FIDEL AND THE REVOLUTION, FORTY YEARS LATER
On January 2, 1959, Habaneros filled the streets to greet the small band of long-haired, guerrilla warriors. The hated dictator, Fulgencio Batista, had fled to Florida, with his entourage. But what would the new government do? Everyone knew the reputation of the man who had miraculously led the barbudos to victory. How could a few hundred poorly armed and trained men defeat an army of 50,000 men, supplied by the United States? What kind of policies would the guerrillas pursue?
On January 9, Fidel Castro entered the capital. He had stopped in several cities on his trek westward from the Sierra Maestra to meet and greet people and talk of justice and independence. That evening as Castro's speech was directed at trying to persuade rival revolutionary groups to disarm, an extraordinary phenomenon occurred. A white dove landed on Fidel's shoulder. (Did he stage this or did it just happen?)
For the babalaos, the high priests of Santeria, Cuba's popular religion, the dove signified a clear message from the gods. From then on, Fidel took on the stature of Obatallah, the god of immense strength and will that will guide the people on its true course. His name on the street became el caballo, the horse, the animal that symbolizes that diety. From then on, Fidel acquired truly charismatic stature -- charismatic meaning having god-like attributes.
But this did not diminish his practical political prowess. It didn't take a master statesman to calculate Washington's apprehension toward revolution. So, to provide respectable cover for his revolutionary agenda, Fidel appointed to his cabinet politically acceptable politicians to Washington. But real power remained in the hands of the guerrilla leaders, like Fidel himself and Che Guevara. Fidel quickly proclaimed an urban reform that cut rents in half. Within months he enacted an agrarian reform designed to cut into the vast acreage held by sugar barons and cattle ranchers, including U.S. owners.
The predictable scenario unfolded. President Dwight Eisenhower, already grouchy from heart attacks, interrupted his golf game long enough to order the CIA to overthrow Cuba's revolutionary government as it had done in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. The CIA formula meant recruiting a mercenary army of anti-Castro Cubans who had come to the United States during the first year and a half after the revolution, staging an invasion and replacing the popular government with a U.S. stooge.
In April 1961, when the proverbial egg broke at the Bay of Pigs, the yolk landed on President John F. Kennedy's face. Not since the Alamo had U.S.-backed forces suffered a defeat from Latin Americans. Kennedy sought revenge -- assassinate Castro. But assassins do not have an easy time with Obatallah. Fidel claims that the CIA and the more violent of the Florida-based exiles had made more than 600 attempts on his life.
Over forty two years, US presidents have tried terrorism; they've tried to isolate Fidel, wage psychological and maybe even chemical and biological war; and strangle his economy which, until a decade ago, enjoyed Soviet support.
In 1992, after the Soviet collapse, Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer's book, Castro's Final Hour, won a Pulitzer Prize. Oppenheimer gave new meaning to the word's final and hour. One of his many mistakes was to ignore Fidel's Santeria status.
In 2000, Fidel won the Elian Gonzalez struggle with his enemies. Unlike the Bay of Pigs, the fight over the little boy brought Fidel onto the side of U.S. majority opinion which included Bill Clinton and Janet Reno.
In 2001, Fidel remains at the helm. The babalaos discuss the issue of which orisha will replace him. But, on the practical side, last year, according to Carlos Lage, Cuba's vice president, the islands economy grew by 5.6 % -- despite the tightening of the US embargo. Cuba's infant mortality rate is half of Washington DCs. Foreign investment has trickled in, tourism has increased dramatically and Cuba has overcome -- with difficulty -- the problems that economists predicted would necessarily destroy the socialist experiment. The utopia on earth notion has long faded and some of the values associated with the old Cuba have eroded with the ever-present dollar and tourism
George W. Bush will be the tenth president who promises to bring down Castro and the revolution. This is an unfair contest. Fidel should check his brains at the door so they can start even. Imagine, Obtalallah doing battle with the Pretender to the American throne!##
Saul Landau is the Director of Digital Media and International Outreach Programs for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences.