HAVANA -- HBO last night gave director Oliver Stone a forum to kiss up to Fidel Castro. Tom Jicha, TV writer for the (Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel, described Stone's interviews of Castro this way: "His questions are so soft they would embarrass Larry King. Stone basically fills the role of the straight person in an infomercial, asking the host to explain why the product is so great. ... Stone essentially gives Castro an open microphone to make outrageously disingenuous statements (such as) 'It's the people who are in power? My constitutional powers are highly limited.'"
What I've heard from Cubans in communications and while on a humanitarian mission here is very different. A Cuban typically doesn't even refer to Castro by name -- he moves his hand under his chin as if stroking a beard -- but he knows that the dictator's attempt to impose communism has crashed, and that "the beard" is becoming more furious as his failure becomes more apparent.
"The people" are in power only when they break the law by buying needed food on the black market, or by paying for medical care when the state health system fails them. The Castro regime's powers in practice are unlimited -- 75 more people who crossed Castro were jailed last year and given prison terms that average 18 years -- so anxiety is always present. I've seen dire poverty in India and political oppression in the old Soviet Union, but Cuba's combination of poverty plus nagging fear under sunny skies is extraordinary.
One expression often heard in Havana is no es facil (it's not easy). Every aspect of life, from gaining basic material sustenance to traveling across town to remaining psychologically relaxed when any neighbor or associate might be an informer, is difficult. A second expression heard around Havana, ni comen ni dejan comer (they don't eat, neither do they let others eat) comes because churches are ready and willing to do better than the government in helping the poor and particularly the elderly. Officials, though, turn down church requests to build old age homes and even citizen attempts to organize the collection of rotting garbage.
That's because ideologically the state is responsible to provide all social services. Everything compassionate people do is an indictment of government failure -- and 77-year-old Fidel Castro, like Oliver Stone, desperately tries to avoid facing the truth. Many Cubans agree with the beard's favorite slogan, un mundo mejor es possible (a better world is possible), but add one caveat: Only when Castro is gone.
Right now, many Cubans are resigned to peddling in a peleton like those in the Tour de France, with all the cyclists riding together and thinking about when to try a breakaway -- but in this case, no one knows where the finish line is. Many Cubans expect real upheaval -- furious cycling -- to come when Castro dies, but they know that they could end up in prison if they push hard prematurely.
So the waiting game goes on in ways large and small. One young man in eastern Cuba would love to travel abroad and become a great cook, but the best he can do now is short-order work in eastern Cuba. He once got hold of a bag of 20 frozen crawfish and experimented on cooking each one like a lobster, developing recipes that he hopes to use when things open up.
One of Havana's many ironies is that just across Havana harbor from Habana Vieja (the Old City) stands a 48-foot-tall statue of Christ, unveiled on Dec. 25, 1958, just one week before Fidel Castro triumphed. Church attendance is growing in Cuba, particularly in casas cultos (house churches), as many Cubans with insufficient faith in either Fidel Castro or Oliver Stone pray for God's grace.