One of my greatest wishes therefore was to meet this great icon before he or I died. Now because of his poor health this might not be possible or even necessary!
It has become clear in the past few months that my friends had been allowed to see, or had not been inquisitive enough to discover, what was really happening in Cuba. They were beneficiaries of Castro’s magnanimity and our own government encouraged a view of the island that was beyond reproach.
But I had my own fears. A few years ago the high-profile defection of two Cuban doctors working in Zimbabwe had awakened in the minds of even the least sceptical that “everything was but what it was not”.
Last September Castro confirmed in his own words that his economic model no longer worked even for Cuba.
He told Jeffrey Goldberg, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly magazine that “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”
Even in that statement Castro was being economic with the truth. Soviet-style socialism never worked for Cuba in the 50 years that he was forcing it upon his country.
A week ago Castro’s party, the Communist Party of Cuba, was meeting to discuss a raft of reforms that would, it was hoped, transform the country into a modern state and, more importantly, save the moribund party.
That meeting coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs.
On April 17 1961 about 1 300 exiles, armed with US weapons, landed at the Bay of Pigs on the southern coast of Cuba. Hoping to find support from the local population, they intended to cross the island to Havana. It was evident from the first hours of fighting that the exiles were likely to lose.
President JF Kennedy had the option of using the US Air Force against the Cubans but decided against it. Consequently, the invasion was stopped by Castro’s army.
By the time the fighting ended on April 19, 90 exiles had been killed and the rest had been taken as prisoners. The invasion made Castro wary of the US. He was convinced that the Americans would try to take over the island again. From the Bay of Pigs on, Castro had an increased fear of a US incursion on Cuban soil.
This was a heroic moment for Cuba for successfully defending its sovereignty but it also defined how Cuba was to operate in the next half century.
Because of the paranoia that resulted from the Bay of Pigs episode Cuba has been defined by little acts of bravado that brought economic stasis.
In the interview with Goldberg Castro even criticised his own actions during another little act of bravado, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when he urged the Soviet Union to launch nuclear weapons against the United States, telling Goldberg “it wasn’t worth it at all”.
How many other acts of the Communist Party of Cuba were not worth it at all? Sports boycotts, for example, were they worth it? And these were many.
For political reasons, Cuba boycotted the 2002 Central American and Caribbean Games in San Salvador, El Salvador. In 1987, Cuba did not compete at the Women’s World Junior Volleyball Championships in Seoul (South Korea). The reason: there were no diplomatic relations between Cuba and South Korea.
For political reasons, Cuba did not send a baseball team to the 27th Baseball World Cup in South Korea in 1982. Cuba boycotted the 1988 Olympic Games in South Korea.
Cuba sent only seven athletes to the 2007 World University Games in Thailand, heeding Fidel Castro’s fears about future defections. But the 1991 Pan American Games were held in Havana in which 39 countries participated. It is reported the Games were a huge source of pride for Castro.
Castro has been replaced as the leader of the Communist Party by his younger brother Raul who is trying to lead reforms, the major hitch though is that Raul himself is 79 years old and his vice José Ramón Machado Ventura, is an 80-year-old veteran of the revolution.
What this means is that although Raul is urging both political and economic reform, Cuba will for a while longer remain in the clutches of the same leadership that has failed to move it forward in the past 50 years.
One factor that stands out is that among Raul’s proposed reforms is not the opening of political space to other political parties. His major reform is that presidential terms would be limited to two five-year terms. This will not personally affect him for it will allow him to remain at the helm until 2018 when he will be 86.
A Cuban independent economist is quoted saying that term limits won’t “resolve our essential problem, which is the monopoly on power by a group whose policies have failed for 50 years.”
But Raul does not see this; he wants to stick with the same geriatric leadership instead of inviting competing opinion
“Today, we are faced with the consequences of not having a reserve of well-trained replacements with sufficient experience and maturity to undertake the new and complex leadership responsibilities in the Party, the State and the Government,” he said at his party congress.
What is clear from the Cuban fiasco is that eventually it is not the little acts of bravado that will stand a country in good stead on the world stage but its cultural software. By cultural software I refer to a country’s exploits in the arts, in sport and in initiatives that encourage national and world peace.
South Africa, for example, has taken its place on the world stage because of the efforts of liberation icon Nelson Mandela, when he was still able to bring peace to the world after he reunited his own people who had just emerged from apartheid. The leaders that followed him are also engaged in peace-building initiatives on the African continent. But also importantly, its hosting of the Rugby World Cup and the Fifa World Cup have made it a giant on the world stage.
In Zimbabwe Zanu PF’s little acts of bravado have not moved the country forward. Gukurahundi, Murambatsvina, chaotic land reform, pulling out of the Commonwealth and alienating the country from the West have already brought untold suffering on the common people.
When will President Mugabe meet his Damascus moment and ask himself: “Is his model working for us anymore?”