Every New Year’s Eve, my friends in Havana believe the Castro regime will collapse. They raise their glasses not just to celebrate but also to wish bad luck to Fidel Castro and the Castro regime. When I’ve witnessed this ritual, it was as if I was hearing my parents and their friends back in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. Their toast was similar each and every December 31st.
“This is the year. The Communists bastards are done!” proclaimed the adults as they gulped down shots of vodka to the sound of fireworks exploding in the sky. My dad started to drink when he was 18 years old, the legal age in Czechoslovakia for consuming alcohol. It meant he’d made this toast at least 23 times before the Communist regime finally ended in November 1989.
In Cuba, there is a man I’ll call simply Ramón who is about my dad’s age. He will turn 66 in early January and had his first taste of liquor at the age of 16. This New Year’s Eve, he will raise his glass for the 49th time to predict Castro’s end. When I spoke to Ramón over the phone recently, he told me he’s cut down on drinking because he’s trying to stay in good shape just to see Castro’s demise. However, Ramón’s eyes are now fixed on two leaders. It is not just about Fidel’s departure anymore.
Ramón is one of many Cubans who used to watch Fidel’s health closely, but “ el lider maximo” smoothly handed power to his younger and visibly healthier brother, Raúl. To Ramón, it feels like the power transition happened a long, long time ago. He remarks in a dismissive tone: “ Fidel está frito. We need to see what will happen with Raúl.”
This brings back memories for me once again. Czechoslovaks used to watch their own leader’s declining health. The dictator we wanted to go away was Gustav Husak who held power for over 20 years. Every first day of January, he would appear on national television to address the nation, usually, with a speech full of propaganda. Husak would say we were bound to have another exceptional year while the capitalistic countries were in disarray.
After the exhilaration of the wishful New Year’s Eve toasts, his speech was a depressing reminder of the status quo. Watching Husak give the same old speech made the hangover much worse. Even so, Husak was in his mid-70s and his health was deteriorating. As we later learned, he even could not read his remarks due to his poor sight. His aides wrote just a couple of super-sized words on many cards so Husak could read them. “ Está frito,” my dad’s buddies pointed out.
Unlike Fidel Castro, Husak didn’t have a brother but many Czechoslovaks were convinced that another Communist “fat cat” was in line to take over. As it turned out, Husak, who welcomed Castro to Prague in ‘70s, was the last Communist leader of Czechoslovakia. Humiliated and visibly exhausted as Communism began to crumble, Husak had to step down just a couple of weeks into the Velvet Revolution, which brought to power Vaclav Havel, our first democratically elected president in 40 years.
Under Husak, life became silence — gray, empty, and uniform. When I told Ramón about those times in a conversation some eight years ago, he thought about the word silence and came up with an expression suited to Castro’s regime — Fidel’s grouches. Ramón explained to me: “Fidel molded out of Cubans a grouch who is sitting in a rocking chair complaining all day long.”
Cuba is rapidly changing, though. The government now allows Cubans to buy and sell property for the first time in 50 years. This can be seen as significant step toward a more open society. There are other rather dramatic changes, as well. For instance, hundreds of thousands of Cubans now work in the private sector of the Cuban economy and early this year some Cubans will be permitted to travel abroad.
While talking with Ramón over the phone recently, I reminded him of the metaphor he used when Fidel was still in charge. “Are Cubans still the grouch slowly moving back and forth in their rocking chairs?” I asked. Ramón chuckled and after a short pause he gave me an unexpectedly somber answer: “Well, the truth is I myself, became a grouch. Finally, I might have a chance to leave the island but I’m going nowhere. It’s too late. I’m too old and too tired now.”
He might see a different world in his own country even without traveling. The island, especially Havana, is now buzzing with activity sparked by the new economic opportunities. Still, Raúl is a dictator who can put into prison anybody he wants.
Parliamentary democracy or just the freedom to read whatever a Cuban wants to read remains out of question. And the economic enterprise is still limited. That’s why Ramón treats these new opportunities with sarcasm and a great deal of mistrust. Nevertheless, he surely made the same toast this New Year’s Eve — this is the year Castro goes!
Eduard Freisler is a Czech journalist who lives in New York.