Searching for Cuba’s Mahatma

Erasmo Calzadilla

The three Bogatyrs. victor Vasnetsov

HAVANA TIMES — A political event of huge significance for Cubans will take place in 2018: President Raul Castro will step down, not without leaving someone to his liking (and not so much the people’s) on the throne. We may breathe some winds of change initially, but, as the months pass, the situation will likely get more and more tense.

If the anointed one who catches this hot potato doesn’t multiply the bread and the fishes quickly – something highly improbable, as I see it – I anticipate a whole period of political protests, demonstrations, police repression, power cuts and generalized shortages.

Behind this turmoil, we can expect the United States to pull the strings in different circles and add fuel to the fire.

I am extremely worried Cuba can become a kind of Syria. How could we avoid such a fate? After giving the issue some thought, I have come to a rather painful conclusion: I think we’re going to need a leader.

I am very much aware of the danger that a firm-handed popular leader represents, but, given the delicate situation that’s heading our way, I’d say that would be the lesser of possible evils.

Anarchists, with whom I share more than one posture, would prefer to the see the establishment of an “order” managed from below, from the level of collectives, neighborhoods, communities, workplaces, etc.

I would love to see this happen, but I feel that a society that has just put a totalitarian system behind it, whose guiding “political” aspiration right now is to consume more, isn’t prepared to take on such a challenge. I think self-management ought to be practiced and encouraged, but that trying to build a radically new society at the edge of the precipice is a dangerous proposition.

Whatever option we lay our bets on, whatever it is, must be rooted in the practices and ways of thinking of contemporary Cubans.

Who could become our mahatma?

Certainly not the elite troop that the younger of the Castros has been mentoring. Diaz Canel, Murillo and Bruno Rodriguez who have behaved like obedient children and, what’s more, haven’t really solved any problems.

What respect could they possible aspire to have from the people? If we want to avoid a political split a la Venezuela, we’d have to get Raul’s people to kindly step aside (I have no idea how we’d manage this), get all of them to leave for “the good of the homeland.” And, if they won’t go willingly, let them go off the cliff.

The dissidents are no good either. Yoani Sanchez, Eliecer Avila and Rodiles enjoy the support of a significant sector of the émigré community, the new middle class and some liberal intellectuals, but run-of-the-mill Cubans do not know much about them (or so it seems to me).

The “problem” with them is that they’ve created far too many anti-bodies: they are the enemy in the eyes of government supporters (which are neither few nor weak). From this point of view, they don’t seem the best qualified to achieve a minimum of consensus.

The left-wing opposition has produced a whole slew of top-level leaders. But we may need a dark period of savage capitalism for people to overcome their allergy to socialism.

After we’ve discarded all of the above, what are we left with? A sportsperson? Victor Mesa? No, please, Mesa will only lead us to a humiliating defeat. A scientist? A priest? A doctor? A rich Cuban-American businessman? A young general? None will work – no one knows who these people are. Who would begin to trust them overnight?

We need a familiar face, a person people like, someone who inspires confidence, who is close to politics but who is neither a boot-licker nor a radical oppositionist. Does anyone like this exist in Cuba today?

I am going to propose three people and you, dear reader, may criticize my choices and choose your own. Without further ado, here are my candidates: novelist Leonardo Padura, singer-songwriter Pablo Milanes and filmmaker Fernando Perez.

Let me explain my choices:

First and foremost, these three people have known how to reach the soul of the average Cuban, something crucial for the leadership we’re interested in. They are not devoid of wisdom – not the pedantic kind, but the kind that meshes well with commonsense. They are older, true, but they have full use of their physical and mental faculties. In any event, they need not carry the torch until their last breath.

None of them is foreign to politics: they have sung praises for “socialism”, true, but they have also criticized excesses and abuses of power.

If these venerable grandpas had a shot at it, if we gave them the opportunity, they could manage to bring about the miracle of keeping us united and peaceful when the political situation gets complicated.

We wouldn’t be asking them for a heroic sacrifice. They need not impel the spiritual renewal of the nation (it would be unfair to ask them to turn mud into gold). It would suffice for them to afford us the reassuring feeling of being in good hands during the dangerous transition.

