Talking Back to the Revolution

Street scene with vintage car and worn out buildings in Havana, Cuba.
Street scene with vintage car and worn out buildings in Havana, Cuba.

Everything gets old, even revolutions and the rebels that led them. That much was evident last month when the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress focused on the need for bringing in new blood, but then re-elected for another five-year-term 84 year old Raúl Castro, as first secretary, and 85 year old communist enforcer José Ramon Machado Ventura as his second in command. The biggest applause of the four day gabfest was reserved for 89 year old Fidel Castro, the leader of the Revolution, who appeared in a blue Addidas track suit to express wonderment that he--once the macho image of rebellion--had lived to be a frail and failing 90.

The late Gabriel Garcia Marquez would have appreciated the surreal scene of the ancient insurgents trying to whip up some enthusiasm for the national social experiment that clearly had seen better days. As the party re-dedicated itself to developing a "prosperous and sustainable socialism," hardliners ridiculed, disparaged and rejected the olive branch extended only days before by President Barack Obama, even though Cubans by the thousands continued to repeat some of the black American president's words of hope and change. I didn't hear any of the old revolutionary phrases on the streets of Havana. Cubans did not refer to each other as "socio" as they used to. Most of the old "Patria o Muerte" billboards have been replaced by new ones with Raúl Castro's dour visage extorting Cubans to accept what they have. "Make your work the goal to beat," is one of the most common, a far cry from the old "Hasta la Victoria, Siempre."

In the center of Havana, just behind the old Presidential Palace, which now serves as Museum of the Revolution, some of the most revered artifacts of the Castro brothers' insurrection have been on display for decades: the yacht Granma in which the Castros travelled from Mexico in 1956, the "Fast Delivery" truck that college students hid in when they assaulted the Palace in 1957 to try to kill Fulgencio Batista, along with a motley collection of tanks, planes and cannons. Most of the relics are now draped with tarps as the huge display case covering the Granma undergoes renovations and repairs. Like everything else in Havana, the memorial is wearing out and needs freshening up.

That process of freshening can be likened to the transition Cuba is undergoing or, in some quarters, attempting to block.

Just across the street from the memorial, in the remains of a once elegant four-story building named Canada, some 47 families struggle each day to survive in Cuba's prosperous and sustainable socialism. The building itself has gone five months without regular running water. The concrete walls of the building are cracked and creased and in many places held together only by spindly wooden buttresses.

"We all sleep with our eyes open, in case another piece falls," several women in the building told me as they showed me the many defects they'd been begging the government to fix for a quarter century. (The terrible conditions at the building were first reported by the independent website Cubanet) residents do what they can on their own, patching a crack here, throwing another beam under there. But like most others living in this socialist enclave, they are dependent on the government for nearly everything they have and everything they do.

Among those several dozen families is a couple in a fourth floor apartment (calling the tiny hovel an apartment is an exaggeration) graced with a corner balcony that looks out directly on the Granma and the other revolutionary relics. Yoan and Melba have lived in the space since they came to Havana from their home in Oriente province at the other end of Cuba five years ago.

When Raúl Castro needed to reduce the number of state workers two years ago, he grudgingly cracked open the door of capitalism and made it possible for Cubans to have their own micro-businesses. Yoan applied for a license that allowed him to sell crackers and some sweets from a street cart. You can't make much selling these items, and most tourists won't touch them. But Yoan insists that he's still far better off than he was in Oriente, where he earned the average state salary that comes to roughly $20 a month.

Here's the rub. Although he's allowed to make his own hours and keep what he makes--after paying for his license and taxes--Yoan is so hassled by bureaucracy that he begins each work day praying that he does not encounter a government inspector on the street.

In the 48 months he's been a "cuentapropista," as private sector workers are called, he's been slapped with fines 45 times. The penalties range from 100 to 3,000 pesos, ($4 to $750) for infractions that are relatively minor, ranging from standing in one spot too long (he's supposed to keep the cart moving) to being unable to produce a receipt for the plastic bags he uses to package the crackers. Sometimes he's fined for selling unauthorized products, like popcorn or chocolate, because those products are not covered by the strict limitations of his license, one of 201 categories of microbusiness the Castro regime has carved out.

Building "sustainable socialism" by writing up a list of 201 specific enterprises is a crime against the entrepreneurial spirit of the Cuban people that is so much on display in Miami and other cities where they have settled. Such a list exterminates innovation, sucks out enterprise and deadens spirits. How can an economy be built on the backs of entrepreneurs willing to start their own licensed businesses but then severely restrict them to only the specific work that license permits, such as "fresh fruit peeler," "cigarette lighter refiller" and "spark plug cleaner"? It is argued in Cuba that the inspectors are making sure that the licensed businesses are not selling unadulterated or stolen products, a laudable mission certainly. But it pales into satire when the same regime stands idly by while the building those vendors live in crumbles into dust. The level of surveillance for petty infractions seems grotesquely out of proportion to the much more serious issues that go untended for so long.

"I never had any problems with the law before,"Yoan told me. "But in two years that I have had the license, they have turned me into a delinquent."

When he works, Yoan pushes around a small metal grocery cart that cost him a month's salary to buy after an earlier one was confiscated. Inside the cart he keeps a large blue plastic bag filled with crackers and sweets. Melba dares not take over for him, for she does not have a license and that surely would incur the wrath of the inspectors. But sometimes she accompanies Yoan to warn him when she sees them coming.

A high school graduate and veteran of the Cuban Army, Yoan, 39, is an avid consumer of the limited news that is available in the Cuban media. But even at that he says he can get a clear picture of what's wrong, and what the country's leaders are not acknowledging.

He says he's fined if he sells a chocolate bar without official authorization. And yet private restaurants in the city--many of them linked to people with influence and relatives in power--can offer tourists elaborate "surf and turf" lunches, mocking the Communist Party's mantra that no one will be allowed to own too much.

On the street, where Yoan lives and works, dealing with Cuba's "prosperous and sustainable socialism" has pushed him to the point where he says is no longer afraid to criticize what he sees and feels, even at the great risk of being seen by his neighbors, who are always watching, as an enemy.

"If they say that complaining about the conditions of this building, about the corruption, about the misdeeds, is counter revolutionary," he states defiantly, "then I am a counter revolutionary." He says he feels like he's become nothing more than "a pebble in the shoe" of the Castro regime in its dotage, an unwelcome problem that they wish would just disappear.

That's not the message the old men in the party congress have been sending in this time of transition and freshening up. But it is the one they ought to hear.