Dispatches from a Gringo in Havana, Part II

(Editor's Note: After Fidel Castro officially stepped down as Cuba's president this week, Lagan Sebert, a contributor to this blog, contacted one of his American friends in Havana for a first person account of the political climate. Despite this historic transition, the mood remains tense enough in Cuba, even for a foreigner, that Lagan's Havana contact wanted to remain anonymous. This is the second part of a three-part series reacting to Castro's retirement. To read this series from the beginning, please go here.)

Edited by Lagan Sebert
Special to iVoryTowerz

Analyzing Fidel's Letter...

“I will not aspire to nor accept — I repeat — I will not aspire to or accept the charge of President of the State Council and [the position] of Commander in Chief.”

This week, the Cuban government published this letter from Fidel Castro addressed to the Cuban people. Hours after it appeared on the website of Granma, one of the official government newspapers, the letter made headline news the world over.

The speculations of the international press are largely irrelevant to everyone I have spoken with in Cuba. Most agree it is time for change, but few Cubans express optimism.

Fidel's letter is composed in the familiar self-laudatory style that characterizes official pronouncements of the Cuban government, and Castro uses the letter to once again justify his own legacy.

Castro wrote that he has always done what was necessary to move the Revolution forward with the support of the “immense majority” of Cubans, regardless of U.S. policy. “My desire was to fulfill my duty until my last breath. That is all I can offer.”

Since his illness which caused him to hand over at least temporary powers to his brother more than 18 months ago, Castro has become increasingly nostalgic and consumed with the problematic issue of how he will be remembered. By resigning before his natural death, assassination, or popular upheaval he is taking the initiative away from the United States government. This is change on Fidel’s terms. How frustrating for Washington.

In his letter, Castro never mentions a possible successor by name and this has fueled debate in the international press. Although he does write of his brother, Raul, it is only to recount the past year of Raul's custodianship running the Cuban government.

He also mentions Randy Alonso, a journalist and graduate of the University of Havana who chairs the Mesa Redonda “debates” on Cuban TV. Castro writes that he trusts Alonso and has known him since his days as a student when they met each week. The Alonso interlude is an awkward allusion and does not really fit with the rest of the letter. This could be telling.

Though few in Cuba believe the National Assembly will make an independent choice for a new leader, the illusion of democracy is necessary. Were Fidel to make a public choice of his successor, which he has without a doubt already made, it would open him to even greater criticism.

The last two paragraphs of his letter deserve to be quoted in their entirety; they set the tone for the transition:

The way will always be difficult and will require the force of intelligence from everyone. I don’t trust easy and antithetical paths of apologetics or self-flagellation. Always prepare yourselves for the worst of possibilities. Being as prudent with success as you are firm in adversity is a principle that one should never forget. The adversary to be defeated is enormously strong, but we have kept it at bay for a half-century.

I do not say goodbye to you all. I wish only to fight on as a soldier of ideas. I will keep writing under the title “Reflections of Comrade Fidel.” It will be one more weapon in the arsenal that can be counted on. Perhaps my voice will be heard. I’ll be careful.

Thank you.

Fidel Castro Ruz
18 February 2008
5:30 p.m.
[translation of correspondent]
This is classic Fidel. He has always argued (whether he believes it or not is impossible to tell) that the Revolution is bigger than one person: the Revolution itself is immortal and each Cuban must do his or her part. Now that he is physically unable to continue in power, he is doing his duty in stepping down so that the Revolution will not be pulled down with him. He will continue as a “soldier of ideas.” This vision of perpetual revolution is wishful thinking, to say the least. Fidel is not a fool — he has exited on his own terms.

(To read this series from the beginning, please go here. To read the next part in the series, please go here.)

(The photo shows Fidel Castro's arrival in Washington, D.C. in 1959 after his revolution triumphed in Cuba. The photo is from the Library of Congress' U.S. News and World Report collection; the magazine donated much of its photo archives stretching through the 1980s to the Library of Congress. This photo is by Warren K. Leffler and is in the public domain.)

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