Does any of this strike you as a bit crazy? It seems that way to me too.

Erasmo Calzadilla

Erasmo Calzadilla: I find it difficult to introduce myself in public. I've tried many times but it doesn’t flow. I’m more less how I appear in my posts, add some unpresentable qualities and stir; that should do for a first approach. If you want to dig a little deeper, ask me for an appointment and wait for a reply.

22 thoughts on “Searching for Cuba’s Mahatma

  • April 22, 2014 at 7:38 am

    Your comment is a perfect example of the kind of disinformation used by the Castro regime to delegitimize anybody who dares to speak out against their tyranny.

    Here are his credentials:

    Orlando Zapata (May 15, 1967[1] – February 23, 2010) was a Cuban mason, plumber, and political activist and prisoner[2] who died after fasting for more than 80 days.[3] His death received international attention, and was viewed as a significant setback in Cuba’s relationship with the U.S. and the EU.

    Zapata was a member of Movimiento Alternativa Republicana (Republican Alternative Movement) and Consejo Nacional de Resistencia Civil (National Civic Resistance Committee).

    Zapata was arrested on December 6, 2002 by agents of the Cuban police on charges ofcontempt, for which he was imprisoned for over three months. On March 20, 2003, 13 days after he was freed, he was arrested for a second time during a crackdown on dissidents and sent to the Kilo 7 prison in Camagüey. At the time of his arrest, he was participating in a hunger strike organized by the Assembly to Promote a Civil Society, taking place at the home ofMarta Beatriz Roque Cabello.[2] The hunger strike was meant as a petition for the release of several comrades.

    He was charged with contempt, public disorder, and disobedience and sentenced to 36 years in prison after several judicial processes.[4] As a result, Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience, “imprisoned solely for having peacefully exercised [his] rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly”.[2][5][6] The socialist Monthly Review, in contrast, expressed skepticism of Amnesty’s statement, alleging that Zapata was arrested and convicted several times on charges of fraud, firearm possession, and assault with a machete.[7].

    On either December 2 or 3, 2009, Zapata began a hunger strike[8] as a protest against the Cuban government for having denied him the choice of wearing white dissident clothes instead of the designated prisoner uniform, as well as denouncing the living conditions of other prisoners. As part of his claim, Zapata was asking for conditions comparable to those that Fidel Castro had while incarcerated after his 1953 attack against the Moncada Barracks.[9] For their part, the Cuban government stated he refused food because authorities wouldn’t put a TV set, a stove and a phone in his cell.[10]

    During the hunger strike Zapata refused to eat any food other than his mother’s, who visited him every three months. According to the U.S.-based opposition group Cuban Democratic Directorate, prison authorities then denied Zapata water, which led to his deteriorated health and ultimately kidney failure.[8]

    Zapata persisted in the hunger strike and was admitted to the Camagüey Hospital at an unspecified date, where he was given fluids intravenously against his will. On February 16, 2010 his condition worsened and he was transferred to Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital inHavana,[11] where he ultimately died on February 23, 2010 at approximately 3:30 pm EST.[3]

    It was the first time that an opponent of the Cuban government died during a hunger strike since the 1972 death of Pedro Luis Boitel.[12]

    On March 16, 2010 an open letter condemning the Cuban government for the unjust incarceration of Orlando Zapata Tamayo and asking for the release of other political prisoners was posted in an internet blog. In less than a week the letter had obtained over 30,000 signatures. Among the signatories are prominent intellectuals from both the left and right of the political spectrum.[13].

