The Washington Post
By Lisa M. Wixon
Sunday, August 6, 2006; Page B07
I lived in Havana for nearly a year without permission from the United States. I talked to Cubans and found out what they had to say. Nothing bad happened to me. I took notes.
1. Cubans Love Fidel. Cubans also hate Fidel -- and with good reason. Love plus hate, Cuba-style, equals ambivalence. And that ambivalence unsurprisingly turned to concern when it was announced Monday that, on the eve of his 80th birthday, the autocrat underwent serious surgery and provisionally handed power to Raúl, his brother and Cuba's military chief.
Fidel embodies the Cuban persona: bright, scrappy, intense and shrewd. He is hated and loved precisely because he is Cuban.
2. Cubans Want to Meet You. The White House proclaims it can't "assess" the "situation" in Cuba because it's a "closed society."
The society would not be so closed if the current administration hadn't tightened restrictions that ban Americans from visiting Cuba and meeting locals. More egregious is the U.S. economic embargo, which has served only to empower Castro while impoverishing Cubans.
The Cubans aren't sore at the United States; they just want to enter the 21st century already. They're educated, driven and energetic. Cuban exiles, in a short time, built Miami into a world-class city. They became the United States' greatest immigrant success story. Imagine what Cubans could do in their own country.
3. Cubans Do Not Want to Leave Cuba. White House spokesman Tony Snow also said last week that he wants Cubans to realize that "this is not a time for people to try to be getting in the water." Well, the last thing the majority of islanders want to do right now is to try to get in the water.
For one thing, there are hurricanes and sharks. For another, that beachfront colonial they've been hanging on to for 45 years -- which is illegal to sell -- may finally be on the road to being worth something.
But most important, Cubans adore their country. Why would they leave? What they want is to stay home and have economic and political reforms. They know the United States can be scary for immigrants. Our poor are much worse off than theirs.
The White House frets over Mariel: The Sequel. The 1980 Mariel boatlift was certainly a spectacle -- a logistics nightmare in both countries. Yet, despite a six-month window of permission to leave Cuba and be received in the United States, only about 125,000 accepted the invitation. That was only about 1 percent of the population at the time. Hardly a mass exodus. Why would now be different?
4. The Revolution Will Continue. An ideology -- no matter how twisted or righteous -- cannot be ripped away without being replaced by another. Slow reforms and changes that come naturally are what Cubans think is best.
Raúl Castro may or may not permanently inherit Cuba's presidency in the coming weeks. And the Cubans are certainly steeped in Fidel's ideology -- the propaganda machine never ends in Cuba. But the political inheritor of Fidel's fortune is Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, who rips off Fidel's playbook with increasing regularity.
Politics, a la revolución cubana , is on the planet to stay.
5. In a Transition, the Main Chaos Will Be Among Exiles. Cuban Americans have been lusting for the fall of Fidel -- and from their perspective, understandably so -- for such a long while that they forgot to organize past the oft-fantasized funeral. If last week's enigmatic play in Cuba has taught exiles anything at all, it is that the celebration may well be anticlimactic.
There are property claims, lawsuits, split families, and widely varying views on how and when exiles should reinsert themselves into Cuban politics. Without a consensus, the community will splinter.
6. Fidel Will Die -- Sort Of. On the island, the martyred Ché Guevara is the revolution's main icon. This is no accident. Fidel has not allowed any statues of himself to be erected in Cuba (a stunning display of discipline from a long-serving autocrat). When Fidel does go, there'll be no Hussein-like toppling of his marble likeness to symbolize the end of his era.
7. If You're Not Cuban, It's None of Your Business. The Cubans in Cuba will make up their minds how to handle the coming years and inevitable transitions.
Fidel and his ragtag forces were capable of taking Cuba in 1959 because its people were fed up with the system under U.S. proxy Fulgencio Batista. The whole mess will happen all over again if the Cubans are not left alone to determine their own political and social fate. If you do not believe this, read the poems of national hero José Martí.
Politics in Cuba is a family thing. Unless you're part of the family, stay out of it.
Lisa M. Wixon is the author of the novel "Dirty Blonde and Half Cuban."