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Havana: The State Retreats

José Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen

On that memorable day, the country’s last vestiges of private property came to an end. Among the many things that vanished was the snack my school once served first-graders; my parents would give me a 20-centavo coin to pay for it. Runaway inflation followed—one of the earliest political memories of my childhood—accompanied by shortages of everything. Another thing that disappeared was the beautiful imported scarf my mother had paid the exorbitant sum of 80 pesos for; it was snatched from her one night in the middle of carnival.

9.

For some, the most distasteful aspect of the type of end game that is now foreseeable is that it will not allow for any clear condemnation of the outrages committed by the Revolution, or the violence that established the totalitarian state. They fear, and not without justification, that the moral damage done to millions of Cubans will linger beneath the surface far into the nation’s future. And it remains to be seen whether the Cuban state will learn to live in a newly diminished form, with millions off its payroll and owing it nothing. I can imagine a return to the old ways once the economic tempest seems to have passed or, somehow, a new sponsor is found to finance the state.

Though conditions are different now, it wouldn’t be the first time a period of privatization and reform was followed by a giant step backward. The announcement on April 19, during the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, that eighty-year-old Party stalwart José Ramón Machado is now second-in-command in the Cuban hierarchy looks more like a move into the past than into the future (particularly since he happens to have the same name as one of the most hated of Cuba’s pre-revolutionary presidents, the dictator Gerardo Machado). Gradually, however, I came to doubt that this could happen. Not because the powers that be don’t want to continue their old system of state control but because they cannot. But even in its newly diminished form, the Cuban state will continue to be disproportionately large compared to any other country in the region. It may take years for that to change.

10.

Before my trip a friend gave me the address of a casa particular, one of the private houses that have a license from the government to rent out rooms. This innovation came about during the crisis of the 1990s when the state was in need of rooms to house tourists. The house I stayed at is in a neighborhood of former middle-class splendor, two blocks from the offices of the United States Interest Section.

It isn’t a tourist area so there’s little street food available at night. One evening shortly before my departure, I was walking back to my room and noticed a sign that said Se Vende Comida (Food for Sale). I ducked down a narrow alley between two houses and saw a family watching the Brazilian telenovela of the moment. In the next window a young woman was frying steaks, throwing them into hot oil in a blackened pan. It was typical Cuban food: rice, beans, boiled yuca. All for 20 pesos, or about a dollar, served up in typical Cuban fashion in a small cardboard box. When the woman handed it to me she said: “Cuidado, que está extremadamente caliente.” (“Careful, it is extremely hot.”) She didn’t say muy caliente, but extremadamente.

I’m not sure why but I was powerfully struck by this nuance. It suggested the reserves of people waiting to be allowed to live an adult life. The protector state, now in retreat, educated and instructed them but also immobilized them and made them dependent, confining an entire population to a prolonged childhood. The time has come to allow them to grow up.

April 27, 2011

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