Ivan Garcia, 21 April 2016 — He is no longer the beefy guy in the olive green uniform with a Russian pistol in his holster who would give improvised, hours-long speeches in a public square or television studio until he became hoarse.
It was a stale, slouching version of Fidel Castro — his hair combed back like an elderly man after a bath in a nursing home and dressed in a blue Adidas track suit — who gave a brief diatribe in a shaky voice, a man decidedly brought down by kryptonite.
But he strikes fear even in his henchmen. And his scribes. One example is Cubadebate editor Rosa Miriam Elizalde, who in North Korean style prose recently chronicled how the Communist party delegates, “dressed for the most part with a humility befitting their salaries, gave him a standing ovation as they wept.”
This was probably his last public speech. But maybe not. Fidel Castro is unpredictable. It was not long ago that he lost his good friends Nelson Mandela and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the old comandante has been around for a long time and knows how to survive in this Latin American Macondo.*
According to a member of the Communist Party in the town of Cerro, Fidel’s appearance was a subtle political marketing operation intended to give the appearance of unity. “That was one of the key aspects of this congress,” he notes. “In this new age, with an imperialist enemy extending its hand to us, they are hoping political unity will help resist the siren calls of Obama’s speech in Havana, which has anesthetized so many Cubans.”
In fact, the conclave failed to meet the expectations of dissidents, private sector entrepreneurs and even mid-level officials, who were hoping for more substantive changes.
For opposition figures like Manuel Cuesta Morua, “it was a congress that turned its back on the public. It tried to mend socialism and slow economic reform. It is clear that Cubans have to take charge of their destiny. Cuba will remain an obstacle. That is both good news and bad news for dissidents, who will have to refine their efforts on behalf of democracy.”
Self-employed workers were expecting something more from this get-together. Adrian, the owner of a cafe in the Tenth of October district that sells Creole food and fruit-flavored milk shakes, notes there is still no solution to the problem of a wholesale market for private businesses. “There was talk of a new legal framework,” he observes, “but they did not delve into that subject. And there was nothing said about authorizing foreign investment or allowing us to invest in our own country. It was a disappointment. Yet another one.”
Joel, the manager of a grocery store and a party member, is convinced that Cuba needs “a real economic, political and social revolution, not detours. Every minute lost means another person leaving his homeland out of disillusionment with the government’s mismanagement. Perhaps the state gained some time, but it lost its last chance to gain supporters through profound democratic change by opting for socialism and cooperativism instead.”
The youngest do not expect much. Dagoberto, who sells internet cards illegally in Monaco Park, never thought the congress would produce legislation or regulations that would benefit large sectors of society. “Look, these guys are a clan,” he says. “They gained power through force and without force they will never give it up. Some people thought something positive would come out of that assembly, but I don’t expect anything from those old guys. Like a lot of Cubans, I go about my business and try to figure out how I can emigrate.”
From April 16 to 19, a thousand delegates and two-hundred fifty guests met in four commissions to debate topics dealing with the economy, sustainability, aspirations for the country’s political system and economic projections through the year 2030.
With wayward jargon and atom-bomb-proof optimism, delegates and leaders unanimously approved several proposals previously cooked up by the executive branch, including reducing the minimum age for membership in the Central Committee to sixty.
The average age in the recently elected Central Committee has been reduced to fifty-four. Forty-four percent are women and in one brushstroke the number of mulatos and blacks has increased. Of the seventeen Politburo members, five are new faces.
Given the laws of nature, this congress should be the last one led by the old warriors who accompanied Fidel Castro on his rise to power at the point of a carbine. It was a transitional event, with the autocrats pulling on the handbrake.
Press coverage was minimal. Information was released in trickles. Only a few official journalists were accredited. The sessions were reported through redacted excerpts and its conclusions were disseminated in delayed broadcasts. The foreign press and independent journalists spent hours listening to radio news shows and scrutinizing every news item.
After the elder Castro delivered his pep talk in a halting voice, his brother took the microphone and said a few words. It ended, as usual, with the delegates standing, joining hands and singing “The Internationale.”
Twenty kilometers from the Palace of Conventions, where the party congress was being held, Adrian’s family is waiting impatiently for the speeches to end so they can sit in front of the television and watch a Brazilian soap opera.
For them and millions of other Cubans, life goes on.
*Translator’s note: Fictional town and phantasmagorical setting for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.