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.
“The worst problems we have are food, transportation and housing,” said a blue-shirted clerk at a rations store just outside of Havana. As he spoke he also measured out the week’s ration of crackers for neighborhood women coming in one afternoon. He deftly put the plastic bags they brought with them on a scale and scooped in the appropriate portion of hard, round crackers, later checking off the appropriate slot on their ration booklets.
He explained very carefully the economic conundrum faced by most Cubans: “We get a basic food basket, and that’s very subsidized. It’s supposed to last a month, but it can’t, it lasts two weeks. So people have to get a little more, like at a farmers market or elsewhere. But that’s more expensive. You have to find a way, invent something.”
Behind the clerk, samples of items covered by the ration booklet, labeled with the negligible cost and how often families are entitled to each item, sat forlornly on the shelf: a cup of rice, one of beans, a carton of cigarettes, a bar of soap.
Asked about Castro’s eventual death, the clerk furrowed his brow. “I’m 42, I’ve never had another leader. I don’t know what happens,” he said with a shrug. And it is difficult for anybody to really know, he said. “There’s no free press here, you know.” And there can be no opposition “because there is only one party, and you have to do what they say, or else they make you disappear.” But one of the shriveled old women buying her rations interjects. “I saw what it was like before,” she said, showing her toothless gums and shaking her scarf-covered head. “I don’t want anything to change.”
Cuba’s government has attempted to be dynamic in adapting over the past decades–in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse Castro allowed limited private enterprise and began the “rectification of errors,” admitting to the repression of homosexuals in the 1970s. Because the government frequently admits to mistakes, and can blame the United States for difficult economic situations, people can say leaders are working on perfecting the revolution. Revolution is an ongoing process in Cuba. Things are always changing, Cubans told me. Cubans don’t necessarily see more economic flexibility and political freedom, the most desired reforms, as incompatible with a revolutionary system.
In fact, the idea of the large-scale changes advocated by free-market liberal theory remind many Cubans I spoke with of the poverty and chaos they saw in Eastern Europe during the transition from socialism in the 1990s. They see the fall of the Iron Curtain as an entirely negative event. The USSR’s dissolution, specifically the cessation of its subsidies, caused an economic crisis in Cuba known as the “special period.” People still share horror stories of real hunger and hardship endured during the last time change came to Cuba, and their complaints take place within this framework.
“Most leaders here have no idea what they’re leading. It’s the same to them if the bread gets here at six in the morning or at nine,” an engineer said to me one night while repairing the fridge. We were chatting with other acquaintances in the indoor patio of a colonial-style house in Sancti Spiritus, a sleepy provincial capital outside of the tourist beach circuit. Flies buzzed around scraps in the adjoining kitchen as we drank endless rounds of sugared coffee. The engineer, in his early 30s, had heavy bags under his eyes from working late hours as a repairman to make ends meet. “The Cuban system is good. We lack sophistication, but it’s good.”
A surgeon, dropping by for a family visit, partially agreed. He knew about the world that existed off-island, having traveled several times to Mexico and Spain for medical conferences, and he saw little benefit in becoming more like them. He sees little benefit to certain types of political freedom. When I asked this group of educated and engaged men if they desire political change, they all stopped mid-sentence to stare at me, as if I had lost my mind. As if I hadn’t understood what they just told me. The illusion of individual power to effect, held dear in liberal democracies, is missing here. Change is something some wait for anxiously, while others expect none or dread the idea–but should things change, it will be something done to people, not by people.
A drunk friend soon stumbles into the room, waving his Communist membership card under my nose and asking me if anything “outside” could possibly equal the marvels of the Cuban system. And with that, the political conversation was over.
A sense of distance from the rest of the world pervades in most people’s conversations. Their dreams are abstract, concretely they don’t expect change. Most people I spoke with who oppose the government are not counter-revolutionary. Rather, they feel the ideals of the revolution have not been lived up to. It was like trying to communicate with a society operating in a parallel universe.
Mario Enrique Mayo, a former journalist, speaks more freely than most Cubans. He had written stories alleging government corruption with funding from Miami-based Cuban exiles, which earned him a prison term as a counter-revolutionary. He was jailed in 2003, part of the group of seventy-five journalists arrested that year. “Let’s say [Castro] dies tomorrow. It’s not going to be the apocalypse. Fidel is dead, but there is a chain of command, very prepared people. And they’re not stupid.”
Mayo ran his hands through his short salt-and-pepper hair, speaking of himself as a lover of the revolution despite his incarceration. He sat in his front hall in Camagüey, the centrally located, third-largest city on the island. A tiny room piled high with papers is visible through one doorway and through another a bleak kitchen, lit with energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs–the only kind available to average citizens.
He described how, as a young lawyer, he struggled with the feeling that the regime had strayed too far from the ideals it claims to espouse. “It’s a series of small fears that turn into a generalize terror. There is an almost perfect system of control, and the people perceive that,” Mayo said. “Behind everything people tell you is the fear they are inculcated with since school.”
That truth was brought home to me one night while standing with a butler while waiting for a friend at a private residence in Havana. As we started talking, he let loose a flood of complaints about where his country was headed. “The revolution promised many things. But I see old men selling peanuts on street corners, and that’s not right. We promised them that we’d take care of them in their old age,” he said. “Fidel was brilliant, he meant very well. But power corrupts. Nobody should be in power so long. This is a dictatorship. Why shouldn’t we get satellite TV?”
His words tumbled out quickly, and he spoke without a pause, as if feelings long pent up were suddenly being let out. “I think this won’t last after his death, not with the youth feeling the way it does. But any new movement would need a leader and there aren’t any. It will take a long time.” He apologized for speaking so frankly, and yet kept going.
“Why can’t I say these things?” he asked somewhat plaintively, not sounding like a 41-year-old domestic employee but like a rebellious teenager who can’t understand the system arrayed against him.
These are the silences that will have to be vanquished if Cubans are to find a path between the gains of their revolution and away from the political repression and stunted growth that has also accompanied it. As Castro brings his brilliant career to an end with a move that seems to have cheated even death, I hope that Cubans will finally be able to bring about the changes they dream of.