Thursday 26 February 2009

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About the Cuban President and His Brother)

'It's like taking that CD we're listening to now out of this car and playing it in my car instead'.

It was my father who had just spoken. We were listening to the Chucho Valdes' 'Solo: Live In New York' album on our way back to his house from my grandfather's (my dad's dad) in the countryside and my progenitor was answering my wife's question on whether Cuba's situation (political, economic and social) had changed since Raúl Modesto Castro Ruz had come to power last year to replace his elder brother Fidel.

And my father was not the only one having the same thought. Wherever I went in the Cuban capital people just shrugged their shoulders at the same question whilst shooting me (and not my wife) a 'What-do-you-think-bro'er-don't-play-dumb-with-me-now-you-live-abroad- you-know-how-things-work-in-Cuba' look full of defiance and haplessness at the same time.

But there was one shortcoming which my father failed to take into account when he described the current Cuban president and his ruling style.

The power of the spoken word.

Or lack of it thereof.

I had the misfortune to see and hear Raúl speaking in public, a phenomenon that was almost rare when Fidel was still around. Whereas the latter had a knack for oratory on his side Raúl is the opposite. Please, note the use of the past tense in the verb 'to have' in the previous sentence. More on that later.

Like it or not (and the naysayers will be reminding me in no time to give Fidel a wide berth) Cuba's ex-president had the confidence and flair to speak to a congregation for hours on end. Even if a large majority in the crowd would just as soon be somewhere else. Fidel, in his first thirty years at the helm of the Cuban government (1959-1989) displayed the same qualities the ancient Greeks and Romans showed when addressing an audience. His skill as an orator was one of the most important factors in securing support from the Cuban people. This was also helped at the same time by a very effective secret service (G2) and coercion by trade unions, women, children and young people's mass organisations.

Fidel's earlier speeches reminded people, both abroad and in Cuba, of ancient Athens and Rome where orators enjoyed a great deal of popularity. His stand against the US government in the 60s brought to mind Demosthenes' Philippics against Philip II of Macedon. His use of the technique known as 'tricolon', where a speaker uses three elements to emphasise an idea, saw him declaring in 1961 that the Cuban Revolution was 'of the poor, for the poor and by the poor'. That the poor are poorer now remains a moot point, but at the time, 16th April, 1961, they sounded fresh and vibrant, especially in the aftermath of an aerial attack on Cuban soil the day before.

Other techniques used by the ex-lawyer-turned-president were 'antonomasia' and 'call-and-response'. The former refers to the substitution of a phrase for a proper name, i.e., 'those who want Cuba to sink' (the US government in this case, although, who's sunk Cuba more, a bureaucratic, centralised, pseudo-socialist economy, or the embargo, or a combination of both, remains contentious) whereas the latter draws from the African call and response musical pattern (and as an Afro-Cuban dance tutor and performer I should know).

But I have left for the end Fidel's strongest oratorial skill and the one that enabled him to keep a stranglehold on the Cuban population for so many years (hence the past tense of 'to have' above). It was the Aristotelian triumvirate of pathos, logos and ethos: emotion, argument and character respectively. Raúl Castro lacks all three. Fidel hijacked the first one and made it his, closed down the second one and developed the third one to become a blueprint for wannabe dictators (for a bad example, look at Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president).

All in all, this discussion about Fidel's erstwhile adroit political rhetoric can't mask the fact that slogans cannot be eaten and again we turn to a historical figure, Roman politician Cicero, who argued that the true orator is one whose practice of citizenship embodies a civic ideal.

Sadly that is not the case in Cuba today.

© 2009


  1. Recently finished reading Reinaldo Arenas, "Before Night Falls". Saw the film first. Any unrealistic opinion I may have had about Castro was dispelled.
    Leaders who are great actors can convince the public of almost anything, including patience. I really enjoyed this post!

  2. This is so good I'm just speechless. But I'll say something all the same: Thanks goodness for the stupid brother! I hope it means they won't be able to hold on to power for too many more years.

    As to the ubiquitous phrase you mention, it was copied from Lincoln's “government of the people by the people and for the people... “, so the world "poor" is not - in my opinion - the best equivalent for the Spanish "humilde". But I get your point nonetheless, and couldn't agree more.

  3. My hopes that conditions in Cuba are improving with the new administration are dashed! Thank you so much for this enlightening post.

  4. very interesting post!

    Thanks for your comment yesterday. The getting there part of creating is certainly the most enlightening part, enjoy the struggle and enjoy hearing other people talk about all the weird and wonderful ways they produce work.

