorium in a meeting presided over by Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly. The meeting was taped and broadcast internally to the entire university. Nothing happened to the boy and he appeared on Cuban TV to debunk the story.
The news of Castro's had enormous impact, but also wasn't exactly a surprise. Some people may have thought that Castro would be re-elected, but most people did not given his health. The emotional impact of the announcement before the parlaimentary session next Sunday came mainly from three aspects: 1) it is an historical moment in Cuba---whatever the US media says, Castro is the respected Commander in Chief and loved or revered by the majority of Cubans. Younger Cubans may want change, which is natural, but most have respect for Castro who has shown himself to be a brilliant leader, even if they chafe under some of the overarching controls; 2) he resigned with dignity. Most of the people I spoke to praised the content of the message as fitting of a great leader; 3) there is also sadness, not so much that he is resigning---which was to be expected---but because he was not able to be president when the US finally lifts the blockade. That is, he won't be president residing over the final triumph over the US.
If there was muted response on the street, it is because Castro has been ill for a long time and the resignation was just a matter of time. But also, people have been waiting during this transition period to see what changes and improvements will be made, what direction will the country take now to solve its problems. Since there are no easy answers, it wasn't as if Castro's announcement meant dramatic changes or chaos. So, the response to the announcement was quiet and reflective.
Cubans do want some changes. Life has been hard since the 90s, and I expect there to be some reforms. But no one expects an opening to a free market economy, even if some market mechanisms are introduced and even perhaps some kinds of cooperatives in the service economy (carpentry, construction, plumbing) and perhaps even light, small-scale manufacturing (furniture, clothing, leather goods, etc.).
US policy continues to weigh heavy on Cuba's potential for development. I could write pages about the harshness of the impact. And so there aren't any easy ways leading to dramatic economic improvement (and where in the world today are there such ways). Most Cubans do not expect dramatic improvements, but they do want to see some new strategies and some problems solved.
I do expect that the requirement of "exit permits" will be lifted, but that won't solve most Cubans desire to travel since most countries do not give Cubans visas easily and most Cubans don't have the $ to buy tickets, etc. If and when that control is lifted, I doubt many countries will give asylum so easily to Cubans who use travel as a way to leave Cuba.
I also expect that some of the restrictions on Cubans access to tourist hotels will also be lifted. These restrictions were first adopted to try to stem the explosion of prostitution in the 90s when the economy hit rock bottom. Prostitution has diminished dramatically since the end of the 90s, but there is still a notion of equity that keeps the regulation in place. That is, it is hard to swallow the growing differences in income between those who earn hard currency (artists, musicians, tourism workers who get tips) and those who get money from families abroad. So, seeing these people enter the hotels when ordinary Cubans do not have the funds is problematic in an egalitarian society.
The current generation seems to be willing to accept some deviance from egalitarianism as long as there is social justice. That is, everyone has equal access to health care and education, social services and housing are improved, and everyone has access to work that pays a living wage (i.e., wages have sufficient purchasing power). This cannot be accomplished with a free-market capitalist system. The government must maintain a strong hand in the economy and development of the society.
Next Sunday, the National Assembly will meet and elect the new president of the Council of State, which I assume will be Raul Castro, and the other members of the Council. This will be an important signal of who is in the inner circle of leadership--kind of like the cabinet. Raul will undoubtedly remain Commander in Chief of the armed forces, but there could be a new minister of the armed forces.
Marc PoKempner, photojournalist http://www.pokempner.net ph: 773.525.4567 cel: 773.505.4568 Chicago, Illinois, USA Member: ASMP - American Society of Magazine Photographers