• Email
  • Print

Havana: The State Retreats

José Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
prieto_1-052611.jpg
Mark Gong
A woman taking down laundry in the building that houses the Paladar La Guarida in Central Havana shortly after Raúl Castro came to power, April 2008; photograph by Mark Gong

1.

When I picked up my ticket for the only nonstop New York–Havana flight, I was given a list of the goods I could take: ten kilos of medicine and up to twenty kilos of food, duty free. While it’s true that Cuba suffers from the US embargo, it’s also the US and its Cuban exile community that keep the country afloat. The day of the flight, many of my fellow passengers were loaded down with heavy bundles of food and medicine, plasma TV sets in their original packaging, audio equipment, and domestic appliances. In 2010, 324,000 visitors arrived in Cuba on direct flights from the United States like this one, and several economists calculate that remittances to Cuba from the US total more than a billion dollars annually, about 35 percent of the country’s annual foreign exchange inflow.

All that help still isn’t enough. After landing at José Martí International Airport, I find the city in a virtual state of blackout, the celebrated corner of 23rd and L, Havana’s Times Square, empty at 10 PM. It’s as if a catastrophe has struck. There is a constant, ominous feeling of abandonment and crisis. My impression doesn’t much differ from the diagnosis delivered on December 18—days after my arrival—to the Cuban Parliament by the country’s current leader, Raúl Castro: “Either we rectify our course or the time for teetering along on the brink runs out and we go down. And we will go down…[with] the effort of entire generations.”

Certainly the signs of this deep crisis have been in the air for at least twenty years. What’s clear now is that it’s not enough to go on blaming the American bloqueo or the fall of the Soviet Union. Something is wrong with the system itself. This could be glimpsed in the startling comment made by Fidel Castro to the US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg and the Latin American scholar Julia Sweig last August: “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”

What model is he talking about? The Soviet model of forced nationalization. The Cuban Revolution was among other things a cure for the chronic weakness of the Cuban state prior to 1959. The new, postrevolutionary state would take upon itself all that previous governments of Cuba had done so badly. The example of the Soviet Union, with triumphs such as the 1957 launch of Sputnik, seemed to indicate that this was a promising way forward, and it had the added appeal to Cuba’s unelected rulers of calling for government by a single party, virtually without opposition, and the pulverization of civil society.

Now, on my first visit to Cuba in ten years, I had the chance to observe the first signs of the inverse process: the dismantling of this gigantic state, visibly in retreat. I saw the detritus left behind: the disaster of a dysfunctional economy and a deep financial crisis aggravated by a dual currency system. All amid the growing discontent of the population and surging dissidence.

2.

In Havana I buy every bit of printed news on sale at the kiosk near the casa particular where I’m renting a room. Such an unusual interest in publications almost no one reads immediately gives me away as a visitor from abroad. I ask for the recently released official publication “Proyecto de Lineamientos de la Política Económica y Social” (“Draft Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy”), but it’s sold out, the elderly vendor informs me: “All Havana is reading it.” In the end, I buy it secondhand, for ten times the original price, from a passerby who has overheard the conversation.

It’s a twenty-nine-page pamphlet whose 291 points set forth the coming “update” of the Cuban model. These points, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma affirms, were distilled from the vast consulta, or survey, Raúl Castro declared would take place on July 26, 2007, when “more than four million Cubans raised more than a million points.” By and large, the guidelines attempt to reduce the cumbersome size of the state to make it more compact and less costly.

The crux of the debate, I gather, after penetrating the technical jargon all Havana is reading and discussing as if it were a best-selling novel, is whether a new role can be assigned to the state: Can it be imagined more as referee than as star player while ensuring that it doesn’t lose control? There is of course no question that the governing party must remain in power and “safeguard the conquests of the revolution.”

I come to see that in fact the Party is trying to adjust to a transformation that began without much government participation, something the Cuban people started doing on their own. The government is like a general who mandates an “orderly retreat” when his army is being crushed. The “Guidelines” are for keeping up appearances.

3.

Life under socialist rule is an eternal game of cat and mouse between a state that jealously guards its status as the sole moving force and the permanent guerrilla warfare of private initiative, the black market—the powerful current that runs beneath the nation’s apparently monolithic surface and, to a large degree, keeps it functional. The state, one might say, now proposes to gain access to this current by drilling some artesian wells to allow it to rise to the surface in a more or less controlled way.

