Fevered pitch

A view of a monument to Cuban hero and poet José Martí and Revolution Square at dusk. Havana, Cuba, January 2015

All things change. Just as football (the European / Latin American variety) usurps baseball as the collective national preferred sport amongst Cubans, at one point in the not-so-distant future the Castro brothers’ reign over Cuba will come to an end. What will follow is truly anyone’s guess, and largely depends on who takes over as much as US policy at the time. But, you can feel the impending shift and anticipation just about everywhere in today’s Cuba.

Our most recent trip to that most enigmatic island nation coincided with a seismic shift in the relationship between my country and my husband’s — about damn time, too. Alongside the shifting relations and perhaps more widely heralded in Cuba, this news accompanied the release of the notorious Cuban Five. Yet, that most enduring figure of communism in Cuba, so hated by most American presidents over the past 50 years—known affectionately (or not) as Fidel or El Comandante to Cubans—has remained silent.

No editorials. No public appearances. No statements released. At all.

For a guy known to give passionate speeches lasting more than three or four hours in full military fatigues at the height of the sweltering, balmy, sauna-like summer sun and heat of Cuba, this defies belief.

His silence has inevitably lead to widespread speculation and a vast array of rumours about his death, some stemming out of hope, some simply voicing questions regarding how he can possibly remain silent for so long about something so hugely important for his country, let alone the Cuban Five’s release, something he personally promised to accomplish.

But, whispers of Fidel’s (imminent) death predated the biggest news story of late last year. He has not been seen in public for more than a year, something somewhat unprecedented for a man who featured prominently almost daily in the news and public eye at one time. A year ago during that rare pubic appearance, he looked frail and rather, well, old.

Alongside this bit of trivia on the Fidel Watch Parade and perhaps a bit more alarming comes the revelation that his once prolific musings published in Cuba’s most-read newspaper have also been lacking. His last article published in Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Revolution, appearing in print on 13 October 2014, predating the biggest news regarding US-Cuban relations perhaps since the Bay of Pigs.

Any sane, logically thinking person would raise a few eyebrows given these observations, let alone ask a few questions regarding where Fidel is at the moment.

My first experience understanding the absurdity of Cuban state news came when announcements ran across the bottom of the TV screen that Maradona (the infamous Hand of God Argentine football player) received a letter from his friend Fidel, in which Fidel declared that he is ‘indeed still alive’. A letter? Really? To a football player with somewhat questionable ethics? M’okay. (Let’s ignore for the moment that this was typed and most likely signed with an auto-pen, and, more importantly, made no mention at all of recent events.) It wasn’t just that news of receipt of this letter was a headline, top-of-the-news programme item. That the tagline referred to dispelling the rumours of Fidel’s death left all of us witnessing it in bewildered hysterics. (By all of us, I mean my husband and his family, with whom we were visiting when the news broke.)

To further fuel speculation and the ever-expanding rumour mill, the next day, another top news story declared that Fidel’s nephew said, ‘Fidel is alive and healthy’. This particular item doesn’t appear to have made international press. Little wonder why.

Rather than quiet the whispers, talk became much louder and more frequent as news of Fidel’s letter to Maradona spread and his nephew’s statement left most laughing (and questioning) harder still.

Things do change and Fidel’s lengthy absence from Cuba’s public eye indicate something. Just what remains to be seen. The last time such speculation reached this fevered of a pitch, Fidel stepped down as president and his younger brother Raúl took on the role, another event which seemed exceptionally unlikely just weeks before it actually happened.

Since our last visit to Cuba ending in early 2010, things have changed considerably in some ways. Private traders and small businesses have sprung up everywhere. [This statement requires a very large asterisk, and deserves a post all on its own. The Cuban government published a very, very lengthy list of what types of businesses private, self-employed individuals are allowed to engage in. Almost no profession that requires advanced training (think doctors, engineers, computer programmers and the like), made this list.] Much restoration to Habana Vieja has transformed sections of the oldest parts of the city, a mammoth task funded largely by foreign development aid budgets. But, there is still much work to be done.

For all the good the Castro brothers and the 26th of July Movement accomplished in equalising opportunities for education and access to healthcare for all, the currently poor living conditions and low wages amongst just about everyone in the country leave much to be desired. Yes, goods and services are largely cheap. Yes, every citizen theoretically is given ‘access’ to basic living goods vis-à-vis the ration cards which everyone receives in Cuba and which includes things like coffee, sugar, bread, cooking oil, etc., but doesn’t provide enough to live on.

Wages, however, remain exceptionally abysmal (~US$15-25 / month). If goods and services were even slightly more expensive, no one except those earning supplemental income from the wide array of ‘grey’ or semi-black market-like activities would be able to afford them. Buildings are still crumbling whilst their inhabitants watch from within, and roads are so scarred by potholes that they often resemble obstacle courses rather than routes from Point A to Point B and may require extensive refurbishment to suspension systems if taken on at speeds to high. Trash is seldom picked up from bins in the poorest neighbourhoods, left to overflow onto the surrounding streets and picked up only partially after strewn about and becoming too unwieldy.  One friend lamented this reality in his own neighbourhood, explaining that the trash is only removed after it becomes so plentiful that it takes a backhoe to pick up and then destroys any bit of grass that hasn’t already been spoiled.

So, what comes next?

Raúl, in his most recent re-election to a five-year term as President, declared that he would step aside in 2018. That is soon. Exceptionally soon when you think about the decades-long rule the Castro brothers have enjoyed. Difficult times likely lie ahead for Cuba and her people. It breaks my heart in all honesty — she and her people have endured so much already. I’d like the transition to be as benign as humanly possible. Yet, I (and my husband especially) fear the path will prove bumpier than ever.

As to Fidel, based on discussions with friends and family in Cuba, some think that he may have already died and no one knows quite how to announce it. More probable and highly plausible is a scenario which has rendered Fidel completely incapacitated in a persistent vegetative state hooked up to life support with no one willing to pull the plug. Consensus suggests that such a cognitive state made it possible for the thawing of relationships between our two countries, and those at the highest political levels in Cuba felt it was better to create a healthy relationship with its largest and nearest foe before news of Fidel’s demise is announced, whether it be his death or something near-death.

Like all good conspiracies, this makes sense. But, Fidel has defied odds on multiple occasions before. Personally, I’m not holding my breath, just as I’m sure others are reluctant to do. Who knows what’s up with or where Fidel is. One thing is for sure though — someone will replace Fidel and Raúl in three years’ time.

Until then, let the rumours continue.