Fernando Rodríguez is clean shaven, but he makes a pulling motion under his chin as if he’s stroking a long beard.* It’s one of the many euphemisms Cubans use for Fidel Castro. “Este tozudo cumple setenta y dos años el trece de agosto,” he remarks casually. “This obstinate one turns seventy-two on August 13.”
“Obstinate” in living so long? In hanging on to power after almost forty years? A sixty-six-year-old father of five from a tumbledown Havana barrio, Fernando isn’t saying, but he’s clearly thinking both things. Like so many Cubans, he’s attentive to any sign that the leader may be aging, to any gesture that might betray weakening or augur change.
We are speaking one month after Pope John Paul II’s trip to Cuba, and Fidel has just given a seven and one half hour speech that, whatever it may lack in coherence, undeniably demonstrates physical vigor. Before talking informally with dozens of Havana residents from all walks of life, I had expected the pope to be a central topic of conversation. Some results of the visit were already evident—a release of political prisoners, an upcoming high-level meeting with U.S. executives interested in investing in Cuba when the blockade ends. Almost everybody had gone to see the pope, including many nonbelievers. Posters heralding the trip were still visible in a few windows and even atheists recalled the occasion fondly. To my surprise, though, the subject hardly ever arose unless I brought it up. For habaneros, the most extended and passionate discussions revolved around survival—their own and that of the regime.