Down the way, where the nights are gay…

After 47 years of the US-backed trade embargo, lovely Havana moves from despair to hope like the tide on its untouched beach


Sanjay Kapoor  Havana

Just opposite the United States of America's 'Interest Section' - they have no embassy in Cuba — there is a plot of land where there are scores of high flagpoles,  some as high as 50 feet, flying the Cuban flags. The Interest Section is located opposite the Malecon, Havana's famous sea front where thousands of Cubans converge every evening to sing, dance and ruminate about their future.

In January this year, these flagpoles were erected by the Cuban government to block the US interest section's electronic message board giving out news about human rights violations in the country and teachings of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. If anyone has to see absolute defiance of the world's sole super power, this was it. To show its ire at how the US has been supporting terror acts against the socialist island, two large hoardings have been placed on the Malecon facing the Interest Section showing US President George W Bush as a terrorist.   

For 47 years now, Cuba has been defying the US in every which way it can. Living legend and revolutionary, President Fidel Castro, 80, has faced innumerable CIA-inspired assassination attempts. His people have suffered silently from long years of US economic blockade. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 exacerbated the toil and misery of the people in the Caribbean Sea's biggest island. But they soldiered on.

Stared by disaster, the government allowed tourism to attract hard currency and even allowed some private enterprise, but the country remains mired in problems that would not go away till the US lifts its blockade and allows Cubans to carry on with the ordinary business of life. Many of them live in the belief that the embargo would lift and the ships would begin to flock the empty Havana harbour. And life would change. But it has been a long wait.

The difficult question: will things change after Fidel dies? Contrary to the expectations of many wealthy Cuban Americans in Miami who are waiting to reclaim their old properties, their wait, too, could be unending. People may be poor, but their pride would not permit them to allow their country to become a colony of the US all over again. 

Cuban economy has been in a relatively better shape in recent times due to the cheap oil Venezuela has been

providing to it. Its membership to Mercosur — the Latin American alliance — would also make a difference to its fortunes. Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez claims that Cuba's growth rate has been 12 per cent, but little evidence is available on the streets.

The life of an average Cuban is trapped in suffering, perennial shortages and deprivation. He may have free education and health care, but he just does not have money to buy the basics of life. This is taking a heavy toll of family life and the moral fibre of the society. Cubans may be standing up to the Americans, but at what a terrible cost!

Most goods can only be purchased by hard currency called Convertible Currency (CUCs). Each CUC is slightly more than a US dollar and less than a Euro. Average income of a Cuban is about 10 CUCs in where a new shirt costs about 4-5 CUCs and a bottle of Havana Club Rum between 8-9 CUCs. Cuba is one of those countries where seemingly everyone is economically depressed. The fancy Spanish villas near the fifth avenue of Miramar, many of them occupied by the embassies, can create an illusion of a prosperous upper class. The truth is, most of these villas are inhabited by poor Cuban families. Three to four families stay in each of these villas; many of them are in a miserable shape inside.

Cubans spend a lot of time trying to figure out ways of how to make an extra buck. It is perhaps the only country in the world where professional working women — even doctors — are rumoured to live the life of jineteras (literal meaning sex jockeys) to make money on the side. Sex tourists from Europe and other Latin countries help sustain the business in many of the city's night clubs. There are men, too, who are part of this regime, providing company for many white women who flock for sunshine and a good time. Malecon, which teems with people aunting different sexual preferences, shows the nether side of the Cuban society. 

A similar scarcity mindset is visible among students also. They are always trying to find ways to make money or do things where they do not have to spend anything. Alisa, a student, says: “We have to make our own rum as we cannot afford it from the market.” There is also desperation to use the Internet for email. “We get only 10 hours every month and by the time we connect and check, our quota is over.”

The problem of housing is acute. Rosa, a student of Havana University, did not know that her parents were divorced for many years as they lived together. “I knew that they had relationships outside their marriage, but I did not know that they were divorced for the last 10 years.” Rosa’s boyfriend has shifted in with her since he does not have a house in Havana. Would she go to the US if she got a chance? “No way! I love Cuba and I will stay in Cuba.” More than 1,20,000 people left Cuba, many of them criminals and ‘malcontent’ pushed by the Cuban government, when the then US President, Jimmy Carter, offered them asylum in 1976.

