As hard times bite, Cubans show little appetite for celebration

The revolutionary leader said history would judge him, but the daily struggle to survive is testing even his most loyal supporter

Fidel Castro in 1959.

Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos in 1959.

Carmen Gonce remembers the triumph of Cuba‘s revolution as the happiest day of her life. Fidel Castro and his guerrillas swept down from the Sierra Maestra and delivered the island from a corrupt and brutal dictatorship. People danced in the streets and welcomed the “bearded ones” into their homes. It was 1 January 1959 and a time for hope. “We were nearly all Fidelistas,” she said.

Half a century later, the girl of 15 is a pensioner of 64 who watches sunsets over the Caribbean from a cracked chair on the balcony of her Havana home a few blocks from the Karl Marx theatre. Much has happened since that day, yet it seems close enough to touch. “It feels just like last year.”

Gonce still supports the revolution’s principles and is grateful for a recent heart bypass operation. “A top surgeon – and I didn’t pay a cent!” But celebrating the anniversary is not an option. The former author and book editor is nearly destitute. She has no money for decent food, cooking oil or soap, let alone treats. So she will stay at home, follow the anniversary commemorations on TV and reflect on a process that has simultaneously inspired and impoverished her. “The ideals are good but the reality of daily life … ” Her voice trails off.

The ambivalence reflects the complex legacy of a revolution which invested in health and education, crushed dissent and provoked admiration and revulsion. Cuba reaches today’s milestone with the echo of the prediction Fidel Castro made from the dock as a young revolutionary in 1953: “Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.” Well, did it?


There is no disputing the revolution’s durability. It survived the Bay of Pigs invasion, the missile crisis and the Soviet Union’s collapse. Castro outlasted 10 US presidents and dodged countless CIA assassination attempts. Absolution or not, history will certainly remember him.

The anniversary coincides with a period of flux. Castro, 82, resigned as president last year because of an intestinal illness, but his recent partial recovery has revived his influence. His brother and successor, Raúl, 77, signalled modest reforms, but they have stalled. Barack Obama has promised to ease draconian US restrictions and shake up a policy pickled in vinegar since JFK.

“It feels that the end of the story has not been written. Nobody knows what is going to happen and that is unsettling,” said Daniel Erikson, a Cuba expert at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based thinktank.

One safe bet, however, is that there will be no mass outpouring of jubilation to mark the anniversary, for a simple reason: living standards are dire. “Our situation is so precarious nobody wants to celebrate,” said Gabriel Calaforra, 75, a former ambassador and high-ranking official. “There is almost total indifference. People are waiting for change.”

The authorities have booked popular musicians for a free concert at the Anti-Imperialista Tribune on the Malecón, Havana’s seafront, so there will be dancing. But joy, like so much else on the island, will be scarce. The struggle for decent food and basic goods makes people obsess about vegetables and conserving everything from soap to toilet roll. Few are in party mood.

Material hardship was eroding trust in the system, said Erikson. “A lot of people think the revolution has important accomplishments but pervasive scarcity puts economic questions at the front of their minds.”

The government blames the long-standing US embargo. Unquestionably it has wrought havoc, but most analysts say communist central planning, stifling bureaucracy and lack of economic freedom have proved even more ruinous.

The state controls about 90% of the economy, obliging almost everyone to work for it, but pays an average monthly wage of about £12. A ration of rice, beans and other staples, and supposedly free public services, keeps people alive but does not avert grinding poverty.

To buy goods in the few decently stocked shops Cubans must change near worthless pesos into convertible pesos, a dual currency worth 24 times more that was designed for tourists.

“After I pay my rent I have $2 left for the month,” said Miguel, 32, a whip-thin hospital doctor. As a favour, a European friend recently married Miguel to help him obtain an exit visa. “I want to get out,” he said.

Poverty reeks from the decaying, overcrowded buildings of central Havana. Though from a distance they are picturesque, up close you see the grime and smell the plumbing. Likewise, the 1950s Chevrolets and Fords, surreal mechanical marvels, lose their charm if you are a sardine-wedged passenger or pedestrian choking on the fumes.

Cuba became dependent on tourism after the end of Soviet subsidies in 1991 triggered savage austerity and a need for foreign currency. With a casual tip dwarfing state wages, scientists, teachers and other professionals quit their jobs to become waiters, chambermaids and taxi drivers. “Our most brilliant minds – serving coffee,” lamented Alvaro, a university lecturer turned tour guide.


Everyone has some type of sideline – selling knick-knacks, baking cakes, pilfering state resources. “A population of hustlers and mini-capitalists, that’s how our communism survives,” said Luis, 42, an academic who rears pigs in his garden.

The government knows its legitimacy and longevity hinge on raising living standards. After succeeding Fidel last year Raúl announced minor reforms: more privately-run farms and taxis, greater wage flexibility and permission to stay in hotels and buy computers, DVD players and mobile phones.

