With Fidel Castro apparently on the verge of death, I returned to Cuba to visit old friends. Little has changed over recent years and life for most Cubans remains harsh. Yet western visitors continue to romanticise the place.
When Javier heard the news on the radio last July, his first reaction was to go out and buy 15 packets of cigarettes, in case any ensuing tension lead to scarcities in the city. Then he returned to his flat to wait and to watch. He stayed inside for several days. Many others did the same. Fidel Castro had handed over power to his brother, Raúl. It should have been momentous. There were rumours of further political change, there was speculation that the comandante en jefe was actually dead, there was talk of jubilation in Miami, but all was quiet on the streets of Havana.
The subsequent months have been like a continuous Sunday evening, says Javier: quiet, expectant, but laced with an underlying anxiety. “Nothing really has happened, nothing really has changed.” He looks at me knowingly. We rock to and fro on his rocking chairs and ease back into our old ways. “Es igual, Bella, es exactamente igual.” It’s exactly the same as it was.
In spite of his intestinal illness, Fidel Castro has stage-managed yet another brilliant manoeuvre to ensure the survival of his 48-year-old regime—to act out a rehearsal for his eventual death, to hand power to his younger brother Raúl, and to be there to witness the consequences. Some have described it as an ensayo of what might happen: an essay, a trial death, almost a magic realist death in which the ambiguity of a living death paralyses those left behind. It is a way, too, for Fidel to see how his influence may be perpetuated after he steps aside.
There is speculation in Havana that Fidel, aged 80, will take up the reins of power again next year when he is properly better. But in the meantime, from his hospital bed he has been writing long, furious articles in the state press on the genocidal instincts of the US. He may not be appearing in public, his speeches may not be aired on television each evening, but his presence is felt. His new best friend, the president of Venezuela, delivers the news of his gradual recovery before anyone in Cuba knows anything: a sign that in spite of the strong nationalist element to Castro’s regime, it is Hugo Chávez, rather than Raúl, who now plays dauphin to the revolution.
I returned to Havana this April, after an absence of several years. I went to see friends and to see whether, as is often claimed, change really was afoot. I came away with the opposite impression. Those who must see Cuba before it “all gets washed away” by the Americans need not worry. The current impasse will outlast Fidel, and may outlast Raúl for a few years—to the great cost of the Cuban people, and the architecture and resources of this remarkable island.
Between 1996 and 1999, I lived periodically in Havana with a gay Spanish diplomat, a close friend who had once, maybe not entirely jokingly, suggested that we marry but maintain our separate ménages. I was too square for that, but when he was posted to Cuba I went to stay with him. Cuba was reputedly not an easy place for homosexuals. I was interested in the country, and I could write about it.
And so for a while I became a pretend prometida of the Spanish cultural attaché. Eventually, many of those we knew—and didn’t know—in Havana, seeing my friend’s rather open homosexuality, began to suspect that I was a spy, that I was from the CIA (which Cubans pronounce “seer”), or MI5.
I remember the former comandante Manuel Piñeiro—who was once responsible for Cuban operations in Nicaragua and Chile, and a friend to the Spanish diplomatic circles of those days—looking coquettishly at me from behind his long white beard and asking, “And how is MI Fife?” as if he had found me out. It was all part of the Cuban fascination with spies and the possibility that you may be someone you’re not. It was a legacy of the cold war and a symptom of the continuing freeze in relations with the US. But it also had something to do with a neurotic and spasmodically watchful state whose instruments of control seemed on the surface to have decayed, but which could occasionally surprise you with acts of subterfuge of nerve-racking efficiency.
While I was staying with my friend, he set about organising the opening of a Spanish cultural centre in Havana. The first cultural institute independent of government control since the 1959 revolution, it was to live in a marvellous building on the Malecón, the Habanero seafront. The Cuban government never liked the idea—partly because of the free internet access the centre provided, but ostensibly because of its links with dissidents—and in 2003, during a regime crackdown, it took over the building.
