After the Presents… Then What? / Juan Juan Almeida

Raul Castro at the United Nations

Juan Juan Almeida, 28 September 2015 — Cynical, bitter and misanthropic, Raul is also a man who knows all too well how to sell himself.

The Cuban nation inhales the scent of a dangerous power vacuum and exhales a weird tension. More or less everyone on the island senses it: those on the top and those on the bottom. Some want it to happen sooner; some hope things stay as they are. Cuba, the state that until recently was the most authoritarian in the region, has begun emitting a disturbing sound, the result of a curious melding of dissident voices which had previously been silenced or sidelined. It represents the disenchantment of a country which now knows that its “brighter future” is not on the government’s agenda, that top leadership positions give birth to and nurture a desire for power within the rank and file, that an overwhelmingly elderly population — stifled by fear and apathy — is hampering productivity, that a constantly evasive youth — exhausted by lies and pressure — poses questions that have no answers. It was under these circumstances that Raul Castro arrived in New York.

But despite of a few protests, the general’s visit was unquestionably a resounding personal success. Though cynical, bitter and misanthropic, Raul is also a man who knows all too well how to sell himself, and at a reasonable price for the people he needs to bedazzle.

Protocol dictates that the Cuban president’s agenda while in the United States include meetings which yield no shortage of gifts. To facilitate the work of his cordial staff members, friends, family members and hangers-on, I am pleased to report that the general would be grateful to receive “gifts or donations” in the form of articles of practical value. He detests knickknacks, eschews medals and, while he adores awards, prefers simple homages and tributes.

Raul is a man who values comfort, an iconoclast. For bedtime, he prefers gifts of scented Amber hand and body lotion, Frette and Pratesi sheets, cotton pajamas and Haro-brand underwear, which he has shipped from Switzerland to Madrid to be embroidered with his initials, R.C., which — not coincidentally — just so happen to be the initials of Italian fashion designer Roberto Cavalli.

But the principal dilemma for the current president of Cuba is not the United States, nor the great publicity he derives from this trip, nor gifts that inspire visions of imperial grandeur. The greatest challenge facing Raul Castro is awaiting him in Havana, where his inability to accelerate the pace of change as quickly as people are expecting has hurt his standing with his own political base.

The challenge in coming home is how to strengthen his authority within Cuba without causing injury or breaking apart the fragile system that brought about his reforms. He must also resign himself to an inevitable loss of his power as he deals with an ever-growing libertarian streak in a population that is discovering it has rights.

I cannot guarantee anything; the scenario is complex. But, even though it would lead to domestic conflict, an attempt to return to oppressive centralization and increased repression in an effort to maintain control cannot be ruled out.