Weeping (or Faking It) at Fidel Castro’s Farewell / Iván García

Cubans in the José Martí memorial in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution. Source: Vox Populi
Cubans viewing displays honoring Fidel Castro after his death. Source: Voz Populi

Ivan Garcia, 3 December 2016 — The flag with the three blue and two white stripes, red triangle and solitary star in the middle hung from a black flagpole. For the Rodriguez family, it served as the perfect diversion, taking the attention of the neighborhood’s informers and die-hard supporters off them.

They live right in the heart of the oldest part of Havana, in a poor, largely mixed race neighborhood, which is a hotbed of hustling and guile. Residents here think twice as fast as other Cubans.

They have always relied on illegalities and whatever fell off the truck. It seems to have served them well. In the morning they would wildly applaud a speech by Fidel Castro while at night they would stockpile sacks of detergent stolen from a state-run store.

Those born in Cuba know these tricks all too well. While the Rodríguez family appears loyal to the regime, everyone in the neighborhood knows they sell cooking oil at thirty pesos a liter.

“You do it so you don’t stand out. You know how it is. In order to survive in Cuba, you have to be be ’inventive.’ You learn to play along these people (the regime),” as one of them points out before boarding a bus to the Plaza of the Revolution to participate in a public farewell to Fidel Castro, founder the first communist state in Latin America.

Daniel, a Spanish journalist assigned to covering the funeral, cannot understand the stories he reads and hears outside of Cuba about autocratic methods, repression and widespread discontent.

“You look at hundreds of thousands of people waiting in line under a blazing sun in order to sign a book of condolence and you ask yourself how it is possible that these people are paying tribute to a guy who built a system that has so drastically impoverished them,” wonders the astonished reporter outside the Havana Libre Hotel.

The reason is that Cuba is not a typical country. Only those who have lived under a dictatorship can understand such unexpected and widespread human behavior.

It cannot be said that the Communist Party forces people to attend organized demonstrations. Attendance is completely voluntary. But it is conditional.

When Fidel Castro was at the height of power twenty years ago, the head of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution — a neighborhood-based organization that was a precursor to the powerful social control exercised in Cuba today — went door to door, urging families to sign up for mass mobilizations or to vote in sham elections.

In the Castros’ Cuba the state is the entity that both punishes and rewards its citizens. To get a house, a television or an alarm clock, Cubans must demonstrate at labor union meetings just how much effort they have made to support the Revolution.

Improving one’s standard of living depended on participating in mobilization efforts and volunteering for work brigades. It was a period when an odd disingenuousness, or double standard, took root in the Cuban population.

Twenty years ago, being able to study at a university depended on commitment to the communist cause. After the demise of the Soviet Union, the iron grip lessened and things began to change.

Fidel Castro strategically decided to allow Catholics and other religious believers to join the Communist Party. Little by little the rigid control over Cubans’ lives began to ease.

But there is still room for improvement and much to overcome, such as the pervasive fear felt by ordinary Cubans. “My daughter is in her third year at university. Do you know that, if she comes off as being disinterested to them, it could have an impact on her future?” asks Ada, a convenience store worker.

Liudmila, who works in a five-star hotel, believes that, if she does not participate in “mass demonstrations, certain people (in the party, labor union or young communists union) might take note and sack me from my job, which is a contract position.”

Such moral calculation, which numbs a person’s will and judgement, is the reason people like Lorenzo — a seventeen-year-old, third-year pre-university student — can devise a speech for domestic and foreign television cameras from talking points while expressing the opposite opinions in his living room to an independent reporter, provided his name is changed.

Classic examples of this disingenuousness are the widespread comments and displeasure over the government’s decision to not place Fidel Castro’s ashes in the José Martí Memorial at the Plaza of the Revolution.

“It shows a lack of respect. There were people waiting in line for up to three hours in the sun to sign the book of condolence not knowing that Fidel’s remains were not there. It was a farce. They were keeping vigil for a ghost,” says Miguel, a construction worker.

These opinions do not echo the official party line. It is this kind of societal hypocrisy that allows the regime to govern so easily. Most people in Cuba think one way but act in another.

They prefer to watch from the sidelines, without making political compromises. They just wait for things to change. Assuming things do change.

From Diario Las Americas, December 2, 2016