Cholera in Cuba
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What Does a President Do?

What Does a President Do? / Yoani Sanchez

Translator: Unstated, Yoani Sanchez

The question of the title was inspired by Fidel Castro himself when, on

March 28 of this year, he asked Benedict XVI, "What does a Pope do?"

Beyond the childishness of the question, it made me reflect on what any

president would say if we inquired about his agenda, how a dignitary

would narrate his usual day-to-day. Surely his schedule would include

participating in the council of ministers, receiving other presidents,

overseeing the functions of state, being present at public acts, plus

this or that speech on particular dates.

The list of his responsibilities, of his commitments, would be long,

from the hectic days in the presidential palace and the difficult

discussions in the congress or parliament. Perhaps he would even preside

over factory openings, or sites of social interest, and hold more than

one press conference with the national media.

If the president is a statesman with a marked populist tendency, he

would probably have to leave time to have his picture taken with

children, snapshots amid a walkabout, and to be filmed distributing

refrigerators, rice cookers and water heaters. He would put long

speeches on his daily activity list, a variety of interventions where he

talks about genetics in an auditorium filled with scientists, and about

intensive grazing before sunburnt farmers.

Because, for political egomaniacs, the presidency is like a stage where

every day there must be a lavish and intense spectacle. So they divide

their days between true executive tasks and the work of self-promotion,

in obvious showing-off to stay in power. But what happens when the

maximum leader of a country offers no evidence of meeting even a small

part of his agenda? What can we do when citizens don't have the

slightest mechanism to know whether our president is working or not?

So far in 2012, Raul Castro has given very few signs of industriousness

in office. If we count the hours he has appeared in public, the speeches

he's made, and the trips he's taken… we have to conclude that his

productivity is extremely low.

Repeated absences from international events, summits and regional

meetings, highlight to his lack of activity. Just one short

international tour in the eight months of this year, to reliable allies

such as China, Vietnam and Russia. But we add to that almost no travel

in his own Cuban territory.

He did not go to Sancti Spiritus provence at the end of May to see with

his own eyes the devastation left by the floods. Nor did he go to Granma

province where — after a century with no reported cases — a cholera

outbreak has so far caused several deaths. Nor did he go to some of the

Havana and Camaguey hospitals where the numbers of those infected with

dengue fever is climbing into the hundreds.

One could say that his public appearances have been limited to welcoming

a few foreign leaders, a speech at the First Conference of the Cuban

Communist Party at the end of January, another at the National Assembly

in July, and a few brief words at the commemoration of the assault on

the Moncada Barracks.

Beyond that we have no evidence that the General President is assuming

his responsibilities or — on the other hand — that he's not on a

permanent vacation. Especially because nothing suggests that far from

the spotlights, the former Minister of the Armed Forces is undertaking

frenetic political and organizational activity. The slow pace of Raul's

reforms disprove that possibility.

It is worth noting that this is not a demand that the current Cuban

president maintain the same omnipresence his brother had in the national

media and in the smallest details of the lives of eleven million people.

Nor that, in a frankly demagogic approach, he start to make us believe

that he is aware of everything when in reality he spends more time in

leisure than in working. It's definitely not about that.

But the exercise of an executive job implies mobility, efficiency, long

work days and sacrifice. If this man of 81 is not able to fulfill his

presidential agenda because his physical and mental capacity don't allow

it, then resign. A country can't be administered "once in a blue moon,"

from the palace couch, and much less by showing up only on significant


In February of 2013 it will fall to Raul Castro — as he himself declared

— to begin his second term, after having inherited power through

consanguinity. He then has the option of waiving his continuation in

office, given his apparent inability to perform the major

responsibilities involved in running a country.

He could vacate the post for some substitute… most likely one he himself

would designate. But should he decide to continue and cling to power,

will there be another five years of sporadic appearances and a few

public events? Of long silences and absences at the times and places of

crises? A new period of having to ask sarcastically: What does a

president do? What does THIS president do?

26 August 2012

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