It’s Tuesday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Rays are playing the Cuban national baseball team in Havana, and I cannot keep my eyes off Raul Castro whenever he is in the picture. He reminds me of my ex-father-in-law, a Polish economist, now in his eighties, who simultaneously rooted for and hated communism all of his life. He spent his entire career in the Department of Commerce, selling cheap construction materials to third world countries. The Reds activated and de-activated him at will: Countries could suddenly be removed from his portfolio, for fear that he was getting too intimate with his customers, or the whole portfolio could be taken away, so that he would spend the next year staring at the walls of his office, until some apparatchik would suddenly walk in to inform him that he could go back to doing business in Africa and South America. After his retirement he ended up designing intellectual games that nobody wants to play, and whenever I visited with my family he could not leave me alone, trying to explain the intricacies of his latest game to me and then hoping that I would play with him.
Those memories come back when I see Raul Castro sitting next to Barack Obama in the baseball stadium, constantly badgering the other president with some opinion that has to be translated by an interpreter, so that Obama has to turn backwards and cannot watch the game. I recognize Obama’s reaction as my own from years ago: Polite but slightly annoyed, with a look on his face that says ‘will he ever stop?,’ while simultaneously realizing that he cannot be rude, because he’s trying to fix the relationship with Cuba, just like I could not be rude because I was trying to keep my marriage intact. Awkward is the only word that adequately describes Raul Castro’s behavior, and during the almost two days that Obama has been in Cuba now there have been plenty of awkward moments. It started when the authorities decided to arrest members of the ‘Ladies in White’ – who were peacefully demonstrating for the release of political prisoners, as they do every Sunday – a couple of hours before Obama’s arrival, and it continued during a joint press conference the next day, when Castro was asked to release Cuba’s political prisoners.
Raul didn’t appear to have all his marbles available to him, was taking his headset off so that he could not hear the interpreter any more, got angry, and told the journalist who had asked the question that it was inappropriate to ask him about political prisoners. Then he told that same journalist to give him a list of political prisoners and promised to set them free immediately. I don’t know if Raul ever got that list, and the topic was not revisited, but I sure hope he did.
Obama tried to nudge Castro into answering a question from Andrea Mitchell, whom he called ‘one of America’s most respected journalists,’ but Raul had had enough and only stammered ‘Andrea, Andrea’ a couple of times before trying to raise Obama’s hand while they walked off the stage. Obama resisted the gesture and let his hand drop, which was the last awkward image of the day.
Raul or not, I cannot wait to get to Cuba. I learned in Poland that (almost) former communist countries are the most fun when ‘the head of the dragon is dead, but the tail is still alive.’ Once the tail of communism is dead, Cuba will be just another Caribbean island. Still great and beautiful, but no longer this special.