    President Raul Castro took the “unprecedented step” of expressing public regret about the death of Zapata.[10] During his remarks, he said Zapata was treated by top doctors and denied he was tortured.[10] Cuban state television also aired a report where doctors who treated Zapata, said they tried to get him to eat, with Dr. Maria Ester Hernandez stating:

    “We explained to him the consequences of his decision at every turn and how much he was endangering his life with this. But he kept it up.”[10]

    Cuban state newspapers, meanwhile, described Zapata as a “common criminal falsely elevated to martyr status.”[10]

    The U.S. State Department stated that it was “deeply saddened” by Zapata’s death, while the European Union called on Cuba to release its remaining political prisoners. Spain issued a statement remembering Zapata as a “human rights defender”, while France expressed “dismay” and stated that its government had been lobbying Cuba on Zapata’s behalf.[14] The incident was seen as a significant setback for the thawing of Spanish-Cuban and U.S.-Cuban relations, with one analyst describing it as “the nail in the coffin of Spain’s efforts to improve EU-Cuba ties”.[15]

    On 23 February 2012, the Ladies in White met at the former home of deceased leader Laura Pollan to commemorate the second anniversary of Zapata’s death. They were protested by a group of government supporters in coordination with security agents, who chanted “Down with the worms!” and “Long Live Raul!”[16]

    The regime betrays their own lies. If Zapata was just a common criminal, they would never have gone to such trouble to shut him up. Even after his death, they fear him and the ideas he represented.

  • April 21, 2014 at 11:39 am

    Zapata Tamayo hails from Banes, my stomping grounds. It speaks worlds about your seriousness when you mention him as a leader. What credentials does he have other than giving people planazos w/ a machete while drunk on chispa tren ?

  • April 19, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Lacking open and transparent elections, there is no way to accurately assess what the Cuban people want. It is clear by the exercise of tyranny by the Castros that they believe that only by force can their totalitarian regime stay in power. If they were as convinced that the Cuban people support the revolution as you seem to be, they would not need to repress dissent. You have no measure of knowing what Cubans want. You have never even been to Cuba! Without a doubt you have no idea what I want. You should stick to spouting off about your silly anarchist ideas.

  • April 19, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    emagicmtman’s ability to criticize the imperial U.S. has nothing to do with what he is saying but rather with the fact that the GOUSA is in full control of its populace .
    Widespread revolt is a far distant possibility for the next 8-10 years and was never really a possibility since the country was founded.
    Emagicmtman is absolutely no threat to the colossal power of the state .
    The people who get jailed or killed or have their country’s invaded by the U.S. have threatened U.S. hegemony and world control at a certain unacceptable level to the U.S. authorities .
    Easter provides a good analogy in that had Christ not spoken up for the poor as a constant message and thereby create a potential threat to the Roman empire’ s top people, he might not have been crucified and tolerated as just another religious crazy.

  • April 19, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    Can’t you read?
    I’m an ANARCHIST .
    I believe in direct democracy.
    I have no faith or trust in ANY government .
    The Cuban government is no good .
    I believe that the democratic methods of Poder Popular are what need to be followed for a good and democratic government in Cuba .
    Perhaps once you a-holes call off your mean-spirited, totalitarian-minded and imperialist economic war against all of Cuba society, good and democratic government will be possible .
    But that’s not what you want.
    We’ve already determined that your entire belief system is totalitarian and it would be against your deepest totalitarian principles to seek a democratic Cuba.
    You say the word democracy but you fully mean a dictatorship of the dollar -capitalism .
    Who do you think you’re kidding ?

  • April 19, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    In a word Moses, BULLSHIT.
    You have made about 11 thousand posts here and a huge number support the U.S. Embargo- ( read: economic and terrorist and propaganda war ) .
    The U.S. embargo as clearly and unequivocally stated by its originators was intended to create the harsh conditions which would make the Cubans rebel against their government and overthrow their revolution and its socialist methodology.
    You could not be any plainer than that and how you feel about the wrongheadedness of the Cuban people’s thinking in supporting their government and revolution.
    You want a government and economic system in Cuba like the one in the U.S. and that is something you are trying to ram down the throats of the Cuban people JUST as imperialism does around the world.
    You can’t even be honest about something that you make SO obvious to anyone who can read. .

  • April 18, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    I’m sure you would prefer which ever Terror didn’t put you up against the wall or under the guillotine. The problem is once started, it’s very hard to stop the executions. Eventually, we all end up as either executioner or victim, or both.

  • April 18, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    The Czechs & Slovaks threw off the Soviet yoke, and you cry tears for them. Their doing just fine, thanks.

