I lived in Cuba from 2002 to 2004, slipping in under one of the U.S. government’s few exceptions to its travel ban and learning Cuba’s eccentricities and contradictions. A beer costs a tenth of a professional’s monthly salary, but health care and education are free, food and housing are subsidized, and dammit, you can’t help loving a Latin American country whose children aren’t going blond and blind from malnutrition in the streets. Cuba is a montage of sugar fields and spandex, billboards about the Battle of Ideas and hitchhikers waiting hours under the blazing Caribbean sun for a ride in their fuel-starved economy. That’s the Cuba Fidel built. He resigned last night.
I guess no one told Fidel you’re not supposed to break up over email. His email to Cuba’s state media last night announced that he would not seek or accept the presidency. It’s been a slow end for Fidel, who temporarily handed power over to his brother, 76-year-old Raúl Castro, in July 2006 after undergoing intestinal surgery. Although everyone in the government insists that they never make a move without consulting Fidel, he hasn’t been seen in public since he took ill.
He couldn’t have waited much longer to resign. The National Assembly is meeting Sunday to choose the head of the Council of State, a post synonymous with President. Last month, Fidel was re-elected to the National Assembly, as always, by his constituents in Santiago de Cuba. Every five years since 1976, the Assembly has then elected Fidel to be the head of the Council of State (from the triumph of the revolution in 1959 until 1976, when he disposed with the puppet presidents, Fidel served as Prime Minister).
Without Fidel’s blessing, the National Assembly never would have turned him down for President, even though he hasn’t left his sickbed in 19 months. Raúl’s presidency has been understated and restrained, making no big policy changes (though the buzz is that he’s ready to allow for some market reforms and even some political freedoms that Fidel put the kibosh on.)
When I lived in Cuba, the talk was always about what would happen when Fidel died – no one ever talked about what would happen if he just slowly disappeared, first taking ill, then finally resigning, but always casting his long shadow over Cuban politics. And indeed, the earth-shattering disruption we nervously awaited hasn’t happened. There will be no decisive moment when the country is thrown into chaos and the old storm-troopers from Miami come parachuting in to take their haciendas back. The transition has gone smoothly. Fidel is quietly going to sleep. The country is continuing as it has. With any luck, there will be changes – Cubans have been waiting decades for a raise – but not chaos.
I hope the lip-service that high government officials give to Fidel will dwindle as well. The Cuban people deserve to know that they can survive without Fidel. He is the father of the Revolution and is the only President the majority of Cubans have ever known, but there is life after Fidel. Not with Fidel unseen but giving orders, not with Fidel lurking in the shadows making all the calls. Cuba has waited almost fifty years to see what comes next.