Havana—Thirty-five years and six weeks are gone since the day Fidel Castro came in glory to the great stage of history, and no one is left among the actors he met there except Jordan’s King Hussein and North Korea’s Kim II Sung, minor-league players then and now.
Castro burst from the wings surrounded by the guerrilla conquerors he called his barbudos, his men in beards. The beard was so sacred among the revolution’s symbols then that gossip had it that his brother and putative heir Raúl had to his ineffaceable shame failed in every effort to raise one and been forced to settle for a pigtail.
It seems odd and is perhaps portentous how rarely the visitor sees a beard in Cuba these days. Only Fidel Castro defiantly flourishes this boldest of his revolutionary banners and his beard has grown gray and long enough for the nesting of an owl. Castro must soon be, if he is not already, the last of the barbudos. He has outlasted most of his enemies with the unvarying exception of incumbent presidents of the United States. At sixty-seven, he has so far survived, however exiguously, the extinction of his friends, the Communists of Eastern Europe.
But he can go no more a-roving as he once did, with troops in Angola, engineers in Nicaragua, military engineers in Grenada. His world has shrunk down to his island, his votaries to his enduring and not quite unadoring people and his treasury down to a beggar’s. The central power is still his closely held own; but he is less and less able to exercise it as a force in advancing his country’s development or, what is more to the present point, arresting its protracted decay.
“When you cannot pay, you can no longer command,” one Cuban observed the other day in a voice at once aware of Castro’s faults and still persuaded that “if we lost this symbol,” all that followed would be chaos.
The truth about Cuba probably resides neither in the many who still recite the slogan-wearied faith nor in the fewer who are utterly disenchanted, but in those who have lost all their early illusions and yet cherish the revolution for making Cubans proud of themselves. “The revolution gave dignity to my country,” Reynaldo González, the novelist, can still remind the visitor.
“Dignity” is a word that recurs over and over in the voices of those Cubans for whom it has become the last romantic vision after all the follies of romance have withered. González knows the price of dignity. “I had a bad life in the Sixties and Seventies,” he remembers. “I went ten years without being allowed to publish a paragraph and now all my enemies who silenced me have chosen exile and now they are no longer known in Cuba.”
He soldiered away in those bad years as a publishing-house editor chafing for time to write for himself. At last a friend in the ministry of culture offered him a chance…
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