• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Havana: The State Retreats

José Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos
Edgar Leonardo Prada Rosales, a student and fan of Che Guevara, Chivirico, Cuba, 2008

An important point here: the words used about a country like Cuba have to be very carefully examined. An “unemployed” person is often not unemployed, a “demonstration” is not a demonstration but an activity organized by the government, and so on in a very long et cetera. Totalitarianism—as Victor Klemperer explained—begins first of all in a linguistic subversion of reality.

Against this linguistic subversion, the bloggers and independent press have rebelled. I follow a number of the blogs written on the island, in particular that of Yoani Sánchez, who describes the Cuban catastrophe in ways anyone can understand. She won the 2008 Ortega y Gasset Award for digital journalism, given by the Spanish paper El Pais. A true media cuentapropista, Yoani does what the behemoth state newspaper Granma cannot do: she offers an accurate account of the daily life of the Cuban people. Predictably, she’s been accused of working for the CIA, but no one believes that. Many Cubans understand that an expression of dissent does not mean that you are in the service of a foreign power.

Even so, the impact of the blogs is limited. These bloggers are apparently allowed to keep blogging only because such a low percentage of the population has access to the Internet. Only a million and a half people in Cuba (14 percent of the population) are able to go online and for those without a state-approved connection the cost is exorbitant. The connection is, moreover, exasperatingly slow, as I learn when I check my e-mail in the press room at the Hotel Nacional, an architectural jewel of the gilded age where, my Internet struggle concluded, I stroll out to the garden to see the peacocks and listen to musicians running through the now doubly nostalgic tunes of the Buena Vista Social Club.

I’ve arranged to meet here with Orlando Luis Pardo, thirty-nine, another blogger. A former scientist, Pazo spent years recombining DNA at Havana’s Polo Científico “to make vaccines.” He talks about las Damas de Blanco or Ladies in White, wives of the victims of the so-called Black Spring of 2003 when seventy-five members of the opposition were jailed. Many of them were independent journalists arrested under what’s known as the Ley Mordaza or Gag Law, Law No. 88 for “the protection of national independence and the economy of Cuba.” Accused of being agents of the United States, the dissidents were given sentences of up to twenty-six years in prison.

The most important thing now, says Pazo, is that the Damas—who protest by walking through the streets of Havana dressed in white and holding gladiolas—have not been spontaneously attacked by the population, which, for the first time in years, has come to view them sympathetically. One source of this change may have been the fate of the political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, whose death in February 2010, after a long hunger strike, provoked international protest. Pressure from the Damas, as well as another hunger strike by Guillermo Fariñas—awarded the 2010 Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament—along with mediation by the Catholic Church and its most visible representative in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega, brought the dissidents their freedom. More than fifty of the political prisoners who are acknowledged as such by the government were sent to Spain last July along with their families. Recently, another thirty-seven, along with two hundred relatives, were also released. These maneuvers, many believe, were designed to leave the dissidents in political limbo and put an end to their influence in Cuba.

The best-known and most-admired dissident is Oscar Biscet, forty-nine, a Cuban doctor and anti-abortion activist. In 1997, Biscet, who was among those jailed in 2003, founded the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, an NGO that seeks to promote the objectives of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Biscet was one of the last of the Black Spring prisoners to be freed, on March 11, 2011. He remains in Cuba. “There’s a kind of truce right now,” said Pazo. “Both sides are waiting.”


All too visible is the city’s near-feral state of abandonment. Apart from the glitteringly renovated Habana Vieja district—which now resembles one of those model towns built by the Disney corporation, and where, under the guiding hand of the eminent historian and seasoned entrepreneur Eusebio Leal, semiprivate galleries and restaurants do business—the city’s deterioration is palpable. Many once-elegant buildings have sprouted clumsy, jerry-rigged additions, and I’ve never seen so many iron gates here before: barred windows and balconies, security grilles on stairways and doorways. This seems another visible manifestation of the state’s retreat: where it pulls back its protective mantle, a space is freed for the forces of criminality.

And indeed, a visitor often hears of assaults, robberies. My godmother tells me a particularly striking story about a bus held up by armed men, “just like in Mexico,” she adds. The rumor is so persistent that the national news service has to go to great lengths to deny it two days later.

