Havana remains quiet these days, but this is due in large part to the immense amount of uncertainty that pervades the island of Cuba as a whole. Nearly half a century of death rumors, unrelenting repression and separation from the outside world have bred a Cuban people whose dreams are shattered. Hope for a brighter future is often nothing more than a farce – something read about in books and magazines but off limits to those who “stayed behind.” Yet there is still anticipation.
The question of whether or not Fidel Castro is dead is rarely posed in the streets of Cuba’s capitol. For the most part, Fidel’s death in recent weeks is about as foregone a conclusion as the color of the sky. The question now isn’t “if” he died but “when” and what comes next. The island is indeed awash in a variety of rumors and hypotheses. Ultimately however, Cuba is awash with questions. When will the announcement be made? Much like their exiled brothers, the vast majority of Cubans I spoke with during my recent trip to the island believe the announcement will be made months after the so-called “comandante’s” death. When all of Raul’s ducks are in a row, when all the dust has been swept under the carpet, only then will we hear word of the death of Fidel. Although quiet, Cuba’s capitol province is electric with anticipation. In the town of Jaimanitas and its surrounding areas, home to Castro’s infamous Punto Cero compound, the rumors and questions run strongest. A few days before I left, I met with an old friend at a bar in nearby Miramar. Immediately upon entering, I was assailed with questions from every individual who knew me to be trustworthy. The question that left the lips of everyone who greeted me was the same: “Is there any confirmation yet? Is he dead?” Earlier that afternoon, several local residents began contacting friends and relatives wondering what all the traffic heading into and out of Punto Cero was about. For an hour or so, it was car-after-car, coming and going. “No,” I replied, “here in Cuba, I am as cut off from information as any of you.” Smiles turned to frowns but as the liquor flowed, the anticipation returned. One man approached me with a simple question:
“How does a mute ask for a Cuba Libre in a bar?”
“How,” I replied?
After taking a sip of Bucanero – Cuba’s answer to Budweiser – the man immediately gestured at an imaginary beard and then proceeded to draw his flattened hand across his neck.
Those in the immediate area who hadn’t heard the man utter the joke immediately knew what he was talking about and erupted in laughter. That laughter would soon die down however, after a young women seated next to me posed yet another question.
“So, what about Raul? He’s been underground since the 26th of July and we’re all beginning to wonder?”
Indeed, Raul’s absence is more than a bit odd. Recent reports stated that the Cuban dictator’s brother had set off for Italy on a golf vacation but this seems absurd. To depart for an Italian vacation while Cuba’s “president” is dying or dead and the future of an entire government remains uncertain defies logic and I don’t buy it. As I sat pondering the question, several guesses crossed my ears.
“He’s sick as well. A few years back Raul disappeared for several weeks in much the same way Vilma [Espin] had. He re-emerged but it was clear that he had suffered some sort of medical crisis.
“No, no, no – Fidel is dead, a silent power struggle began and someone knocked off Raulito.”
The bottom line . . . no one knows. In Cuba, it seems as if the government is allowing tidbits of information to reach the public in an effort to gauge the possible reaction to news of Fidel’s death. I am of the opinion that rumors such as increased traffic in and out of Punto Cero have been created in a bid to measure opinion and reaction.
One thing is apparent – although the Cuban government is attempting to portray itself as going about its “business as usual,” its fear is beginning to show. The police presence on the streets of Havana is very strong – much stronger than in past years. Nowadays, the lone police officer walking the beat along the Malecon has been replaced by patrols of two and three officers working in tandem. Even checkpoints are becoming more common. Over the course of one week, I myself experienced two – one on Calle 23 in El Vedado and another closer to the Malecon. Entire blocks were shut down, with officers going from car-to-car, checking ID’s, gauging faces and in general, looking worried.
Another sign as to changes on the street comes in the form of Cuba’s green-clad Interior Ministry troops. Always a common site in Cuba, I quickly took note of the way in which these troops – much like civilian police officers – were now traveling in groups of four to six men.
But what about information regarding Fidel’s whereabouts over the course of the past year. Some had stated Fidel was treated on a private floor within Havana’s CIMEQ hospital. Others stated that the “comandante” had been returned to his Punto Cero compound in Jaimanitas, only to be returned to CIMEQ about a month ago after having taken a turn for the worse. In speaking with various contacts in both the Cuban military and Cuban state television, I learned that Fidel had never been treated at CIMEQ – rather, he had been cared for at a private hospital facility located somewhere within the labyrinthine Consejo de Estado building located along the Plaza of the Revolution. Treated by a staff of doctors who were forbidden to leave the location and who lived with the “president,” Castro never left the building after falling ill last August. Indeed, this is a much more believable scenario than the CIMEQ hypothesis. Maintaining strict secrecy from within a civilian hospital would have been nearly impossible.
But what do the Cuban people expect post-Fidel? There are two trains of thought at work here. Some believe the Cuban people are destined to relive the Castro nightmare for decades to come. Their wills have been broken to such a point that they see no hope and would rather abandon the island entirely. Others hold a fervent belief that change will come from within the government hierarchy once the brothers Castro have left the scene. The name “Gorbachev” was brought up on more than one occasion during my stay in Cuba. One sad fact remains clear however – the Cuban people won’t be able to go it alone. One of Fidel’s earliest priorities upon seizing power was the disarming of the public and the institution of a rabidly loyal CDR network of chivatos (snitches). The sad truth is, the Cuban people – the civilian population – are broken and pragmatic. “How are we supposed to mount an insurrection? With what tools? And how can we rely on the military? Our generals are all corrupt – look at them . . . they drive newer model VW’s, own nice televisions and stereos – their loyalty is ensured.” And so, the Cuban people continue to wait for an angel in their midst to turn the tide.
*NOTE: Please feel free to forward me any questions regarding the current situation on the island. Consider this an open thread and post away. I will answer as quickly and truthfully as possible.