“Raúl, Raúl, Raúl!” chanted thousands of government supporters as acting president Raúl Castro took the stage at Cuba’s 26th of July rally. The anniversary of the Cuban revolution is the country’s most important national holiday.
Notably absent was Raúl’s brother, Fidel, who was last seen in public at the 2006 commemoration. In an hour-long speech, Raúl said Cuba suffered “a hard blow” when Fidel fell ill and relinquished power, but the island had avoided the economic collapse many predicted.
Jonathan Brown, professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin, was in Cuba when Castro’s illness was announced in July 2006. He was one of the few Americans to observe the reactions of the Cuban people firsthand.
Brown was traveling the revolutionary trail of the Castro brothers, visiting the famous Presidio Modelo (Model Prison) on Cuba’s Isle of Youth when he heard the news.
“Given that Castro is the world’s longest-serving leader, the announcement was quite stunning,” Brown says. “However, Cubans reacted to the transition calmly and seemed to proceed with their lives as normally as possible.”
State-controlled Radio Havana followed news bulletins on Castro’s health with the characteristic exhortation, “Patria o muerte, venceremos” (“Fatherland or death, we will vanquish”). Brown was surprised that Cubavisión TV showed images of Cubans in Miami dancing in the street. “Even those critical of the regime were appalled to see the exile community celebrating Castro’s illness,” he says.
“Yet most of my conversations with locals were a mix of contradictions,” Brown continues. “Cubans are tired of their humdrum diets. They are tired of their substandard housing, of the long lines and rationed goods. They long for a new car and yes, traffic jams.”
A billboard near Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución depicts a smiling Fidel saying, “Vamos bien” (“We’re doing well”). “One Cuban said he hated this slogan the most,” Brown says. “However, this longing for a better quality of life may not mean a lack of support for the present revolutionary government.”
Cuban foreign policy seems to be reaping dividends. Recent elections of socialist leaders in Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia and Nicaragua who admire Castro have raised Castro’s stature in Latin America.
Brown is particularly intrigued by Cuba’s role as the linchpin in the United States’ relationship with Latin America. He is writing a book, “Cuba, the United States, and the Secret War for Latin America, 1959-67,” that will explore how the revolutionary struggle within Cuba became an international issue and ultimately set U.S. policy toward Latin America on a reactionary course.
Brown plans to examine classified documents from U.S. government security archives that recently have been made public.
“Secrecy in Cuba is dissipating,” Brown says. “Previously, a book on this topic was impossible due to the lack of available source material. But the Cuban Council of State recently has made many documents from this time period public, which opens up new opportunities for scholarship.”
In contrast, Castro’s health remains a state secret, and Cuban government officials insist he is continuing to recuperate from the emergency intestinal surgery he underwent in 2006.
Brown notes that throughout his discussions with Cubans about Castro’s illness and legacy, many remained guarded and few mentioned him by name, instead stroking an imaginary beard to signal discussion of the ailing leader.
The younger Castro brother’s provisional government set the stage for him to be named president after Fidel announced his resignation Feb. 19. Raúl’s recent promise of economic reforms and offer to engage the United States once the Bush administration concludes, signals that glasnost in Cuba is no longer the improbable dream it once was under Fidel, Brown says.
“The challenge for Raúl will be to make enough economic changes to satisfy the population’s desire for more freedom without threatening the power of the Communist party,” says Brown. “Raúl has visited China and is impressed with how the Chinese encourage economic growth while maintaining rigid political control.”
Despite the longstanding hostilities between the United States and Cuba, for the most part Brown found the Cuban people received him warmly.
When Cubans asked: “De donde es Ud.?” (“Where are you from?”), Brown would reply, “De los Estados Unidos–soy el enemigo” (“I’m the enemy”), to which Cubans would respond, “Oh, no, no! We love Americans!”