From the American side of things, there was a stop-the-presses moment this week when Fidel Castro — the cadaver version, appearing in blue workout Adidas uniform at the 7th Communist Party Congress — seemed to be saying sweet goodbye.
“Perhaps this will be one of the last times I speak in this room,” Castro said at the closing session of a gathering that backpedaled on reforms, and seemingly, on opening up to the United States.
Castro’s voice was shaky, his imposing comandante looks gone, which might account for the crescendo of premature enthusiasm resonating across the Florida Straits. But there wasn’t much depth to his prophecy that “everyone’s time comes, but the Communist Cuban ideas will endure.” On this end, there was only disappointment that Castro, who turns 90 this summer, didn’t say this was absolutely the last time he would speak and that his macabre time in this world was really up, no more Lazarus-type resurrections.
That would’ve been something to celebrate.
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Although by Cuban standards you wouldn’t know it, we’re in the 21st century, and in the digital age, Castro predicting his own death was a trending topic in an America newly enamored of Cuba, the narrative of engagement and with experiencing the off-limits island. It’s no small feat to trend in the domain of celebrities and cute baby animals at zoos.
The real news out of the island, however, wasn’t as thunderous as Fidel Castro, in a near-final act of narcissism, acting as his own God figure. But it should have been: One of the most prominent advocates of reform on the island, economist Omar Everleny Pérez, was fired from his University of Havana post at the Center for Studies of the Cuban Economy. The charge: Exchanging information with Americans without authorization along with a slew of other trumped up “violations” that were, when the quest for dollars was Raúl Castro’s only goal, the order of the day.
The firing is reminiscent of other times when reform-minded heads have rolled, most notably the former military commanders in favor of glasnost and perestroika, Arnaldo Ochoa and Antonio de la Guardia, who were sentenced to death in 1989 and executed on charges of treason. The case against them was solely staged as drug-trafficking.
Reported by The Associated Press, Everleny’s firing made the rounds among those in the know, and even the anti-embargo and relations-giddy lobby in Washington, D.C., had to admit that “a chill sets in” in a post-Obama Cuba. The pro-embargo and no-relations crowd responded in kind: told you so. Cuba’s never going to change under the Castros.
It was, no doubt, a week of histrionic retrenchment by Cuba’s geriatric leadership, which brought back talk of “imperialism” and “enemy” to their rhetoric.
The one-party Cuban Congress voted to backpedal on reform, extending Raúl Castro’s reign as maximum leader for five more years (forget that 2018 promise to retire) and electing as party leaders a group of comrades more ready for adult daycare than leadership.
All of this throwback talk was tailor-made to squash the elation that President Obama’s visit, and his encouraging speech about a better future, brought the Cuban people, so ready for change, so burdened by the perennial poverty imposed by the Castros’ failed policies.
And now, what more? What’s going to happen with all the American flags flying from Havana balconies, worn on T-shirts and as bandannas by young Cubans, and painted on vintage cars ferrying American tourists around the city?
Is it adiós for the most powerful symbol of the Cuban people’s enthusiasm for a new day in Cuba-U.S. relations? Or will Old Glory become a sign of defiance on an island where the young are leaving in droves in search of the American Dream?
That the flag was allowed to fly so freely was a possible sign that maybe the country’s leadership no longer felt threatened by the free world and was ready for change, even a limited one. The flag — not just in the reopened U.S. Embassy but all over — was part of the welcome wagon for American tourists arriving in droves. It was the most visible and surprising sign of the American cultural and political invasion afoot before Obama visited in March.
Sadly, the Castro brothers of yesteryear couldn’t stand being upstaged by Obama’s charisma. They’re back at the helm, unchanged, trembling from age but still in command. And the old chill has quietly gripped Havana. No surprise, only disappointment.