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Saturday, 21 October, 2000, 20:45 GMT 21:45 UK
Castro's fading Cuban dream
Cuban women
Castro's charisma still has a hold over Cubans
By Tom Gibb, who is leaving Havana after four years as a correspondent

The first time I saw Mr Castro up close, I had a graphic demonstration of his hold over Cubans. It was at a diplomatic reception. A Cuban working for the state-controlled media started to fire questions designed to show what a loyal subject he was, but using "tu", the familiar form of addressing someone in Spanish.

A big mistake. Everyone may be equal in Cuba, but the commander-in-chief is definitely not "tu". After a few moments Mr Castro turned his penetrating stare on him.

The journalist was almost on his knees with protests of loyalty, calling him my president, my commander-in-chief. Another mistake. The Cuban leader detests people crawling. "I don't need those titles," he snapped.

Afterwards I saw the journalist sitting in the garden smoking a cigarette and shaking like a jelly.

Psychological hold

Like him or hate him, Fidel Castro has a huge psychological hold over Cubans.

Fidel Castro
Castro pulls all the strings
A friend tried to explain it to me. Her father fought in the revolution and she was brought up an enthusiastic believer. She's long since lost that belief and wants change.

But, she says, there's something about Mr Castro which holds everyone in awe - a charisma, a sense of respect.

She read an account sent from a Miami relative of one of the 600-plus attempts on Mr Castro's life by the CIA and Miami exiles. The assassin had the Cuban leader in his sight but couldn't pull the trigger. Something stopped him.

"I can understand that," she said.

Court of a monarch

While there's no official personality cult, everyone knows exactly who's boss.

Cuban politics works almost like the court of a monarch. Rival factions form around a host of issues. Within the court, stars rise and stars fall. But the one pulling all the strings is Mr Castro.

He has never allowed opposition. The state has a spectacular system of internal control. It's far more subtle than the brutal military regimes I saw in Latin America in the 1980s. But it's more powerful, controlling so many aspects of daily life.

People become dependent on the state. Cubans complain constantly about everything. But it is never worth their while to take that to active opposition.

An anti-US protest in Havana
An anti-US protest in Havana
It is a great irony that in a country fed daily with rhetoric about revolutionary struggle, one of the most common phrases is "No coje lucha" - don't struggle over it.

Not surprisingly the dissident movement is small and divided - unable to agree about tactics, with no public voice and paranoid about spies. They face constant harassment, and often jail, but always with an escape valve allowing them to leave the island.

International press monitored

The state has an information network reaching down to every street - and, as I discovered, it is certainly monitoring the international press.

In my first six months in Havana, I was detained by the police three times, usually for filming where they didn't want me to. Each time a jovial young man came to bail me out with profuse apologies and a slap on the back.

After the third time, he asked me if I wanted to meet to chat. Hoping he might be a good source of information, I agreed. But to my questions, I got either the party line or non-committal answers. He also got little out of me.

His only request was that I didn't tell any other journalist of our meetings. They might misinterpret my meeting.

At the third meeting, I could tell we were being taped because he started waxing far too lyrical about Cuba's political system. We got onto the subject of the United States interests section, and he came out with a blatant request. Perhaps I could on a regular basis share information about what US diplomats were saying and thinking, he asked.

I rapidly told him that was not my job. We'll get you to change your mind, he said cheerfully. But it was the last of our meetings.

Afterwards I began to wonder how many of my colleagues had been recruited. When I told a Cuban friend, he laughed. That's what everyone here's thinking, he said.

Worldwide respect

The control is justified with the argument that Cuba is effectively at war with the US and all government opponents are US lackeys. Washington has always provided all the necessary excuses. In its aim of toppling Mr Castro, the last four decades of US policy have been a spectacular failure.

Meat market in Cuba
Many foods are rationed
Indeed, one of the few concrete results has been to earn Mr Castro worldwide respect as the man who stood up to the bullying of Uncle Sam.

For years he bankrolled revolutionary movements, dreaming of a world movement against the imperialists. Instead of guerrilla fighters, he now trains thousands of doctors and sports instructors from Latin America and Africa - they return to their countries and spread the socialist ideal.

He portrays Cuba as a lonely light in an evil new world order of rampant capitalism. The world, he said recently, is like a ship - half luxury liner, half slave ship - heading at full steam for an iceberg. Those who have condemned millions to starvation and misery, he said, should face Nuremburg trials.

But the second half of his discourse - how Cuba is the most perfect democracy in the world with an economy now moving forward in the face of the US blockade - is now wearing thin.

Divisions over dollars

Cuba's health and education are indeed the envy of many developing countries. But Castro must be worried whether they are sustainable. The loss of Soviet subsidies 10 years ago forced Mr Castro to legalise the dollar, starting changes which seem impossible to reverse.

Castro portrays Cuba as a lonely light in an evil world
Today, dollars sent by Cubans abroad - mostly in Miami - to relatives on the island form Cuba's largest source of hard currency. Stark divisions have emerged between those with dollars and those without.

The old Cuba is rising from the ashes. It's not just the blatant prostitution - with old foreign men arm in arm with stunningly beautiful young Cuban women. Stealing from the state has become a national pastime. There is a black market in everything from powdered milk, rum and cigars to mansions.

In the growing rat race, doctors, teachers and other professionals are at the bottom, paid tiny salaries. I've met doctors working as taxi drivers, selling fish door-to-door or working as prostitutes.

It is only a highly dedicated core, who love their professions who keep the health service going. And it's getting harder for them.

God's gift to Cuba

Meanwhile, just as in Eastern Europe before the communist collapse, a class of officials has risen through party ranks, constantly mouthing the slogans of socialism, to get lucrative positions with foreign companies or line their pockets with petty corruption.

It is summed up in a joke - originally from eastern Europe - but now sadly adapted to Cuba.

When God created the world, he gave all peoples three gifts. To Cubans he gave honesty, intelligence and Communism. But with the condition that only two could be present at any one time.

This means that if you are honest and communist, you are not intelligent. If you are intelligent and communist, then you are not honest. And if you are honest and intelligent, then you are not communist.

Some Cubans argue Mr Castro is not aware of all this. But I am sure he is. When I hear him talking about building equality, justice and dignity for millions in the developing world and condemning the greed of a few, I cannot help but agree with such noble sentiments. But I am afraid the light he claims to have built in Cuba is rapidly going out.

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See also:

19 Oct 00 | Americas
US poised to ease Cuba embargo
19 Oct 00 | Americas
Castro: The great survivor
01 Jan 99 | Americas
Cuba - the struggle goes on
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