Even so, Havana is still safer than most cities I’ve lived in, and it has something more: the sea. I take a long walk along the Malecón, the boulevard that runs along Havana’s sea wall, then clamber aboard a 1956 Oldsmobile that, despite its veteran status, is the kind of vehicle most people use to get around. Transport continues to be hard to find and I see large crowds at the bus stops, despite the new buses, imported from China, which, I was flabbergasted to learn, have air conditioning, something I never thought I would live to see in this country, where the heat can be intense. All the same, it is the carros particulares like this Oldsmobile that have brought about a perceptible improvement in transportation, taking pressure off the state system for a fare of 10 Cuban pesos, or about 50 US cents.

The two girls sharing the back seat with me are speaking Mandarin; I take them for tourists, whose presence is palpable in Havana. The newspaper Juventud Rebelde (“Rebel Youth”) announces a record of two million foreign visitors between January and October 2010. My seatmates turn out to be Chinese students who are learning Spanish on the outskirts of Havana in the gated resort community of Tarará. I’d forgotten that Cuba continues to be a destination for foreign students—some 30,000, including a group of one hundred from the US who are studying medicine at the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina.

Still, there is a shortage of professors in Cuba, and education is far from what it was in my youth. More than half of all classes are televised. I revisit the school I attended in the 1970s: the Escuela Vocacional Lenin. This emblem of an architectural style one might call Soviet gigantism, housing more than four thousand students, still rises amid luxuriant tropical vegetation, though it’s a pale copy, today, of what it was when Leonid Brezhnev inaugurated it in 1975. Back then it offered an impressive education, particularly strong in vocational training, albeit with a hefty dose of ideological indoctrination and living conditions that I now realize, as I revisit the dormitories and student dining hall, were quite spartan.

Many parents now pay private tutors for classes in mathematics and science. This would have been not only unthinkable but also quite unnecessary during the period when the state spent more than 15 percent of GDP on education. “If I don’t do it, she won’t be ready for the university entrance exams,” I was told by a former classmate whose daughter is in her final year at the Escuela Lenin, still the best school in the country. She tells me about the constant pilfering—even mattresses are stolen from the school dormitories.


For years the government refused to allow Cuban writers to publish elsewhere. Some, such as the now-celebrated Reinaldo Arenas, were jailed for having done so. The situation changed dramatically during the 1990s; Cuba’s publishing industry collapsed and most writers started publishing outside of Cuba. But those books, my own included, do not circulate on the island. Still, things are far more relaxed. Invited by the leading Cuban poet Reyna María Rodríguez, I read a chapter of my next novel at one of the country’s only nonofficial cultural spaces, which with great wisdom and perseverance Rodríguez has managed to set up.

On my way to the reading I duck into one of the few bookshops still in business on Calle Obispo where once there were many of them. The shelves hold only books put out by state publishing houses; nothing imported and, as expected, nothing critical of the Revolution. This is part of life where the state is not about to give up control. The last privately published books in Cuba appeared at the very start of the Revolution and were banned as subversive. Among them was Orwell’s Animal Farm, whose long-ago Cuban publishers sought to alert readers to the dangers of an omnipotent totalitarian state—the very state the ruling party has now slowly and with utmost care begun dismantling, in fear that it may blow up in its hands.


Which brings me to a question that’s been on my mind for a long time: How to do away with a totalitarian state? How to put an end to it? The world has witnessed a number of different methods: military defeat, “political reform as a path to economic reform,” economic reform with a freeze on political reform. Nazi Germany in 1945, the Soviet Union in 1991, and China in 1978 are examples of these variants.

It seems quite clear—from the articles about Vietnam in Granma and a recent visit by a group of Cuban economists to Vietnam and Laos—that Cuba has opted for the Chinese and Vietnamese model: economic reform without any prospect of political reform. Or perhaps it would be more correct to speak of a “Cuban model.” Until 1968, Cuba itself had a mixed economy, with up to 60,000 small businesses such as shoe stores and food stands that made life slightly easier. Fidel Castro put an end to all that during one of his longwinded speeches: “There still subsists,” he said,

a “cream” of the privileged, who prosper from the work of others and live considerably better than anyone else while watching others work. Able-bodied idlers who start up a food shack (timbiriche), or other business, and earn 50 pesos a day in violation of the law, in violation of hygiene, in violation of everything…. Many people may wonder what kind of revolution would permit such a class of parasites to remain in existence after nine years, and they have good reason to wonder. In short: Are we going to have socialism or are we going to have food shacks? We did not have a revolution, señores, in order to establish the right to commerce!
  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print