One afternoon last winter in Cienfuegos, Cuba, I sat in line in a dingy stairwell for three hours, waiting in a line. A dozen people or so waited with me: young women in their 20s with toddlers in tow, an older woman impassively perched on the landing’s only chair, and teens gossiping in the corner. A tired-looking, middle-aged man sat with me outside a closed door on the second floor.
Few people actually sit in line in Cuba, even though they theoretically endure hours of lines for everything from taking a bus to paying a phone bill. Instead, a sort of multi-tasking ensues: people mark their place by talking with the last person to join, are then free to go shower, have coffee or run errands. One respects the order, my fellow waiters told me, how else could daily life function? We were all waiting in line to use the Internet cafe in this small city four hours drive from Havana, an old room off the second floor, advertised only by a tiny sign in the ground floor window. Recently arrived, I felt uncomfortable using the Internet, a gray area for Cubans. While most people did not have free access to the web at the time, many corresponded with people outside the country via e-mail and others told me they could access portions of the internet with relative impunity. The computers we were waiting to access permitted users to access their free, state-distributed e-mail accounts–slowing impossibly at any attempt to navigate other pages. I asked my new friends in line about Internet in a country with controlled access to information, but they evaded answering too concretely. A wrinkled older woman next to me gave me a tiny smile. “Don’t go there,” she advised in an undertone. “It’s too deep.”
In a way, it is this gray area, waiting in line without waiting, that doesn’t transmit outside of Cuba. And it is perhaps the reason why the impact of President Fidel Castro’s declaration that he will no longer aspire to nor accept another term in office–and the election of his brother Raúl and a loyal old guard to replace him–will bring about a different change than is hoped for by those who would see barriers to free-market capitalism tumble down on the island as they once did in Berlin.
After fifty years of revolution, the nature of that change is not clear, nor is there consensus on the structure future government might have. Many Cubans shudder at the thought of the end of the Revolution, even as they curse their current reality. They vacillate between quotidian complaints about food and transport and loftier desires for freedom. With little experience in democratic problem-solving, the average citizen seems to have no idea how to proceed.
When I traveled the country one year ago, Cubans were just beginning to think about a world after Fidel, after the Communist leader fell seriously ill in 2006 and world media pundits waited to run his obituaries. I had gone to Cuba, visiting the major cities and many of the towns that dot the island of some 11.4 million inhabitants, chasing a myth. For the US and Latin American left, Cuba exerts a fascinating appeal as the sole revolutionary success in a region historically battered by military dictatorships and economic crises. Growing up in Argentina, adolescent all-night conversations with my friends about our country’s dismal situation always ended with a comparison to the beauty of Cuban revolutionary ideals. Soccer fans emblazon Che Guevara’s image on their flags, and university intellectuals angrily defend the Cuban example. Yet, there is much to criticize, especially in terms of human rights and political repression. The island represents an uncomfortable nexus between an attempt at a more equitable society and the excesses of an undemocratic regime.