At a May 2 dinner in Miami hundreds of Cuban exiles, the vast majority of them in the Viagra generation, feted Luis Posada Carriles. This homage to the man suspected of masterminding the bombing of a Cuban commercial airliner that blew up over Barbados in October 1976 attracted a well known, aging radio personality. Tomas Garcia Fuste described Posada as “a real hero who has spent his life fighting for the freedom of Cuba.” Fuste, who attended the dinner, said “Posada saw from the beginning that Fidel was a communist and began his heroic fight against him.”
One of the dinner’s organizers called Posada “a great Cuban ... a great patriot who has suffered a lot.” Several of those interviewed denied Posada had authored the airplane sabotage that killed all 73 passengers and crew members, even though the actual perpetrators of the bombing identified him to police. Other evidence pointed directly to Posada. His adorers also discounted facts showing he had orchestrated bombings of Cuban tourist centers in the late 1990s. One tourist died; scores of others suffered injuries. Posada lovers in Miami blamed the Cuban government for destroying its own airplane “to create martyrs” and “staging” the tourist bombings “to get sympathy.”
If Posada didn’t plan these events, does he deserve the “combatiente legendario” honor only for his failed assassination plots against Fidel?
Posada and the crowd of retired lawyers, businessmen and professionals in Miami spoke of fighting to restore freedom to Cuba. Did no one recall that Posada worked as a Batista police agent? Had the crowd at the Posada fete forgotten that Batista staged a coup to grab the presidency in 1952? That his repressive forces killed 20,000 until the revolutionaries overthrew them? Posada’s vision of a good society means returning to the good old Batista days –without internal turmoil. What a gap between their perspective and the Cuba that exists 90 miles from the Florida coast!
After fifty years, aspirations of those who still want to recover their property, perks and privileges grow ever dimmer. Posada, slurring his words badly as a result of damage done by a gunman who shot him in the face fifteen years ago, said: “We are coming to the end of a terrible stage. The end of our struggle is near.” Applause! -Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, Cubans have lived through a “special period,” the euphemism that meant drastic decline in living standards. Cuba lost its annual Soviet aid of billions of rubles and its advantageous trade with Soviet bloc nations. The state had to break its part of the social contract: it could no longer provide Cubans with sufficient food and clothing. Even the fabled health care and education deteriorated. Rations were reduced and most Cubans experienced a social morph from communism (sharing) to individualism (dog eat dog) – for survival.
Seventeen years of “special period” cost the revolution. Despite signs of recovery, however, spurred by foreign investment, the soaring price of nickel and the discovery of oil deposits, thousands of Cubans – mostly young people -- continue to leave their island in rafts or smugglers’ boats to seek more opportunity in Florida. Engineers, scientists and PhDs in literature choose not to spend their work lives making pizzas or paper boxes, or teaching grade school.
By 2007, Cuban leaders began to address some problems developed in the post-Soviet period. The leadership, however, had no intention of going into the Chinese or Vietnamese models. On July 26, 2007, Raul Castro spoke of solving pressing issues like daily adversity, shortage of food and low agricultural productivity, within a socialist model.
The government has responded to popular discontent, alienation, and downright cynicism and over the last two years imported 35% more food. Raul also admitted that “wages are clearly insufficient to meet people’s needs.” This statement does not mean what U.S. journalists report or sneer at when they report that the average Cuban wage comes to $20 a month. They don’t factor in free health care and education from nursery school to PhD; no rent or taxes; practically free transportation, entertainment, and subsidized food. But it is still a long way from the cradle-to grave security Cubans experienced before the Soviet demise.
Allowing more goods for sale will not mean a mass rush of sales because most Cubans do not possess excess foreign cash. Cubans will have to choose between the new items available – including stays at posh hotels. Cubans who receive remittances from family members abroad or get paid in hard currency continue to enjoy buying privileges – institutionalized inequality – that grate at much of the population. But freedom to shop cannot sustain a socialist country – especially a third world nation built on the twin themes of justice and equality.
