Has Fidel really left the scene?
He still casts a long shadow. When Raúl Castro assumed Cuba’s presidency in February, he declared that he would “consult” regularly with his 81-year-old brother, and they are believed to be in constant contact. The ailing Fidel also makes his views known through frequent columns in the government newspaper Granma, often exhorting Cubans not to abandon the spirit of the 1959 Communist revolution. Much of the state apparatus that Fidel created, including a network of informers that permeates Cuban society, is still in place. But “it’s not just fear” that explains Fidel’s continued hold over his people, says Herminio Camacho, editor of the Cuban youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth). As the mythological father figure who led Cuba for decades, Castro still enjoys the deep devotion of many of his countrymen. Still, since Fidel’s departure, Raúl has been loosening Fidel’s iron grip, granting Cubans some new rights and privileges.
What sorts of privileges?
Ordinary Cubans can now buy consumer goods such as mobile phones, DVD players, and washing machines—which previously were available only to government officials, academics, and top athletes. Some restrictions on foreign travel have been eased. Government workers can now take title to their houses or apartments and pass them on to their heirs. Farmers can decide for themselves what to plant. And Cubans can now freely enter hotels previously reserved for foreign tourists; that’s significant because ordinary Cubans came to bitterly resent the hotel restrictions, which Castro put in place to keep his people from being exposed to “dangerous” foreign ideas.
What about civil liberties?
The government has officially eased some restrictions on political dissent and the press, but reforms have been spotty. In April, for instance, Raúl, 77, gave a speech saying that newspapers can play an important role investigating corruption and scrutinizing government policies. Some papers did start to offer more probing coverage, but they quickly pulled back after Fidel wrote a column lambasting unnamed “critics of socialism.” A blog called Generación Y has built a large following chronicling economic hardship and repression, garnering more than 1 million hits a month. But the government still frowns on more visible forms of dissent. For a short time after Raúl took power, a group of wives and mothers of political prisoners held regular Thursday-afternoon demonstrations in Havana. But in April, police broke up a gathering and roughed up the protestors, and the demonstrations have ceased. “Things seem to be changing,” says human-rights activist Elizardo Sanchez, “but everything is continuing the same.”
Are the new economic freedoms also cosmetic?
Actually, they are quite significant. The new availability of consumer goods has exposed economic inequalities in Cuba’s supposedly egalitarian society. When Raúl lifted restrictions on consumer electronics, many observers predicted that few Cubans, who on average earn about $20 a month, would be able to afford them. But stores quickly sold out of the once-banned goods. Cuban shoppers didn’t want “just any DVD player,” said Havana store clerk Juan Carlos. “They come in here and ask, ‘Do you have the one with a flash memory drive?’” The buying frenzy laid bare a dirty secret of Cuban life: While Cuba remains a desperately poor country, a sizable minority—perhaps 30 percent of the island’s 11 million people—have money to spend, thanks to remittances from relatives overseas or earnings from Cuba’s thriving black market. “Different classes have always existed, but they’re more visible now,” says Havana anthropologist Maria Ileana. “Now you just look at who has a cell phone.”
How has tourism been affected?
After discouraging tourism for many years—Fidel hated the idea of Cubans waiting on Western capitalists—Cuba has recently embarked on a major tourism drive. Italian developers have built a lavish resort in Varadero, north of Havana, and other five-star resorts are in the planning stages. “Sex tourism” is condoned, if not actively encouraged, and Havana’s cafes and plazas are packed with scantily clad Cubans of both sexes looking for foreign “friends.” Says one recent visitor, “Even the grandmothers wear Lycra.” And in the latest sign of liberalization, the Cuban government recently invited a British developer to build a resort devoted to that most capitalist of sports, golf.
Could Cuba turn away from communism?
It’s a possibility. Many analysts believe that Raúl is emulating the Chinese model, hoping that economic liberalization will suffice. But expanded shopping opportunities might not placate Cuba’s young. More than half of Cuba’s population is under 45, and as their access to the outside world increases, via the Internet and foreign movies and TV shows, so does their desire for the prosperity and freedom of expression they see citizens of other countries enjoying. “There could be a social explosion,” said one young Cuban who recently took part in a videoconference with students from the University of Miami. First, though, Cubans will have to overcome the passivity that’s a byproduct of living under a regime whose rules pervade every aspect of life. “No one learns independence in this country,” says Jose, a driver for a German businessman, “because everyone needs the authorization of someone else to do anything.”
The U.S. stands firm
Cuba has long been a thorn in the side of U.S. presidents, who are authorized by law to try to destabilize Cuba’s government. The latest reforms haven’t stopped that effort. President Bush scoffed when Raúl Castro lifted the restrictions on consumer electronics, calling the move “a cruel joke perpetrated on a long-suffering people.” Bush is testing the Cuban leader’s new policy by permitting Cuban-Americans to send mobile phones to their relatives back home. But he has maintained the rest of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, and recently imposed new rules that make it harder for Cuban-Americans to send money back home. “We know that life will not really change for the Cuban people until their form of government changes,” Bush said. But some critics of U.S. policy—including members of Bush’s own party—say the embargo and other restrictions on contact with Cuba are counterproductive, especially now that Cuba is showing signs of opening up. “American openness is a source of strength, not a concession to dictatorships,” says Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, noting that Castro often blamed his nation’s problems on the U.S. embargo. “Let’s not give his successor the same advantage.”