Saturday, January 3, 2009
Cuba starves for spirit of old
Central Havana on New Year's Eve: 50 years after Fidel Castro led a band
of rebels to victory over dictator Fulgencio Batista, many Cubans have
few possessions – with poor wages, they have little cause to
celebrate.Central Havana on New Year's Eve: 50 years after Fidel Castro
led a band of rebels to victory over dictator Fulgencio Batista, many
Cubans have few possessions – with poor wages, they have little cause to
Photograph: Enrique De La Osa/Reuters
ANALYSIS: As hard times bite, Cubans show little appetite for
celebrating the 50th anniversary of the revolution, Rory Carroll and
Andres Schipani report from Havana
CARMEN GONCE remembers the triumph of Cuba's revolution as the happiest
day of her life. Fidel Castro and his guerrillas swept down from the
Sierra Maestra and delivered the island from a corrupt and brutal
dictatorship. People danced in the streets and welcomed the "bearded
ones" into their homes. It was January 1st, 1959, and a time for hope.
"We were nearly all Fidelistas," she said.
Half a century later, the girl of 15 is a pensioner of 64 who watches
sunsets over the Caribbean from a cracked chair on the balcony of her
Havana home a few blocks from the Karl Marx theatre. Much has happened
since that day, yet it seems close enough to touch. "It feels just like
Gonce still supports the revolution's principles and is grateful for a
recent heart bypass operation. "A top surgeon – and I didn't pay a
cent." But celebrating the anniversary is not an option. The former
author and book editor is nearly destitute.
She has no money for decent food, cooking oil or soap, let alone treats.
So she will stay at home, follow the anniversary commemorations on TV
and reflect on a process that has simultaneously inspired and
impoverished her. "The ideals are good but the reality of daily life . .
." Her voice trails off.
The ambivalence reflects the complex legacy of a revolution which
invested in health and education, crushed dissent and provoked
admiration and revulsion. Cuba reaches today's milestone with the echo
of the prediction Fidel Castro made from the dock as a young
revolutionary in 1953: "Condemn me, it does not matter. History will
Well, did it?
THERE is no disputing the revolution's durability. It survived the Bay
of Pigs invasion, the missile crisis and the Soviet Union's collapse.
Castro outlasted 10 US presidents and dodged countless CIA assassination
attempts. Absolution or not, history will certainly remember him.
Castro (82) resigned as president last year because of an intestinal
illness, but his recent partial recovery has revived his influence. His
brother and successor, Raúl (77) signalled modest reforms, but they have
stalled. Barack Obama has promised to ease draconian US restrictions and
shake up a policy pickled in vinegar since JFK.
"It feels that the end of the story has not been written. Nobody knows
what is going to happen and that is unsettling," said Daniel Erikson, a
Cuba expert at Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.
One safe bet, however, is that there will be no mass outpouring of
jubilation to mark the anniversary, for a simple reason: living
standards are dire. "Our situation is so precarious nobody wants to
celebrate," said Gabriel Calaforra (75), a former ambassador and
high-ranking official. "There is almost total indifference. People are
waiting for change." The authorities have booked popular musicians for a
free concert at the Anti-Imperialista Tribune on the Malecón, Havana's
seafront, so there will be dancing. But joy, like so much else on the
island, will be scarce. The struggle for decent food and basic goods
makes people obsess about vegetables and conserve everything from soap
to toilet rolls. Few are in party mood.
Material hardship was eroding trust in the system, said Erikson. "A lot
of people think the revolution has important accomplishments but
pervasive scarcity puts economic questions at the front of their minds."
The government blames the long-standing US embargo. Unquestionably, it
has wrought havoc, but most analysts say communist central planning,
stifling bureaucracy and lack of economic freedom have proved even more
The state controls about 90 per cent of the economy, obliging almost
everyone to work for it, but pays an average monthly wage of about €12.
A ration of rice, beans and other staples, and supposedly free public
services, keeps people alive but does not avert grinding poverty.
To buy goods in the few decently stocked shops, Cubans must change
near-worthless pesos into convertible pesos, a dual currency worth 24
times more that was designed for tourists.
"After I pay my rent, I have $2 left for the month," said Miguel (32), a
whip-thin hospital doctor. As a favour, a European friend recently
married Miguel to help him obtain an exit visa. "I want to get out," he
Poverty reeks from the decaying, overcrowded buildings of central
Havana. Though from a distance they are picturesque, up close you see
the grime and smell the plumbing. Likewise, the 1950s Chevrolets and
Fords, surreal mechanical marvels, lose their charm if you are a
sardine-wedged passenger or pedestrian choking on the fumes.
Cuba became dependent on tourism after the end of Soviet subsidies in
1991. With a casual tip dwarfing state wages, scientists, teachers and
other professionals quit their jobs to become waiters, chambermaids and
taxi drivers. "Our most brilliant minds – serving coffee," lamented
Alvaro, a university lecturer turned tour guide.
