BY ELLIOT WILSON
For those of us who see Cuba as little more than the homeland of Fidel Castro, white rum and the cigar, it’s easy to overlook three extraordinary factors influencing life here.
First, there’s the surprisingly tenuous nature of Fidel Castro’s grip on power, followed by Cuba’s perversely outsized influence on global economic politics. Finally, there is a softly-softly approach to internal dissent – permitted to a far greater extent than in other dictatorial enclaves such as North Korea and Burma.
Castro rose to power in 1959 as the implausibly young leader of a youthful nation. Now 82 and reported to be suffering from cancer, he was operated on in December 2006 by a surgeon flown in from Madrid. The great revolutionary has not been seen in public since, and last February his brother Raul became Cuba’s first new president in 50 years.
Raúl, 77, lacks the charisma, beard and sheer height of his 6’4″ brother, as well as the clout of the country’s six vice-presidents (average age 70 years). This septuagenarian clique is being undermined both by the decline in Fidel’s health, and by the recent election of America’s first black president.Barack Obama threatens Castro’s Cuba for two reasons. Just by his peripatetic background and racial heterogeneity, Obama embodies the kind of radical and even romantic change that used to define Castro himself. Moreover, the inclusive, intellectually curious and pragmatic Obama is also likely to address – and perhaps even tear up – Washington’s trade embargo with the Caribbean’s only communist island.
This could be the final nail in the coffin for Castro. For all his bluster, Cuba’s leader needs the embargo. It provides him with the perfect excuse as to why, after more than 50 years of supposed revolution, Cuba remains an economic basket case. Stephen Wilkinson, an academic at the International Institute for the Study of Cuba at London Metropolitan University, says the Castro regime would face “a bewildering challenge to its identity” if the trade ban was lifted, while former Spanish premier José Maria Aznar believes lifting the embargo would force Castro out of office in less than three months.
Another irony is that Castro is dependent on the one country he pillories. Thanks to a law passed in the Nineties by Bill Clinton, Cuba now sources nearly 40 percent of its food and most of its telecommunications technology directly from American firms.
Cuba now cosies up to any foreign nation bearing hard cash. China is the island’s second biggest trading partner, $2.3bn a year, and Russia is palling around with its old friend again. President Dmitry Medvedev visited last November, and the following month Russian warships toured Cuban Waters. But the Castro regime will avoid snuggling up again with Moscow. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1991 left Cuba friendless and penniless, forcing it to open its borders to a flood of dollar-wielding American tourists.
But no country wields quite the same clout in Cuba as oil-rich Venezuela and its Bolivarian leader Hugo Chávez, Castro and Chávez have been close for years, their friendship and a mutual loathing for America helping them form a special bond. After Chávez was released from a two-year spell in jail in 1994, Castro gave him a base and financial support, five years later helping to elect him Venezuelan president.
Castro, the mentor and father figure, and Chávez, his ersatz son and protégé, were regularly photographed clasping one another. But the two do more for each other than promote a cosy paternalism. Chávez has done much to undermine American attempts to marginalise Cuba. In 2004 Cuba and Venezuela became founder members of Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a Latin American trade body, which Nicaragua, Bolivia, Honduras and Dominica have also joined.
Cuba and Venezuela also draw heavily on natural resources to help one another, Venezuela ships 96,000 barrels of oil a day to energy-poor Cuba. Havana pays less than $20 a barrel: a good bit of business when a barrel costs $50, and a bargain when oil was selling for $150 a barrel last year. In return, Cuba ships tens of thousands of doctors and nurses to Venezuela’s poorest regions, providing Chávez with a working national health service virtually overnight.
The benefits are immeasurable. Within a few years, health services have become Cuba’s leading revenue, overtaking tourism, nickel and oil, of which Cuba boasts 20 billion untapped barrels. Around 40,000 Cuban doctors are working overseas, three-quarters in Venezuela, and the rest at hospitals from China, India and Pakistan to Malaysia, Nigeria and South Africa.
