A Future Beyond Fidel?

By Ileana Marrero
Saturday, February 23, 2008

HAVANA -- I imagine that the outside world sees the latest developments in Cuba quite differently from what we are shown here. Reacting to the message this week from "El comandante en jefe," Fidel Castro, that he is stepping down, Lazaro Barredo, editor in chief of the Communist Party newspaper Granma wrote approvingly the next day that "Fidel has managed to transcend political life to insert himself as an intimate in the family life of the overwhelming majority of Cubans."

In my family this insertion was a very painful one. In March 2003, a group of police officers invaded our home and began a 15-hour search of our small apartment. They took away my husband, Omar Rodr¿guez Saludes, a journalist who dreamed about a prosperous Cuba and wanted our fellow citizens to be happy. Omar was sentenced to 27 years in prison for "acts against the independence and the territorial integrity of the country." In reality, this was for writing articles and taking photos and publishing them in one of the few samizdats that saw the light of day on our island, called -- fittingly -- "De Cuba." The indictment notes tools of his supposed crimes that were confiscated from him: a tape recorder, a microphone, a cable, a battery charger.

My husband, the other 73 men and the one woman detained in this roundup were all declared prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. I have no doubts on whose orders this act of repression was carried out, so I do not view the announcement from El Comandante objectively.

I cannot say that Fidel Castro's resignation as head of state surprised anyone here. We have all seen how frail he looked in the video images that the Communist Party broadcast occasionally over the past 19 months. Seated on a rocking chair, wearing his colorful tracksuit but in no shape to exercise and with his voice hardly audible, he has been an increasingly sharp contrast to the erect figure in his impeccable green uniform who used to speak to us for hours at a time, standing at a tribune or dominating the television screen.

Watching the physical changes in this 81-year-old man, I find it difficult to expect that Cuba will not change now that he will no longer be president, now that he himself announced that all he will do is write his columns, called "Reflections," to be signed as "comrade" and not "comandante." (And perhaps he will continue directing us; after all, as my neighbors have noted, he did not say that he is resigning as first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba.) Yet it is also difficult to imagine a Cuba that is not directed by Castro. I am 38 years old; Omar will be 43 in July. Castro was already the "comandante en jefe" when we were born. We have never known any other Cuba, and we have never been outside our island.

Everyone expects that tomorrow, Raúl Castro, El Comandante's younger brother, will be elected his successor. This prospect poses a quandary. If he is elected, perhaps Cuba will begin to move beyond El Comandante. But then, if he is elected, there cannot be too many reforms, because that would look as if the past 48 years could have been somehow better, possibly implying that the older brother was not doing everything perfectly. Such an admission feels impossible here, because I am sure that the official atmosphere will be reverence and admiration.

I hope against hope, however, that whoever takes over will make simply living in Cuba a bit less difficult: Today it is an ordeal for us Cubans to feed ourselves, to clothe ourselves, to use public transport and to have telephones. (Here we say that Cubans have only three problems: breakfast, lunch and dinner.) I put those prosaic aspects of life even before our dreams of political freedoms -- being able to express an opinion, to travel freely, to own something -- of which I know only from what my husband talked about.

I think that Omar and his colleagues wanted to contribute to such changes, that people would have food on their tables and freedom to speak. But now Omar and his colleagues are dependent on our monthly visits for food, and they are free to speak only inside their filthy cells.

The decision on who will govern Cuba and how my country will be led does not belong to the simple wife of a political prisoner. But given what our family and our country have endured, neither I, my husband nor our three children want any leader of our country "to insert himself as an intimate" into our family life again.

Ileana Marrero is the wife of independent journalist Omar Rodríguez Saludes, who is serving the fifth year of a 27-year sentence in Toledo prison near Havana.

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