The Light Orphanhood

Symbol of the generation of independent reporters who work within the island thanks to the Internet, Yoani Sanchez gives us a chronicle of daily life in Havana after the departure of Fidel Castro.

On February 24, a few hours after he assumed the presidency Raul Castro and having requested permission from the Cuban parliament to continue consulting with his brother Fidel on the most important decisions, Carlos Mendez left Old Havana at full speed. He rode, in the sunlight, on his Chinese bicycle to the last street in the neighborhood of Luyanó. He knocked, with an air of urgency, on the door of his friend Yunieski and warned: “Don’t sell that GPS ‘this’ has no solution, so prepare yourself because at any moment we’ll be throwing ourselves back into the sea.”

That same day, in a little town in the Escambray mountains, the military retiree Miguel Fernandez sighed with relief upon realizing that his retirement would continue in peace and that the new government team, with Fidel as a counselor, might do something to improve the chronic austerity that prevailed at his table. He gazed upon the diplomas, he had earned for the volunteer work and internationalist missions, hanging on the wall of his room and felt satisfied that the project to which he devoted years and energy would continue on.

For both Carlos and Miguel, on that last Sunday in February the unknown had become clearer, the mystery had begun to fade a few days earlier, when Fidel Castro declined to be reelected as president. For both it has become obvious, with the predictable results of those elections, that the Maximum Leader will not sign the laws, but will read them carefully before they are approved. If for the young Havana resident the appointment of Raul Castro to the highest office and of Jose Ramon Machado Ventura to the the post of first vice president has fueled the desire to emigrate, for the retired military man those events have inspired a calm feeling that things are under control.

All those who were expecting the announcement of rapid and profound changes have had to settle for knowing that Fidel no longer commands, but also the chagrin that he can still give orders does not allow them to enjoy his absence. Those who want to leave everything as is, while improving some details, are concerned about the fact that he not operating the rudder but are glad that he is back there, watching and controlling.

Pedro Luis Ferrer, a popular Cuban singer, characterized in a song entitled El Abuelo Paco (Grandfather Paco), the omnipresence of the Commander in Chief. “If grandfather disagrees, nobody paints the building,” says troubadour in a clear metaphor for the control exercised by Fidel Castro over everything that happens on the island. Suddenly, the tune went out of style, or rather, it has lost some of its meaning. To begin with, there is a new outbreak of the flu making its way through Havana and it hasn’t occurred to anybody to call it by “his” name. There has been no new nickname added to the long list of nicknames that “he” holds and Pepito, the eternally mischievous child, has stopped mentioning him in his funny jokes. Little by little we have begun to forget Fidel Castro, even while he still lives.

The housewives are calm because the Brazilian soap opera retains its primetime slot at night, without the delays that were caused by the Great Orator. The coaches feel less burdened now since they do not have to listen and follow his advice, while meteorologists are still startled, in the midst of a hurricane, when they recall the details and irrefutable forecasts of the Expert in Chief. The ministers, for their part, are beginning to wonder if they should decide for themselves, or if Raul Castro will inherit all ministerial portfolios that his brother held. All of them, to a greater or lesser degree, have stopped feeling the enormous olive green weight on their shoulders.

That feeling of lightness arises because, for nearly nineteen months, El Comandante has not appeared live before them. In all this time he has not delivered a speech or attended a public event. Nor has he signed a new law or appeared on the “The Round Table” TV program. He has been unable to “deliver the flag” to sports delegations traveling to international competitions nor has he bestowed the formal decorations upon the presidents who visit the country. He has shined in his absence from the many conferences held and the inauguration of new medical centers. He hasn’t even publicly issued an opinion on how something should be done in the country. In short, he has not acted as Fidel Castro.

His “presence” has been limited to more or less quarterly appearances of a few minutes during which he is seen -in a careful and edited recording- greeting Garcia Marquez, Hugo Chavez, or some other leader. He appears in a sports warm-up suit and, most significantly, speaks little. His other way of proving he is still alive is by publishing, since March 29, 2007, dozens of texts which, under the byline of “Reflections of the Commander in Chief”, have referred to issues of little consequence to the concerns of the nation such as biofuel, the global water shortage, the launch of a new British nuclear submarine or lack of affection enjoyed by President Bush. The most significant change that has occurred since the presidential election, is that now these texts are called “Reflections of Comrade Fidel” and do not have the tone of an order, but the language of a wise counselor.

