Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Country of Old Men / Foreign Policy Magazine / Yoani Sánchez

Country of Old Men / Foreign Policy Magazine / Yoani Sánchez
Translator: Unstated, Yoani Sánchez

This article will appear in the November print edition of Foreign Policy
Magazine, and is available on their website now.


At the end of his July 31, 2006, broadcast, the visibly nervous anchor
on Cuban Television News announced that there would be a proclamation
from Fidel Castro. This was hardly uncommon, and many Cubans no doubt
turned off their TVs in anticipation of yet another diatribe from the
comandante en jefe accusing the United States of committing some fresh
evil against the island. But those of us who stayed tuned that evening
saw, instead, a red-faced Carlos Valenciaga, Fidel's personal secretary,
appear before the cameras and read, voice trembling, from a document as
remarkable as it was brief. In a few short sentences, the invincible
guerrilla of old confessed that he was very ill and doled out government
responsibilities to his nearest associates. Most notably, his brother
Raúl was charged with assuming Fidel's duties as first secretary of the
Communist Party's Central Committee, commander in chief of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces, and president of the Council of State. The
dynastic succession had begun.

It was a miracle that the old telephone exchanges, with their
1930s-vintage equipment, didn't collapse that night as callers rushed to
share the news, in a code that was secret to no one: "He kicked the
bucket." "El Caballo" — the Horse — "is gone." "The One is terminal." I
picked up the receiver and called my mother, who was born in 1957, on
the eve of Castro's revolution; neither of us had known any other
president. "He's not here anymore, Mom," I said, almost whispering.
"He's not here anymore." On the other end of the line she began to cry.

It was the little things that changed at first. Rum sales increased. The
streets of central Havana were oddly empty. In the absence of the
prolific orator who was fond of cutting into TV shows to address his
public, homemakers were surprised to see their Brazilian soap operas air
at their scheduled times. Public events began to dwindle, among them the
so-called "anti-imperialism" rallies held regularly throughout the
country to rail against the northern enemy. But the fundamental change
happened within people, within the three generations of Cubans who had
known only a single prime minister, a single first secretary of the
Communist Party, a single commander in chief. With the sudden prospect
of abandonment by the papá estado — "daddy state" — that Fidel had
built, Cubans faced a kind of orphanhood, though one that brought more
hope than pain.

Five years later, we have entered a new phase in our relationship with
our government, one that is less personal but still deeply worshipful of
a man some people now call the "patient in chief." Fidel lives on, and
Raúl — whose power, as everyone knows, comes from his genes rather than
his political gifts — has ruled since his ultimate accession in February
2008 without even the formality of the ballot box, prompting a dark joke
often told in the streets of Havana: This is not a bloody dictatorship,
but a dictatorship by blood. Pepito, the mischievous boy who stars in
our popular jokes, calls Raúl "Castro Version 1.5″ because he is no
longer No. 2, but still isn't allowed to be the One. When the comandante
— now barely a shadow of his former self — appeared at the final session
of the Communist Party's sixth congress this April, he grabbed his
brother's arm and raised it, to a standing ovation. The gesture was
intended to consecrate the transfer of power, but to many of us the two
old men seemed to be joining hands in search of mutual support, not in
celebration of victory.

Raúl's much-discussed reforms followed the supposed handover of power,
but in reality, they have been less steps forward than attempts to
redress the legal absurdities of the past. One of these was the lifting
of the tourist apartheid that prevented Cubans from enjoying their own
country's hotel facilities. For years, to connect to the Internet, I had
to disguise myself as a foreigner and mumble a few brief sentences in
English or German to buy a web-access card in the lobby of some hotel.
The sale of computers was finally authorized in March 2008, though by
that time many younger Cubans had assembled their own computers with
pieces bought on the black market. The prohibition on Cubans having
cell-phone contracts was also repealed, ending the sad spectacle of
people begging foreigners to help them establish accounts for prepaid
phones. Restrictions on agriculture were loosened, allowing farmers to
lease government land on 10-year terms. The liberalization brought to
light the sad fact that the state had allowed much of the country's land
(70 percent of it was in state hands) to become overgrown with invasive

