14ymedio, Madrid, 31 August 2022 — “We have seen sad things in other socialist countries, very sad things.” In 1989 Fidel Castro used these words to refer to the process he didn’t want to name: perestroika. More than 30 years later, the official Cuban press has once again ignored, in its report about the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, the word that marked the political trajectory of one of the most relevant men in the history of the twentieth century.
Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, reduces the news of the death of the last president of the USSR to a short 14 lines on page two of its printed edition. On its website you have to scroll up to five times to find a brief obituary in which Gorbachev is defined as “the last president of the Soviet Union,” “supreme leader of the country” and “secretary general of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”
There’s no space for the mere mention of his role as a promoter of the reforms that changed the Soviet system and ended up putting an end to the USSR. Just one line to call him a “notable and at the same time controversial” figure of the last century. Are there reasons? They must be sought in Prensa Latina, the only state media that mentions the banished word and affirms that the Soviet leader “has legions of supporters and detractors. The former consider him a reformer who brought freedom and democracy to a hermetic country and created the concepts of glasnost (transparency and freedom of expression) and perestroika (reconstruction, reform). For the latter, he is simply responsible for the end of a superpower.”
In Cubadebate, the version is even shorter than Granma’s, although readers have taken charge of stoking the debate. “A great statesman, of enormous courage and honesty, who tried the impossible: to reform the system in the direction of pluralism of opinion and freedom of expression and the press,” says a user of the group, one of those who believe that the USSR was already beyond salvation when perestroika arrived, or point out that it avoided a third world war.
In the face of these, there are contrasting opinions that describe Gorbachev as naive for trusting the United States or — directly — as a traitor. “He forcefully collaborated to stab socialism in the back. May he not rest in peace. He doesn’t deserve it.”
The division that is reflected today in the media is a mirror of what happened in 1989, when the then-leader of the USSR visited Cuba, his first destination in Latin America. At that time, several opponents received the man of the reforms in Moscow with hope. Elizardo Sánchez, of the Human Rights Commission; Samuel Martínez, of the Pro Human Rights Party; and Hubert Jerez, of the Martí Committee for Human Rights issued a letter in which they described Gorbachev as “one of the great social reformers” of their time and said that “the vast majority of the Cuban people also want democratic changes.”
The Cuban authorities had taken great care in a visit that was as uncomfortable as it was necessary. Castro despised the Soviet change of direction, but he couldn’t afford to snub the head of the Island’s main economic support. Gorbachev was in a similar situation: although he was bothered by the Cuban’s orthodoxy, he was aware of the influence he maintained throughout Latin America, and his enormous symbolic and real power throughout the region.
Gorbachev spoke of the pressure to which the Island was subjected by the “imperialist neighbor,” but he didn’t hesitate to praise the benefits of the reforms carried out in his own country. With “the democratization of all aspects of national life, people feel freer; they want to participate more directly in political problems,” he said.
“We don’t see our approaches as a universal recipe,” he added, a few words that were a respite for Fidel Castro, whose defense against those who insinuated that following in Moscow’s footsteps was a good idea was to say that the same solutions don’t work everywhere.
In the presence of Gorbachev, the commander-in-chief proclaimed that “the unrestricted principle of the sovereign will of each people and country is a golden rule of Marxism-Leninism” and called it “arbitrary, capricious, absurd” to be asked to “apply in a country of 10 million inhabitants the formulas that are applied in a country of 200 million. It’s crazy,” he said.
Despite the evident abyss that separated them, Castro affirmed that “Our relations are going extraordinarily well,” while Gorbi nodded.
In November 2016, when Castro passed away, the Russian was full of praise. “Fidel stood up and strengthened his country during the cruelest moments of the American blockade and with colossal pressure on him. Even so, he was able to get his country out of this blockade to guide it on the path of independent development,” he said. And although he acknowledged that the restructuring of the USSR made Castro “suffer,” he added: “He was an exceptional, unique personality. We have been friends and we remained friends until the end.”
For now, at the hour of Gorbachev’s death, the Palace of the Revolution keeps silent.
Translated by Regina Anavy
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