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April 2016
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The Big Change

Cuba: The Big Change
Alma Guillermoprieto MAY 12, 2016 ISSUE

One could swear that nothing has changed. The chaotic lines we travelers
form in front of Cuba’s stern immigration officers; their belligerent
slowness; the noise and heat in the too-small room; the echoing shouts
across the room from one olive-green-clad person to another (an argument
or a conversation about the lunch menu, in Cuba one can never tell
which); the parents who stand patiently in line with their children,
waiting for them to go berserk.

Still to come is the long line to have our hand luggage inspected, and
the longer wait for our checked bags, which, mysteriously, aren’t
inspected at all, and the exit line that will take us from purgatory
into Cuba at last, but not before we’ve done one final penance waiting
for a driver who never arrives, and another ten minutes for a shot of
coffee that likewise never arrives, and one last relatively brisk line
to change dollars into the confounding Cuban currency-for-foreigners,
and a short line for transportation that some three hours after landing
is about to take us, finally, into Havana.

And throughout, the increasingly irritated question: Why does it have to
be like this? Why, for the fifty-seven years since Fidel Castro rode
into Havana at the head of a scruffy rebel army, has it always had to be
like this? Really, one could swear that nothing has changed.

And then, BOOM! the new reality. The driver of my spiffy yellow
checkered taxi blasts on the air conditioner and lowers the window to
shout the week’s hit song into the tropical air. He has the manner of
someone on a steady diet of coke or Coke, pays no attention to me,
fiddles with the radio dial, shouts out another song, nearly sideswipes
five ancient cars in quick succession, skids to a halt at my
destination, a residencia particular where I have managed to find the
last available room in the entire city, dumps out my luggage, and
screeches away, on the prowl for more passengers, more guanikiki. You
know: moolah, billete…money!

All around in the old, familiar rattletrap neighborhood of Vedado there
are more surprises: the sidewalk in front of my building is being
replaced; the house across the street is being repainted; the avenue we
just turned off of is freshly asphalted; a construction crane is visible
just behind a block of delicately collapsing Art Nouveau residences.
Everything is changing, or about to change, or promising to change,
because the biggest change of all is about to happen. Barack Obama,
leader of the Marxist Cuban state’s archenemy, is about to land for a
state visit at the invitation of Cuban president Raúl Castro. The stock
phrase being used in the press is that this is “the first visit by a
sitting US president in eighty-eight years,”1 but of course that’s not
the point. It’s the first visit since the Cuban Revolution, the first
since the Bay of Pigs, the first since Fidel brought in the nuclear
missiles that made the world freeze in fear of imminent nuclear
annihilation in 1962, the first since the United States imposed fifty
years of diplomatic and commercial isolation on an island with a
population of eleven million.

There was a history of US-Cuban relations before that, too, and every
Cuban remembers its bitterness. The Spanish-American War of 1898 was the
United States’ imperial adventure in the Caribbean. It did not end when,
after three years of occupation, Cuba agreed to sign the Platt
Amendment. Essentially, the amendment allowed the US to take over
Guantánamo and obligated Cuba to consult with and obey the US at every
move. It was in force for thirty-three years. It’s impossible to
understand the long hold Fidel Castro had on the imagination of so many
of his compatriots—and so many disenfranchised citizens in Latin
America—without this past. Cannily, and also wholeheartedly, he embodied
the hero who led a heroic people in their fervent defiance of the
Yanqui. Lest they slip in their convictions, a billboard in front of the
former US embassy permanently shouted at the señores imperialistas that
Cubans felt no fear of them whatsoever.

The anti-imperialist sign disappeared when Obama and Raúl officially
reestablished relations in July 2015, and now a visitor might suspect
that anti-imperialist socialism has been replaced by a sort of cargo
cult whose deity is Obama. What, I asked, was that enormous decrepit
building in which children could be heard at play? It was a collapsing
school that would soon be fixed. A gulch-like street, a dysfunctional
distribution system, all would be fixed: Obama was coming!