    Keep up with the great blog.

  5. I'm glad you're back! Thankyou so much for your comments - it must be wonderful for your father to see you. He must miss you?
    Were you inspired with new choreography this trip?
    Cambridge had sun today - how English am I talking about the weather? :)

  6. Many thanks to all for your comments.

    Rosa, I agree with you and in reality I was torn between 'meek', 'poor' and 'people' as you rightly mention. I went for poor because that adjective allowed me to use the comparative afterward.

    Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  7. Oopsie, I meant that noun, in regards to 'poor'.

    Rochelle, I saw 'Before Night Falls' many years ago when it first came out and loved it. Funny enough the Cuban Solidarity Campaign tried to boycott it here in London and it backfired nastily. I hope Mr Steve Wilkinson learnt his lesson.

    Shaista, it was ever so nice to see my dad and it was even nicer seeing and spending time with my mum.

    Many thanks for your comments.

    Greetings from London.

  8. It will be interesting to see if USA/Cuban relations, especially relating to agricultural policies, change under our new administration. Cuban represents a close-by, potential market for US products, esp. food products....

  9. What I have to say doesn't translate well so I'll just post in "Cuban."

    Yo siempre he pensando que Raul en los ultimos veinte anos se ha puesto mas "interesado" sobre sus ideas del futuro de Cuba. Claro que nunca contradice su hermano en publico, pero, el esta listo para abrirle las puertas al pueblo y tener mejores relaciones con los EEUU, pero solo, para beneficiarce el mismo. En el principio era el mas violente y el brazo fuerte pero como muchos en este tipo de poder se ha acostumbrado a lo bueno. El y Chavez se dan la mano.

    Saludos de la Florida.

  10. Les tengo tanto resentimiento (ya e parado de odiarlos porque el odio come a uno mismo) que no puedo componer una respuesta a este post que suene cojerente. No creo que mucho cambie mi amigo. Me alegro que regresastes y tengas mucho que contar.

  11. Hola Cubano. Menudo artículo has escrito. Buenísimo. Háblanos más de tu Cuba.

  12. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    To Cecile: I think that Obama wants to improve US-Cuba relations but he has two elements to contend with, namely, the more stubborn members of the Cuban-American right (fewer now, luckily, and outnumbered by other Cubans and Cuban Americans who want Cuba to become democratic without any bloodshed) and stubbornness from the Cuban government who whould rather the blockade continued so that they can remain in power longer.

    Liza: Tienes mucha razon. Raul 'doesn't want to rock the boat too much'. Veamos que pasa cuando su hermano se muera.

    Yoli: En reconocer las cualidades oratorias de Fidel, también he dejado ver las deficiencias de un demagogo que ha jodido a su propio pais con tanta retorica politica. A diferencia tuya no los odio porque esa energia la guardo para cuando nazca una nueva Cuba yo pueda ir y compartirla con los que nos la merecemos. A pesar de que sea reformista reconozco que lo poquito que hizo Raul el an-o pasado fue una basura, tapar los problemas con un poco de pintura en la fachada, pero por dentro 'the building keeps collapsing'. Muchas gracias por las contribuciones.

    Susana, este es el principio solamente. Sientate y espera :-)

    Greetings from London.

  13. Very interesting post. Incidentally, I've recently read a book about another prominent Cuban (one who doesn't have anything to do with politics though), Carlos Acosta. It's a wonderful read, fascinating and it has plenty of Latin heat in it. I always wanted to see Cuba, especially since I've learnt of Buena Vista Social Club (and then saw Ibrahim Ferrer in concert)... I'll make my way there one day!

    Greetings from Bloomsbury

  14. Thank you Polly, for your kind comment. I met Carlos briefly a few years ago at the Curzon cinema in Soho. He struck me as a down-to-earth fella.

    Greetings from London

  15. To utter anything other than a note of gratitude would be to show my complete ignorance, but I will anyway. I pray that kindness and compassion win out in all nations (y especialmente en Cuba). I pray that we never see another replay of Las Vegas there, but instead, an amalgam of opportunity for all along with respect for the very dire needs of the poor and with free expression for everyone. And if that works, perhaps we could try it here in the United States.

