The Long Goodbye

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On April 19, on the eve of his 90th birthday, Fidel Castro delivered his “farewell” address to the Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana. Fidel’s farewells now rival Francisco Franco’s farewells — or notices of his departure from this world — in both length and credibility. Though he first temporarily stepped down as president of Cuba in 2006, and then retired permanently in 2008, Fidel Castro’s influence as his successor’s elder brother, his continuing physical presence, and his moral standing as the “conscience of the Revolution,” preclude any serious change in Cuba’s political system.

The good news is that something inside is whispering to him that his time on earth is done. As a consequence, he’s urging his successors to keep the faith. No one expects the country’s first vice president, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, 56, to succeed in any meaningful way. Though Raul Castro has said that he’d step down in 2018 when his term is up, his second-in-command, José Ramón Machado Ventura, 85, is expected to continue wielding power by leading the Party. So, Fidel: rest assured — for now.

Word on the street is more nuanced. Raul was head of the armed forces and security organs before becoming president. His G2 security apparatus is second only to the CIA and Mossad (forget the KGB according to Juan Reynaldo Sanchez, Fidel’s personal bodyguard of 17 years). As head of the Armed Forces, Raul designed and engineered the very first tourism joint ventures with foreign governments and firms, loosely following the model of the People’s Liberation Army in China, whose commercial interests are widespread. The effort helped Cuba overcome the difficulties of the Special Period imposed by the implosion of the Soviet Union.

The good news is that something inside is whispering to Fidel that his time on earth is done.

Raul and his late wife, Vilma Espin, have three daughters. One is married to a general whose public persona is so behind-the-scenes that my informant couldn’t recall his name. The general is not a politician and doesn’t wish to draw attention to himself. However, he is the architect of most of Cuba’s successful mid-to-large state enterprises. His military, family and commercial positions endow him with unrivaled power; power that in my informed informant’s opinion he will not easily give up, but will continue to wield behind the scenes.

In spite of the government’s efforts to encourage self-employment in its own passive-aggressive way, again — according to this informant — the state is terrified of mid-level independent enterprises gaining a foothold on the island. Disincentives, from limits on the number of employees to accelerated taxation schemes, abound.

On March 28, as a response to President Obama’s visit to Cuba, Fidel opined in an editorial in the official organ of Cuba’s Communist Party, Granma, that “we do not need the empire to give us anything.” This time, Fidel, rest unassured: one of the primary sources of foreign exchange in Cuba is family remittances, to the tune of $2.5 billion annually (2014 figures; probably more now). But rest even more unassuredly, Fidel, because some of the money indirectly comes from US taxpayers, i.e., the government.

Though my group knew my objective and knew that I wrote for Liberty, I warned them to stick to our formal purpose if asked, and mention nothing of my other intentions.

Here’s how it works: Cuban refugees are automatically granted asylum in the US and are provided with food stamps, heath care, and a stipend, i.e., welfare. Some of this is sent back to family in Cuba. With Cuban hustle, many refugees get jobs but continue to collect benefits. The remittances give a whole new definition to Cuba’s being a “welfare” state — in this case, one that’s dependent on the US dole. Cuban refugees who came to the US in times past recognize the problem and are urging the US government to change the automatic acceptance rule for Cubans and apply normal asylum procedures to present-day Cuban immigrants.

This past February, I contributed to the remittances motherlode.

On my recent trip to Cuba I was bringing a small laptop computer to a relative — allowed, but ordinarily subject to declaration and a 100% tariff, something that would make the laptop unaffordable. At Jose Marti airport, and before I crossed passport control, a clipboard-wielding functionary spotted my group of five and targeted us as an irregular group. We were coming legally from Miami, as opposed to illegally through Mexico or Canada, venues from which American tourists aren’t the subjects of much concern. Our US State Dept. category was “Educational.” We were in Cuba to assess the opportunities for running bicycle-based adventure education courses covering history, environment, anthropology, etc. However, my personal objective was research for a proposed book, a purpose that would raise much concern with the Cuban government, and a travel category that would have required a Cuban government minder to accompany and “help” me at my expense. Though my group knew my objective and knew that I wrote for Liberty (a quasi-journalistic position — another category the government is wary of and upon which they impose many requirements), I warned them to stick to our formal purpose if asked, and mention nothing of my other intentions.

The functionary walked up to one of our group and asked our purpose in coming to Cuba. My partner blithely and absent-mindedly said he was a writer. My wife, ever alert, rushed to the scene and corrected the impression, saying we were there for educational purposes. By now our whole group surrounded the man. He asked for our itinerary and formal proposal. I dazzled him with paperwork which I’d painstakingly composed with every computer tool available: detailed schedule, educational purpose of the trip, lengthy resumes of each participant along with their professional positions, and letters of support and intent from three universities.

The man (his English being only passable) glanced at the professionally printed matter and, satisfied, returned it to me. He then asked if we were carrying any electronic devices, cameras, computers, etc. reassuring us that these were permissible for personal use. Going round the circle, each participant pulled out camera, laptop, phone, whatever. By the time he got to me and I’d pulled out my camera and was about to declare the laptop for my relative, the man lost interest and dismissed us, figuring we were what we appeared to be.

I’d successfully taken a laptop into Cuba — one small ruse for a man; one satisfying step for liberty in Cuba.




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