They can't believe they're still in Cuba
They can’t believe they’re still in Cuba
By Andrés Martinez, Andrés Martinez is editorial page editor of The Times.
April 30, 2006
IT DOESN’T TAKE LONG to figure Cuba out. The whole island is a stage
putting on a rather austere production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for
Godot.” What’s hard to figure out, as in the play, is exactly what
Cubans are waiting for — even they don’t know.
But that sense of waiting, of a suspended reality, is as palpable in
Havana as is the sticky humidity that corrodes the vintage American cars
and the colonial Spanish buildings. Cubans have been waiting, and
waiting, for years — whether it was for the revolution to fulfill its
promise or to run its course as a result of the Soviet collapse. Neither
has happened, so Cubans are left to await, with a mixture of resignation
and grudging respect, the death of Fidel Castro, who has been in power
47 years and turns 80 in August.
But even that begs the “what are we waiting for?” question, because no
one quite knows what will happen the day after.
Certainly the day after cannot just be about Raul Castro, my host in
Havana. The dictator’s younger brother runs the Cuban military, which in
turn runs the tourism industry, making Raul concierge in chief to the
hordes of German, British, Spanish and Canadian tourists who flock to
Cuba in part to spite Uncle Sam.
In a recent interview with a French journalist, Fidel seemed to dismiss
his brother’s future relevance when he pointed out that Raul is only
four years younger than he is and that another generation would have to
take over at some point. There are a number of other players vying to
succeed Fidel — Vice President Carlos Lage Davila; Foreign Minister
Felipe Perez Roque and Raul Alarcon, president of the National Assembly
— but assessing their relative chances and merits feels like a trivial
pursuit best left to those who can name the last leader of East Germany.
The real question in Cuba is whether the system, in all its kitschy,
anachronistic glory, can survive the only leader it has known, the
comandante who rode into Havana from the Sierra Maestra 47 to serve as
impish nemesis to 10 U.S. presidents (and counting). That’s highly
unlikely, and Fidel seems to know it.
His harsh crackdown of recent years — rounding up dissidents and
reversing timid steps toward a market economy — is driven by his desire
to ensure that Cuba’s socialism outlasts him. But the man who famously
declared that “history will absolve me” when tried by his predecessor
half a century ago must know that history will catch up with this island.
“We are more fidelistas than socialists,” says Lizardo Gomez, a
veterinary student at San Jose University, located on the outskirts of
Havana. Gomez is an earnest believer in the principles of the
revolution, but he concedes that Cuba is unlikely to be a socialist
nation in five to 10 years. He thinks Fidel’s successors will be able to
muddle through for a year or two, but after that, who knows?
He says all this in the back seat of my rental car on the way to the
city of Cienfuegos — the throngs of hitchhikers such as Gomez and the
obligation to pick them up are among the charms of revolutionary solidarity.
CASTRO LIKES to bask in his “Bolivarian” partnership with Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez, and he points to the rise of Bolivia’s Evo
Morales and Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to suggest hemispheric
trends are going his way. But it’s self-delusional for him to ignore the
fact that these and other Latin American leftists were elected, and that
their cities remain teeming bastions of private consumerism, while in
Cuba you’d better not lose your rationing card if you want that bar of
soap you are entitled to every three months.
Cuba’s nightly newscast loves to show fellow Latin Americans rallying
against free-trade agreements with the U.S. The goal, once again, is to
reinforce the notion that events are going Cuba’s way, but the message
“If only we could protest spontaneously like that here,” says Eliezer, a
bookseller in Havana, echoing a common refrain among Russians exposed
quarter of a century ago to scenes of anti-nuclear protests in Western
Europe. “The trouble with this country,” he goes on to say, presumably
ignoring the thousands of compatriots who brave the Straits of Florida
each year, “is that no one is willing to die for freedom.”
Eliezer sells some risque material in his bookshop, but he says the way
to stay out of trouble is to not get air-conditioning (a bourgeois
comfort that might raise suspicions), stay off the Internet and never
learn English. That’s quite a survival guide.
Over in Havana’s Miramar district, Natalia Bolivar, a prominent
intellectual, says: “This is a mystery island where we all manage to get
by fine, thank you, despite such absurdly insufficient rations like a
monthly pound of chicken. We all are scamming something, paying a high
price to live in the land we love.” Her survival guide: surround
yourself with art, music and other forms of escapism.
A collective incredulity that dulls the imagination is afflicting the
island nation’s 11 million inhabitants, akin to the
“I-can’t-believe-I’m-still-here” exasperation Bill Murray’s character
felt in the movie “Groundhog Day.” Cuba’s news radio station is called
Radio Reloj, featuring a clock’s jarring second hand ticking between its
propagandistic vignettes, as if to convince the audience that time is
Most people seem to know that they are living in a Stalinist theme park
— albeit a somewhat whimsical Caribbean version in which the customs
agents who grill you wear fishnet stockings and irrepressible salsa
tunes still waft. But Cubans no longer dare speculate how they will
transition back into the real world.