I’m amazed, for example, by the amount of street food one can buy, in contrast to the hungry years of the so-called Período Especial that began in 1991. Along the Calle San Rafael, in the city’s historic center, I count at least ten food stands, most of them doing business in Cuban pesos. Yes, prices are quite high; yet the markets are well stocked (by Cuban standards) and there are buyers, even at prices that are prohibitive for much of the population. The private grocers, along with the state stores that sell at “liberated” market prices, have made the arduous task of feeding oneself and one’s family somewhat less difficult. The country imports 80 percent of what it consumes, at a cost of almost $2 billion per year. In 2007, the government began to parcel out fallow land for individual farming, nearly three million hectares of it, almost half of the country’s farmland. Still, as the young Cuban economist Pavel Vidal Alejando noted in an interview in the magazine Espacio Laícal, “the dissolution of the centralized state system’s monopoly on agricultural commercialization” has yet to be achieved. It is this factor of state subsidy—and not underdevelopment or hurricanes—that keeps Cuban campesinos from filling the stores with produce.

Ration cards, it is announced, will soon be eliminated—a lifelong dream for many that finally seems to lie within reach. Not because the economic bonanza of Developed Socialism has allegedly been achieved (as happened in the USSR, where, we were told, there were no libretas, or ration cards) but because the state by now has hardly anything to distribute. The bodega I pass by every morning, which has a working public phone I use to make calls, is still as empty as it would have been during my childhood, when my mother had to work miracles to stretch out the permanently insufficient quota of rationed bread.

4.

Despite Cuba’s beseeching overtures,” my friend the essayist Victor Fowler tells me when I pay him a visit late one dark night, “the Chinese didn’t want to join in the game of ‘keeping’ faraway Cuba, as the Russians had.” The USSR, the sugar daddy that gave billions of dollars to the Cuban Revolution for more than thirty years, passed away in 1991. Its place was taken by Venezuela, which sells Cuba 100,000 barrels of oil per day in exchange for medical services. But this model, too, has begun to spring some leaks because of Hugo Chávez’s blunders and Venezuela’s own precarious situation.

The government has therefore seen itself forced to turn to the last creditor left standing: none other than the Cuban people themselves. The government has stopped deploring those who desert the state economy as speculators and parasites, and baptized them with a new name: cuentapropistas (“own-accounters”). This is the most recent of its last resorts.

The first step was the publication of an unintentionally comical list of 178 authorized activities for cuentapropistas. The list includes such exotic careers as clown and “button upholsterer” but prudently omits other professions such as doctor or computer programmer. Education in those fields is financed by the Revolution, doctors especially being one of the country’s primary sources of income. Cuba maintains so-called “medical missions” not only in Venezuela but also in South Africa, Bolivia, and many other countries.

The list was received with great enthusiasm. According to Granma, 80,000 Cubans had requested cuentapropista licenses by November of last year. The government has declared, in response, that it will import $130 million worth of merchandise to create a wholesale market from which these new entrepreneurs can buy the materials they need. Even more paradoxically, and still in accordance with the “Guidelines,” it will be the state, as well, that sets prices and taxes earnings at rates some fear are so high that they will cripple fledgling businesses. There is an ideological basis for these contradictions: “No one must be deceived about this,” declared Raúl Castro, in the aforementioned speech.

The “Guidelines” establish a path toward the socialist future that suits Cuba’s needs, and not toward the neocolonial and capitalist past toppled by the Revolution. State planning and not the free market will be the distinctive feature of the economy, and the concentration of capital will not be allowed, as the third of the “general guidelines” states.

5.

The other policy all Havana is talking about consists of layoffs. The government is going to eliminate 500,000 jobs by the end of 2011 and up to 1.3 million over the subsequent three years. When I read this news in New York it frightened me, but in Cuba I’m struck by two things. First, among all the people I talk to—friends, former classmates, people I meet in the street—no one is currently working for the state. I even speak to a doctor who resigned from her job in order to owe nothing to the state and be able to emigrate when she could (a punitive five-year delay is imposed on working doctors who express a desire to leave).

Second, I sense no great anguish about the layoffs, perhaps because it doesn’t make much sense to talk about “layoffs” in a situation where salaries are symbolic at best. The meager salary paid by the state, $15 to $20 per month, is almost valueless. In an economy where a cell phone costs $40 a month and there are a million cell phones in use, it’s clear that money is coming from somewhere besides the state. A friend told me he sees the layoffs “as a relief” and also as “an opportunity for many people.” “This is the point where the state will stop meddling and finally allow us to earn a living.” It will be riskier, but it will also mean living in greater freedom.

prieto_2-052611.jpg
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.”

6.

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.

7.

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.

8.

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!

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

  • Email
  • Print