For Cubans and Cuba watchers, it was nothing short of surreal to see the headlines announcing the death of Fidel Castro on Friday night. After so many false alarms, after ten years observing the retired, frail revolutionary play host to periodic visitors, the logical first reaction was healthy suspicion. It was only when Cuba’s ambassador in Washington retweeted the news that it began to sink in that this time was for real.
Back in 2006, when Cuban authorities first announced that Castro was stepping down from power due to illness, predictions of his—and the Cuban government’s—imminent demise were a dime a dozen. Like prior post-Soviet forecasts of Castro’s “final hour,” they proved uniformly untrue. Projections of what will come now should thus strive to be less conclusive, chastened by that earlier experience.
Of course, some things do seem preordained, namely the rollout of Castro’s death internationally—with stock obituaries and preselected photos planned years in advance. On the island, meanwhile, security procedures and funeral protocols have no doubt long been in place. Besides, for remaining loyalists, the man’s demise will never be real so long as his ideas survive, a sentiment that was captured in a poster seen in Havana in 2008. It showed a crowd of Fidels marching in unison above the caption “Post-Castro Cuba,” thus rebuking the transition plans that the George W. Bush administration had previously devised for the island. The founder’s principles, the cartoon suggested, would live on eternally in every home and on every Cuban street.
But if such confidence was debatable eight years ago, it seems even more fragile today. Since the 1990s, Cuba’s much-vaunted claim to national sovereignty has been cheapened by the island’s continued dependence on foreign economic support—whether oil from Venezuela, tourists from Europe, or remittances from the Cuban diaspora. Ideological labels such as socialism, meanwhile, have become increasingly loose signifiers, particularly since the Cuban state began coaxing thousands of laid-off workers into
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