EVERYONE has some type of sideline – selling knick-knacks, baking cakes,
pilfering state resources. "A population of hustlers and
mini-capitalists, that's how our communism survives," said Luis (42), an
academic who rears pigs in his garden.
The government knows its legitimacy and longevity hinge on raising
living standards. After succeeding Fidel last year, Raúl announced minor
reforms: more privately run farms and taxis; greater wage flexibility;
and permission to stay in hotels and buy computers, DVD players and
Some things have improved. Hundreds of Chinese-made buses have eased
transport shortages and subsidised Venezuelan oil has helped to banish
power blackouts. But reforms have stalled, disappointing Cubans and
"It's in limbo. Raúl unleashed expectations but apart from agriculture
very little is happening," said a senior diplomat. The official
explanation is that three summer hurricanes devastated crops and
infrastructure, wrecking 500,000 homes and causing damage worth $10
billion (€7.2 billion). The global economic downturn and a dive in the
price of nickel, a key export, have also hit state coffers, forcing Cuba
to reschedule debt payments. The crippling US embargo compounds the woes.
There is suspicion that Fidel has been doing his bit to slow reforms
since his health reportedly improved. His regular newspaper articles are
sharper. "There's a sense, oh-oh, Fidel's back," said the diplomat.
Raúl-inspired calls for bold self-criticism and a "revolution within the
revolution" have ebbed.
In the absence of material improvements, the revolution's legitimacy
rests largely on healthcare and education, success stories that have
given Cuba first-world rates of infant mortality, life expectancy,
literacy and university graduations.
Gonce's bypass operation shows the system at its best. Many hospitals
and polyclinics have been overhauled and modernised. But the system is
creaking. Under a barter deal for Venezuelan oil, more than 20,000 Cuban
doctors are working overseas and foreign patients are leapfrogging
queues. The result is delayed treatment and overworked staff, said
Miguel, the doctor who hopes to emigrate.
Education is also under strain because so many teachers, fed up with low
salaries and an ideology-imbued curriculum, have quit. Adolescents
straight out of secondary school have been recruited to teach classes
with the aid of video cassettes.
"Pupils are not encouraged to think freely, to develop their own ideas
and curiosity," said Enrique (25), a disillusioned teacher.
Che Guevara's egalitarian dream long ago gave way to division between
the dirt poor and those who have access to foreign currency through
tourism jobs, remittances and government contacts.
Raúl's cautious reforms have underlined that split by giving the
privileged minority more opportunities to consume. You see them snapping
up Sony wide-screen televisions, Paco Rabanne perfume and Adidas
trainers in shopping centres like La Puntilla, out of bounds to most but
with a poster of Fidel's revolutionary exhortations at the entrance.
Most Cubans are black or brown-skinned but most of the shoppers here are
white – just as top government echelons are white.
"Equality was and still is supposed to be one of the pillars of the
revolution but now there are people with loads of money," said Eduardo
(56), a historian. Too broke to treat his wife on their wedding
anniversary, the former Young Communist did not care to celebrate the
Despite the sour mood, there is little public protest or even graffiti.
It would change nothing and you could get fined or jailed, so "why
bother?" is a common refrain.
A rare demonstration in Havana by the "ladies in white", an organisation
of relatives of jailed dissidents, was instructive.
Clutching flowers and leaflets about human rights, about 30 chanted
"liberty" from the steps of the Capitolio before filing through busy
streets, tailed by plainclothes policemen. Not one passerby cheered the
Lacking funds, media and grassroots organisation, the opposition is
isolated and largely unknown. For US policymakers that is reason to
despair. They have long counted on the so-called "biological solution":
when Fidel Castro died, his ramshackle regime would collapse. That has
turned out to be wishful thinking. The commandante has seamlessly
transferred power to Raúl and his inner circle.
Not only will the revolution outlast him, Fidel can die feeling
vindicated. Not long ago, he was an international pariah, but a new
generation of leftist regional leaders has feted him as a symbol of
Latin American pride and nationalism. And prescience: his critiques of
imperialism and capitalism resonate in the light of the Iraq war and
global economic crisis. "Cuba is returning to where it always should
have been," Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's president, said at a summit last
month. "We are complete."
AFTER half a century, Fidel Castro's experiment has significant
accomplishments and glaring failures. Historians will struggle to
untangle the political and social meaning. Diplomats will try to
anticipate the next and possibly final chapter. It will be left to the
11 million people who live on the island to decide if the "bearded one"
who swept down from the Sierra Maestra is to be absolved.
For Luis Poey (69), a guard at the entrance of the Association of
Veterans of the Cuban Revolution, the answer was obvious. "In this
country, one lives proud all the time. We fought giants and that made us
a giant." He jabbed his thick cigar: "We are still fighting."
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times