Saturday, December 21, 2013

In Cuba, clock ticking just a bit faster for some

Posted on Friday, 12.20.13

In Cuba, clock ticking just a bit faster for some

HAVANA -- In Cuba, time is in the eye of the beholder.

For many islanders, the days still pass slowly under an enervating sun.
After a half century of Communism, they see time frozen in the facades
of crumbling colonial mansions, the chrome of 1950s automobiles and the
face of a stopped airport clock. They feel little sense of urgency.

Others say the pace of life has quickened considerably in the three
years since President Raul Castro admonished Cubans to embrace economic
reforms "without haste, but without pause." Suddenly, automobile traffic
is picking up in Havana. There are appointments to be kept, private
businesses to tend and deals to be made in a rush to get ahead.

"I feel like this year has gone by faster than ever. We're living in
accelerated times," said Antonio Hernandez, a 57-year-old maintenance
worker. "You wake up one morning ... and next thing you know we're
already in December!"

The feeling of hastening time harkens back to another era. The years
following the 1959 revolution marked a period of upheaval as Fidel
Castro and his band of armed rebels ousted strongman Fulgencio Batista
and put a quick end to his brand of freewheeling capitalism.

In short order, Castro nationalized private businesses. The new
Communist government mobilized teachers across the nation to teach the
poor and soon declared illiteracy had been eradicated. The failed Bay of
Pigs invasion was followed by the U.S. economic embargo and the Cuban
Missile Crisis.

Cubans were guaranteed cradle-to-grave housing, food, health care and
government jobs, regardless of performance. There were times of boom and
bust, national dreams of outsized sugar harvests, military adventures in
Africa and an embrace of all things Soviet, until the Eastern bloc
imploded. Then for decades, life seemed to slow to a crawl. Complacency
set in. Productivity waned. Time became static. The results were
sometimes maddening.

Cubans spent years on waiting lists for cars and homes, or stood in
lines for hours to purchase food and household goods — sometimes without
even knowing what was on offer or if there would be any left when they
got to the front. Rain was reason enough to delay going to work in this
tropical country.

Some found the pace liberating. There was no need to drive fast, because
they weren't really expected to arrive on time. There was no pressure to
answer email, because few had access to Internet. And nobody would
suggest a Sunday afternoon playing dominos with friends was a waste of
time, because it was a habit 40 years in the making.

Time stood still in politics, too. In other countries, a change in
government often delineates an era. The Reagan administration; England
under Thatcher; Obama's America. In Cuba, for nearly 50 years it was
Fidel Castro and the Communist Party with no prospects for change.

Likewise in foreign relations. While the U.S. government normalized
relations with China, Vietnam and Russia, Havana and Washington remained
in a lockstep of hostility.

In Cuba, revolution is understood as a permanent state. History is
treated as news on state TV, which often broadcasts commemorations of
anniversaries of skirmishes from the 1959 uprising. Official newspapers
commonly print Fidel Castro speeches from decades ago on their front
pages. On a recent day, the top story was about a youth group's
re-creation of the Castro brothers' return to Cuba aboard the Granma
yacht in 1956, which nearly ended in disaster but ultimately launched
the armed struggle to topple Batista.

Past, present and future are bound together in a single historical
moment: Fidel Castro's triumphant march into Havana in January 1959.

But many Cubans say life has speeded up since Raul Castro took over the
presidency in 2006, when Fidel was stricken with an intestinal disease
that nearly killed him. Raul quickly legalized computers and cell phones
and removed restrictions on Cubans entering tourist hotels, but he
waited three years to announce more fundamental changes, including an
embrace of limited forms of free market capitalism.

Cuba has begun opening up Internet access, and increased private
computer and cell phone ownership. Cubans now can run their own
businesses, buy and sell homes, go into business for themselves, hire
workers and travel abroad without enduring the humiliation of asking
their government for permission.

"When you sit down and think about it, if you were told six years ago
that you could do this, this and this, and make a list of all that has
changed in six years in Cuba, it's impressive," said Carlos Alzugaray, a
longtime Cuban diplomat and prominent intellectual.

For Cuba's new entrepreneurs, missing an appointment can mean lost
business. For their employees, showing up late can mean a lost job. Some
put vacations on hold to run their micro-enterprises; others seem to
walk just a little more purposefully on the sidewalks.

"You now see Cubans — it's a minority, in certain parts of the city —
and they're on a mission, you know?" said Gregory Biniowsky, a Canadian
lawyer and consultant who lives in Cuba. "The last three years, all of a
sudden you feel time is speeding up. They're in a hurry getting
somewhere. If you compare it to Cuba of the '70s or '80s, nobody was in
a hurry because there was nowhere to go."

Aviel Sanmiguel, the 42-year-old manager of Dona Eutimia, a privately
run restaurant with 18 employees in Old Havana, said it was a shock
getting used to working 15-hour days. He also struggled with firing an
employee for poor performance.

"It something that has been very difficult. We have been taken care of
for a long time," Sanmiguel said. "Now I know I have to get up early.
... If I don't do my job, the client suffers, as do 18 people who have
18 families, and even more counting all the people who depend on it: the
florist, the person who cleans the tablecloths."

For the restless, change is coming too slowly. Yes, they can travel and
buy property, but they want more: more money, more opportunity, more
political freedom. The Communist Party is still the only legal political
party on the island, and officials say that's not up for debate. The
economy remains feeble. Dissidents still are routinely harassed and
detained. It's legal to work independently as a bathroom attendant or
fruit peeler, but not to hang your shingle as a private lawyer. And Cuba
remains the country with the lowest Internet penetration, and slowest
service, in the Western Hemisphere.

"Change? What change?" said Orlando Rivera, a 28-year-old unemployed
Havana resident. "What I want is to get out of here. My mind's made up,
and I'm desperate."

While Fidel Castro largely governed by fiat and force of personality,
his brother Raul is more considered. He seeks consensus, which takes time.

Fiddling with a new iPhone, the diplomat Alzugaray, 70, said he, too,
would like to see faster-paced change, but he said Raul Castro's
measured pace ultimately may yield longer-lasting results. "There's a
conservative sector that he can't just shove aside," Alzugaray said.

In many parts of Havana, the cityscape is changing rapidly. Along a once
darkened street, pedestrians now walk through the neon glow of signs
advertising new bars, restaurants and rooms for rent. On the waterfront,
a crumbling pier has been razed and a gleaming microbrewery is set to
open its doors.

A smattering of Christmas trees and wreaths hang in private businesses
and homes, as holiday displays have become more common in a country that
was officially atheist for decades. Increasingly, late-model European
and Asian automobiles share the road with vintage Chevrolets and boxy
Russian Ladas, idling at new stoplights.

As much as he repeats the phrase "without haste, but without pause,"
Castro, too, is hearing the tick of the clock. He is 82 years old and,
in a sign of the changing times, has said he will retire when his term
ends in 2018. He turned to the next generation in naming Miguel
Diaz-Canel, 53, as his top vice president and heir-apparent.

"There's just a couple grains of sand in their hourglass," said
Biniowsky, the Canadian lawyer. "And they realize that ... if they want
to preserve their legacy, and if they want to preserve some semblance of
the revolution as an institution, as a continuing thing, they are in a
race against time."


Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez and Anne-Marie Garcia in
Havana contributed.

Source: "HAVANA: In Cuba, clock ticking just a bit faster for some -
Latest News -" -

No comments:

Post a Comment