In the last act of Castro's Cuba, a search is on for a new beginning
In Havana last week the trucks were busy replacing vintage American and
Soviet fridges with new free models from China. Fidel Castro may have
left centre stage but the revolution stutters on and as they head to the
polls today Cubans are left wondering if it has run out of spiritual energy
Sunday January 20, 2008
The tangerine sunlight, deepening as dusk approaches, strokes the
peeling stucco of Havana's colonial ruins, every doorway teeming with
life, the streets pounding with libidinous music.
But what everyone knows – every believer in the revolution which is
proclaimed from the murals and every chica strutting her stuff; every
old man slapping dominoes on to a fluorescent-lit table and every woman
hauling her load – is that the sun is setting on more than just another
day. And that as Cuba prepares for yet another cosmetic election today,
and next year's 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro's proclamation of
revolutionary victory (over which the stubbornly ailing jefe, or chief,
no doubt plans to preside if he can last the final stretch), the
fortress island is on the brink of fin-de-something. They also know that
much more is crumbling – and in places being restored – than the
magnificent cracking façades, and that change blows on the sea breeze
across the Malecón promenade, where boys dare each other to dive and
The nature of that change is as mercurial as Cuba itself: where strident
communist doctrine and tropical hedonism cohabit, where the superficial
impression of quick-hit, sensual exotica (beloved by the ubiquitous
tourists) belies canny preparations for Castro's death, and hides those
yearning for transformation out of the country's hardships.
The more President George Bush denounces Cuba, as he did last month,
calling it a 'tropical gulag', the more the communists heave a breath of
life, for nothing unites Cubans more behind Castro and his brother Raúl
– 'temporarily' at the helm – than a sense of righteous isolation from,
and defiance of, the bully across the straits after half a century of
Hoardings proclaim that 'To threats and intimidation, Cuba responds: Más
Revolución!' – More Revolution'. But after 50 years revolution has
become a vernacular business, and last week the streets of Havana were
crammed with trucks loading and unloading fridges, the government having
decided it was intolerable for people to have to put up with vintage
American, and latterly Soviet, refrigerators and to replace them free
with new Chinese ones – as though fridges told the story of patronage in
Cuba over three generations.
But as one sage close to the government said, 'Marx never came to the
Caribbean', and just as Soviet apartment blocks along the white sands
seem incongruous – Leningrad del Mar – so does the notion of a narrowly
'Chinese model'. There is a consensus among both the government and its
opponents that whatever happens next should be in some way Cuban, and
there is no assumption that Starbucks and McDonald's are headed for
Raúl Sarmientos pours a glass of rum on his terrace and, with the
confidence of the raconteur he once was on Cuban television, says that
'the young generation is even more dedicated to the revolution than we
were'. Perhaps he knows this is rubbish, perhaps he does not. Sarmientos
is a co-ordinator for the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution
(CDR) in the Vevado quarter – the political neighbourhood watch. Yet
even this loyal son of the revolution admits that 'there have been
terrible mistakes' and that 'in five years things will be very
different. Although the protection of the Soviet Union was essential for
survival, it was a terrible economic model'. Then he produces his
photograph album featuring himself with Che Guevara's widow, Aleida
March, and his own wife with Castro. Does he miss all that? The TV
raconteur of cliché looks suddenly human. 'Yes. Of course.'
Sarmientos fails to convince, but not so Wilfredo Morales Lezca, a
candidate for the provincial assembly in today's elections – in which no
one is opposed but candidates need enough votes to qualify for a seat.
It sounds like a production line for political hacks, but talking to
Lezca in his tiny bedroom stacked with physics books and decorated with
pictures of Fidel and John Lennon takes you by surprise.
With disarming honesty and breadth of knowledge, 27-year-old Lezca, a
mathematics teacher who shares this humble flat with his 93-year-old
grandmother and other family members, says: 'You may be surprised to
learn that the communist movement in Cuba is quite young, although it's
hard to convince the generation that watches Friends on television and
has this fantasy that capitalism means money and that kind of lifestyle
'They compare what they have here not with our neighbours but with the
developed world, and remember only the hard years here after the Soviet
Union collapsed. They have no idea of the sacrifices and hard work which
have gone into what they have, like a good education and health service,
despite the embargo. Yes, we have some problems with drugs and crime,
but they're minuscule compared to our neighbours, never mind the United
But as Lezca points out, 'a single country in the modern international
market is like an ant in a herd of elephants', and so co-operation with
China is inevitable. The shift in Latin America from rule by military
juntas to widespread social democracy is also pivotal to Cuba's future,
as illustrated by Brazilian President Lula da Silva's visit last week.
