Fidel's Long Goodbye

I only met Fidel Castro once, in 1992, and I asked him only one question: “What will it take for Cuba to reconcile with the U.S.?”

He didn’t hesitate to answer: “When the U.S. agrees to return Guantánamo Bay to Cuban sovereignty, then that will be proof that the U.S. has overcome its imperialism.”

Decades later, when Havana and Washington were negotiating the reestablishment of diplomatic relations in Canada, the first thing the Cubans wanted was the return of Guantánamo Bay. That was the first thing the Obama administration swept off the table.

Fidel was no longer in charge, and Raúl agreed to press forward nonetheless. But it came as no surprise when Fidel refused to meet Barack Obama in March 2016 when the American president visited Cuba; Fidel Castro was not prepared to shake hands with Obama who, by refusing to return that disputed speck of land to Cuban sovereignty, had proven to be a “false friend.”

“No necesitamos que el imperio nos regale nada,” Fidel said, meaning, “We do not need the Empire to give us anything,” his final rejection of reconciliation with his enemy.

And he was right: Guantánamo Bay rightfully belongs to Cuba.

It was this adherence to his ideals that stood out, conviction without pragmatism becomes stagnation. And Cuba, under his care, stagnated. Admirers in the United States are quick to point to the public education system and national health care as achievements of his Revolution. These admirers, however, have never been to a Cuban clinic or spent a day at a Cuban high school. Cubans have to wait months for a prescription medication and years for surgery; students are taught to read and write, but are forbidden to read or write what is not sanctioned by the state.

These limitations, of course, Fidel blamed on the embargo: When Michael Moore traveled to Cuba for his documentary, Sicko, the non-Spanish speaking American leftist didn’t’ fully understand that there are two health care systems in Cuba; one for Cubans and one foreigners with hard currency. What he was shown was the health care system for foreigners, not the one for the Cuban people.

And so it goes: On every trip to Cuba, I have prescription medicines for relatives of friends who have been waiting for months, if not years. I have been approached on the streets of Havana by ordinary Cubans who ask me to enter hotels—which they are barred from entering—to purchase sundries in the lobby shops.

And the crony communism and corruption continue: Raúl Castro has maneuvered to pass Cuba’s richest assets to a company controlled by his son-in-law; drug trafficking continues to be a source of income for the Cuban state—despite the “outraged” show trial of General Arnaldo Ochoa, who was sentenced to death by firing squad in 1989.

Sixteen years after I met him, I received an invitation to travel to Cuba. No reason was given, but during the week I was there—February 20-27, 2008, it was announced that Fidel Castro was stepping down. I was one of the few journalists in Havana on February 23, 2008, his last full day in power.

Now, eight years later, Fidel Castro has died.

A feeling of ambivalence best characterizes the mood of those I know, Cubans both on and off the island. For the new generation, there is indifference; an old man, distant and aloof, is gone. For Cubans who lived—and suffered through the Revolution—there is catharsis.

It is ambivalence to experience this death, so long expected, so slow in coming; it’s been exactly one decade that Fidel Castro became too ill to continue in power. And this slow decline, demise, eclipsing also characterized the passions surrounding what he did and what he failed to do.

There is, undeniably, exhaustion, a familiar exhaustion to anyone who has seen a relative die, finally, after a prolonged illness, whether it is Alzheimer’s or a protracted, and lost, battle against cancer. Fidel, as one of the principal figures on the world stage for the second half of the twentieth century—only Queen Elizabeth has ruled as sovereign longer than Fidel Castro did— outlived his time, and his own legend.

He left many unanswerable questions.

Can Raúl Castro hold it together? Without the forceful personality of Fidel Castro to bind the Revolution to continual national sacrifice to the point of exhaustion, can the government continue to govern—and will Raúl Castro be able to ensure that the Cuban Communist Party remain in perpetual power?

What will the incoming Trump administration’s policy toward Cuba be? Will it sever diplomatic relations? Will it let them continue to wither away, the way Obama has not made much of this missed opportunity? Will an indifferent stalemate across the Straits of Florida continue? Or will his Revolution also, along with him, die?

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