It’s a black eye for Washington – that and the fact that a small, impoverished nation offers universal health coverage to its citizens while nearly 50 million Americans are denied basic medical insurance. Unlikely as it may seem, Castro is genuinely Jesuitical: his desire to help the world’s poor is part of his belief that Marxism is an outgrowth of Christianity.
The knock-on effects are felt far and wide. Around 30,000 Venezuelan doctors will graduate this year, trained via the internet thanks to a link-up with top Cuban doctors. However, such coordinated socialism does have its flip side, Cuba’s newest foreign earner means fewer doctors at home: there are reports of civil unrest in poorer areas as health service quality – the one constant under Castro – declines.
A further hint was the summoning of a Spanish doctor when Castro’s life was in danger. It’s perhaps less a sign of the Cuban dictator’s lack of trust in his own medics than the fear of assassination. (American intelligence agencies have, at various times, attempted to kill Castro via an exploding cigar, along-distance Mafia-style shooting, and a diving suit infected with poisonous fungus.)
All in all, Cuba’s charity welcomes and worries other nations in equal measures. America is downright terrified by its rising influence. In August 2007, Washington dispatched the military hospital ship Comfort to Panama – traditionally an American ally – after its leaders hinted at joining ALBA to benefit from Cuba’s medics.
Such global generosity also provides Castro with what he has always Wanted: a genuinely international power base. While America is seen as only wielding hard power, in the form of guns, bombs and civilian deaths, Cuba is now viewed in a far more flattering light that chimes with Castro’s philippic of winning the socialist revolution through hearts and minds.
And yet the Castro administration remains vulnerable. The country is as dependent on Venezuela as it once was on the Soviets – and Chávez’s grip on power has weakened in recent elections. So Castro follows the maxim of keeping friends close and enemies closer, using internal dissent as a “pressure valve” that allows people to feel free (but not too free).
One Havana-based journalist, Yoani Sánchez, publishes a daily blog, “Generación Y” which has Won several prizes in Europe, Sánchez complains of interference by Cuba’s secret police, yet she is allowed to publish her daily attacks on Castro’s regime in a Havana internet café. Some wonder whether she is connected to a group of rich Cuban exiles living in Spain. Others believe she is a double agent, a tool of Castro used to flush out bitter compatriots.
Indeed, it’s hard to know who to trust in this conspiracy theorist’s paradise where cigar sellers claim to be double agents, and where even last year’s ruinous Hurricane Gustav is blamed on American “weather manipulation” specialists determined to bring down Castro.
Earlier this decade Cuban dissident, Oswaldo Payá Sardinas, founded the Varela Project, funded by a Cuban group called the Christian Liberation Movement. The aim of Varella was to force through a vote on the island’s future leadership. Under Cuba’s constitution, a referendum needs 10,000 signatories to take place. Óscar Espinosa Chepe, a pro-American economist and dissident, and a Varella member, reckons “more than 20,000” signatures had been sourced when authorities accused him of squirrelling away $13,600 and of operating for Varella out of the US Interests Section, America’s de facto embassy in Cuba. (Chepe denies the charge and claims he worked for Varela from his house in central Havana.)
Chepe served 19 months of a 20-year sentence in Cuba’s own Guantanamo Prison – a nastier version of the American detention camp Obama is set to close – before being released following pressure from America, Britain and the UN, but not before suffering from kidney failure, brought on by poor diet and infected drinking water.
For his part, Chepe says he was well-treated during his incarceration, but claims other victims of the Varela programme were brutalised by fellow prisoners on the order of prison guards.
Judging by his appetite when we dined at Comedor de Aguiar restaurant in the grandest hotel in Havana, the Nacional, Chepe is again hale and hearty. Today there’s a twinkle in his eyes as he talks, particularly at the mention of Obama. Here, Chepe feels, is an American president who shares Castro’s romantic “otherness” and is someone able to fight the Cuban leader merely by doing the right thing.
“Castro is worried about Obama,” says Chepe. “For many years, Castro has been able to tell the people American marines will come to the island and kill them all. This lie won’t work any more. Obama could mean the end for Castro.”