The style of political rallies in Cuba has aged along with the speakers. The public used to stand in the plaza and echo slogans in chorus from beginning to end of the proceedings. Now they only shout a Viva! now and then, when the orator leaves a suitable pause.
Several rows of chairs up front enable party big shots to attend the show in a seated position. Some chairs, for the even bigger shots, even have cushions. Behind them, the standing crowd knows the routine. At one point a television announcer introduces the choir for a rendering of the national anthem. Then comes a reading of the names of those in line for some medal or distinction, each to be presented with a cordial embrace. The high note comes with the speech of the leader, who ends by shouting slogans that convulse the crowd. Such is the script of every Cuban political rally, with few variations indeed.
The political rallies are taking on the physiognomy of their organizers
But now and then variations do indeed occur. One took place on July 26, in the province of Ciego de Ávila, when Raúl Castro, the expected orator, remained seated far from the microphone. In his place, one of the government's most orthodox voices took the floor.
Order, discipline and rigor were the key notes in the speech of José Ramón Machado Ventura, vice-chairman of the Council of State and Ministers. It was far from the rousing tone used by Fidel Castro in his interminable orations. Unlike the Commander, this functionary was not involved in the assault on the Moncada Barracks 58 years ago - making him the first speaker who, for two years running, has delivered the star speech on this day's rally, without having taken part in the military action it commemorates.
Machado Ventura's appearance was charged with symbolism: his lack of personal brilliance, his unattractive rhetoric, are a way of saying that the days of charisma are gone. No longer is a rally all about hypnotizing the multitude to inspire them to do some uplifting thing. It is more about scolding them for what they haven't done. The triumphal harangues of yesteryear have given way to language that has all the urgency of a skipper in a foundering boat.
But perhaps what led Raúl Castro to delegate his speech was not just the absence of news and results suitable for announcement. Three months after the sixth Congress of the Communist Party, the implementation of the promises made during it has been desperately slow. The younger Castro's performance is decidedly lukewarm. And last year some 38,000 Cubans left the country, tired of waiting for something to happen.
Many expected from him a speech clarifying, for example, what has become of the optical cable from Venezuela, which ought to be operative by now, rendering internet access this July. Some even fondly expected a change in the migration laws - a straitjacket that prevents Cubans from freely entering or leaving their own country.
But when Raúl Castro's turn came, the dull bureaucrat only talked about overcoming prejudice against the "non-state sector" of production - one of the received euphemisms for the taboo term "private enterprise." He thus bought a little more time, until January 2012, when there will be a new party conference - at which it is hoped there will be some debate on the outlawing of all other political parties. Meanwhile the country can watch as a further huge volume of Cubans find their way out of the country, unwilling to wait any longer.
The political rallies are taking on the physiognomy of their organizers. A couple of hours later, all we could remember was the silence of Raúl Castro and the image of his personal escort, watching him with hawk-like eyes; and as background music, the drone of Machado Ventura's clichés and the uniform applause at every programmed pause. Up in the sky the sun offered the only bright note in the leaden opacity of the occasion.
Yoani Sánchez is a Cuban journalist, author of the award-winning blog Generacíon Y.
© Yoani Sánchez / bgagency-Milán