    If Iraq and Libya are perhaps “failed states” now, it is not because of capitalism, but because of the radical Islamists who want to establish Sharia states in those lands. Perhaps you could address your complaints to Cuba’s dear friend and ally Iran and ask what they are up to Iraq? Or are you too busy mourning the death of Fidel’s other dear friend, Moammar Quaddafi? He ran such an admirable regime before Libya “failed” your standards as a proper state.

    I have to laugh at your use of the quaint phrase, “the Empire”, spoken by a tenured academic employed at a university in the very heart of the Empire. It betrays the pretence of an aging radical poseur and not a sincere belief on your part. If this so-called “empire” really were and empire and as nasty as you pretend you know damn well you would be in a dank cell, not relaxing in the faculty lounge.

  • April 18, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    Your comment illustrates the predicament the Castro regime has placed the Cuban political programme in: anybody who is not part of the regime is by definition an enemy, a terrorist, an ally of the Empire. In my opinion, anybody who is part of the regime is an enemy of the Cuban people, and should therefore not be eligible for election. But it is not for me to decide that.

    To be clear: I did not nominate anybody. It is not my place to nominate who should represent the Cuban people. I did mention a list of dissidents who have been working for a better Cuba. They have their strengths and weaknesses as potential candidates. It should be up to the Cuban people to decide if they want to elect them or not.

  • April 18, 2014 at 10:01 am

    Agree…viewed a couple of her videos and loved them; thanks for indroducing me to her art!

  • April 17, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    I’m hardly ignorant of history, Griffin; all three members of the Committee of Public Safety were ELECTED by their home constituency to either the Constituent Assembly, or later on, to the National Assembly. Democracy in action! During the height of the French Revolution, politics was a rough-and-tumble business, with loosers often paying with their lives. (Nowadays, the loosers just become lobbiests for the multi-national, military-industrial complex until it is time for them to return to office.) Most of your nominees are non-entities, but others are intolerant reactionaries who, if given the opportunity, would institute their own reign of terror, like those who murdered three million on the Left in Indonesia in 1965 (the subject of a recent documentary which was nominated for an Academy Award). It is best to have no reign of terror, but if there is no choice betwixt a red or a white reign of terror, I’d prefer a red one!

  • April 17, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    I have never suggested how Cubans should think about their revolution. I live with three Cubans and I can’t even tell them what to think. I do suggest that Cubans should be given the opportunity to do what they truly want to do as opposed to what the Castros have told them to do.

  • April 17, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    Berta Soler described Cuba under the Batista regime as “a little golden cup”. She also stated that the US should be as hard and harsh as possible to Cuba. Fabulous nomination Griffin.

  • April 17, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Your weak attempts at sarcasm come across as obvious projections of your own totalitarian mindset. You have no idea what the majority of Cuban people want. They have not had a chance to express their will for the past 54 years.

    I do not tell the Cuban people what to do. I do argue that they have the right to decide for themselves, something you don’t think they can handle. You insist the Cuban people need their Big Brother Raul to protect them. I believe the Cuban people are quite capable of looking after themselves.

  • April 17, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Danay Suarez.

  • April 17, 2014 at 11:54 am

    and look what happened to your shining example: Czechoslovakia. It fractured into two mini-states: the Czech and the Slovak Republics respectively, both of which are now under the control of the multi-national corporations. This is just what the Empire wants: divide and conquer. Look at two recent examples of their handiwork: Iraq, and Libya, both essentially failed states, with Ukraine soon to follow in this tradition.

  • April 17, 2014 at 11:05 am

    ” Ordinary Cubans, indoctrinated from birth in that polarized discourse, cannot easily think outside those rigid lines.”
    You’re right Griffin,
    I too find it amazing that a huge majority of Cuba’s 11 million people still want to keep their revolution as bad as you say it is .
    Just how stupid and brainwashed can 11 million people be especially when they have the Brothers Grimm of history; you and Moses….to correct them about how they should think about their revolution .
    Where would all the poor weak countries of the world be without a Big Brother like you to tell them what to do ?

