Cuba, the Day After

A short while ago I had occasion to go to Cuba for a wedding. The marriage between a North American and the daughter of a Cuban mother, living in the United States, but with strong connections to the island, was held in the Havana cathedral. The young male guests wore white tuxedos (as in the days of Batista), the priest conducted the ceremony in English, and the guards outside made sure that no uninvited Cubans were able to get in. The reception was held in the Capitol, a replica of the one in Washington D.C..

After a snail-paced passage through immigration at the Jose Marti airport, the first thing to attract a visitor’s attention is the crowds of people waiting for buses, and the girls trying to hitch a ride, and so avoid the chronic lack of public transportation and the battered vehicles going by loaded with human cattle.

The second impression is the enormous contrast between the restored buildings in Old Havana and the decrepit state of hundreds of handsome edifices and houses that are on the verge of collapse. Dozens of families inhabit them, and to enter is to be struck by the poverty, a poverty humiliating to behold, where people lack the most basic necessities. For example: one night I entered a dwelling where a woman was with her blind father, who was sitting on the bed, eating with his hands from a piece of paper, because there was neither table nor plate, nor spoon nor fork.

A visitor is forced to use dollars, notwithstanding the fact that, in the sixties, the island was declared, by its now ancient and crotchety president, to be the first free country in America ( that is, free of the United States and the power of the dollar). “It is pitiful for an economy to discriminate against its own currency and use someone else’s for foreign exchange”, a Cuban told me. If you take a taxi, the ride must be paid for in dollars; if you buy a bottle of Ciego de Montero water it is two dollars; admission to the Art Museum, six. Prices in restaurants and eating houses are listed in dollars. Everything has to be cash, even a visit to the Colon cemetery (one dollar). A cemetery guide told me while standing by a taxi, “I have never taken one.” “Why not?” “Because I earn the equivalent of six dollars a month. My salary would barely pay for a single ride.” He was not exaggerating, because the monthly salary of a dentist is 13 dollars, that of a doctor between 17 and 19, an engineer 11 and 13. A woman in Old Havana was earning the equivalent of 9 dollars a month, about 30 cents a day, while the postcards of Che Guevara that she was selling cost 50 cents. In other words she was making less for her day’s work than the price of a postcard. They belong to the Cuban government.

The odd thing is that Cubans are not allowed in the El Nacional, Golden Tulip and the Melia hotels, among others, nor to beaches reserved for foreigners. Around some night spots Cuban women mill around the entrances, hoping that some tourist will invite them in. Nor are the local people, apart from those who receive money from relatives in the United States, able to buy products priced in dollars at the controlled access stores (the first thing to be excluded is the local money). But many tourists, especially men (like our super corrupt oil industry leaders with their shameful behavior last Thursday week at the “La Casa de la Musica”) do not care what is going on around them, so seduced are they by the mojitos(Cuban drink), Cuban music and the attractiveness of the women, who, in return for their ubiquitous availability, receive a “tip” in dollars. This prostitution that is tolerated by the government because of the desperate situation of some people, caused a friend to remark: “What a sad country that has to use the asses of its women to stay afloat”.

To counteract this , Oswaldo Jose Paya, holder of the Saharov Prize and organizer of the “Varela Project” (supported by 11 thousand signatures), has proposed a referendum with a view to modifying the laws to allow for a peaceful transition, freeing political prisoners, and creating a free market economy. In an interview on TVE, he said: “The regime feels threatened by the creativity of the Cuban people and is tying their hands: Cuba is home for all Cubans, for those of the diaspora and for those within.” As for the possibility of change, he said: “we are already on that road, the protagonist is the Cuban people… Cuba will be reborn, free and reconciled.”

But, after having governed the island for 44 years, and at 76 years of age, the dinosaur and dean of the world’s dictators, has been blunt in his response to the international demands for democratization, saying that, “there will be no transition from socialism to capitalism.” On every block there is still a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution and, on some squares, neighbors pointed out to me hidden cameras filming the activities of passers by. Nevertheless, the unspoken question among Cubans is what will happen the day Fidel Castro goes. Some of the scenarios are the following:

  1. The Cubans in Miami will return, supported by North American capital, to take control of Havana, developing it to the extent of altering its present appearance.
  2. The island will go back to being the North American tourist paradise it was in the time of Fulgencio Batista, with the result that half a century of sacrifice of the Cuban people will have served only to return the country to where it was before.
  3. That Raul Castro is prepared to continue the “socialist experiment” of his brother, and to succeed him in power at all costs.
  4. That there will be a bloody confrontation between the people and the police forces that have repressed them for so long.
  5. That the United States has a contingency plan for the day after.
  6. That, through some miracle, there will be a peaceful transition to democracy.

Because of Cuba the Cold War has returned for intellectuals. Positions taken for and against the executions by firing squad and the imprisonments, of Fidel Castro have reawakened the debate between critics and defenders of the Cuban regime. In reading a number of opinions I find myself back in the sixties, when the specter of North American aggression against the island led to the unconditional support of Latin American writers and poets. But, if one looks back a little further into history and remembers the praise that poets like Pablo Neruda and Nicolas Guillen lavished upon Josef Stalin, one can better understand the self-examination that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is going through now, and because of his close elationship withFidel Castro, will go through later even more painfully. But although Gabo cannot “count the number of prisoners dissidents and conspirators that , in total silence, he has helped get out of prison or Cuba over a period of not less than twenty years” (El Tiempo de Bogata), that does not excuse his present silence over the sentences given to the dissidents.

Placed in high security prisons in various provinces as a means to separate and isolate them from their families and friends, the dissidents have been sent far from Havana. On the subject of those transported, Miriam Leyva, wife of the economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, sentenced to 20 years, labeled this an “extra-judicial punishment that affects hundreds of innocent families, who will be forced to travel enormous distances to visit the prisoners”. Elsa Morejon, wife of Doctor Oscar Elias Biscet, sentenced to 25 years, disclosed that in his punishment cell her husband is practically naked “because he refused to obey prison regulations and wear the uniform” like the criminals. As for the poet Raul Rivero, alone, shaved and shackled in his cell in the Ciego de Avila prison 360 miles from Havana, he, according to his wife Blanca Reyes, is writing a book of poetry and walking 2000 paces a day in order to endure his confinement. Meanwhile the despicable informants of the security service of the Cuban government, like Aleida de las Mercedes Godinez (Agent Vilma) have boasted: “The opposition is done for: it will never raise its head again”.

In Geneva things are also twisted: at the end of April, Cuba, by acclamation, was reelected a member of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights for three more years. Besides Cuba, on the same Commission, presided over by Libya, are to be found countries like Algeria, Burundi, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sudan and Syria. “Nice teachers,” as was written on one of his picture by that great painter of historical atrocities, don Francisco de Goya y Lucientes.