'We can now integrate Cuba into the new Latin America,' says Lezca,
'trading our strengths for those of others, as friends and neighbours.'
But second-guessing the survival strategy of Cuban communism in a
capitalist world is not easy. The veteran Cuban journalist Angel Tomás
González believes the key to change is the army, and its commander, the
'temporary' leader, Raúl Castro.
'Fidel's problem,' says González, 'is that he genuinely dislikes money.
He was educated by Jesuits and remains an atheist Jesuit, wearing
fatigues instead of the frock. That's why there was no problem between
him and Pope John Paul.' The army, on the other hand, is 'reformist, and
it has no problem with money. For a while the army has run its own
commercial enterprises with some success.' Raúl Castro, he says, is
surrounded by two groups: 'the generals, and think-tanks of advisers who
are mainly young. In some ways, the change everyone is waiting for has
But to presume that Cuba changed is Cuba reformed is an illusion.
Apart from the loud-mouthed Cuban-American right in Florida – whose
threat of return and a CIA-fuelled menace of civil war has faded over
time – there exists a less bellicose opposition within Cuba. And seeking
it out over the years is like peeling an onion, as it passes from
generation to generation.
When I visited Cuba five years ago, like everyone else I made for the
doyen of opposition, Elizardo Sánchez, surrounded by photographs of him
with former US President Jimmy Carter. But Sánchez conceded he was no
longer the driving force and directed us to the home of an electrician
called Oswaldo Paya in the dilapidated colonial barrio of Cerro. As
humbling as he was humble, Paya's narrative, beneath a picture of the
Sacred Heart, recalled meetings with Polish reformer Lech Walesa in
Despite persistent harassment, he was organising a petition calling for
the upholding of specific democratic clauses in the Cuban constitution.
It was called 'Proyecto Varela', after a Cuban nationalist democrat.
Next thing I knew, Carter was beating a path to Paya's door.
Paya is still in Cerro, his greeting warm but his manner haunted,
fastening the door to talk lest our conversation be interrupted by the
political police. Castro's Keystone KGB has made life hell since we last
met. The signatures for democracy were duly delivered and on Paya's wall
is a photograph of the moment. He points out his companions: 'Antonio
Díaz, sentenced to 20 years. And Regis Iglesias, 18 years in prison.'
Many were arrested soon after, and others during, the 'Black Spring' of
2003, which no one noticed beyond Cuba because the political police
rounded up its quarry on the day the invasion of Iraq began. 'Hundreds
remain jailed,' says Paya. 'We have no idea how many.'
There will now be, says Paya, a new movement, the Cuban Forum, for 'the
legal institutionalisation of human and civil rights. We don't advocate
a loss of those values which grant free public health or education, and
we don't want privatisation so that the poor stay poor and the rich stay
rich. We simply say that to force people to choose between social
justice and civil and human rights is a false fork in the road. This is
not intellectual activity, this is the fruit of people who have suffered
repression every day of their lives.'
Just as Sánchez led us to Paya, Paya's allies now recognise yet another,
younger force. Generation Y is an internet site run by Yoani Sánchez,
32. She runs the site from a Yugoslav-designed tower block, having
previously worked for a digital magazine called Conenso, whose tactic
was to be respectful of the government it assailed.
'We always called him Mr Fidel Castro, she says, 'but never El
Comandante or the bloody regime.' She founded Generation Y 'as a means
of free personal expression – an exorcism of fear, enabling people to
say online what they are forbidden to say on the streets about their
lives and experiences under this government.
'We're not encouraging people to be dazzled by savage consumer
capitalism like they were in eastern Europe,' she says. 'It's the
polemic of the government which dazzles people with capitalism. Here, if
you see someone wearing an American flag, they're probably Cuban. If
they wear Che Guevara, they're probably a tourist.'
The problem with her project is that most Cubans have no access to the
internet and, though the opposition onion may peel youthwards from
generation to generation, it emerges that among her inspirations is a
name I know well, and that of no sapling in Cuban history.