The new mood has extended to artists and intellectuals who declared they would not tolerate censorship. The leadership agreed. But ending censorship does not relate to several thousand Cubans fleeing the island monthly for Florida. They don’t leave because of censorship, but for freedom to practice their professions and earn a better living.
Fidel Castro warned Cubans they could lose their own revolution. In his April 3, 2008 letter to Artists and Writers Union President Miguel Barnet, Castro wrote: “Everything that ethically fortifies the Revolution is good; everything that weakens it is bad.” In 1961 he told Cuba’s intellectuals: “Inside the revolution, everything; outside the revolution; nothing.” If one agreed and sympathizes, one also winced when Cuban leaders acted in ways that seemed to contradict this statement.
“The Cuban revolution was born to be different,” the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once wrote “Assailed by the incessant hounding from the empire to the north, it survived as it could and not as it wished. The people, valiant and generous, sacrificed a great deal to stay on their feet in a world of rampant servility. But as year after year of trials buffeted the island, the revolution began to lose the spontaneity and freshness that marked its beginning.” New Internationalist July 2003
No kidding. In 1960, I watched creative chaos dominate everyday life. Like Galeano, I have seen, over 48 years, “revolutionary virtue” turned into “obedience to orders from above.” Loss of initiative is an ironic result of almost fifty years of US punishing Cuba for disobedience. Washington blocked “the development of democracy in Cuba, feeding the militarization of power and providing alibis for bureaucratic rigidity,” Galeano continued. “The revolution which was capable of surviving the fury of 10 American presidents and 20 CIA directors needs the energy that comes from participation and diversity to face the dark times that surely lie ahead. I say with sadness: Cuba hurts.”
Cuba resisted 638 assassination attempts against Fidel. The CIA says this is slightly exaggerated, but it admits launching thousands of attacks against Cuba. For half a century, the United States maintained a blockade, alongside psychological and possibly biological and chemical warfare, survived and got wounded in the process. In March 2008, however, a change began. Beyond offering freedom to buy electronic appliances and cell phones and own their own houses free and clear, Cuban leaders signed the UN covenants on civil and political rights, which means that unions cannot be part of government and free speech, press, and politics must be respected.
A citizen told Vice President Carlos Lage at a conference that the government lacked sensitivity to people’s social needs and psychological problems, stuff money can’t fix. Lage apologized. Cubans watched it on TV. Earlier this year, in Juventud Rebelde, an official newspaper, the government was ripped for fudging statistics on unemployment. Changes have begun, but the smugglers remain. The boats remain full as well.
The Cuban revolution succeeded. It achieved independence and sovereignty, educated and made healthy its population, provided them with basic needs and educated its people to dance on the stage of world history. Cubans altered the destiny of southern Africa when its troops helped defeat the apartheid South African armies at Cuito Cuanavale in 1987-8. Mandela hugged Fidel at his inauguration. “You made this possible,” he said for the world to hear. Cubans played a vital role in helping Angola maintain her independence and for Namibia to get hers. They played roles in the Vietnam War, the Yom Kippur war, and led the charge to slay the Monroe Doctrine.
Fifty years ago, Washington controlled Latin America; not one leader dared challenge its hegemony or its economic policies. Today, four of Fidel’s ideological sons run countries (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua) and several of his cousins direct others (Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Panama).
Cuban doctors and scientists, artists and dancers, writers and filmmakers have etched their names in the honor rolls of countless countries through their sterling performances. The Cuban revolution created them. Although Cuban doctors continue to save eyesight throughout the third world and perform other humanitarian tasks, the question now is: can Cuba overcome the legacy of the special period, when individualism eroded the collective spirit, and can she transcend the three decades of the Soviet model that she had to adopt for survival? Her leaders have lived for the revolution and imparted its values to the population. Can Cubans respond and grab the initiative to maintain the enormous gains or succumb to the shiny lure of mass consumerism?
No matter what happens, Luis Posada “el combatiente legendario” will not return to Cuba as one of its new rulers, gracias a Dios!
Saul Landau received the Bernardo O’Higgins award from Chile. He is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and author of A Bush and Botox World (AK/CounterPunch).