Although no one has had the opportunity to ask him, one could say that the greatest nuisance to Fidel Castro in his current state of health is the joy that it provides to his enemies. At meetings of the political opposition, never absent is the rumor that he has left only weeks of life. His detractors in Miami have already celebrated his death several times in advance, but no one in Cuba, not even the most faithful, have cried yet. Since things have happened in this slow motion way, what would have been a predictable promise of continuity, made by Raul Castro after the sudden death of his brother, has lost a lot of credibility. His words about holding true to socialism can be accepted, even if they are sincere, as a statement made under duress. A joke has it that before refusing to be re-elected for the sixth time, Fidel Castro told his brother: “If you do not do everything I say, I am not going to die ever.”

With the illegal satellite dishes that many families hide behind a bed sheet, a pigeon coop or an innocent water tank, delivered to the island by the foreign media is speculation about the health of the Absentee in Chief. Thus, copied on a CD or flash drive, diagrams of the naughty colon that prevented him from celebrating his 80th birthday have metastasized throughout society. There also come the demands for change and the declarations of those awaiting the transition. All of this contributes to making his retirement and his possible death the most watched “TV series” among Cubans today.

The truth is that Fidel Castro has passed, or is passing, into the history in a lengthy process. The passage through this threshold -so as to avoid trauma- has been cautious and surreptitious, with a strong dose of mystery and rumor, as does everything that happens in the upper echelons of Cuban politics. Some, however, maintain the hope that one day he might don his uniform of Commander-in-Chief and appear spryly in the middle of the Plaza of the Revolution. They are the least, the same ones that downplay the fact that he has not been re-elected president of the Councils of State and Ministries. One such faithful follower said Monday in the line at the bakery: “It has not been Fidel that has lost importance, but the post of president of Cuba because He is not the one who occupies it.”

The time for Raul Castro has arrived. At the markets it’s said that, with the pragmatism that has been ascribed to he who was “number two” for nearly fifty years, he will make every effort to ensure that a worker can buy one kilogram of pork with a day’s wages. Such hopes are as result of the stratospheric price of fifty pesos in the national currency that one kilogram of the precious meat commands, compared to the twelve or fifteen pesos which are the average daily wage. The most optimistic even put a date to such aspirations: some say in July, others before the end of the year.

Nevertheless, with Raul it is no longer the same. Somehow the permanence of the voice and image of Big Brother in newspapers and on television during this half-century played a decisive role in the acceptance of his authority, or better yet, in the submission to his will by the entire ruling class and an overwhelming majority of the population. The fascination was fed by his presence, by his voice, by his image and by what connoisseurs call “charisma” which has been undone during this time in which his human frailty has been evident. Slowly the hypnotized begin to shake it off, not with a violent snap of the fingers, as in the circus, but ever so slowly as the prolonged influence of Fidel Castro fades . His brother, evidently, does not have the gift of casting the collective spell.

Fidel has been many things, but eventually he will be remembered as the best hypnotist in the history of Cuba. A magician who made millions of people believe that the future was promising and imminent and that any individual sacrifice would be little compared to the collective well-being to come. A seducer who created in the minds of the millions of Cubans a dream of a national dignity strengthened in a fight against the most powerful enemy in the history of the world. In order to maintain that elusive fantasy, at least three generations of Cubans, that of my parents, my own and that of my son, renounced the guarantees to what should have been the material basis of their personal dignity: decent housing, an adequate food supply, an efficient transportation system and the most basic rights of expression, information and free association.

His successors will not be able to maintain the spell, they’ll have to try to make things really work. For them the great challenge will be ensuring that Carlos doesn’t hurl himself into the sea, fleeing because of the lack of expectations and that Miguel, the retiree, does not rip up his diplomas out of disappointment and misery.

For more of Yoani Sanchez’s work please go to her website at
Special thanks to Babalu Blog for posting this translation.

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