The apartment I shared with a colleague reminded us constantly of how
tough everyday life still is for Cubans, despite the changes. Far above
the standard for the typical Cuban dwelling, it required constant
coping. Nothing worked properly in the kitchen, starting with the
sixty-year-old stove, whose burners went from gas-belcher to towering
inferno in seconds. There were two knives, neither of which could cut
through a pepper I’d stuck in my luggage. Water set to boil in a dented
tin pot soon developed an oily gray skin. At night, one of Havana’s
pet-sized cockroaches winked its antennae at me from behind a threadbare

Nothing could be wasted: the hangers in the bedroom closet whose lower
wire had rusted away had been carefully clipped so that the remains
could still be used to hang blouses on. Every wall was a different
color, according to what small amount of paint the owner had been able
to scavenge on a given day. All this was the best the Cuban economy
could provide in the bonanza years of the twenty-first century, and only
because the owner had relatives abroad who could help finance the
apartment’s renovation. “Now with Obama,” the owner said, in expectation
of renewed trade between the two countries, “I hope I can really put
this place together.”

The joke on everyone’s lips was that Obama should stay in Havana for a
month, because in preparation for his three-day visit more had been done
to fix up the place than in the previous half-century. In fact, the
visit is happening because enormous change has already taken place, most
of it at the urging of Raúl Castro, but there is only occasional
grudging recognition of that. “Things are better,” an outspoken woman I
know said, “but not enough.”

There is no more of the desperate hunger that afflicted everyone in the
days following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Microwaves, rice
cookers, and, most significantly, cell phones can all be legally
purchased, and my outspoken acquaintance can shout her objections to the
way things are at the top of her voice, not sharing my concern that
someone might hear. (A concern that keeps me even now from identifying
almost everyone in this story. The list of Cubans punished for speaking
to foreign journalists is too long, and repression of the formal
opposition too active, to take any sort of freedom of expression for

“What I want to know,” my acquaintance exclaimed loudly, “is why it
takes the Revolution half a century to correct each mistake?” This is an
exaggeration—there were mistakes, like the concentration camps for
homosexuals and Seventh-Day Adventists set up in the 1960s, that were
rectified in mere years instead of decades—but it is tangentially
related to the question that must trouble the mind of those responsible
for the huge current changes: How many mistakes can safely be corrected?
When the house you live in is falling apart, how much can you tinker
with the plumbing, the windows, the door jambs, and the supporting walls
before the whole edifice collapses around you? This is the question
whose answer Raúl Castro has been exploring since he came to power eight
years ago.

Raúl Castro is the fourth of seven siblings born to a Cuban household
cook and a poorly educated Spanish immigrant who made his fortune
growing sugar cane on the eastern tip of Cuba—initially for the United
Fruit Company. Like his older brother Fidel, Raúl grew up as a judío, or
Jew, the quaint term used by conservative Catholics in Cuba for
unbaptized children. (Raúl’s father did not marry his mother until he
was twelve, and so the Castro children could not be baptized.)

Raúl seems to have determined from the start that he could not be
anything like his strapping, handsome, charismatic, brilliant brother.
Small and unprepossessing, he did poorly at school and became expert at
dominating the background. He was with Fidel during his rabble-rousing
university days in Havana and at his spectacularly failed assault on a
military barracks in the eastern city of Santiago in 1953. He was by
Fidel’s side during the exile years in Mexico, and also on the creaky
old yacht that in 1956 carried several dozen men to their disastrous
landing in a Cuban mangrove and subsequent near annihilation by the
dictator Fulgencio Batista’s troops.

Along with Ernesto Guevara, known as Che, Fidel went on to create a
guerrilla army—the Ejército Rebelde—in the island’s eastern mountains.
In part because the United States withdrew its support from Batista, and
also thanks to a courageous civilian opposition, the rebel army
triumphed. On January 1, 1959, Batista fled Cuba, and one week later
Fidel entered Havana. Raúl immediately and cheerfully ordered the
execution without trial of several dozen of Batista’s alleged torturers
and assassins. Raúl then went about the task of consolidating a military
force capable of defending the island against a US invasion. For the
next forty-eight years the younger brother pursued this task, keeping
his opinions to himself and rarely appearing in public. Anyone who
stopped to think about it, however, knew that he was inevitably the
second-most-powerful man in the country.

