Autumn of the Cuban Patriarch

Dec 18, 2014
2:14 PM

The prison door creaks open and history is made. Cold turned lukewarm in a spy swap worthy of a Graham Greene novel. Church bells rang in the Cuban capital as President Raúl Castro, dressed in a military uniform and not his usual guayabera, announced the thaw in relations with the United States. Simultaneously, President Obama informed the American people of the normalization of relations from the White House. The split screen of more than 50 years of a Cold War battle crumbling like the Berlin Wall. The beginning of the end of what started in the Sierra Maestra.

Flash back to some years ago. I am sitting at the bar in The Hotel Nacional in La Habana nursing a Cuba Libre, or as the bartender whispered as if in code—“La Mentirita.” (“The Little Lie”) I was looking out at the balustrade from which lore had it Johnny Weissmuller used to dive into the pool below, as Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra watched. Tarzan in the tropics. The frayed former grandeur of the place tinged the night with a certain sadness and the stale odor of dystopia.

My head was pounding from yet another set of double-speak meetings with Cuban officials. I was there as part of a group of executives of the Associated Press, negotiating the re-opening of the AP’s offices in Havana. It had been almost five years of paranoiac back and forths—oiled by countless dinners during which high level Cuban officials happily consumed filet mignon and drank Black Label while blasting capitalism and the United States. I quickly learned that in Cuba what is said is not exactly what is meant. And that the omnipresent voice of God in everything was one bearded man.


I switch back to the present and watch the leaders of the longest running David and Goliath battle trumpet a truce.

The shackles of the past were cut loose by the restoration of diplomatic ties, the planned opening of embassies, the freeing of travel and the easing of the transfer of money and use of U.S. credit cards on the island. The cornerstone of this all—Cuba will very likely be removed from the list of nations Washington accuses of sponsoring terrorism. The floodgates have opened. Next, the embargo.

The thorn that did not let Raúl Castro’s “desire” of a rapprochement with the United States was U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross. (I say “desire” because I believe every morning, before he gets up, Raúl reads a passage of Machiavelli’s The Prince he keeps on his nightstand.) Gross was arrested in 2009 for bringing in satellite phones and computer equipment without the permit required by Cuban law, although some way there was more to the story. The funny thing is that most of the international media on the island already had this type of equipment and the Cuban government had the capacity to intercept it, rendering his arrest more of a hostage taking for negotiation than anything else. Gross and a top level U.S. spy (Rolando Sarraff Trujillo?) in a Cuban jail for more than two decades were exchanged for three Cubans —part of the Wasp Network— jailed in the United States.

Watching Raúl, I was struck by two things. One, the absolute and stunning absence of Fidel. The decision to restore diplomatic relations with the United States was taken without the voice or presence of the man who made it his lifelong compulsive obsession and “his true destiny” to fight against North America. It took Raúl eight years to make the move once he was sure now that his brother was no longer in power. That, more than anything else, in my opinion signals the end of the communist revolution. Fidel is no longer the final arbitrator. The beard is no longer God. La victoria no es para siempre.

The other. In Cuba, simbiology (as I said what is said is not what is) is important. Raúl Castro, sitting in a wood-lined office, is framed by photos of the heroes of Cuban independence:


  • Jose Martí, the Cuban national hero
  • Antonio Maceo, the ‘Titan de Bronce,’ second military chief of the liberating army
  • Máximo Gomez, Dominican in origin, general of the 10 Year War and Cuba’s military commander in the island’s war of independence

Below Martí? A tiny portrait of Fidel in the Sierra Maestra.

Gone are the photos of before of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

In the end, looking like the general in El Otoño del Patriarca, Raúl Castro decided the fate of his people. It was not the embargo, nor pressure from the United States. It was simply that he could do nothing else. There was no where else to go. Cuba is spiritually, morally and financially defunct. The economy grew by little more than one percent, the balseros are again taking to the water, this time due to economic reasons.


Seeing Raúl Castro defiant in his old glory, telling his people that Cuba is still independent, my question is simple: Is this capitulation? The answer I come up with is —when the discourse has been so recalcitrant— any move is a capitulation. Because, in truth, he had nothing more to wait for.

A very good Cuban friend of mine put it this way: “Raúl is distributing the four mierdas that are left in Cuba to his sons. His ‘desire’ of a rapprochement with the United States is only this. His life is coming to an end. He wants to live it out in a regal home in Paris.”


Susanne Ramírez de Arellano_monicafelix-7 (1) Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is the former News Director for Univision Puerto Rico and a writer and journalist living in New York City. She has a blog in El Nuevo Día called Susanne en la Ciudad. Comments can be sent to You can follow Susanne on Twitter @DurgaOne.