MOSCOW—The Cuban ship has been drifting without a captain for a long time—the sick Fidel Castro is still communicating with his people in writing.
Formally, his place has been taken by his brother Raul, but he is a high-ranking official rather than a policy-maker. He is not an eloquent speaker like his brother and his prestige is much lower. Meanwhile, Cubans are not used to living without a leader. Nevertheless, they have no choice but to wait for implacable change. This is not easy, considering that the father has led the nation for almost half a century.
Judging by all, Fidel is slowly getting better. Nevertheless, the best option for Cuba would be not his return but his final departure that would pave the way to reforms. If 75-year-old Raul retired together with his older brother and started cultivating roses like good old pensioners, the likelihood of serious change would only increase. Regrettably, this is too good to be true and more in the nature of wishful thinking. But the longer the reforms are delayed the harder it will be for Cubans.
Not long ago, the Official Gazette published new foreign travel rules. Previously ordinary Cubans could go abroad on invitation of relatives or friends (except for official trips, of course), now they are allowed to see only their immediate families—parents can invite their children and vise versa. This is all. You won’t be able to see your Cuban friend in Moscow: You will have to fly to Havana.
But most Cubans have got used to political limitations. In any event, most Cubans with whom I met during the past fortnight were prone to complain about their economic grievances rather than political problems. They are avoiding all political crime talk like the Russians did in the Soviet times. The most consistent dissidents are fleeing the country. Others are adapting to the prevailing conditions and giving vent to their emotions secretly, in a close circle of friends.
Cell phones are prohibited, but Cubans can easily find a foreigner who would buy them a phone in his name and then rent it out. The authorities are turning a blind eye to such tricks. This is typical of socialism in decline, when formal compliance with bans is more important than their implementation, and ostentatious loyalty means more than convictions.
Talking about the country’s economic headaches, practically every Cuban recalls the American economic blockade, which is psychologically understandable. This blockade is not only inhuman but also stupid, if only because it conceals better than any Cuban propaganda the main reason for Cuba’s economic trouble—inefficiency of socialist economy.
Traditional American pragmatism is lost on Cuba—Washington is merely escalating anti-American attitudes in Cuba, thereby impeding democratic and market reforms on the island. This is yet another absurdity of U.S. foreign policy.
Today, those who have jobs linked with foreign tourism have much higher living standards than others (save the elite)—owners of small private restaurants, hard currency hookers and pimps, illegal vendors of Cuban cigars, cabmen serving hotels and owners of rooms who rent them out to tourists. The latter business is both legal and illegal. Those who do it legally have to pay heavy taxes, whereas tax evaders get more money. But if an envious neighbor reports them to the nearest revolution defense committee, they may be in for serious trouble if not prison.
The rest survive on a state salary of $10 per month and a social food basket (food-rationing system), plus free education and medical care. Nobody objects to free education, but the trouble is that students want to eat both before classes and after. Besides, social justice in Cuba is merely another illusion because even Fidel has not succeeded in overcoming corruption.
Having given people prestigious jobs—a doctor, engineer or lawyer—communism has failed to remunerate them befittingly. Likewise, having taught them to think, it has sown in their heads doubts in its own effectiveness. A husband and wife who rented out a room for me in Havana are both economists by education. Yet, they preferred a tiny but independent business to government jobs because it gives them more money and freedom. Such examples are plentiful.
But let us not exaggerate. As Talleyrand noted in the 19th century, “everything that is exaggerated becomes meaningless.” The Cuban opposition is still disunited and expresses its discontent in private only. In the provinces, protests are much more muffled than in the capital. Finally, there is a striking difference in the attitudes of the younger and older generations. The former are much more radical than their conservative parents who are tired of life and afraid of change. To sum up, the majority of the people (the provinces plus the older generation) are still on the government’s side.
But in history, math does not always work. During a revolution, the capital city leads the provinces and the younger people are much more active than the old. A bayonet weighs a lot more than a vote cast at elections.
This consideration is having an impressive effect on the whole picture. Literally, all residents of Havana under 35 I talked with are dreaming of change. They were very open when talking to me, a foreigner. Needless to say, this is not a sociological study but an indicative phenomenon, all the more so since I talked to people from different walks of life—students, an architect, a musician, an economist, an engineer, a building worker, a house owner, a housewife, a cabbie and even a policeman who approached me on the beach. The policeman was a young guy. He warned me not to leave my belongings unattended and on learning that I was from Russia asked me how things were. He listened attentively to my answer and then said that something similar must take place in Cuba. When I asked him about Fidel’s health, he shrugged a skeptical shoulder: “He’s better, but what does that change? As it has transpired, we have many Fidels. It’s not about him. We have a system that needs to be changed.”
The conclusion made by this dissident in uniform sums up what Cubans have been thinking about for months. Only half a year ago, everyone was worried about the nation’s survival without the leader, but now for many Fidel has already become a thing of the past. He has not lost respect of his compatriots. Very few Cubans are calling into doubt Castro’s achievements, primarily genuine independence but they expected much more from the 1959 revolution.
It is not possible to live forever with a half-empty social basket. This is no less humiliating for Cubans than what the Americans did in the past when they turned Cuba into a huge brothel and a casino for the mafia.
Cuba is bound to change.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Pyotr Romanov is a political commentator for the Russian News and Information Agency Novosti.