The Price of Change in the Castros' Cuba

I went to Cuba last month wearing a rubber bracelet like the ones distributed by the Livestrong Foundation. But mine is white, not yellow, and instead of spelling out Livestrong, it spells out Cambio, the Spanish word that means Change. Several years ago, Cubans in the United States were making such bracelets available as a sign of protest, or an expression of their hope for Cuba's nationhood.

In truth, so much has changed in Cuba recently that it is hard for someone like me, who has been traveling to the island since 1978, to keep track of it all.

And yet it is also evident that much there hasn't changed at all.

One afternoon during this most recent trip, I sent a text message to my wife in New Jersey from the offices of Granma, the newspaper that is the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party, and I did it on my Samsung Galaxy S5 without having to use a SIM card, or make any other special arrangements with Verizon, my cell carrier. I just turned on the phone, tapped out the message and hit send, just as I would have had I been at home.

What was unthinkable a year ago, and improbable during a previous visit in June, has become ordinary today.

One afternoon, I drove past the newly reopened United States Embassy on the wide Malecon boulevard that skirts the open waters of the Caribbean.

In June, that same building was just a placeholder, serving as the Special Interests Section, as it had for over half a century President Eisenhower threw up his hands and declared that the United States would no longer deal with the Communist government of Fidel Castro.

Now the flag waves in the salt air in front of the embassy for all to see.

And one evening, I walked along the edge of Havana's Central Park dodging knots of Cubans--young and old--tapping on their smart phones, picking up a signal from one of the 35 new wi-fi hotspots that the Cuban government has opened since I was there in June.

Just a few months ago, those smart phones would have been useless luxuries, unresponsive as the trees in the park without any data signals to grab in the vicinity.

Much of this alternative reality was ushered in by the Obama administration's decision to end five decades of hostility toward Cuba and change basic U.S. policy from promoting the removal of the Castro government to paving the way for a soft transition to a government that respects basic human rights and protects the interests of the United States.

But the Cuban government has also had a hand in this, loosening up the economy and providing more space for divergent interests.

Even Granma, that stodgy voice of Socialist rhetoric, seems to be loosening up. In its Friday edition, which balloons to 16 pages, double the size of other days, Granma carried two pages of letters to the editor. There were complaints about Havana's awful bus service. And one from the province of Las Tunas lamenting the decade-long delay in repairing a municipal museum. There was even a letter from a reader who was incensed by the way stores run by private businessmen, known as cuentapropistas, were marking up the prices of soda, juices and cigarettes. Ten years ago no one openly complained about such things.

At dinner one evening, a Cuban friend noticed the Cambio bracelet I wore and, after asking to read what it said, told me quite clearly that if he were caught wearing such a thing, he could lose his job working for one of Cuba's tourism-related agencies. I knew he was neither kidding, nor exaggerating, for despite some of the evolutionary steps I had noticed, some basics in Cuba had not changed.

According to an analysis by the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS) at the University of Miami, since the Stars and Stripes went up on the Malecon in August, 1,403 Cubans had been arbitrarily arrested, many of them for small actions of protest that were no more threatening to the Castro regime than was my Cambio bracelet.

While I was in Havana, more than 2,000 Cubans who were desperate to get out of the Castros' Socialist paradise were marooned in Costa Rica, their exodus to the United States blocked by Nicaragua Instead of offering them assistance, a statement from the Cuban government was read on the Mesa Redonda news program blaming the United States for instigating a refugee crisis by continuing the wet-foot, dry-foot program that welcomes Cubans into the country.

I don't know how much longer the creaking government of the Castros will be able to play this game of loosening the economy while keeping a tight grip on freedom. An upcoming election in Venezuela seems likely to remove Nicholas Maduro and slow the inflow of support from that country started by Fidel's protégé, Hugo Chavez.

And while Granma is unlikely anytime soon to publish a letter clamoring for freedom of speech or demanding a stop to the arbitrary arrests of regime opponents, the number of uncensored blogs and independent news websites continues to grow, and ingenious Cubans are finding ways to get around the blockages installed by the government.

One of the biggest changes of all is the way in which the old triumphalist dogma about the Revolution itself has been all but silenced and replaced by nods to the hardships of the special period of deprivation after the Soviet Union collapsed, as though a reminder of how the people, willed on by Fidel, prevailed over incredible odds.

That's the government's view. But what I saw, and what is evident in the masses of Cuban huddled in Costa Rica, betting everything on making their way to the United States, is that patience is running out and thousands of the brightest and most ambitious Cubans are not willing to wait any longer for the special period to finally end and real change to begin.