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What’s a Poor Patriot to Do?

12 minute read
Cathy Booth/Havana

It is late in Old Havana, and Calle Obispo is shrouded in darkness as Jorge, who fears giving his real name, walks down the narrow street. Once a fashionable shopping avenue, Obispo is now lined with decayed buildings. Jorge passes a tourist store, where three young Cubans are staring at a window display of souvenirs that would cost them the equivalent of several months’ salary. At the corner, a young man whispers, “Pizza, pizza,” hoping to attract customers to an illegal private restaurant. At 20 pesos, the price of a pie equals what Jorge earns in two days. Light spills out of a wood-paneled bar for tourists: Jorge cannot afford the drinks there either.

At the Plaza de Armas, the 44-year-old computer programmer joins a foreigner at a garden bar. Sipping on a fine, aged rum — a rare treat — he pours out the familiar Cuban litany of despair. He eats no breakfast or lunch and cannot find milk for his 10-year-old daughter. His car has no gas, his home no electricity. When he walks down Obispo at night, even the cheap tourist souvenirs tantalize him. He sips more rum. “People drink here to an extent you can’t imagine,” he says. “They don’t go to work anymore. There is no hope. We talk about food shortages, clothes shortages, but it’s our spirit that is broken.”

The flood of despondent people like Jorge pouring out of Cuba ought to herald an epochal end for Fidel Castro. For the first time in 35 years, his rule has begun to look genuinely at risk. Anger at the island’s deteriorating economy is growing rapidly, and if something is not done fairly soon to make life easier, people’s desperation could reach the combustion point. But a visit to the island shows little evidence of imminent revolt. For now, Fidel faces no organized opposition. Despite their open verbal attacks on Castro and the communist system, the discontented seem readier to leave than to rebel; many still pin their hopes on internal reform. The question is how long the Cubans will put up with such harsh privation before taking change into their own hands.

The quickest fix for the Cuban economy would be an end to the 32-year U.S. embargo, but Bill Clinton is not eager to end the cold war-era isolation. In the long run, if Castro will not or cannot adopt free-market reforms, his % country has little hope of ending what Cubans call the “special period”: the current era of acute hardship brought on by the fall of the Soviet empire, which had sustained Cuba’s command economy until 1991. If he does institute far-reaching changes and the rest of the world — despite the U.S. embargo — responds with trade and investment, he can probably survive indefinitely. His salvation lies in betraying the ideals of the revolution that he and devoted supporters have embraced for more than three decades. Yet increasing numbers of Cubans seem eager for him to do just that.

Cubans have never expressed their discontent more openly or across such a broad spectrum. Many now speak frankly of their frustration with the entire communist system — and even with Fidel. Well aware that a local official of the omnipresent Committees for the Defense of the Revolution is listening, a bitter young professional says, “I hate Fidel. I think everyone hates Fidel.” An elderly woman confirms that the sentiment is not limited to the young: “People who were with him a year ago are against him now.”

A majority of Cubans, both for and against Castro, fear he cannot lead them out of the current economic crisis. Some of the party faithful, who have always claimed Fidel enjoyed universal support, now acknowledge he may command the allegiance of only half the populace. Reformers are exasperated — and worried — by Castro’s slow pace of change since he legalized the dollar a year ago. “The problem is not just food shortages,” says a historian still loyal to socialism and Fidel. “The government has to redesign the whole system. If we don’t reform and the U.S. blockade remains, the only possibility is an explosion. Cuba is a time bomb.”

A doctor in his late 30s, near the top in his field, despairs of the future. “I was a believer until the late 1980s. Now I am agnostic,” he says. His home in the suburbs of Havana is comfortable by comparison with those of most Cubans: the prerevolutionary furniture is carefully preserved, and a 50-year- old refrigerator is stocked with black-market meat bought with dollars sent by relatives in Miami. Although his oven no longer works, he is an expert, like all Cubans, at resolviendo (resolving the problem): he bakes cakes in a pressure cooker.

But resolving things at his hospital, where medicines and other vital supplies have almost disappeared, has left him frustrated. He lacks the opportunity to get ahead. Even his medical journals no longer arrive. “Things are changing, but there is no hope for a better life now,” says the doctor, because he does not believe Castro will ever initiate full-scale reform. “There is a lot of support for the government in an emotional way,” he reflects. “You hear a lot of old ladies talking about Fidel as if he were Jesus Christ. But young people are like me.”

The doctor, however, is plotting to escape, not topple Castro. Like the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which carried 125,000 Cubans to Florida, this summer’s exodus — 23,000 so far — is siphoning off the worst malcontents, relieving some of the pressure on Castro. “People in the U.S. think things here could change rapidly, but I’m sure Fidel will be in power a long time,” he says. Cubans are concentrating not on protesting but on building rafts. If necessary, say government sources, Castro is willing to shed 1 million of the island’s 11 million people.

For all the drama on the Straits of Florida, most Cubans struggle on, trying to patch together a normal life. Government workers returned to their desks last week from August vacations. Children put on their maroon uniforms and went back to classrooms lacking books, pencils and paper. In the streets of Havana, the gossip has turned from Castro’s woes — the bad sugar harvest, the new taxes, the problem of prostitution — to the rafters.