Because he ran an army, it was assumed that he was rigid and
unimaginative, but those close to the Castro brothers’ inner circle
spoke of Raúl as the tolerant one, the one who made sure all family
members were made welcome at the weekly meals hosted by him and his
wife—a former debutante and MIT student who joined Fidel’s movement from
the beginning. Unlike his brother, he had a quick, self-deprecating
sense of humor and a pragmatic turn of mind. In 2006, when Fidel was
taken sick and announced his temporary retirement, positions in the
National Assembly—the regime’s legislative body—were shuffled in order
to place Raúl in the direct line of succession. Two years later, when it
became evident that Fidel could no longer return to power, Raúl was
confirmed as leader of the Cuban state.

The changes began immediately. “I won’t speak for very long,” said the
man who had spent the better part of his life listening to his brother
put others to sleep in the course of all-night monologues. And indeed,
the newcomer has since distinguished himself by making few and short,
to-the-point announcements, and then doing more or less what he says
he’ll do. Since he took power, cell phones became legal, unused state
land was turned over to private farmers, and for the first time in more
than half a century ordinary Cubans have been able to purchase and sell
property and travel abroad.

The Internet, so feared by hard-line conservatives in the government,
became accessible to anyone with the money to pay for it, or the Cuban
skills needed to get around the pay barrier. Pornography, most foreign
stories about Cuba, and local, independent online publications are still
blocked. Perhaps most importantly, within months after taking power,
Raúl told the actor Sean Penn that he would consider meeting with Barack
Obama if the then Democratic candidate were elected president.

Fidel’s brother has clearly been thinking ahead in a way the aging
Fidelistas in the Cuban Communist Party have not. He may be trying to
modernize Cuban socialism to the point where it is capitalist and open
enough to accommodate the restless generations who are now under
forty-five years of age; he may be dreaming of something like a
Norway-under-the-palm-trees or, more likely, China-on-a-daiquiri.
Perhaps he has the sense that the revolution is finished, that there is
no future in the old dogmas and failures, that sixty years of poverty
and repression are enough, and that he has no real power to control the
inevitable future. Perhaps he is simply trying to ensure, finger in the
dike, that a newly capitalist Cuba does not slide into a morass of
corruption and cynicism.

Meanwhile, Raúl has internal opposition to face, starting with his
brother, who still speaks for the old históricos in the Party. On the
Monday following Obama’s visit Fidel published a meandering, querulous
“reflection” about “Brother Obama,” whose point was hard to decipher,
other than the fact that Obama trod Cuban ground not during his time in
office.2 The gates for Fidelistas to air their irritation in virtually
all the government-controlled media were thus opened, although by and
large the protests are contorted pieces of writing, because they can
attack Obama but not Raúl.

In a phone conversation from Mexico, the respected Cuban historian
Rafael Rojas, who has not been allowed to return to his country since
1994 but studies it closely nevertheless,3 pondered the array of forces
supporting and opposing Raúl Castro. “There is the [internationally
recognized] opposition within Cuba,” Rojas said, “but it has little
visibility inside Cuba because of its lack of access to media. Also—and
this is a delicate subject because it generates controversy—it is
affected by the dynamic of its dependence on the US-Cuban opposition
based in Miami. However, there is another, invisible, opposition,” Rojas
went on. “A reformist current within the various ministries sets itself
apart not only from the orthodox, official line, but from Raúl himself.
It believes that change must come more quickly.”

It’s not easy to see how the economic transition could go much faster:
the difficulties are everywhere, and many people argue that without
economic reform political reforms cannot prosper. A recent online debate
among economists in Cuba and abroad examined the vexing issue of the
Cuban peso (CUPs)—what Cuban salaries are paid in—versus Cuban
convertible pesos (CUCs), which are pegged to the US dollar and can be
changed into foreign currency.4 They are worth about twenty-five times
as much as the lowly peso.