Meanwhile, through my diplomat, I became privy to a stream of fascinating meetings with former comandantes, ministers, diplomats, writers, priests, youth leaders and musicians in icy air-conditioned protocol rooms at the opera and in sumptuous embassies built by the sugar barons of the early 20th century. I also got to know Cuba’s would-be teachers, lawyers and businessmen, and their extended families. These people became friends. They were a few of the many who had been let down by the revolution and who had no way to make a living in Cuba unless they dealt on the black market, which was a dangerous exercise and anyway could barely bring you a staple diet. I also met people who had been imprisoned for their political views, or for carrying out acts merely deemed to be suspicious.
And so I spent the late-1990s discussing change in Cuba on many a rocking chair in many a collapsing building. I spent long hours trying to decipher the circuitous nature of people’s attitudes. People abroad assumed that the end of the Soviet Union would surely mean the end of Castro’s regime too. The subsidies and inflated prices for Cuban sugar that the Soviets had paid had come to an abrupt end: how could the regime survive? Scores of journalists turned up in the 1990s to chronicle the fall of the last communist domino. A book with the title Castro’s Final Hour was published in 1993.
What observers at this time most underestimated was the power of the regime’s nationalist rhetoric and Castro’s strategic skill. Unlike in eastern Europe, where nationalism helped to erode communism, Cuban nationalism has shored up the regime. Castro was always a nationalist in communist clothing, and, throughout the 1990s, the communist references in his speeches were gradually replaced by nationalist ones.
The continuing hostilities with the US have played into Castro’s hands. It was as an embattled nationalist leader of a small island, standing up to an aggressive, neighbouring superpower, that Castro preserved his revolutionary credentials most effectively. The shortcomings of life under his regime were, he argued, attributable mainly to the US embargo. Many swallowed the argument. He knew, too, how to capitalise on the latent anti-Americanism in Latin America, Europe and Canada to give his struggle more universal appeal.
In fact, the regime seems to act with zeal to ensure that the embargo continues. When it looks as if the US government might consider ending it, some heavy-handed Cuban act ensues that the status quo prevails. In 1996, when Clinton was keen to initiate rapprochement, the regime shot down two US planes manned by members of a Cuban exile group rescuing those escaping the island on rafts. When, in 2003, an influential cross-party lobby in the US seemed set to dismantle the embargo, the Cuban government promptly incarcerated 75 prisoners of conscience and executed three men who hijacked a tugboat with a view to getting to Miami.
Castro survives because of other factors too. There are new strategic relationships with Chávez in Venezuela (which provides cheap oil) and, more recently, with the Chinese (who provide much of the new electronic equipment, as well as an economic model that Raúl is said to favour). There is the revamping of the Cuban tourist industry (and the related restoration projects in old Havana and elsewhere), which is attracting hard currency after the harsh but overdue demise of the sugar industry. (Until 1989, sugar accounted for 75 per cent of Cuban exports; it is now below 10 per cent.) There are the billions of dollars of remittances that Cubans in the US send to family in Cuba every year, an essential prop to the Cuban economy. Then there is the fact that most of Castro’s sternest critics have left the country, mainly for the US. (Convicted dissidents are sometimes given the option of simply leaving Cuba rather than face prison.) The fact that Cuba is an island makes any mass exodus or return—factors that helped to trigger the revolutions in eastern Europe—unlikely. And Castro’s elision of the arguments of the dissidents with the machinations of the superpower is a ploy that, for nearly half a century, has stifled insurrection.
This does not mean that those still in Cuba are acquiescent or happy. They are far poorer than their eastern European counterparts were in 1989: the average wage, at $20 a month, can barely feed a single person for a couple of weeks. You cannot spend any length of time in Havana without noticing the lack of food for the majority of Cubans. The mother of a friend, an old lady who lived in one tiny rotting room in a former brothel with her son, gets by selling matchboxes to her neighbours, having stolen them from the factory where she worked. Another acquaintance keeps pigs on her balcony and sells pork to a few locals. The luckier ones sell cigars or taxi rides to foreigners. An elite work in hotels.