For Fidel and the older generation, who are proud of the superior education and health system handed down to their children, to leave is to break faith with the revolution. “Tell my son I’m fine,” says Teodomira Rodriguez, standing in the doorway of her small pensioner’s apartment in the Vedado section of Havana. The 62-year-old widow said goodbye to her two sons last month: Rafael, 34, died at sea; Pedro, 32, survived but was hospitalized in Miami with dehydration and blisters after six days afloat. “They left because of the economic problems,” she says.

Born to poor farmers in central Cuba, Rodriguez credits the revolution with improving her life. As one of 12 brothers and sisters on a marginal farm in the 1950s, she almost never ate meat. Her brothers worked the sugarcane fields three months a year, then the family virtually starved the other nine months during the farmers’ traditional tiempo muerto, or dead time. Her whole family turned out when rebel Camilo Cienfuegos passed through on his way to fight the dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Educated by the revolution and promoted from one government job to another, working her way up from seamstress to manager of an arts-and-crafts factory, Rodriguez still keeps a big photo of Cienfuegos on the wall. “I believe in the revolution. I have confidence in the revolution,” she says softly. “I understand that the economic situation is bad, but we eat better now than when I was young. If there is a pound of rice, it is equally shared by all. Anyone can go to the hospital and get an aspirin or an organ transplant without anybody asking them for money. That’s why I’m still a revolutionary.”

Considering that monthly government rations barely provide enough food for two weeks and a month’s salary buys just one chicken on the black market, it is surprising how many Cubans still have faith in Castro’s revolution. Domestic production is nearly nil. Unemployment is estimated at 20% to 25% among the young. Absenteeism from work is officially 10% but actually much higher.

Nevertheless, Havana’s stoic, inventive populace manages to keep going. “It’s better to work for yourself,” says a railway laborer. “If you can earn just $5 a month, that’s more than you get in a government factory.” Sidewalk vendors selling everything from wood carvings and homemade jewelry to their personal possessions have popped up all over the capital. Everyone seems to be expert in the art of black-market dealing, trading what they have for what they cannot find in the stores.

Yet capitalism must move beyond such rudiments if Castro’s regime is to survive. Even faithful party members believe the time for thoroughgoing change has come, though they fear the economic anarchy of postcommunist Eastern Europe. “It’s a difficult moment,” admits Manuel Gutierrez, who was born in 1959, the year of the revolution. “The system has much good and some bad. But things are changing. The young are taking over.”

Like many of his University of Havana friends, Gutierrez runs a new venture in Cuba with little government control: in his case, ecotourism tours for Costa Rica’s LACSA airline. “Now the young have a chance for their own revolution, a revolution in the economy, a revolution in service,” he says, grinning because he knows what people think of service in communist countries. And political change? “Yes, that must come too,” he says. “In the ’60s, ’70s and even the ’80s, the Cuban system was fine. Now, no. Often you hear people say, ‘I am not my father’s son.’ “

Gutierrez is, nevertheless, a Communist Party member and prefers to work inside the system for change, though he knows the transition will be painful. Technocrats like him who earn part of their salaries in U.S. currency can often afford to buy foreign cars, rent big houses, take trips abroad and eat at dollars-only restaurants. Brought up to believe in the egalitarianism of Cuban socialism, some try to share, but they are often rebuffed by friends offended by their foray into capitalism. “It’s difficult when I have $20 in my pocket and my friends have 20 pesos,” admits Gutierrez.

At the top, in senior Communist Party and government positions, there is no move to challenge Castro. Nor has a long-term strategy for reform emerged. But some economic changes are sneaking through. In the past year, more government- run farms have been converted to peasants’ cooperatives. Farmers’ markets, allowing growers to sell their produce directly, have been formally approved but are not yet open. Most of these changes are being forced on Castro from below. “Some want to do it with Fidel; others have dropped that hope,” says a political analyst in Havana. “The people are pushing the leadership, but it’s like a bike with no chain. You go nowhere until the chain — the system itself — is fixed.”

Even though the U.S. is the destination of choice for Cuban rafters, the millions who remain are stubborn about not wanting Washington or the exiles in Miami to cram changes down their throat. “I’m a party member, not a robot. We don’t accept many things that the government does, but we are changing the country in our way,” says a government official. Even entrepreneurs like Gutierrez draw the line at interference from Cuban Americans. “I’m not going to work for the people in Miami, even though a lot of them are my friends,” he says. Almost all Cubans argue that the U.S. and the exiles would do better to encourage change on the island with economic incentives, as Washington has done with other communist holdouts like China and Vietnam. “All those congressional bills say, ‘Unless you do what we want, we’ll kick your ass,’ ” says Juan Antonio Blanco, director of a private think tank in Havana. “What we need is not threats but an offer of help.”

A new drama at the National Theater of Cuba, called A Wall in Havana, speaks eloquently of the country’s dilemma. As the play opens, a couple lives separated by a wall: she is an arts director for the government with a string of important titles; he is a photographer living for the moment with few possessions. He — representing the people — yearns for her, despite having found a young lover. She — the government — is enticed by a young love but rejects him. In the end, he is alone, using a pickax to batter at the wall. On the other side, she pulls back her possessions, trying to protect her way of life. “Won’t you help me?” he yells.

The richly metaphoric drama has played to standing ovations. One party member, told about the play, pauses to reflect. “Next year is our last year of hope,” he says finally. “If we don’t solve our economic problems next year, people will go crazy.” Maybe then Cuba’s wall will fall.

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