With the peso, and their ration card, Cubans and only Cubans can go into
one of the miserable bodegas that dot every neighborhood and get their
ever-diminishing rations of soap, rice, beans, cooking oil, and not much
more, and also buy the few extra things the bodega has for sale but not
always, like fruit juice or batteries. It is now possible for Cubans to
buy items with CUPs in formerly CUC-only stores. Everyone agrees that
both currencies should be unified as soon as possible, but one problem
is that peso items are heavily subsidized.

Then there is the question of the surplus value, to use an old Marxist
term, that the Cuban government extracts from its workers. Although the
private sector has grown exponentially since Raúl Castro’s reforms,
about 70 percent of the labor force still works for the state, earning
an average of six hundred pesos—about $25—a month. In recent years the
state has allowed a skill-based range of wages for its workers, and so
some doctors now make as much as $67 a month. By comparison, though, the
owner of the private home I stayed in is allowed to charge, in CUCs, the
equivalent of $35 a night per guest, in each of two bedrooms that are
fairly steadily occupied by tourists.

Meanwhile, the state is taking in an estimated $2.5 billion a year by
renting out its doctors to more than sixty different governments. But it
only pays those doctors some $300 a month while their stint lasts, plus
less than $200 that are deposited monthly in a Cuban account, as a sort
of inducement to doctors to return home after their tour of duty. In
essence, the urgent task of unifying the two currencies will require the
government to stop budgeting in funny money, find enough income to raise
wages from their current indecent levels, and somehow fend off the
almost inevitable inflation that will follow.

A member of the Catholic opposition I talked to one morning pointed out
that the full-throttle development Cuba needs will leave tremendous
inequality in its path, and indeed, I couldn’t see how the future was
going to be anything but grim for someone like a taxi driver I’ll call
Marcelo, who drove me around a few times. He was old enough to remember
“a little bit” of how bitter prerevolutionary times were for his family,
who were poor and black. Under Fidel, on the other hand, he had gotten
free health care, a good education, and served abroad in a diplomatic
position; it was no wonder that he was a proud member of the Communist
Party. Now retired, he owned a rusty, rattling Russian Lada, perhaps
twenty years old, whose gearshift popped out of its box every time he
accelerated. The motor tended to go AWOL at stoplights, the floor of the
trunk had rusted through, and the doors opened only from the outside.

There wasn’t much life left in the old thing, but Marcelo, in his
healthy sixties, could still have two decades in front of him, on a
government retirement income equivalent to $7 a month. What was his
future going to look like when his old workhorse gave out, now that the
only way to make ends meet is to work for foreigners and get paid in
CUCs? He didn’t answer the question, nor did he resume his usual cheery
banter during the rest of the ride, and one could easily guess that his
loyalties lay with Fidelista traditionalists rather than the reformist

Whether he sees this transition to its conclusion or gets swallowed up
by it, Raúl Castro doesn’t have much time: he has announced his
retirement following the general elections of 2018, when he will be
eighty-six, and he is pressing for a two-term limit for all public
officeholders. This, in fact, might be the only thing he and Barack
Obama have in common: two leaders on their way out, bent on
consolidating a legacy that their successors won’t be able to tear apart.

On the day of Obama’s arrival the streets were weirdly empty, as if most
of the people of Havana had decided to stay away from any potential
trouble.6 But with each passing hour they grew bolder. Soon enough,
buildings emptied and crowds gathered wherever the arrival of motorized
police heralded an imminent sighting of POTUS. People cheered awkwardly,
not quite sure how to express the thrill they felt.

There was similar awkwardness between the two leaders: smiles and
friendly chatting that reporters with Obama noticed even beyond the
photo-ops, and a press conference Raúl Castro found so annoying,
baffling, unnecessary, and threatening that he talked to his son through
the first reporter’s questions, which happened to be about human rights.
Obama, in his cocky, king-of-the-hill mode, then insulted his aged host
with a theatrical wink at the audience as the old man fumbled with his
earphones. Eventually, an angry Castro challenged the reporter to give
him the names of any political prisoners and the press conference ground
to its embarrassing end.