Church officials worry that much violence, of the spontaneous
score-settling variety, is in store. Diplomats speculate about possible
“precipitating events,” beyond the obvious one of Fidel’s passing. A
botched hurricane response, a la Katrina? Too many blackouts during this
“year of the energy revolution”? You never know. What became the tragedy
of China’s Tiananmen Square was triggered by the death of an ousted
reformer, and protests tied to a visit by Mikhail Gorbachev in the fall
of 1989 helped bury East Germany.
The U.S. embargo against Cuba has long provided Castro a convenient,
all-purpose scapegoat. Yet compared to a previous visit 14 years ago, I
am struck by the extent to which the drama unfolding here, or yet to
unfold, is no longer about us.
Yes, most Cubans I met are bitter that Washington wants to make their
lives more difficult, but on the whole they don’t hold the United States
responsible for their hardship.
Even Castro is downplaying the siege theme these days. He must be torn
between wanting to gloat that he has stared down the empire and not
giving up his scapegoat entirely. In one of his trademark marathon
speeches last November, commemorating the 60th anniversary of his
admission to the University of Havana — hey, any excuse will do — Castro
said Cuba would never bec
ome a colony again: “This country can
self-destruct; this revolution can destroy itself, but they can never
destroy us; we can destroy ourselves, and it would be our fault.”
THE REGIME is busy rooting out corruption and what it calls “ideological
vulnerability,” meaning it doesn’t want to be seduced by the types of
economic reforms that China’s communist leaders have wholeheartedly
endorsed. Castro’s Chinese comrades are wagering that large doses of
economic freedom will keep people so content that the Communist Party
will be able to retain its monopoly on political power. Castro worries
that once you cede too much autonomy to the private marketplace, your
political monopoly is doomed.
Private businesses, and there were never many in Cuba, are being shut
down, and Castro no longer allows U.S. dollars to circulate. Angel, a
former fisherman who works as a government inspector of neighborhood
bodegas that distribute the subsidized rations, acknowledges his country
is a mess. “How are people supposed to live on a half-pound of beef a
month?” he asks, pointing to his rationing card. He thinks it’s
unconscionable that the regime won’t allow people to open up their own
stores if they want.
As we sit in his cramped apartment, he shows off his pirated CD
collection and offers me a Beck’s beer that he obtained because in his
position people like doing him favorcitos.
The regime’s propaganda has become more muted in recent years, at least
judging by the public billboards around Havana. Posters that once
boasted that “we owe everything” to the revolution are now deemed
perilously double-edged. So most billboards now bash the U.S. for
jailing Cubans accused of spying, and for supposedly giving safe haven
to Luis Posada Carriles, an anti-Castro militant who stands accused of a
1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner and who is being held on immigration
charges in Texas, pending a resolution of his deportation proceedings.
Cuba’s more uplifting propaganda is about Castro’s foreign policy, which
is all about turning the country into another Doctors Without Borders.
Some 25,000 Cuban doctors are on missions overseas, and not a day seems
to go by without more needy, grateful patients being flown in for treatment.
That may win some hearts and minds elsewhere, but Castro’s impulse to
dispatch doctors around the globe is creating a backlash at home. “It’s
all very admirable,” says Angel, “but we are a poor nation that cannot
afford this at a time when medicines are scarce here.”
THE UNITED STATES, for its part, must come up with a new strategy to win
over hearts and minds in Cuba as it prepares to engage Castro’s
successors. Even if the administration refuses to lift the ill-advised
embargo, it should find a way to convince ordinary Cubans that their
fellow baseball-playing nation — an older sibling, by virtue of culture
and history — does not mean them harm. Creating a widely trumpeted,
multibillion-dollar transition investment fund to aid Cuba once it has a
democratic government would be a good start.
In the meantime, Cubans continue to wait. No experience is more
emblematic of life in Havana these days than standing in line to enter
the iconic Coppelia ice cream parlor in the Vedado district, a
flying-saucer-like structure in the middle of a park. Uniformed guards
manage the lines that converge on it from six directions. My first
attempt to enter was thwarted by a cop plucking me out of the line and
insisting that I go to an adjacent hard-currency ice cream stand, where
there was no wait. But the next night the confusion of a tropical storm
helped me gain entrance into the high temple of Cuban ice cream.
As luck would have it, I shared a table with two soldiers, Mario and
Ramon, on leave and clearly mortified to be sharing a table with a
foreigner. A waitress hurriedly dispensed bowls of an orangy-vanilla ice
cream — no choice here — covered in chocolate sauce.
My tablemates each downed three of the bowls, and chided me for having
only one after waiting in line for so long. “It’s OK, it was worth it,”
I say truthfully, not because the ice cream was any good, but because I
hadn’t known what awaited me inside.
I hope most Cubans find their wait worthwhile too.