Feb. 24, 2011

On Saturdays I follow Father through factories, pool halls,
tool & die shops, lathes echoing off cinder block as we lug
dollies piled high with syrup, ice cream in hissing dry ice,
under blue fluorescent clouds in meat freezers, slipping in
greasy sawdust, his thumbless left hand zipping razor-edged
metal coffins, zziinngggoooopp!, tossing in candy, cigarettes,
Mother's tuna salad, unclogging hot and cold colored snakes
inside soda and coffee machines, cursing and praying to screws
nuts and wires he means nothing to, kibitzing over his always
moving shoulder to men in overalls and suits at DuPonts, Gerbers,
Bonds, Bausch and Lomb's (everyone a war hero!), handing out
free coffee, cashews, Mounds bars, women giggling as his big smile
swaggers down hallways... until we get home in the dark, stinking
of chocolate, coffee grounds, powdered sugar, soured mayonnaise,
his hands red and swollen from slapping a million backs.

"15" by Philip Schultz, from Living in the Past. © Harcourt, Inc., 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 2008 that Fidel Castro retired from being president of Cuba. He'd been Cuba's leader for half a century. The same day, Fidel's younger brother, Raúl Castro, was elected as president.

Raúl was officially voted in by the Council of State, made up of 31 high-ranking Communist politicians serving five-year terms, something roughly akin to the Senate. One way to understand Cuba's voting system is to think about its parallels to the Electoral College of the United States, where voters go to the polls to vote for delegates who in turn cast a vote for the election of the president.

But in Cuba, there's an extra middle layer between the people voting at the polls and the people who actually elect the president. There are the voters who elect the delegates (there are 600 Cuban delegates) who in turn elect the 31-member Council of State, who then elect the president. Also, there is only one party allowed on the ballot: the Cuban Communist Party. Fidel Castro had held power since the revolution in 1959, and then the next person elected was his brother Raúl, on this day in 2008.

When Fidel stepped down, people around the world began to speculate about changes. Raúl is very different from his brother. For one thing, Raúl does not give big rousing speeches that go on for hours. He's actually known for his "inanimate delivery" of speeches. Within months of assuming the office of president, Raúl allowed Cubans to own microwaves, rice cookers, DVD players, and cell phones — all of which had been prohibited when Fidel was president.

Unlike Fidel, Raúl does not blame the U.S. embargo as the root of all Cuba's economic woes. Instead, Raúl admits that it is Cuba's inefficient, unproductive state-run economy that is the problem, and that the government can no longer afford the huge subsidies — in housing, food, transportation, health care, retirement, etc. — which the government provides to Cubans in exchange for paying them extremely low wages. (A medical doctor, for instance, makes about $25 a month.)

Raúl has been making drastic changes to the Cuban economy. Last September, he announced that the Cuban government is laying off 1 million Cuban government workers — that's about one-fifth of Cuba's workforce. Half, he said, would be done within six months. He is encouraging people to find jobs in the private sector, and legalizing a bunch of self-employment service jobs — such as plumbing and construction, working as a clown, and working as a button sewer. In the past, people did these things to make money on the side, since they could not live solely off the earnings from their low-paying government jobs. But it was illegal — a black market service. Now, the government is giving licenses for certain types of employment, which also allows the government to regulate and collect taxes.

For the first time since the revolution, Cubans can legally employ other Cubans to work for them in a small business. Cuba's Revolutionary Constitution defined employing other Cubans for labor as "exploitation"; they were supposed to work only for the state, which would provide them with all the perks of a socialism.

Other changes since Raúl has assumed the presidency: For the first time, Cubans can get loans from banks and borrow money, and they can now buy, sell, and rent homes.

Raúl has encouraged a public debate in Cuba about the new economic measures, and has said that working in the private sector shall no longer have a stigma attached to it (before, it had a stigma because of government propaganda, and because it was mostly illegal). But while he has encouraged debate about self-employment and his other economic plans, he has said that Cuba is "irrevocably" a socialist state, and that Cuba's becoming capitalist again is not an option.

Raúl Castro recently did one other thing that seems to foreshadow more changes: He called a Communist Congress, to be held in April. There is supposed to be a congress every five years, but the last one was in 1997 — 14 years ago. When the meetings do take place, they're usually followed by big policy change announcements. In the same speech he announced the congress, he said: "We are playing with the life of the revolution … We can either rectify the situation, or we will run out of time walking on the edge of the abyss, and we will sink."

Last month, on a Friday in mid-January, the White House quietly released a statement that said, "The president has directed that changes be made to regulations and policies governing: purposeful travel; non-family remittances; and U.S. airports supporting licensed charter flights to and from Cuba." But — according to the British newspaper The Guardian — only Congress can actually repeal the embargo.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of poet, novelist, and short-story writer Maxine Chernoff, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1952). She's the author of American Heaven (1996) and A Boy in Winter (1999).

It's the birthday of Jane Hirshfield, (books by this author) born in New York City (1953). She has published many books of poetry, including Of Gravity & Angels (1988), Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001), and After (2006).

It's the birthday of Wilhelm Karl Grimm, (books by this author) born in Hanau, Germany (1786). He and Jacob, his older brother, published Grimm's Fairy Tales (1812), the first collection of folklore in modern publishing history. The Grimms enlisted the help of acquaintances to find stories, and one of their best collectors was a pretty young woman named Dortchen Wild, and she and Wilhelm got married.

It's the birthday of the philosopher and critic Judith Butler, (books by this author) born on this day in Cleveland, Ohio (1956). When she was a teenager, she went down in her basement to smoke cigarettes, and one day she found her mother's college textbooks — books by Benedict de Spinoza and Søren Kierkegaard — and she was fascinated. Then she started reading Jewish philosophy, because she had such bad behavior problems that she was forced to take a private tutorial with her rabbi, who introduced her to Jewish thinkers. So when she went to college, she chose to study philosophy, and from there moved into fields like queer theory, feminist theory, and cultural studies. And she went on to write many books, including the popular Gender Trouble (1990), where she argued that we "perform" our gender.

She wrote, "Let's face it. We're undone by each other. And if we're not, we're missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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