When the Soviets pulled out, the government reluctantly turned to tourism to stave off bankruptcy. The business started in enclaves in a few prescribed zones, on the basis that foreign influences might be quarantined. But tourists were always going to be drawn to the city centres. And the presence of tourists has inevitably revealed to Cubans the depths of their poverty and repression. Tourism has enriched some Cubans and given others decent jobs, but it has also undermined the status of those in less lucrative but better qualified professions.
Healthcare and education are supposed to be the redeeming graces of the regime, but this is questionable. There are a large number of doctors, but, according to most Cubans I know, many have left the country and the health system is in a ragged state—apart from those hospitals reserved for foreigners—and people often have to pay a bribe to get treated. Michael Moore, the American film director, who has recently been praising the system should take note of the real life stories beneath the statistics. I went into a couple of hospitals for locals on my latest visit. In the first, my friend told me not to say a word in case my accent was noticed, as foreigners are not allowed in these places. I was appalled by the hygiene and amazed at the antiquity of the building and some of the equipment. I was told that the vast majority of Cuban hospitals, apart from two in Havana, were built before the revolution. Which revolution, I wondered; this one seemed to date from the 1900s.
On another occasion, I saw a man in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck hurrying along the boulevard of Vedado, in west Havana. We struck up a conversation. He was on his way to the hospital around the corner. I asked him if he would take me there. He was charming and intelligent, and had that ease of communication that many Cubans possess: he wasn’t at all taken aback by an unknown woman in dark glasses asking to accompany him to work. The doctor told me that I shouldn’t be too shocked; the hospital was being “refurbished.” The building certainly was in a state of filth and decrepitude. This was not a place one would want to be ill in.
There are success stories, such as the biotechnology industry, but these are exceptions. Most Cubans know this. Most also know that liberalisation is vitally needed, but they are cautious about speaking openly, partly because they have too much else to think about (such as how to get food), partly because living under a dictatorship generates extraordinary levels of patience, and partly because questioning the regime can lose you your job or even land you in prison. Also, whatever the iniquities of the current system, there is still a certain sort of fear about what may be in store once the regime passes and, in some cases, there is even an affection for a tyrannical parent figure.
There are plenty of visitors to Cuba from rich countries (including a disproportionate number from Britain) who believe they have encountered a true alternative to capitalist democracy. Why? Perhaps it is a way of keeping alive the idea of some ideal society, without having to experience the disadvantages oneself. It may also be a facet of a general dislike of the US, or a way of expressing unease with capitalist excesses. But it is also, in all probability, related to a nostalgia for the political certainties and the handsome design of the 1950s and before: the cars, the bars and the glamour. It is not for nothing that Cuba sells itself with the music of the pre-revolutionary period. If North Korea had charm and salsa and innuendo and beaches, perhaps a lot of politically naive people would be advocating its merits too.
In their call for the US to keep its “hands off Cuba,” western supporters of the Cuban regime seem to miss the irony that this, unfortunately, is precisely what the US is doing. Were the US to relax its embargo, the result would be a tidal wave of US capital, which the regime would be unlikely to survive. Many Cubans would grow richer and more demanding, and would no longer accept playing second fiddle to the tourists.
When, back in London, I met people who believed in the Cuban alternative, I surprised myself by the vigour with which I rebuffed their arguments, pointing out how Cubans were barred from the smart hotels where they had stayed. Was my irritation a sign that I’d become right-wing (as they implied)? Or was this simply one-upmanship on my part—a way of rubbing in that they were just tourists, I had lived there. At other times, in the company of Castro critics, I would admit to my own ambiguous feelings and explain that I, too, had often been charmed and was sad at the prospect of that simple way of muddling through in Havana disappearing. You only need to go to Kingston, Jamaica to wish that you were back in a police state where you can roam the streets at night without fear.
So when I returned to Cuba in April, it was with a sense of trepidation, but also in the expectation that some things must have changed; that perhaps a gentle transition was, as many newspapers seemed to suggest, under way; that the Cuban government, after admitting failures, would introduce a sort of mixed economy; that there would be a soft landing.