  • April 17, 2014 at 10:57 am

    It would seem you have an aversion to democracy which you never mentioned in your article .
    Without democracy and a ruling elite such as you want, you wind up bringing about the exact scenario we anarchists warn about and that is an elitist, Leninist cadre-led leadership that inevitably becomes self-preserving, corrupt and totalitarian.
    In fact it would seem you want that Leninist leadership without even having any sort of electoral system to put the people’s representatives in place to begin with.
    The problems in Cuba and in the world are in large part due to a lack of democracy and a predilection for totalitarian rule of the sort you manifested here.
    There is absolutely nothing wrong with Poder Popular- AS WRITTEN -for the managing of a DEMOCRATIC government which defined, is essentially the elected representatives carrying out the wishes of the electorate and NOT a body, once elected -carrying out whatever that body wishes .
    This is what Cuba ( and the U.S. ) has now and although there are massive benevolent programs in Cuba that reflect DEMOCRATIC socialist thinking and morality, that benevolence cannot be counted upon forever because of that anarchist truism that any government long enough in power will become totalitarian .
    I do not think anyone rational doubts the validity of that thinking vis a vis Cuba and the U.S.
    You cannot START with an undemocratic form and evolve a democratic form from it . It always goes the other way; towards totalitarianism .
    Cuba already has a magnificently crafted electoral system that, run by the book, and under a democratic government, can and hopefully will prove itself once the U.S. war on the revolution ends.
    The problem as seen from both the anarchist and Cuban public perspectives is that the Cuban government went from top-down until Poder Popular’s beginning and took the bottom-up PP very rapidly into an ossified and unresponsive and undemocratic ( not doing the will of the people but rather imposing the governments will on the people for good or ill ) Poder Popular which is now a non-functional system.
    It is a system that cannot work in an environment of eternal war ( the 54 year U.S. hostilities) and we will not know if it will work even when normal international relations are restored by the U.S. .
    Again , this doubt is predicated on the very valid anarchist thinking about exactly what has transpired in Cuba’s governing systems.
    IMO, the answer , Erasmo, is not more totalitarianism but a whole lot more democracy .

  • April 17, 2014 at 8:52 am

    I cannot decide if you are joking or merely ignorant of history. You recommend for Cuba a new Committee of Public Safety, the radical body which rose to power during the French Revolution. During their Reign of Terror more people were executed than in the entire previous history of the Revolutionary Tribunal. There’s been more than enough executions and dictators in Cuba’s history, thank you.

    A better model for Cuba would be that set by Václav Havel, the Czech playwright, essayist, poet, and dissident who served as President of the Czech Republic after the fall of the Communist dictatorship. If Leonardo Paduro can fill those shoes, fine, if not there are other Cuban writers, musician and filmmakers with perhaps greater legitimacy and not so closely identified with the regime.

  • April 17, 2014 at 8:38 am

    There are several women, including Berta Soler who are capable of representing the Cuba people, if they so wish it. There are also many Afro-Cubans who would make a positive contribution to a future democratic Cuba:

    Dr. Óscar Elías Biscet, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, Guillermo Fariñas, & Angel Moya Acosta, to name but a few.

    Orlando Zapata Tamayo, Laura Pollán and Oswaldo Payá were working for a free and democratic Cuba, but they all died under rather questionable circumstances. Rivals to Castro brothers have always had a very bad habit of dying.

    That is yet another predicament the dictatorship has left Cuba in. By thoroughly repressing and marginalizing any and all voices of dissent, there exists no apparent viable alternative to their continued monopoly on power. It is impossible to determine who will be the best choice for leader while a dictatorship still rules the island. The regime labels anybody who is not a boot-licker a “radical oppositionist”. Ordinary Cubans, indoctrinated from birth in that polarized discourse, cannot easily think outside those rigid lines.

    But it is not for a handful of foreigners watching Cuban affairs from the comfort of our homes abroad to decide who would be best. It is the right of the Cuban people, denied by successive dictators for 6 decades, to decide who their representatives shall be.

  • April 16, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    I’d like to make an amendment; it is time for a woman to be one of the principal leaders, too? Any nominations? Also, an Afro-Cuban.

  • April 16, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    I like your choices, Erasmo! Why not all three in a troika? Working together, they could be a new Committee of Public Safety, like Robespierre, St. Just and Couthon (though I would hope they would meet with more success than their predecessors).

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