Although US media declared Obama the winner in the encounter, it hardly
mattered that the presidents failed to charm each other or that Castro
failed to win over the public. Obama is as skilled at public relations
as any US politician, and the leader of a monolithic state hardly needs
charm. Both sides got what they came for, which for the United States
was to establish a mutually advantageous relationship with its
neighboring country. For Cuba, it meant first and foremost doing away
with the embargo, as Raúl Castro explained to Sean Penn years ago, but
this will be for Congress, not Obama, to decide.

The major lobby for a change in the ground rules went to Cuba along with
Obama. Warren Buffett was there, and Google too, along with the
presidents of Paypal and Airbnb and representatives from various
airlines who have negotiated the rights to land 110 flights from the
United States to Havana every day. At a press briefing for journalists
traveling with Obama, Deputy National Security Secretary Ben Rhodes
added that GE and Caterpillar would like to persuade the Cuban
government to buy their products. Also at the briefing was the chair of
the US Chamber of Commerce, Carlos Gutiérrez, an exiled Cuban who as
George W. Bush’s commerce secretary had campaigned hard against any
rapprochement with the Castro regime. He came forward to intercept
questions about human rights by assuring everyone that “the right to
make a living” was a basic human right that would expand through US

The excitement of the investment suitors and their sense of possibility
were mirrored everywhere. Tourists strolled through Old Havana in their
thousands, thrilled by the absolute newness of the place and relishing
the absence of things that Cuba no doubt will soon acquire. Havana is
the city where one is not chased and intruded on by loudspeakers
blasting music in every store: there are no stores, or almost none.
There are no advertisements; no traffic jams; no shopping malls; no
twenty-four-hour Internet and its accompanying addictions; no
supermarkets with their endless rows of choices. A vacation in Cuba is a
respite from capitalism.

During the long, harsh decades under the regime created and led by Fidel
Castro, these austerities were not a source of pride. What moved young
people all over the world and what Cubans of the revolutionary period
valued about themselves was instead their own resilience, their courage,
and their spartan gift for unwavering commitment to a cause. Those days
of heroic faith are over, and perhaps soon the reflex habit of
repression will end too, and there will be no more political prisoners,
who still number in the dozens, and no censorship. “Years ago it was
difficult to hear our music [in Cuba] but here we are,” Mick Jagger said
in decent Spanish. He was addressing an enormous crowd in Havana that
gathered for a historic free concert by the Rolling Stones the day after
Obama left. “Times are changing, no?”

Perhaps no other community felt the regime’s intolerance and persecution
more consistently over the years than artists, but now they are finding
a sense of renewed opportunity and purpose in the Cuban moment. In Old
Havana an installation by the artist Felipe Dulzaides recreates the
school of theater at the legendary National Arts Schools, which survive
in ruinous condition in the suburb of Cubanacán. The schools were a
favorite project of Fidel Castro, who put the architect Ricardo Porro in
charge of the project. Porro himself designed the dance and visual arts
schools, and recruited two friends, the Italians Vittorio Garatti and
Roberto Gottardi, to design the music and ballet schools and the theater
school, respectively. But the vanguard architecture of the schools was
censored by the revolution before all the buildings could be finished.

Ricardo Porro died in Paris in 2014, Garatti returned to Italy years
ago, and the school of theater survives in fragile disrepair, as does
its own wry eighty-nine-year-old architect, Roberto Gottardi, who still
lives in Cuba. At the adventurous art gallery in Old Havana where
Dulzaides is presenting his homage to the school and its architect, he
showed me a video and photo installation, and an exquisite scale model
of the school made by Gottardi’s students. Now, perhaps, the National
Arts Schools themselves might one day revive. “Gottardi has spent the
last fifty-two years trying to figure out how the theater school can be
completed,” Dulzaides said. “To me, that is the perfect metaphor for the
Cuban Revolution today.”

—April 13, 2016

Source: Cuba: The Big Change by Alma Guillermoprieto | The New York
Review of Books –

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