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Castro’s reversal could signal change in Cuban society

Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Staff Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Staff
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Since seizing control of the island after his brother “humbly” stepped down a couple of years ago, Raul Castro has vowed to make Cuba’s government-controlled public economy more efficient by opening up opportunities for privatization. The government has been lifting restrictions on the agricultural market so farmers can obtain the tools they need more easily. More of them are being granted tens of thousands of acres of workable farmland in hopes that they will begin producing with a more private, sustainable approach. Just in the last few years, Cubans were allowed to own cell phones and other electronics for the first time. The government has also begun opening up more areas in the private sector, granting licenses to private taxi drivers and allowing small operations like barber shops to form cooperatives.

Now that Raul Castro has announced the cut of 500,000 government employees by March 2011, hundreds of thousands of Cubans who have only known a lifetime of government support are simply supposed to go out and fend for themselves. The road ahead seems long and challenging for the Cubans; hundreds of thousands who have been denied self-reliance for a lifetime are suddenly expected to be fully independent.

Yet Fidel has not left the Cuban stage. Over a relaxed meeting complete with lunch and wine — well-fitted for a comandante like Fidel — The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg asked the dictator whether he still believed the Cuban model was worth exporting as an example for other countries. Castro replied, “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.” After 50 years of the longest-standing dictatorship in existence, Cuban society might be taking its first steps in a game of catch-up with the world. Amid all this change, one thing rests assured: Half a century is a lot of catching up to do.

Julia Sweig, a Cuba specialist at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., accompanied Goldberg on the trip and was able to confirm the comment. “[Castro] wasn’t joking and when I heard him saying that, I took him to mean the economic model doesn’t work anymore — not the revolution, not the socialist ethos, not the independence spirit, not, you know, the revolution — just the model,” she said. But Sweig left out the essential detail: that the Cuban economic model, forced on the Cubans for five decades, came precisely from the revolution and socialist ideals.

Shortly after, the notoriously paradoxical comandante seized an opportunity at the University of Havana. In the speech for the introduction of the second volume of his autobiography and discussion of the revolution, titled Strategic Counteroffensive, Castro said he had been misinterpreted by Goldberg and that he had actually stated exactly the opposite: “My idea, as the whole world knows, is that the capitalist system no longer works for the United States or the world,” he said. “How could such a system work for a socialist country like Cuba?”

Cut the chief some slack. “Cuban model” and “capitalism” could very well be the same word. Both have the same number of syllables, as well as four letters in common.

Fidel could have possibly wriggled out of this one as he has done before. He could have excused himself for the misunderstanding by “forgiving” the journalist for misinterpreting the subtle ironies in his — ahem — highly evolved rhetoric, which he actually did try to do in the same speech in which he corrected himself at the University of Havana.

“Jeffrey Goldberg is a great journalist,” he said. “He does not invent phrases; he transfers them and interprets them. I await with interest his extensive article.... I expressed it to him without bitterness or worry. It’s funny to me now how he interpreted it, word for word, and how he consulted with Julia Sweig, who accompanied him and gave a theory,” Castro told those at the university. “The reality is, my answer meant the opposite of what both American journalists interpreted about the Cuban model.”

He concluded by adding that even though he had not actually been misquoted, his words at the time did not capture the meaning, and that what he meant is not what he said.
In Brent C. Kice’s 2008 dissertation at Louisiana State University, “From the Mountains to the Podium: The Rhetoric of Fidel Castro,” he discusses how Castro has learned to master his rhetorical strategy and used it to successfully maintain himself in the spotlight as a seemingly permanent influence.

“Since 1959, Fidel Castro has maintained a prominent position of power within Cuba, whether labeled as Prime Minister or President. Some consider the man a dictator; others, like Nelson Mandela, call him a source of inspiration. Regardless of these descriptions, Castro maintained a rhetorical hold on the Cuban people for his entire tenure.... After removing himself from public sight in 2006 due to illness, Castro allowed his brother, Raul Castro, to become President on February 24, 2008. Despite his withdrawal as the official leader of Cuba, Castro still maintains his image of prominence as the leader of the Communist Party of Cuba and through his column, ‘Reflections of Fidel,’ in the state-run newspaper, Granma.”

By including the Cubans in his narrative of the mission of Cuba within the context of the world and current situation, says Kice, Castro constructed a new identity that situated all those rejected by other classes and allowed them to manifest themselves.

Castro’s choice of words when offering the corrections for his statement on the Cuban model was merely strategic; it separates the idea of capitalism from the Cuban people and their “society” — as if the idea of it were too generic for the particular needs of the Cuban population. This same mentality applies to Julia Sweig’s choice of words when describing what Fidel “actually” meant when he intended to describe the economic model Cuba is aspiring to adopt: a “hybrid model that is evolving”; it could seem capitalist in theory, but never actually capitalist — that’s the gringos’ thing, of course.

The same rhetoric applies to an article that was published on Sept. 17 by Granma that so very poetically describes the university speech for Castro’s autobiography.

“A group of university students were waiting for him almost at the Aula Magna exit and it was their turn for Fidel’s greeting. The Comandante did not disappoint them. He was extremely happy to see them,” the paper said. “He asked them about the conditions of the legendary Aula Magna, talked to them of the atrocities taking place in the world, the massacre of Palestinians, children dying, the holocaust. He admired their enthusiasm and their youth.

“And so he left, with that elation produced by these meetings with friends, brothers and sisters, with the good Cubans of always, with those of today,” the article concluded in its last paragraph. “Certainly the road has been a long and hard one, but the effort has been worthwhile.”

Despite Castro’s contradictory statements, his words suggest the Cuban society’s economic engine might finally be starting to warm up. Yet there is an implicit irony in the fact that the Castro brothers are now admitting the failure of the model they have so despotically forced on the Cubans for so long. It begs the question: Will the wakeup call leave Cubans feeling thankful or betrayed? Is it just another act in the show?