It must have been around 2001, while I was Registrar at the University of Limerick, that I was asked to host a visitor from Cuba who had expressed interest in the Irish software sector and, in particular, in how UL worked with industry though industrial placements and industrially funded projects. Such visits, by representatives from less developed but ambitious countries, were not unusual – I remember the excellent bottle of rum left by a delegation from Martinique – but this was the first from Cuba. I was intrigued, sharing the general liberal fascination with this feisty Caribbean nation, though conscious that it was by no means the workers’ paradise preached by some.
On the day, I greeted a heavy-set, quiet and bearded man who introduced himself as ‘Jose-Fid’ and asked that I call him by his first name. His card, as chief scientific advisor to the Cuban government, told a wider story, giving his full name as Jose Fidel Castro Diaz Baleart. It may seem incredible but I did not infer that he was in any way related to Fidel Senior, at that time still the all-powerful President of Cuba. I suppose I thought Castro was a common name and since he – Jose-Fid – did not allude to anything political or to his family or relations, I didn’t query him either. So we talked about computing, software development, the nature of industry in Ireland and especially about the best way of training future software engineers. His own background was in nuclear engineering – he had a PhD from Moscow University – but he had been involved in computing, which he called informatics, for many years and was promoting a government plan to establish an ‘informatics university’ just outside Havana.
For many years my wife and I had hoped to visit Cuba fearing, as did many others, that we might leave it ‘too late’ and that the coming, as we thought, inevitable thaw in US-Cuba relations would soon transform Cuba, both good and bad, into a standard less developed Caribbean nation complete with tacky souvenir shops, advertising hoardings, fast-food outlets alongside rampant deprivation. We got a good airfare for the last day of 2008, booking an Air France flight via Paris to Havana. Now comes the embarrassing part. I made email contact with Jose Fid telling him we’d be in Cuba during early January for 10 days, 6 of which would be spent on an organised tour of the west of the island. Politely he replied that he’d be busy for the first few days but that on the last full day of our trip he would love to host us for the day. Since the late 60’s I’d learned much about the Cuban revolution and its aftermath. I’d read of the guerrillas triumphant entry into Havana and of course I knew the year and date it had happened but I didn’t make any connection with our arrival being on 1 January 2009, exactly 50 years since the revolution’s culmination. Of course Jose Fid would be busy – there was a revolution to commemorate after all – but I just assumed he’d other things to do and was happy to take up his offer of meeting on our last day in Cuba.
Our time and Havana and on tour passed quickly. Impressions were manifold and contrasting. A proud people with reason to be proud but hungry to live and not just survive. Outspoken and uncowed in their criticism of the regime (but not Fidel) and yet not fully free either. Impressive medical and educational facilities even in remote areas being constantly undermined by the perversity of a twin currency system that caused surgeons to work as taxi drivers to supplement their incomes. One resort we stayed at had a specialist doctor to care for scuba divers but she also gave massages as these were paid for in exchangeable pesos. Overall it was a country in a controlled but unsustainable situation facing growing uncertainty as the revolutionary generation passed, reluctantly, into history having failed to foster a generation of successors.
The morning after we arrived back in Havana we were collected by a friendly young man driving a Hyundai minivan. He took us to the nascent Informatics University just outside Havana, Jose Fid’s pet project and the reason he’d been so interested in visiting UL. We were met by the man himself and a group of colleagues, mainly women, who were lecturers and admin staff in the college. The training model they had adopted involved the senior undergraduates working with a (state-owned) campus company on the development and delivery of software systems for both non-profit and commercial organisations in Cuba and a few overseas. I recall that they were providing the infrastructure of a modern immigration control system in Venezuela. It was noticeable that the colleagues deferred to ‘Dr. Castro’, as they called him but there was no questioning the high personal regard in which they held him. The ‘Informatics University’ was taking shape in what used be the USSR’s largest overseas intelligence station. Recounting tales of its previous use allowed our hosts to express their abiding loathing for their Soviet overlords who, they claimed, had stripped the site of everything – even pulling the phones off the walls – when they withdrew in 1990. We were told that ‘mass graves’ had been found – to the horror of the Cubans – indicating that ‘rendition’ wasn’t a CIA monopoly. Next stop was lunch in the Havana Club. It was surreal to walk through panelled hallways, past a pantheon of US movie stars from the 30’s and 40’s, and enter a beachside dining area where we were plied with exquisite food by a uniformed and thoroughly professional waiting staff. Jose-Fid was accompanied by his (second) wife and by his eldest son (from his first marriage). The latter spoke good English and joined in the animated conversation. I began by remarking to Jose-Fid that the Club seemed like a very exclusive place but he countered that it was ‘open to anyone’ but accepted they’d need many convertible pesos to afford the prices. When I questioned the wisdom of the twin currency system he was defensive saying that it was a necessary evil to fend off the twin threats of creeping dollarisation of the economy and abject poverty. The ‘local’ peso could buy local produce which ensured people could subsist, even on modest incomes, while the convertible peso, linked, unofficially, to the dollar, provided a fig-leaf of independence from the US currency. He wished for the day when, with economic growth, they could end this arrangement and have a strong independent currency. As for political developments, he was more forthcoming than previously. Yes he understood why I advocated multi-party democratic elections but Cuba was not yet ready for that, being under constant subversion and threats of invasion by its mighty neighbour. He was pleased and surprised at Obama’s election but cautious in his hopes for significant improvement in relations. With obvious pleasure he told how, a few days before, on the 1st of January, he had ridden into Havana on a tank, re-enacting the triumphant entry of his father exactly 50 years before. It was the only time I recall him mentioning his father. After lunch he posed for photos with us and we parted with assurances of continuing collaboration. None of this materialised however. I didn’t learn Spanish as I’d intended to do which limited my usefulness to their project. Surprisingly few of the IT staff or students spoke English. A few years later I had an invitation to attend a ‘world congress’ in Caracas, which was to focus on the potential use of IT in redressing the North/South imbalance. No doubt I’d have found the congress was dominated by Hugo Chavez but pressure of work meant I couldn’t go in any event. I
It was in February of this year that I heard, casually, that Jose-Fid had died, by his own hand, about a month before. I found a short article by Newsweek – which didn’t enlighten me much except to confirm the bald facts of his passing.
https://www.newsweek.com/fidel-castro-diaz-balart-cuba-suicide-fidelito-fidel-castro-797917 I contacted Jose-Fid’s office and his colleagues emailed that they were still shattered by his death. I don’t know the current state of the Informatics University but, whatever its state, it will surely miss his knowledge and leadership.
I’m left to wonder why he would have taken his own life. The Newsweek article said he suffered from depression and it may be as sad and simple as that. But it cannot have been easy for a shy, modest but immensely aware person to live his life in the shadow of a twentieth century icon, all the time knowing that the revolution they had all espoused was slowly withering away due, partly, to its internal contradictions but, ironically, probably far more due to the ubiquitous spread of informatics, as Jose-Fid would have called it.