The crowds are chanting outside my window, hoisting carefully crafted signs into the air. There’s a red banner there, and a Palestinian flag, the men and women are dressed impeccably, May Day uniforms of ironic t-shirts, 200-dollar jeans and the perfect sampling of commie-kitsch. […]

HAVANA — The young woman sees me watch in amazement as she gets up from her seat and attempts to carry the four bags with her through the aisle of the plane, and she gestures at them and shrugs.

“There is nothing in Cuba, so whatever we can, we bring.”

It took me a few days to fully grasp what she had told me, being a first-time visitor in a country entering its 58th year of communist dictatorship, and its very first without Fidel Castro. I came here to find out what had changed since his passing, and what was next for the island regime, but to my great surprise it was business as usual, in more ways than one.

On my way from the airport I ask my cab driver if things feel different since Castro’s death. He shakes his head and tells me that even on the night of his passing there was little movement in the streets or commotion through Havana.

“I was impressed, actually. Fidel has been everything, you know? He is the father of the revolution and when he dies – nothing – not a word. They were able to control everything, even then.”

By “they” he means the regime, now taking orders from Fidel’s brother Raoul Castro, and the security apparatus attached to it, with its infamous security service, Direccion General de Intelligencia (DGI) making sure the wheels turn smoothly. It is a simple yet brilliant scheme, where every neighborhood has an informant, reporting to the Comites de Defensa de la Revolution (CDR), a secret police in charge of keeping tabs on counter-revolutionary activity, and every infraction or sign of disloyalty is met with stern and immediate consequences. Given the dire straits of the people in Cuba, the regime is not willing to take any chances, having experienced revolutions in the past it knows not to allow the flame of change to be ignited.

With a monthly salary of $30 USD per person, supplemented with a fixed portion of rice, eggs and beans, the people of Cuba have been forced to use every opportunity to make some money on the side in order to avoid starvation. This has resulted in a shadow-society to take shape within communist Cuba, a society that is highly capitalist in every single way. I get evidence of this en route to old Havana one day, when my driver stops for gas and is told there is none left, only to leave the car with a fistful of cash and return later, car filled-up and ready.

“This is what we call the Cuban way. You see, the gas station belongs to the government, so the only way for these men to earn something extra is to sell gas to the highest bidder and deny those who can’t pay. I call it communist capitalism.”

The same is true everywhere you go: people cooking the books to fill their plates and fight their way out of desperation, and as a tourist you accept it and move on, constantly struggling with the guilt of living here in a bubble that everyday Cubans will never be privy to. To outsiders, the combination of poverty and oppression and the recent loss of the symbol of the revolution would inevitably result in a turn toward democracy and capitalism. But as the regime does its best to convey, very little has been buried with Fidel.

The Cubans I have spoken to are proud of their country. Even though they criticize the regime, under promise of anonymity, they are quick to add that they don’t necessarily want Cuba to become the United States or just any other country in the West. When I ask them if they believe that democracy and capitalism will come to Cuba now that Fidel has left and Raoul is on his way out, they respond in the negative, saying that whatever will come next will be a Cuban version of those things, an adaptation from what it is now.

And the way things are looking, they may be right. Rumor has it Raoul Castro has already reshuffled the government, replacing generals and ministers with his personal confidants so that he will remain the unofficial leader even after his assumed successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, is sworn in as president in 2018. This ensures that even though Fidel is dead, the spirit of the revolution lives on, and the Cubans I’ve spoken to fear that the regime will take steps to emphasize the status quo by tightening its grip on the population.

It is not an improbable scenario, but rather a common tactic for totalitarian regimes when dealing with dramatic shifts, as most recently seen in Iran after the nuclear deal, where executions and imprisonments have risen dramatically during and after the rapprochement with the West. There is an important difference, however, and that is that Cuba is unlike many other countries of its kind, and that difference may actually be a hindrance in its journey toward democracy.

One thing that sets Cuba apart from other totalitarian regimes is the romance that surrounds it, still, despite the thousands of extrajudicial executions and arbitrary imprisonments, a ruined national economy, and denial of basic freedoms of association, religion, movement, and speech having taken place in the past 58 years. Even those who do not hold an ideological torch for the communist revolution are still enchanted with the country’s beauty, charm, and lust for life, making it easier to disregard the daily crimes committed against its people and quell the international community’s instinct to intervene.

Cuba is truly magical, and yes, it is full of life, but once you step outside of the lush hotel garden you see that it is life on the brink of death, magic existing in a state of suspended animation.

 

This is made possible by the geographical and cultural proximity to the U.S., loosening of sanctions and the idea of Cuba being kept alive through and by the booming Cuban tourism industry. This process is quietly supported by the regime itself because, ironically, the only way for the communist revolution to survive is by covert capitalism, keeping the population from starvation, and turning a blind eye to this keeps the oppressive communist regime from having to admit defeat.

There were no rallies through Havana on the eve of Fidel’s death and now, almost 4 months later, he has already moved from leader to martyr, cementing a well-directed legacy. Life goes on for the Cubans, with or without the father of the revolution, as they watch tourists flood their Island paradise, hoping to benefit from some of the overflow.

Cuba is lively and loud – full of life for days of play. But when it really matters, it is quiet – its people’s fate decided in silence, without so much as a word.

 

This article was first published in Washington Examiner and RealClearPolitics

I really thought I knew.

