On July 26, five days before Fidel Castro entered the hospital for intestinal surgery, he led a celebration of the 53rd anniversary of his attack on Fort Moncada, which kick-started the Cuban Revolution. Earlier in July, George W. Bush had made his own inroads, of sorts, into Cuba: a government commission he had handpicked delivered its transition plan for a post-Castro Cuba.
Taking as its starting point a refusal to recognize either Fidel or his brother, Raul, as legitimate leaders, the commission recommended remaking Cuba in America's image: privatizing its economy; setting up free elections; revamping its educational system; and even making its agricultural industry more efficient. Fidel Castro, unsurprisingly, called this plan a new Platt Amendment—the clause Washington inserted in Cuba's constitution in 1903 that allowed the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever it decided to do so.
And though Castro may be laid low due to intestinal surgery—from which he appears to be recovering—there’s no reason to expect that illness will moderate the Cuban leader's stance: Before entering the operating room, Fidel delegated his powers to Raul, on whom he could count to follow the same course. Indeed, for both Castro brothers and the politburo that rules Cuba, their entire raison d'etre is predicated upon independence from the United States. The same holds true even among Cuba’s most economically and politically disadvantaged: the Cuban people themselves, who have demonstrated only a paltry amount enthusiasm for America's economically and politically ‘liberating’ vision for its neighbor 90 miles to the south.
Why should this be?
First of all, poor as their nation may be, Cubans actually live quite well compared with neighboring capitalist countries in the Caribbean or Central America. And, speaking as someone who's made scores of trips to the island since the 1960s, I can tell you that Cuba looks poorer and more dilapidated than it is. Buildings need paint, but its 13 medical schools and 13 universities turn out well-prepared citizens; its applauded healthcare system claims an infant mortality rate lower than that of Washington, D.C.
Cubans who listen to Miami radio or Radio Marti (Voice of America) know of George Bush's disinclination to spend money on public service, an attitude very unlike that of Castro's government. And if U.S.-style capitalism should return to Cuba, many on the island know they would have to start paying for medical services and education that they now receive gratis.
Further, should the floodgates to America open, many islanders believe that the influx of land-hungry Miami-based Cubans will result in their losing title to their homes or having to pay exorbitant rents as their parents and grandparents did in the pre-revolutionary era.
Right now, for better or worse, many Cubans have a very laissez faire attitude toward work and official responsibilities. It's not hard for them to imagine how difficult and grating their lives might become once their labor goes toward enriching a true parasite class.
Of course, the picture in Cuba is far from rosy. A healthcare worker told me how, after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, she grew accustomed to severe food shortages and routine power outages, often during the intense summer heat. "Hemos sufrido" (we have suffered), she said. The disappearance of the U.S.S.R. and its satellites cost Cuba 35% of its trade and most of the aid it received. Its GDP dropped almost 40% after 1991.
In the 21st century, however, other countries began filling the vacuum left by the breakup of the Soviet empire. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela began delivering sharply discounted oil to Cuba. In turn, Venezuela imports Cuban doctors, nurses and medical technicians. Venezuela and China have both invested hundreds of millions in Cuban mineral resources and in newly discovered oil reserves.
"So," the healthcare worker continued, "life began to improve. This year there were fewer blackouts and more food." She, like most Cubans I've met over four decades, retains a sense of pride about the revolution's accomplishments.
Cuba, an informal U.S. economic colony until 1958, has become a nation whose citizens have acted on the stage of history. In 1993, at Nelson Mandela's inauguration after the demise of the apartheid system, the new South African president embraced Fidel Castro. "You made this possible," Mandela whispered audibly to Castro, referring to Cuba's assistance in defeating apartheid South African forces at the battles of Cuito Cuanavale, Angola, in 1987-1988.
Cuban doctors have helped earthquake and other disaster victims in Honduras and Pakistan. Cuba has more doctors abroad than the World Health Organization. Its own doctor-patient ratio is similar to that of Beverly Hills.
Cuban artists, intellectuals, writers, athletes and scientists also have engraved their works and feats in the annals of many countries throughout the world.
The Cuban Revolution was, in many ways, a success: It achieved substantive human rights for the Cuban people.
Still, there is reason for concern.
Even before the Soviet Union's dissolution, Cuba had begun to lose revolutionary purity. Heroic guerrilla warriors often turned into ineffective ministers and even worse politicians. They did not build system by which power could be transferred evenly to the next generation of worthy heirs. Instead, leaders who enjoyed certain material privileges began to lose close contact with the people. Paternalism, inherited from centuries of Spanish culture, also began to erode the spontaneous rapport and enthusiasm of the early years.
In 1968, while I was filming "Fidel," a PBS documentary, the elder Castro told me that "socialist democracy should assure everyone's constant participation in political activity." However laudable that theory may have been in theory, in practice Castro's paternalism sapped initiative from Cuban society. By "giving" people what they needed instead of asking Cubans to take responsibility for their own decisions, and by maintaining control of virtually all civic projects, the Communist Party helped depoliticize the very people it had hoped to educate.
Castro's illness didn't throw Cuba into crisis, no matter what the Miami Herald would have you believe. The buses run, electricity and water flow, and people go to work as they have every day. But the fading of a charismatic leader raises a natural question: What will happen after...?
There's little chance that Bush will succeed in re-colonizing the island. That much seems assured, at least with Raul in power. But Raul and his successors appear to lack the outside-the-box thinking that would inject new life into the Cuban experiment. And that is what is sorely needed. Cuba's citizens have endured their share of hard knocks over the last 40 years—nuclear brinkmanship with the U.S., a strangling embargo, and the absence of many freedoms -- all without revolting, mind you.
They deserve the right to participate in the policies that guide their nation. They have earned that much by now. Perhaps Raul's very lack of charisma—and his advanced age—is just what Cuba needs: breathing room for a populist-driven reinvigoration of the revolutionary spirit that Fidel once sparked. But this time, the revolution would draw its energy not just from one man, but rather from all Cubans.
It would put renewed meaning, at least, into Castro's slogan, Patria o muerte.