Superficially, Havana seems like a collection of beautiful picture post cards of a byegone era. You can see old Morris, Studebakers and Impala cars race alongside the South Korean Hyundais. It is a city with a colorful past, but with an uncertain and patchy future. People seem unhurried and relaxed as they lounge outside their homes — many of them in a state of repair. The magical old Havana, now under the care of UNESCO, with its colonial buildings dating back to the 16th century, needs urgent repairs. The whole city could do with some shine — which may arrive when the world order is a little more just and accommodative of diverse ideas and systems.

Cuba after Fidel Maurice Lemoine  Fidel Castro, who was about to undergo an operation, transferred his constitutional responsibilities as president of Cuba on 31 July to a team of seven, including his brother Raul. The world held its breath and thousands of exiled Cubans in Miami celebrated the illness and even the death of the "tyrant".

The Florida-based Cuban American National Foundation, which had supported the invasion of Iraq in April 2003 on the principle of "Iraq today, tomorrow Cuba", immediately called for a civil or military uprising to overthrow the regime in Havana. President George Bush assured the population of Cuba on 2 August that the United States would support them in any efforts to establish a transitional government committed to democracy: this was a threat to anyone who might support the present regime and oppose the US definition of a "Free Cuba".

The uprising was supposed to be a historic event in which chaos would reign and hundreds of thousands of Cubans would take to the streets demanding freedom. But the days went by and there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary. True, whether or not Castro takes the helm again, the scene has been set for the debate on what comes next: succession or transition. He has been in solo power for 47 years and there is certainly some dissatisfaction and opposition. There are people who do not support his revolution and who may even be against it. Shortages, bureaucracy, loss of freedoms (speech, free association, the right of assembly), imprisonment of opponents: all these are real shortcomings in Cuba. They are widely condemned.

Some commentators have pointed out that the US has mounted many invasion, assassination and sabotage attempts involving Cuba since 1959 and that its trade embargo has crippled Cuba's economy. Others argue that these are merely excuses, as though history could be divided into watertight compartments and present problems had nothing to do with past interference.

In 2005 Washington appointed a Cuba transition coordinator, Caleb McCarry, who had previously served in Afghanistan. On 10 July this year, the commission for assistance to a free Cuba, co-chaired by the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and the secretary of commerce, Carlos Gutierrez, issued a report stressing the urgency of working "to ensure that the Castro regime's succession strategy does not succeed".

The report promised $80m for US aid to Cuba, adding that these resources would be passed directly to dissidents, who will be trained and supplied with equipment. This is both brazen interference in Cuban internal affairs and a sentence of doom for the Cuban opposition. As the president of the Cuban parliament, Ricardo Alarcon, points out, as long as this policy is pursued there will be Cubans involved in plotting with the US and accepting its money. He does not know any country where these would not be regarded as criminal activities.

The report notes that the "plan" contains an annexe that is secret for reasons of national security and to ensure its effective implementation. When it come to the US's secret measures, the history of the Americas from Salvador Allende to Sandinista Nicaragua leaves little to the imagination.

However, leaving aside the self-proclaimed supporters of transition, a significant proportion of other Cubans welcome the revolution's advances in education, health and social services, and respect Fidel and his "old-timers", plus the new young leaders who will be called upon to carry on his work. Is Cuba as isolated from the world as some have claimed? Africa and Asia have relations with Cuba, while the revolutionary changes in Latin America have brought to power new heads of state who are better informed about the real situation in Cuba and the reasons for its atypical combination of one-party system and advanced social policies.

Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia have already taken steps to end Cuban isolation. Castro was feted at the Mercosur summit at Cordoba in Argentina and on 21 July he signed an important trade agreement with the member states of this regional body, including Brazil and Argentina. The

agreement openly defies the US trade embargo and pays homage to a small country that refuses to bow to the greatest power in the world.

In shaping its own future, Cuba will seek examples and support in its relations with the Mercosur zone, where people already talk about democratic and sovereign socialism for the 21st century. Cuba will also draw on its own living resources. It will not look to the US, which wants to add it to its list of colonies, or to Europe, which both lectures Cuba and disdains it.


Translated by Barbara Wilson

Courtesy: Lemonde diplomatique