I mean, I had written about it, raised hell, and described it to the world. During Operation Pillar of Defense, I held a rally in support of Israel and gave a passionate speech: “15 seconds,” I said, ’15 seconds to make sure that you and the people you love are safe”. Imagine the terror, imagine the fear, and imagine not knowing the outcome. And I thought I knew — because I had seen it on YouTube, because I had read about it, and because I had spoken to those who lived it. How much more could there be to it? Turns out quite a lot more.

A week ago, I boarded a plane to Israel with my two sons. It was their first visit, and the excitement was palpable. We had rented a small house in TLV, just between the beach and Shuk HaCarmel, and for five straight days my kids called every day the best of their lives.

I was preparing dinner on the eve of the sixth day, waiting for my friends to arrive for one last night of food, wine, and talking all night. My children were sitting at the table watching a movie. Then I heard the sound — like the entire city was wailing with pain. The loudness of it is so frightening that it takes a few seconds before I even understand what I am hearing.

My first thought is that I have no idea what to do. I throw a bottle of water and a bag of chips in my purse and tell the kids we have to leave. They ask why but I can’t answer. I just keep saying “we have to leave, we have to leave, we have to leave’. We run into the street and I see hordes of people running in the same direction. A group of men from the shul down the street, an old woman carrying a pink bag heavy with vegetables, a small family just coming back from a day at the beach. They disappear into the building across the street, so I grab the kids by the hand and I follow them.

The room is cool — or maybe it’s just me shaking with chills. Children are sitting on the floor. A young man is on the phone with his mother. My own children are quiet and the oldest is fighting back tears, watching my face as to see how scared he is supposed to be. I am just about to try and tell them something when I hear the boom. It’s so much louder than I had expected. I feel it in the floor, the impact traveling through my entire body. There’s a young man nervously laughing. He’s one of those guys I’ve seen at the beach, flirting with girls and wrestling his friends in some ancient macho display. I watch his face and see that this is still someone’s child. He is scared but he can’t show it. I am too — and I can’t either. I know I have to keep it together for my children. I know I need to have a plan. We leave the shelter after about 15 minutes. My children are talking, but I can’t hear them. I am trying so hard to figure out what has just happened and what it means for the hours to come. Fortunately, I’m not allowed to indulge that neurosis for too long. Soon my garden is full of friends. We hug and laugh and go on with our lives just as too many in Israel have to do all too often.

It’s one of the strangest nights I have ever experienced. Now and then we hear blasts, stop to check our phones, and relay our position and status via various forms of social media — then we grab another drink and tell another story. My friend gets a phone call. Her son is being called into service. There’s a shadow running across her face and I want to hug her but I am not sure that I should. She knows this life — and her son does too. She is the strongest woman I know. She is a fighter and a survivor and she chose the life that her son is now being sent to defend. She must hurt, but she doesn’t show it. So I don’t hug her, but I let her finish her story, pretending that this was somehow normal in any imaginable way. There was no sleep that night. I stayed up, watching my children sleep next to me, frantically checking the news. We’re supposed to get on a plane back to Sweden the next day, but at this point I just don’t know anything apart from the fact that we’re safe right here, right now.

At 8 AM the next morning, I was fully packed and ready to leave. The kids and I were having breakfast, waiting for the cab when the siren went off again. We ran into the shelter across the street. The boys were weirdly ready for it that time. I was too, with the bag ready to go, standing by the door. The kids found a dog to play with and somehow they made it into playtime while I flinched at every loud boom that followed. We went straight from the bomb shelter to the airport. I was upside down and inside out and all I could think was that I shouldn’t be leaving. Not now, not ever. This is my home and leaving in the midst of crisis felt like ripping my heart out piece by piece.

I thought I knew but I didn’t. I thought I had felt fear but I hadn’t. I had 15 seconds to grab my children and get to safety. I felt the fear, I knew the terror — and I didn’t know the outcome. When I got back to Sweden and put my kids to bed I went out to the balcony, sipping on a glass of wine. Suddenly there’s a boom, and I flinch, spilling the wine all over myself. A child across the courtyard had thrown a box of toys from her balcony and now she was looking at me, startled by my reaction.

And for the first time since all of this happened, I cried.

I cried for my children having to go through that. I cried for having left my true home in its time of need. I cried for my brothers and sisters, still there, still grabbing their kids by the hand to find safety in less than 15 seconds.

When we got off the flight to Sweden the first words out of my youngest son’s mouth was, “Mom, I miss Israel, when can we go back?’ And I knew we would be ok. Their memory of the first trip to our homeland would not be the shelter or the siren. It would be how they walked around feeling normal and accepted as Jewish kids; it would be the smoothies at the shuk; playing in the waves in Tel Aviv and petting a cute dog in what happened to be a bomb shelter on Daniel Street. We will all be ok. Because the strength of Israel is not only its army, it’s the people, making a life and building a world where others would surely crumble. It’s the love and the strength and the will to survive, embedded in our very core.

I thought I knew, but I didn’t — and now I know so much more. Yes, I know the fear and the panic, but I also know that, while I was scared for a while in Israel, I am frightened in Sweden all the time. Israel is home, and it is the only place I want to be now, in good times and bad times and in all the times in between. In its darkest time, it showed me and my sons more love, humor, and compassion than they have ever seen in their “peaceful” place of birth.

So yeah, I know now. Not just the terror and panic part, but also that there is no way my people are not going to be OK.

Speaking up for Israel is an act of supreme bravery in South Africa these days, particularly if you are a member of the ruling African National Congress. After more than two decades in power, the ANC is becoming discernibly more hostile to Israel with each passing year. The small number of activists inside the movement who have questioned this policy have rapidly become political outcasts.

[…]

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