  16. you wrote: "his was also helped at the same time by a very effective secret service (G2) and loads of coercion by trade unions, women's, children's, young people's and other organisations."

    while this is entirely true, there is also the information factor that castro made a very good use of; this is, a very tight grip on what was allowed to be read, heard or seen by cubans.

    the whole country has a poor, distant and sometimes a very twisted idea of what the outside world is, giving the ruling party the room to work the masses with the fear factor and the most absurd misinformation.

    and that served very well castro in his long and populist speeches, full of slogans and calls to unity against the ghosts of capitalism.

    populace's ignorance, and the absolute lack of watchdogs and dissent, are the platform where castro honed his oratory skills and incendiary barbs against "the people's enemy."

    i know you know all this, but i wanted to pass as a witty guy.

  17. Fully agree, garri, man. I tihnk you got the gist of mya rticle very well. He had the skills already from his years as a practising lawyer. He capitalised on them whilst in power by subjugating Cuba by allowing very little (if any) information from abroad.

    Gabby, I will have you know that for 19 years since the onset of the so-called 'special period' in 1990, Cuba has become a Las Vegas. Only, that this time around it is a very bad version of the famous cabaret. You also mentioned Miami and Cancun in a previous comment. Well, my friend, welcome to the real Cuba! The land of prostitutes and pimps. The only change now is that it is no longer wiht young, fit Yankee marines that they enter sexual congress with, but old, leering, drooling, old men from Italy, Spain, Germany, the UK, and other 'enemy' countries. Sadly, that's what my country's become.

    Many thanks to you both for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  18. Muy bueno, Cuban, muy bueno!!


  19. Muchas gracias, agu.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  20. Muy buen post.
    Fidel hablaba muy bien, manejaba muy bien la información y logró imponer una disciplina y un control excelente.
    Si fue perdiendo el agarre con el tiempo y el pueblo se le fue yendo de la mano no fue porque los cubanos seamos indolentes como algunos dicen, sino porque todas las cualidades anteriores no nos pueden llevar a ninguna parte si no están basadas en un sistema justo y en la práctica de la verdad.
    Al Godar

  21. Muchas gracias, Al.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  22. Thanks for the analysis...and I love that opening CD image which so neatly sums up the what is your verdict on that past tense Fidel dead or alive?? In recent "live" footage that same old tracksuit sure made a lot of appearences!!

  23. Well spotted, Catherine! Ah, the old tracksuit. Really, who cares anymore?

    Many thanks to you both for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  24. This was very interesting to me. I've never understood how F. was able to stay in power for so long. Never considered oratory skills. With the recent US election, much has been made of Obama's oratory skills vs. W (who had none) Fascinating.

  25. You are quite right, diva, to mention Obama as a fine orator.Many thanks for your kind comment.

    Greetings from London.

  26. I really enjoy your writing...keep at it!

  27. Thanks, Jamie.

    Greetings from London.

  28. What I love about almost every post of yours I read is what I learn.

    You never preach. You just write and give us a lesson if we want to take it.

    I don't know if you know this but Canadians love Cubans. It is a national love story.

    Pierre Trudeau and his wife loved Castro and kinda were against the Americans and we all fell on board too.

    I seriously am going to take my cue from you because I respect what you have to say so much.

    Angelique and her family have been to Cuba twice and Nadalene has been once and we were all thinking of going.

    They love the country and think it is beautiful and they love the people they met.

    They did say it is poor but then I always here how educated everyone is and how illiteracy was so high and under Castro is non-existent.

    And don't forget they fought Goliath.

    But you know. You know the truth.

    So tell me. Should I be against him or for him.

    I will always stay for Cuba.

    I actually have a picture of Fidel Castro on my facebook thinking he is Chez? Am I on a bandwagon.

    There was something so sexy about him and his cigar.

    I know you probably think I am a lunatic. But seriously and this never happens, but you know how much I respect you. If I should hate him I will.

    Your lunatic Canadian friend who is taught to love Cuba and Castro.

    By the way I laughed when you called your Dad progenitor. And I think his comment to your wife was fantastic.

    Love Renee xoxoxo

  29. Many thanks, Renee. To hate or not to hate? It's not for me to decide. I believe that individuals should make their own decisions as long as they don't impinge on other people's lives. In Cuba's case, I would say that less romanticism and more pragmaticism is needed when the left abroad analyse Fidel's record in power. To me he presented a viable choice at the beginning but like many others got used to power and developed mechanisms to secure that power and to hold on to it for life. I don't call that progress, I call that backwardness.

    Many thanks for your kind comment. It is very welcome. And yes, Canada is a country that fascinates both my wife and me where we would like to go one day with our children. We're thinking west Canada, I hear it's wilder.

    Greetings from London.

  30. Okay, I'm glad I don't have to hate him. har har

    Canada is a wonderful part of a wonderful world.

    Love Renee xoxo



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