Since I was frequently in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the last two decades of the Cold War, a recent visit to Cuba brought uncanny reminders of that other multi-nation community. There were the routine queues outside what might or might not have been small department stores, or offices, or even banks, but nobody seemed to know exactly what commodity they were expecting to find. For many years there has been rationing, even for essential foodstuffs. And the queues? 'Well,' said my Cuban companion, 'they are actually queuing to find out what the queue is for'. These were precisely the words I used to hear in Prague, Budapest or even Moscow in the early 1970s. As Fidel Castro, the last of the charismatic political titans of our era, approaches the end of his extraordinary life and has accepted that, in his eighties, he can no longer continue, the people of Cuba, apparently resolute but often understandably disconsolate, seek to come to terms with an uncertain future.
Making history has been a preoccupation ever since Castro graduated from law school in 1950. He says now that the Cuban revolution began with the first War of Independence in 1868. But it was in July 1953, a few months after the death of Stalin and only weeks after an anti-Communist demonstration in East Berlin, that Castro, in the hope of fomenting a people's uprising, led an unsuccessful assault on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba.
He was tried and sent to prison, only to be released two years later. His zeal undiminished, he set out once again in 1956, with Che Guevara and others, to achieve revolution. On January 8th, 1959, the revolutionary government was installed and quickly dubbed a 'police state' by paranoid Americans. Castro was made commander-in-chief. Until this year, having survived an estimated more than 600 assassination attempts, and eighty-one years, he was still addressed as 'Commandante'.
Eastern Europe was of course part of what was called the Soviet empire, an agglomeration of states with a common determination--at least among its ruling elites--to achieve a nominal sort of egalitarianism. To survive commercially, they made use of their own common market, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, or Comecon. To some extent, and despite regional variations, it worked.
After their own revolution started, in Castro's words with 'no money' and 'widespread ignorance of economics', Cuban policy-makers became enmeshed in this Moscow-led amalgam of states. For nearly thirty years, they received selectively given economic and commercial support which helped ensure that, somehow or other and despite a succession of vengeful presidents in the White House, their country, survived.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba entered what its historians now remember as the 'special period', when many outside the country predicted that it also would soon collapse. Castro himself said, 'No one would have wagered one cent on the survival of the Cuban Revolution. The country took a stunning blow when, from one day to the next, [we] were left out in the cold, all by ourselves, and we lost all our markets for sugar, and we stopped receiving foodstuffs, fuel even the wood to bury our dead in.' Economic turnover fell by thirty-five per cent in three years, and yet, despite the US-led economic embargo, a social and cultural infrastructure seems to be firmly in place.
On the home front, Castro described his administration being engaged in a fight against 'several manifestations of corruption' in the management of the economy. Some East Europeans would have talked like that. More than 90 per cent of the people who have left the country, he argues, have done so 'for economic reasons', while 85 per cent of those who stayed now own their homes. 'No one,' said Castro, 'worships or praises the values of the rotting consumer societies. …