Some things have improved. Hundreds of Chinese-made buses have eased transport shortages and subsidised Venezuelan oil has helped to banish power blackouts. But reforms have stalled, disappointing Cubans and puzzling observers.

“It’s in limbo. Raúl unleashed expectations but apart from agriculture very little is happening,” said a senior diplomat.

The official explanation is that three summer hurricanes devastated crops and infrastructure, wrecking 500,000 homes and causing $10bn damage. The global economic downturn and a dive in nickel prices, a key export, have also hit state coffers, forcing Cuba to reschedule debt payments. The crippling US embargo compounds the woes.

There is suspicion that Fidel has been doing his bit to slow reforms since his health reportedly improved. His regular newspaper articles are sharper. “There’s a sense, oh-oh, Fidel’s back,” said the diplomat. Raúl-inspired calls for bold self-criticism and a “revolution within the revolution” have ebbed.

In the absence of material improvements the revolution’s legitimacy rests largely on healthcare and education, success stories that have given Cuba first-world rates of infant mortality, life expectancy, literacy and university graduations.

Gonce’s bypass operation shows the system at its best. Many hospitals and polyclinics have been overhauled and modernised. But the system is creaking. Under a barter deal for Venezuelan oil more than 20,000 Cuban doctors are working overseas and foreign patients are leapfrogging queues. The result is delayed treatment and overworked staff, said Miguel, the doctor who hopes to emigrate.

Education is also under strain because so many teachers, fed up with low salaries and an ideology-imbued curriculum, have quit. Adolescents straight out of secondary school have been recruited to teach classes with the aid of video cassettes.

“Pupils are not encouraged to think freely, to develop their own ideas and curiosity,” said Enrique, 25, a disillusioned teacher. “The other problem is purely economic. University students don’t consider teaching to be something serious.” Enrique has resigned from the Communist Youth organisation.


Older Cubans who remember the corrupt tyranny of Fulgencio Batista, the US-backed dictator toppled 50 years ago, tend to be more loyal. “The thing is working,” said Marilyn, a proud member of a Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, a neighbourhood network. “We have health, we have education.”

Such fidelity is being tested by increasing inequality. Che Guevara’s egalitarian dream long ago gave way to division between the dirt poor and those who have access to foreign currency through tourism jobs, remittances and government contacts.

Raúl’s cautious reforms have underlined that split by giving the privileged minority more opportunities to consume. You see them snapping up Sony wide-screen televisions, Paco Rabanne perfume and Adidas trainers in shopping centres like La Puntilla, out of bounds to most but with a poster of Fidel’s revolutionary exhortations at the entrance. Most Cubans are black or brown-skinned but most of the shoppers here are white – just as top government echelons are white.

“Equality was and still is supposed to be one of the pillars of the revolution but now there are people with loads of money,” said Eduardo, 56, a historian. Too broke to treat his wife on their wedding anniversary, the former Young Communist was not minded to celebrate the revolution’s.

Despite the sour mood there is little public protest or even graffiti. It would change nothing and you could get fined or jailed, so why bother, is a common refrain. Opposition parties are banned and by some counts there are more than 200 political prisoners. The government says they are US-paid mercenaries.

A rare demonstration in Havana by the “ladies in white”, an organisation of relatives of jailed dissidents, was instructive. Clutching flowers and leaflets about human rights, about 30 chanted “liberty” from the steps of the Capitolio before filing through busy streets, tailed by plainclothes policemen. Not one passerby cheered the solemn procession. Lacking funds, media and grassroots organisation, the opposition is isolated and largely unknown. One European diplomat was blunt: “Dissidents are irrelevant.”

For US policymakers that is reason to despair. They have long counted on the so-called “biological solution”: when Fidel Castro died, his ramshackle regime would collapse. That has turned out to be wishful thinking. The commandante has seamlessly transferred power to Raúl and his inner circle.

Not only will the revolution outlast him, Fidel can die feeling vindicated. Not long ago he was an international pariah, but a new generation of leftist regional leaders has feted him as a symbol of Latin American pride and nationalism. And prescience: his critiques of imperialism and capitalism resonate in the light of the Iraq war and global economic crisis.

“Cuba is returning to where it always should have been,” Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, said at a summit last month. “We are complete.” It is a view shared by centrist leaders such as Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner. Largely for economic reasons, China and Russia, and to some extent the EU, have also courted Havana.

Final chapter

After half a century, Fidel Castro’s experiment has significant accomplishments and glaring failures. Historians will struggle to untangle the political and social meaning. Diplomats will try to anticipate the next and possibly final chapter. It will be left to the 11 million people who live on the island to decide if the “bearded one” who swept down from the Sierra Maestra all those years ago is to be absolved.

For Luis Poey, 69, a guard at the entrance of the Association of Veterans of the Cuban Revolution, the answer was obvious. “In this country one lives proud all the time. We fought giants and that made us a giant.” He jabbed his thick cigar. “We are still fighting.”

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