Which Way Cuba?

As Fidel Castro finally hands over the reins of power after forty-nine years, Michael Simmons finds his country poised between past and future.

Since I was frequently in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the last two decades of the Cold War, a recent visit to Cuba brought uncanny reminders of that other multi-nation community. There were the routine queues outside what might or might not have been small department stores, or offices, or even banks, but nobody seemed to know exactly what commodity they were expecting to find. For many years there has been rationing, even for essential foodstuffs. And the queues? ‘Well,’ said my Cuban companion, ‘they are actually queuing to find out what the queue is for’. These were precisely the words I used to hear in Prague, Budapest or even Moscow in the early 1970s.

Making history has been a preoccupation ever since Castro graduated from law school in 1950. He says now that the Cuban revolution began with the first War of Independence in 1868. But it was in July 1953, a few months after the death of Stalin and only weeks after an anti-Communist demonstration in East Berlin, that Castro, in the hope of fomenting a people’s uprising, led an unsuccessful assault on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba.

He was tried and sent to prison, only to be released two years later. His zeal undiminished, he set out once again in 1956, with Che Guevara and others, to achieve revolution. On January 8th, 1959, the revolutionary government was installed – and quickly dubbed a ‘police state’ by paranoid Americans. Castro was made commander-in-chief. Until this year, having survived an estimated more than 600 assassination attempts, and eighty-one years, he was still addressed as ‘Commandante’.

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