Nearly 15 years ago, I encountered the remarkable Eloy Gutiérrez-Menoyo
in Miami. He had been a commander on the revolution's Escambray Front
but, appalled by what he saw as its betrayal to the Soviet Union,
mounted his own 'revolution against the revolution', for which he was
jailed for 22 years. He passed seven of those years in solitary
confinement playing chess against himself in his head and composing
poetry, later set to music by Cuba's great singer, Albita Rodríguez.
After he was released, Gutiérrez-Menoyo defected to Florida, where he
set up Cambio Cubano to campaign for peaceful change in Cuba, lobby
against the US embargo and call for dialogue with Havana. For this, his
offices were firebombed by Cuban-Americans. He joked: 'If the communists
jail me and the right wing want to kill me, I must be doing something
right!' He promised in 1998 that our next meeting would be in Havana.
'Impossible,' I replied.
After winding through Havana's elegant Miramar suburb, the concrete
jungle of Soviet Lego bricks begins, but it is not hard to navigate a
way to Gutiérrez-Menoyo's apartment because every child whipping a top
knows his name and speaks it with awe.
'So you were wrong!' jokes Gutiérrez-Menoyo, 'but not entirely – in
theory I don't exist in Cuba. I have no identity card and no right to a
home. But they couldn't stop me coming back, where Cambio Cubano
belongs. I am engaged in activismo,' he says, 'for democracy, free
unions and a free press.'
Despite his age, Gutiérrez-Menoyo tours the country. 'People say to me:
"Eloy, when is the change coming?" But I have to be careful, because
although the authorities don't arrest me yet, they do molest anyone who
talks to me and passes on our ideas and literature.'
Gutiérrez-Menoyo is so insistent on the independence of the Cuban
opposition that he criticises other dissidents for being too close to
the US. 'I fought one revolution which was betrayed to the Soviets and I
don't want another for the sake of the US. In Miami I fought the right
wing against the embargo on Cuba, now I am fighting the embargo by the
Cuban government against the Cuban people.'
One wonders why the Cuban government bothers to persecute Paya's and
Gutiérrez-Menoyo's movements and why it continues with this pale, but
resonant, imitation of communism beneath the palms. Most Cubans pay the
revolution little heed, but respect Castro in their carefree, patriotic way.
The restless desire for change is everywhere. At the Estadio Changa
Mederos, Raúl and his mates are watching Havana's second baseball team,
the Metropolitanos, being thrashed by the provincial side Camagüey.
Every player, says Raúl, wants to play for the New York Yankees.
'Wouldn't we all want to go to New York?' he shrugs, as Camagüey whack
another jonron (home run) past third base and the white line in the dust.
The Rubén Alvarez school, with its focused pupils in smart red scarves,
remains the envy of any parent of children in a capitalist country. But
in the studious tranquillity of the quadrangle at Havana University,
students from the computer science faculty bemoan the fact that if they
stay in Cuba they will, like doctors and engineers, be paid a fraction
of the salary earned by street-cleaners.
Román has found a wife-to-be in Birmingham in the UK, and says: 'When
people leave, it is used as something political by the government and by
its enemies – betraying the revolution or fleeing communism. But it has
nothing to do with politics, it has only to do with economics.'
The result is that the slow, calculated pace of change may now have to
hasten, as Fidel Castro ails.
In her flat above the Havana skyline, Julita Núñez Pacheco stares at a
picture of her husband, Adolfo, staring back from a button reading
'prisoner of conscience', as Amnesty International declared him and 74
others who were arrested suddenly over three days during the Black Spring.
'In Cuba,' she says, 'you see open people, open faces, doors and
windows. But inside every Cuban is their own policeman, only the
policeman is getting weaker.'
Discovered by Columbus in 1492, the island was ruled by Spain until it
gained independence following the Spanish-American war of 1898.
It has 11 million people and a land area of 110,922 sq km.
The US has imposed a trade embargo on the country since 1961.
Annual subsidies from the Soviet Union of up to $5bn helped develop
strong health and education systems but ended with the collapse of the
Soviet system in 1991.
In 1994, the US promised to take in 20,000 Cubans a year in exchange for
Cuba stopping the flow of refugees.
The lease for the US's Guantanamo Bay base can only be terminated by
mutual agreement or if the US decides to abandon it.
The official literacy rate is 99.8 per cent.
The Cuban American community in Florida numbers one million. In 2006
alone, the US Coast Guard intercepted 2,810 Cubans attempting to reach
The official unemployment rate is 1.9 per cent.
The average monthly salary is $10-$15 but accommodation, healthcare and
education are free.