Cuba after Fidel Castro: Full of life, but it is life on the brink of death
By ANNIKA HERNROTH-ROTHSTEIN • 4/10/17 8:00 PM
HAVANA — The young woman sees me watch in amazement as she gets up from
her seat and attempts to carry the four bags with her through the aisle
of the plane, and she gestures at them and shrugs.
"There is nothing in Cuba, so whatever we can, we bring."
It took me a few days to fully grasp what she had told me, being a
first-time visitor in a country entering its 58th year of communist
dictatorship, and its very first without Fidel Castro. I came here to
find out what had changed since his passing, and what was next for the
island regime, but to my great surprise it was business as usual, in
more ways than one.
On my way from the airport I ask my cab driver if things feel different
since Castro's death. He shakes his head and tells me that even on the
night of his passing there was little movement in the streets or
commotion through Havana.
"I was impressed, actually. Fidel has been everything, you know? He is
the father of the revolution and when he dies – nothing – not a word.
They were able to control everything, even then."
By "they" he means the regime, now taking orders from Fidel's brother
Raoul Castro, and the security apparatus attached to it, with its
infamous security service, Direccion General de Intelligencia (DGI)
making sure the wheels turn smoothly. It is a simple yet brilliant
scheme, where every neighborhood has an informant, reporting to the
Comites de Defensa de la Revolution (CDR), a secret police in charge of
keeping tabs on counter-revolutionary activity, and every infraction or
sign of disloyalty is met with stern and immediate consequences. Given
the dire straits of the people in Cuba, the regime is not willing to
take any chances, having experienced revolutions in the past it knows
not to allow the flame of change to be ignited.
With a monthly salary of $30 USD per person, supplemented with a fixed
portion of rice, eggs and beans, the people of Cuba have been forced to
use every opportunity to make some money on the side in order to avoid
starvation. This has resulted in a shadow-society to take shape within
communist Cuba, a society that is highly capitalist in every single way.
I get evidence of this en route to old Havana one day, when my driver
stops for gas and is told there is none left, only to leave the car with
a fistful of cash and return later, car filled-up and ready.
"This is what we call the Cuban way. You see, the gas station belongs to
the government, so the only way for these men to earn something extra is
to sell gas to the highest bidder and deny those who can't pay. I call
it communist capitalism."
The same is true everywhere you go: people cooking the books to fill
their plates and fight their way out of desperation, and as a tourist
you accept it and move on, constantly struggling with the guilt of
living here in a bubble that everyday Cubans will never be privy to. To
outsiders, the combination of poverty and oppression and the recent loss
of the symbol of the revolution would inevitably result in a turn toward
democracy and capitalism. But as the regime does its best to convey,
very little has been buried with Fidel.
The Cubans I have spoken to are proud of their country. Even though they
criticize the regime, under promise of anonymity, they are quick to add
that they don't necessarily want Cuba to become the United States or
just any other country in the West. When I ask them if they believe that
democracy and capitalism will come to Cuba now that Fidel has left and
Raoul is on his way out, they respond in the negative, saying that
whatever will come next will be a Cuban version of those things, an
adaptation from what it is now.
And the way things are looking, they may be right. Rumor has it Raoul
Castro has already reshuffled the government, replacing generals and
ministers with his personal confidants so that he will remain the
unofficial leader even after his assumed successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel,
is sworn in as president in 2018. This ensures that even though Fidel is
dead, the spirit of the revolution lives on, and the Cubans I've spoken
to fear that the regime will take steps to emphasize the status quo by
tightening its grip on the population.
It is not an improbable scenario, but rather a common tactic for
totalitarian regimes when dealing with dramatic shifts, as most recently
seen in Iran after the nuclear deal, where executions and imprisonments
have risen dramatically during and after the rapprochement with the
West. There is an important difference, however, and that is that Cuba
is unlike many other countries of its kind, and that difference may
actually be a hindrance in its journey toward democracy.
One thing that sets Cuba apart from other totalitarian regimes is the
romance that surrounds it, still, despite the thousands of extrajudicial
executions and arbitrary imprisonments, a ruined national economy, and
denial of basic freedoms of association, religion, movement, and speech
having taken place in the past 58 years. Even those who do not hold an
ideological torch for the communist revolution are still enchanted with
the country's beauty, charm, and lust for life, making it easier to
disregard the daily crimes committed against its people and quell the
international community's instinct to intervene.
Cuba is truly magical, and yes, it is full of life, but once you step
outside of the lush hotel garden you see that it is life on the brink of
death, magic existing in a state of suspended animation.
There are several shadow-societies existing side by side in Cuba, and
through these the population has come to function and survive, with very
limited resources and freedoms.
This is made possible by the geographical and cultural proximity to the
U.S., loosening of sanctions and the idea of Cuba being kept alive
through and by the booming Cuban tourism industry. This process is
quietly supported by the regime itself because, ironically, the only way
for the communist revolution to survive is by covert capitalism, keeping
the population from starvation, and turning a blind eye to this keeps
the oppressive communist regime from having to admit defeat.
There were no rallies through Havana on the eve of Fidel's death and
now, almost 4 months later, he has already moved from leader to martyr,
cementing a well-directed legacy. Life goes on for the Cubans, with or
without the father of the revolution, as they watch tourists flood their
Island paradise, hoping to benefit from some of the overflow.
Cuba is lively and loud – full of life for days of play. But when it
really matters, it is quiet – its people's fate decided in silence,
without so much as a word.
Annika Hernroth-Rothstein (@truthandfiction) is a journalist and author,
based in Stockholm, Sweden.
Source: Cuba after Fidel Castro: Full of life, but it is life on the
brink of death | Washington Examiner -