(The names in the following piece have been changed)
In a 2000 interview, former UNESCO director, Federico Mayor asked Fidel Castro what he believed would occur in Cuba after his death. The leader maintained that the present system would continue without disruption.
¨I did not inherit a position, and I am not a king. Therefore, I do not need to prepare a successor… There will be no trauma, or the need for any kind of transition.¨ Naturally, Castro´s position and the official position are one, however, in the same breath, the President also downplayed his own importance within the Cuban political apparatus.
¨When a genuine revolution has been consolidated and when ideas and consciousness have begun to bear fruit, no human is indispensable, no matter how important his or her contribution may have been. There is no cult of personality in Cuba.¨ Any person who has spent even a few hours in the country will know that the final statement is either a lie, or a monumental delusion.
In Cuba, as in other Communist nations past and present - the Soviet Union under Stalin, Mao Zedong´s China, or present day North Korea - the most visible manifestation of the state is the ubiquitous presence of its leader in the streets. Fidel´s thickly furred countenance greets readers from the banner heading on the front page of the government run national Newspaper, Granma. Currency is marked with the complete pantheon of revolutionary deities, Castro storming the streets of Havana with rifle raised, flanked by the lesser Gods, Che Gueverra and Camilo Cienfuegos. An organization with the Orwellian moniker, The Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, ensure that buildings, walls, trees, park benches, and many other public spaces are decorated with inspirational slogans.
¨The ideals of the revolution are as high as the stars,¨ proclaims Fidel loftily from the wall of one Havana apartment complex. Not even the kindgartens are exempt. In the small town of Viñales, in the western province of Piñar Del Rio, the walls surrounding the children´s playground are covered with enormous murals, depicting revolutionary battle scenes. ¨ Nosotros contigo Fidel!¨ reads the accompanying caption. ¨We are with you Fidel.¨ But what the agents of the state paint on the walls, and what the people genuinely feel are two quite separate things, and the pervasive mood of discontent that I encountered in Cuba would suggest that the period after the President´s death probably won ´t be as smooth as Castro suggests.
Manuela rents the spare room of her apartment in Havana to foreign tourists. It`s illegal to do this without a license, but worth the risk. In order to obtain the necessary paperwork, she tells me, a home owner needs to be thoroughly investigated by the local branch of the party. The facilities are checked and the room for rent, as well as any other ¨shared spaces,¨ such as the lounge or dining room, must be measured. All housing is technically owned by the state, although families usually dwell in the same home for generations, and as a result any ¨tenant¨ who wishes to rent their room must pay a significant proportion of their earnings to the government. The amount varies according to the size of the room, but is usually in the order of $250 US per month. Manuela charges $25 a night, which is about the standard in Havana. Seven hundred US dollars a month is very good money in Cuba, but business fluctuates seasonally and those who rent legally must pay the government regardless of whether the room is filled or not.
There are other drawbacks to the system of ¨casas particulares.¨Manuela says that they have had problems with foreign visitors drinking too much and bringing prostitutes back to the room, sometimes under the age of consent. For this reason she usually sends her four year old daughter, Maria, to stay with her grandmother when the room is occupied. The previous year a foreign visitor staying illegally in a neighbour´s apartment was stabbed to death by one of several local men he had invited back to his room to drink and play cards. All of the men in the complex were questioned by the police and Manuela decided to leave the room empty for a few weeks while the authorities were around. The lure of a decent tax-free income proved too much, however, and she soon began renting again.
One day Manuela arrived home and found me reading a collection of interviews with Fidel Castro at the table in the living room.
¨Don´t read this in my house,¨she said. ¨You know what this is? You know what this is for?¨ She made a crude gesture with the book. ¨It´s shit. I want to wipe my arse with it.¨ She was a young woman, not yet thirty, with good English and French, who always spoke very loudly and clearly no matter what language she was using - the voice of a school teacher. Manuela lived with her boyfriend and four-year-old daughter in the relatively affluent neighbourhood of Vedado, close to both the magnificent main campus of the University of Habana and the Malecon, the city´s famous sea wall of a thousand picture postcards. The family lived in basic but comfortable circumstances, luxurious by Cuban standards: a two bedroom apartment with a small kitchen, living room and bathroom with hot water. Manuela`s situation was a little more involved than most. At 22, she was briefly married to a Japanese businessman who took her back to his home city of Sapporo. This gave her the opportunity she had always wanted to leave Cuba, but the relationshipship quickly broke down under the strain of homesickness and isolation. Her Japanese-Cuban son turned six this year and lives with Manuela´s mother in an apartment a few blocks away, because her boyfriend, Jose, did not want to have both children in the house. Both children were near uncontrollable. Maria´s favourite game was to take out Jose´s bowling ball and roll it across the tiled floor of the small apartment, thudding noisily off the walls. Jose tolerated Maria´s presence with a sort of bemused indifference, but I noticed that Manuela often sent her daughter to her mother´s house when he was home. Perhaps she didn´t like Maria to be around when Jose was drinking heavily with his friends, a regular occurence.
During the long mellow evenings, when the light in Havana remains until eight o´clock or later, the men would sit out in the flower pot outside the window and look down two stories onto the street. So regular were these gatherings that there were no plants left in the garden, only trampled down dirt. They would drink rum from the bottle, play cards, bellow along with boleros on the stereo and call out to pretty women passing below. Manuela, who didn`t drink, would try to get involved in these gatherings, clucking and fussing around Jose´s friends, but it was fairly clear that she was not invited to the party. The conversation was often about baseball, and was often punctuated by crude jokes and loud guffawing. Often when she felt unwelcome, she would come into the guest room where I would be sitting trying to study Spanish and ignore the din, and begin a conversation.