There were a few signs of change. I heard of some market experiments in certain villages, and that Raúl Castro was quieter and more pragmatic than his brother. I noted the sophisticated restoration of old Havana under the dedicated eye of the official historian, Eusebio Leal, making use of international funds and hotel developments. (The architectural legacy of the enemies of the revolution—the Spanish empire and the high days of the capitalist era—are now, more than ever, keeping Cuba’s revolution afloat.)
But there was no real sense of a transition. And I was told that levels of control were, if anything, stronger. Fewer journalists were being allowed into the country, only a few of the 75 political prisoners who had been jailed in 2003 had been released, and at least another 200 were still in prison. Some private restaurants were still open, but two thirds of those in Havana had been closed in recent years because the government did not want to see too much competition with the state-run restaurants and hotels.
Other than that, the people I know seemed to be making do, living quiet lives, trying not to get into trouble. My friend Jorge has now acquired a job in an embassy as a cleaner (though he trained as a lawyer). But he lives in the same small room, with no windows but a large television. The simplicity of his life and that of his friends has always moved me: the quickfire conversation, the easy acceptance of the absurd, the small pleasures so lovingly recognised. There is a disarming ease in talking about sex, but an ambiguous reticence when it comes to discussing politics (or even where you bought your food). I have always been transfixed by the inverted taboos.
Others seemed worried about potential changes. One friend tried to explain the anxiety. We were sitting in her living room and, while the rain poured down outside, the lights suddenly went out (an apagón, the Cubans call it). She lit a torch. The white light showed up the bare room in stark contrasts. There was complete silence in the surrounding tropical suburb after the rain subsided. She said, “You see, there are Cubans who have been exiled [the Spanish word is exiliado] but there were also Cubans in Cuba who are what I call insiliado or ‘insiled.’ That is, exiled in some ways without having left the country, not taking part, opting out, but remaining enclosed in one’s house and keeping a low profile, fearful of both the government and what might happen when the exiles return. The exiles are prosperous, because they are now foreigners, and the Cubans in Cuba have taken note of the propaganda which suggests that they would come back to claim their houses if the regime falls. The Cubans who have remained will have nothing. They may be wrong about this, but they believe it.”
I also took the risk of visiting a dissident who had been imprisoned in 1997 for five years for writing a ten-page document criticising the lack of a liberalisation programme. (Even so, he considers himself a socialist.) His house was supposed to be watched, and I decided to go for an early breakfast, judging that this might be a moment when the “neighbours” were otherwise engaged.
Unlike some dissidents, who can be rather hysterical, he was methodical and grave. We sat in his kitchen and discussed the state of the prisons, which he described in some detail. He also spoke of the healthcare system and echoed the view that the propaganda about it has been absurdly successful. Turning to the issue of regime change, he claimed that totalitarian governments can rarely be challenged from below. “In fact it has never happened before,” he said forcefully. “When Stalin died, when Mao died, nothing happened. It takes movement from above, as with Gorbachev in Russia, or from outside, as with the exodus in east Germany, for change to emerge.” There is no sign of either in Cuba so far.
When I told the same man that Ken Livingstone was preparing to organise a celebration in London for the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution in 2009, he asked how was it that such people turned a blind eye to the difficulties in these places? He shrugged and, with a measure of forced self-discipline, said, “Well, you are a democracy, I suppose,” before changing the subject.
When I returned to London, I watched an edition of Newsnight in which the reporter claimed to be immensely impressed—after four days on the island—by the state of Cuban healthcare. I wondered where this man had been. Had he been to hospitals other than the ones his minders had taken him to? Why was it that Fidel Castro was treated by a Spanish doctor? “There’s all kinds of things we could learn from this place,” the reporter said, after his drive around Havana in an open-top 1950s Chevrolet, with a Cuban bolero playing in the background.
Bella Thomas is programme director at the Ax:son Johnson Foundation.