And that it should end so ingloriously! No fighting to the last man at the battlements, no martyr’s surrender to an assassin’s bullet, only a creaking, shuffling exit through the ward’s doors, hospital gown flapping. We are less than a year away from the half-century marker of a most astonishing marathon, but even this artist of endurance must bow to fate and acknowledge that it’s time to go. Vámonos, Fidel: no one is standing in the way.
So he leaves the field: Fidel Castro Ruz, son of a wealthy Spanish plantation owner and a Cuban washerwoman; rowdy street fighter and student leader; unstoppably audacious politician; revolutionary icon of the lordly profile; self-invented tropical socialist; epic enemy of the United States. In 1953, the extraordinary strength of his conviction persuaded more than a hundred men (and two women) to join him in an attack on one of the dictator Fulgencio Batista’s principal military garrisons. Nearly half his men died in the ill-fated attack and its aftermath; he escaped unharmed and emerged a hero. In December, 1956, following a period of imprisonment and exile, he led another improbable attack — this time by sea — against Batista. Again, he lost nearly all his men but survived, along with his kid brother, Raúl, and a scruffy Argentine named Ernesto Guevara. Washington had tired of the unsavory Batista, and it left the dictator to his enemies. On January 8, 1959, Fidel — in Cuba he would forever be known by his first name — entered Havana in triumph, promising Cubans an alternative to what had seemed their inescapable destiny as a Caribbean island. No more whoredom and ruffled cha-cha singers, no more death or blindness for want of simple prescription medicine, no more surrendering smiles for the tourist and the client, no more begging.
In retrospect, it is astounding how short the period of the revolution’s great achievements was. The literacy campaign was completed in 1961; the health-care system and the food-rationing program (which, though loathsome, provided every Cuban with a guaranteed calorie intake) were both in place by 1962. It was all done with Soviet money, but no one else had done it, and the right to an education and a healthy life was more than enough promise for millions of the world’s poor, who remained faithful to the idea of Cuba during the decades of the revolution’s slo-mo collapse. Housing on the island crumbled; public transportation disintegrated; the sugar industry was destroyed; rationing became a constant form of torture; informing on suspect neighbors was enshrined as an ideal; incorrect thinking or behavior was punished with ostracism and jail; journalism withered; art congealed; and still Cuba’s leader found in himself the dramatic resources to embody a dream, a goal, a purpose for an audience the size of the world.
And now what is to come? No one has failed to notice that Fidel’s official stand-in, Raúl, is, like his brother, not in the spring of youth. Fidel himself, in his goodbyes last week, implied that it was time to make way for leaders “who were still quite young during the first stage of the revolution.” Who is to say how long the new occupants of the many posts he held will stay in power once they have anointed themselves? There is undoubtedly furious conflict within the inner circle, made up of the nomenklatura from the Communist Party and the Revolutionary Armed Forces, about how the delicately choreographed transition is to be managed. At this stage of the transition, however, there does not seem to be any resistance to the idea that change is coming — ideally gradual, probably swift, and necessarily far-reaching.
The words “China model” have been batted around with enthusiasm, but tiny Cuba does not have, among other things, a billion people to provide combustion for an internal market. What Cuba does have, unavoidably and, so far, to its historical misfortune, is the United States, and what the United States does not have is a policy. The mindless trade embargo, imposed in 1962 — which inflicts great suffering on a proud people in an attempt to coax them to support U.S. interests — does not qualify. Nine successive Presidents have rubberstamped the embargo; apart from making the island’s American-car repairmen world famous, the only effect recently has been to deprive Cubans of cheaper medicines, food, books, industrial equipment, spare parts, communications systems, and reasons to bear Americans good will.
The only other significant U.S. policy initiative with regard to Castro, as he has always been called in this country, was the Bay of Pigs and, like the embargo, it served merely to strengthen the revolution. The Bay of Pigs was a gift worthy of the magi; it allowed Fidel and Raúl, the sempiternal head of the revolution’s armed forces, to rout fourteen hundred anti-Castro Cubans, armed and trained by la CIA (rhymes with “see ya”), and provided the perfect backdrop against which Fidel could, in the course of the operation, declare Cuba a socialist state. By the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Fidel’s armor of defiance had been polished to a high gleam.
Nearly fifty years on, it is hard to argue that it was ever the desire of the Cuban people to blow up their leader with an exploding cigar or to welcome a proxy invasion. U.S. policy did not encourage a mass revolt against Fidel, even during the years when hundreds of thousands of desperate Cubans risked their lives to flee the island. Today, even his most vehement opposition within Cuba has few illusions that Washington might take an informed, enlightened, non-interventionist, and generous approach to Cuba in the coming transition. And yet there are signs of hope, beginning with Raúl Castro’s repeated calls for a conversation with Washington. At the start of last Thursday’s Democratic debate, Barack Obama offered to meet with the Cuban leadership without preconditions — a break with the past that his rivals would do well to consider. Imagine that the next President of the United States declares that the embargo will continue until Cubans overthrow their current government. Now imagine that the next President offers non-intervention in Cuba’s internal affairs, significant financial assistance for hurricane disaster relief and health care, and helpful mediation in the difficult dialogue that is sure to come between the Florida exile community and the islanders. Which is likely to lead to greater stability in Cuba, and earn America greater good will?