In Times of Revolution: Castro, Che and Barack Obama?
Castro is not dead. As the Cuban Revolution approaches the eve of fiftieth birthday, there is life in this most consummate of politicians yet. No, Senor Castro, far from dead, is penning his thoughts to his nation by way of his State newspaper, Granma. In last Friday’s edition in La Habana, he set out his reflections on the new phenomenon that is Barack Obama. For all the street signs and propaganda colouring Cuban roads with catchphrases about the imminent anniversary festivities, Castro’s printed words might yet be a sobering staccato for those of us who have been jumping with glee at the thought of regime change in the White House.
In an article entitled “Navigating the seasickness”, Fidel Castro Ruz reminds us that in a pre-election speech given by Obama to the Cuban-American National Foundation in May of this year, Obama vowed to continue with the blockade which has destroyed the capacity of this country for three generations, and which has served no lawful purpose other than an unsuccessful attempt to destabilise the regime here. Obama’s new Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, will need little reminder that it was her husband who sanctioned the Helms Burton and Torricelli legislation which tightened the blockade against Cuba in 1996 and which led directly to the powers which Bush has invoked to keep his country’s mortal enemy at bay. The clear implication in Castro’s article is that Obama’s policy on Cuba must be tightly watched.
An American Idol?
Chastening as this timely reminder of the reality of Obama’s power, or desire, to change unpopular policy may be in the face of stiff opposition at home, the President-elect would be wise to recall the words of one Ernesto Che Guevara, who once thanked, sardonically, Senator McCarthy for the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1963, noting that there is nothing like an American-backed invasion to unite a country gripped with the aftermath of a Revolution.
The Soderbergh premiere in Habana
Those acerbic words were met with riotous applause by a knowledgeable and excited Habanero public last night, at the premiere screening of Stephen Soderbergh’s epic docu-film, Che. The stars were out in force including Benicio del Toro himself, who was clearly overwhelmed by the mass mobbing for photographs as he sat down, compañero-style, amongst members of the public in the eponymous Yara cinema, in the once-swanky Vedado quarter in the centre of La Habana.
There is a bittersweet irony to the import into Cuba of this American film, which if it does not glorify the Revolutionary legend, certainly gives the story, and the man Guevara himself, a clear voice. Many Cubans are somewhat ashamed that this film was not created by one of their own, but the film met to spontaneous applause at moments which would have passed over the heads of most foreigners watching the film as part of the 30th Latin American Film Festival here. The depiction of Raul Castro in the first part of the film received many laughs, and the phlegmatic Fidel Castro himself was the subject of belly-gripping hilarity whenever he referred to a plan, or his thoughts about the future. An astonishingly life-like Che was greeted by adulation across the faces of an audience mostly too young to remember him. What would be remarkable to an American audience, perhaps, is that there were no rallying cries of “Patria o Muerte”, and no patriotic stamping or cheering when Castro spoke about the longevity of his Revolution. There is really little energy left here for that. By contrast to the interaction of the crowd for Part One of the film, however, the second part of the film, set in Bolivia and leading to Che’s death, left a usually chatty and sparky audience, deflated, silent and morose.
Will there be change?
The film has got people talking in Cuba, and whilst Che is a figure loved by almost all, the vision of a future which he helped to create is not shared by everyone. Those who desire change in Cuba, both inside and outside of the island, must begin to understand the complex emotions of a public which does not want to be American, but which does want to belong to a global community. Real thought needs to be employed, not just by Miami Americans who are keen to bring their Florida dollar “back home”, but by others who want to allow a country to live without McDonalds and Starbucks creating universal eyesores on the best real estate, permitting Cuba to remain a truly individual, vibrant culture, shaping its own thoughts for the future.
For it is thinking about the future that Fidel has somehow done best. Fidel always has understood the power of hyperbole, unity and nationalism and he has employed it to create a country which, weary both from sanctions and from its global isolation, is nevertheless rightfully proud of its extraordinary achievements. Make no mistake, this is a totalitarian regime, and the streets are alive with signs glorifying the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution at the end of this month. There are no democratic elections, and real restrictions remain on people’s freedom to choose. There is, however, education, and food, and culture, and excellent medical provision. Nor is there widespread and systemic brutal repression in the streets which are alive with life and determination. This is no Banana Republic, and this is not a country which deserves to be treated with arrogant First World contempt.
An anniversary and the future
It is fifty years since Guevara stormed the university city of Santa Clara and his band of rugged cigar-smoking men upturned a US-backed army. It is more than forty years since Guevara was killed, and in his wake there has been probably no figure that has inspired as many universal dreams of change. In a global era seemingly no longer suited to the triumphs and tribulations of an idealistic vision that Guevara and his followers once enjoyed, the international hysteria then that surrounds Obama’s victory must be viewed as extraordinary in itself.
But, the hysteria must devolve quickly into rational and considered policy. There is no reason left, if there ever was, for the US to continue to pursue its ill-considered and vengeful acts of blockade. Obama, the lawyer, must consider the legal implications and consequences of his country’s blockade. Obama, the new world leader, must use his power to rectify old mistakes that continue to have a haunting, destructive presence on ordinary people. There is, after all, nothing like an American-backed attack to unite a twentieth century country dragged down by twenty-first century spite.
La Habana, December 7th 2008.