While officially still socialist, the government has also pushed for an
expansion of so-called self-employment, masked with the euphemism of
"nonstate forms of production." It is, in reality, a private sector
emerging in fits and starts. In less than a year, the number of
self-employed grew from 148,000 to 330,000, and there is now a flowering
of textile production, food kiosks, and the sale of CDs and DVDs. But
heavy taxes, the lack of a wholesale market, and the inability to import
raw materials independent of the state act as a brake on the
inventiveness of these entrepreneurs, as does memory: The late 1990s,
when the return to centralization and nationalization swept away the
private endeavors that had surged in the Cuban economy after the fall of
the Berlin Wall, were not so long ago.

So for now, the effects of the highly publicized reforms are barely
noticeable on our plates or in our pockets. The country continues to
import 80 percent of what we consume, at a cost of more than $1.5
billion. In the hard-currency stores, the cans of corn say "Made in the
USA"; the sugar provided through the ration book travels from Brazil;
and in the Varadero tourist hotels, a good part of the fruit comes from
the Dominican Republic, while the flowers and coffee travel from
Colombia. In 2010, 38,165 Cubans left the island for good. My impatient
friends declare they are not going to stay "to turn off the light in El
Morro" — the lighthouse at the entrance to Havana Bay — "after everyone
else leaves."

The new president understands all too well that transformations that are
too deep could cause him to lose control. Cubans jokingly compare their
political system to one of the dilapidated houses in Old Havana: The
hurricanes don't bring it down and the rains don't bring it down, but
one day someone tries to change the lock on the front door and the whole
edifice collapses. And so the government's most practiced ploy is the
purchase of time with proclamations of supposed reforms that, once
implemented, fail to achieve the promised effects.

But this can only continue for so long. Before the end of December, Raúl
Castro will have to fulfill his promise to legalize home sales, which
have been illegal since 1959, a move that will inevitably result in the
redistribution of people in cities according to their purchasing power.
One of the most enduring bastions of revolutionary imagery —
working-class Cubans living in the palatial homes of the bygone elite —
could collapse with the establishment of such marked economic
differences between neighborhoods.

And yet the old Cuba persists in subtle, sinister forms. Raúl works more
quietly than Fidel, and from the shadows. He has increased the number of
political police and equipped them with advanced technology to monitor
the lives of his critics, myself among them. I learned long ago that the
best way to fool the "security" is to make public everything I think, to
hide nothing, and in so doing perhaps I can reduce the national
resources spent on undercover agents, the pricey gas for the cars in
which they move, and the long shifts searching the Internet for our
divergent opinions. Still, we hear of brief detentions that include
heavy doses of physical and verbal violence while leaving no legal
trail. Cuba's major cities are now filled with surveillance cameras that
capture both those who smuggle cigars and those of us who carry only our
rebellious thoughts.

But over the last five years the government has undeniably and
irreversibly lost control of the dissemination of information. Hidden in
water tanks and behind sheets hanging on clotheslines, illegal satellite
dishes bring people the news that is banned or censored in the national
media. The emergence of bloggers who are critical of the system, the
maturation of independent journalism, and the rise of autonomous spaces
for the arts have all eroded the state's monopoly on power.

Fidel, meanwhile, has faded away. He appears rarely and only in photos,
always dressed in the tracksuit of an aging mafioso, and we begin to
forget the fatigues-clad fighting man who intruded on nearly every
minute of our existence for half a century. Just a year ago, my
8-year-old niece was watching television and, seeing the desiccated face
of the old commander in chief, shouted to her father, "Daddy, who is
this gentleman?"

Yoani Sánchez is the Havana-based author of the blog Generation Y and
the recently published book Havana Real. This article was translated by
Mary Jo Porter.


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