¨Cuban men like drinking too much,¨ she said to me several times. Even when I asked her to speak Spanish to help me practice, she would persist with English, as though she wanted to be sure she was not understood.
The curious thing was that even when the children were away, Manuela rarely seemed to leave the house. She would talk on the phone, watch soap operas on the television or come into my room and strike up a conversation. Once she showed me a photograph of a bus stop in Japan. The image showed an electronic sign on a platform counting down the minutes until the next service.
¨All my friends here thought this was hilarious,¨ she said. Cuban bus schedules, needless to say, are rarely so predictable. It seemed strange that she had so much spare time. She had told me that she was an English teacher, that she worked with teenagers, and yet, she never seemed to go to work. One day I asked her about her job.
¨I am a teacher. That´s what I studied,¨ she said. ¨And I love teaching. I´m very good at it. But I`m not a teacher now.¨
¨What do you do now?¨ I asked.
¨I look after my children and rent the room.¨
¨You don`t want to work?´
¨Of course I want to work. But what´s the point?¨
¨What do you mean?¨
¨Do you know how much a teacher gets payed in Cuba?¨
¨Well, for example, I was payed $11 per month.¨
¨That´s not very much.¨
¨It´s an insult. I will not work for this money. You know that I cannot go out in the street and protest here. But I can make $25 a night by renting my room. And I can make sure that none of it goes to Castro. ¨
One of the great successes of the Cuban revolution is supposed to have been education. Supporters of the Castro regime point out that despite the US economic blockade the tiny, impoverished nation consistently ranks highly in terms of international health and educational standards. Moreover these services are delivered free to all citizens. While the US, that bastion of liberty and enlightenment responsible for the barbarous concentration camp on Cuban soil at Guantanamo, persist in talking about human rights violations in Cuba, they never mention the achievements of the revolutionary government in providing essential services to its citizens. Illiteracy has been virtually eliminated and there are now two university graduates for every sixth grade graduate in 1959 when Castro took power. Always a grand orator, the Cuban leader likes to talk of his country as a leading player in an international ¨battle of ideas.¨ The quality of the education system is one of his chief rhetorical battering rams:
¨No other nation is more educated or less dependent on the country that has risen up as the wealthiest and most crucial power for the rest of the world. No other nation is freer to declare its truths and defend the right´s of the world´s poor and exploited people´s in every internationational forum.¨
The problem lies in what happens to these graduates once they enter the workforce. Career advancement in Cuba often depends less on intelligence or ability, than on political connections and willingness to participate in the system. As Manuela bluntly states, in order to succeed¨You have to go to all their meetings and listen to all their bullshit and try to sound as revolutionary as possible.¨ Moreover, an undeniably bright, talented young woman like Manuela receives very little incentive to work, or to perform her job to a high standard, when she can earn a far better income staying at home and dealing with tourists illicitily. There is a palpable sense of ennui in workplaces throughout Cuba, where everybody knows that greater labor does not yield greater rewards. This is not to buy into the great Capitalist lie that wealth comes naturally to those with ability and eludes those without it; clearly tremendous structural inequities exist within free-market economies (indeed many would argue that inequality is an integral part of such a system), but this doesn`t make Cuba the utopia that many of us of the left want it to be. It is all very well to receive state funded education, but once we have trained our brains we need to use them for something, rather than insult them with cheap slogans, destroy them with liquor, or sit around the house letting them atrophy.
One evening I returned home after dark to find that the lights were out. As I came into the apartment I could hear Manuela in the kitchen, meat sizzling in the pan.
¨James, did you kill the lights?¨ she called.
¨Yes, Manuela, I did it just to annoy you.¨ She gave me a playful slap as she passed in the hallway, making her way into the loungeroom where she slumped into a chair.
¨I´m so sick of living in this fucking country,¨ she said. A steady diet of American films had given her an affection for English obscenties. I sat down across the room from her, just able to make out her outline.
¨I´m just tired of it, you know. I´m trying to cook dinner for my kids and the lights go out. This happens every two or three days and they stay out for a long time. Sometimes for an hour.¨ A bus screeched to a stop across the street. In Havana the public buses are giant double humped metal cattle-cars towed behind trucks, known as ¨camels.¨ This bus must have had three hundred people crammed into the carriage, with some hanging out the doors and others left standing at the bus stop, unable to squeeze through the doors. There was no electronic sign counting down the minutes until the next bus would arrive. Manuela went on talking in the dark:
¨I´m waiting for a phone call you know. I know it´s very difficult, but I sent a letter to the United Nations explaining my situation. I told them that I want to be a refugee.¨ Which of course she is not. Manuela, with her illegally rented room, her small act of domestic subterfuge, is in no immediate danger. Like millions of people in the so called ¨developing world¨ she is an aspiring economic migrant who wants a better life for herself and her family. Even though these are perfectly admirable and understandable goals, she is not a refugee and has absolutely no chance of receiving any assistance from the UN. I believe she knows this, that she tells the story of her refugee application to give herself some forlorn hope where in reality there is none.
¨So now all I can do is sit here and wait,¨ she said.
¨What are you waiting for?¨ I ask
¨The same thing we´re all waiting for. I´m waiting for Castro to die.¨