Posted by: seanxsmith | April 24, 2013

Looking for Fidel

You have to search long and hard to find any statues of Fidel Castro in Cuba.

There is no shortage of statues and images of Castro’s revolutionary compatriot Che Guevara. The iconic stencil-style image based on Alberto Korda’s photograph of Che is everywhere.

From murals and T-shirts to tattoos and three-peso notes in Cuban pockets, Che’s black beret, flowing locks and smouldering eyes are never far away.

photo (3) Cuban kids start the school day by pledging that they “will be like Che”. There’s even a song about Guevara, Hasta Siempre, Commandante that you’ll hear sooner or later if you venture into any tourist-orientated establishment.

Similarly, every street corner seems to have statues and memorials to José Martí, the poet and writer who added intellectual rigour to the earliest notions of Cuban independence in the 19th century.

Unlike just about anywhere else you care to mention, consumer advertising was replaced with stirring revolutionary imagery, snappy slogans and useful cultural announcements in Cuba a long time ago.

Fidel isn’t invisible. You’ll sometimes see him wearing his trademark beard and peaked military cap alongside Che and fellow revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos on colourful and appropriately heroic murals throughout the island.

Occasionally, there are inspiring quotes from Fidel on hoardings alongside roads (although many have him eulogising his martyred comrade-in-arms Che).

But there’s not a single road named after Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz anywhere in Cuba.

In fact, thanks to a rather convenient law prohibiting statues of living Cubans, there were no effigies of Fidel anywhere on the island until recently – now Havana can boast Cuba’s one solitary statue of el Commandante.

These days, Fidel (nobody ever seems to use his second name) is most regularly seen in his weekly Reflections of Fidel column in the Communist party newspaper Granma.

Though Castro’s restless political fervor has given Cuba a profile that is far higher than its size and relative isolation might suggest, the kind of personality cult that often surrounds leaders with one name doesn’t seem to exist around this pragmatic veteran of Cuba’s revolutionary struggle.

photo (4)After dominating Cuban political life for more than five decades, the 86-year-old Fidel appears to settling into a now-permanent retirement following several years of ill health.

In 2006, Fidel’s younger brother and heir apparent Raúl, the head of the armed forces, took control of a country still reeling from the effects of the collapse of the USSR 15 years earlier, when Cuba lost its main trading partner and principal aid donor in one fell swoop.

It led to a catastrophic shortage of oil and widespread and sustained hardship. Cuba’s troubles during this time, now known as the Special Period, were exacerbated by the US tightening the trade embargo it put in place in response to Castro’s nationalisation of millions of dollars worth of American assets immediately after the 1959 revolution.

Assuming power at the ripe old age of 75, Raúl has slowly begun to shift direction. He has presided over relaxations in the rules for private ownership of land, houses and businesses, as part of a determined effort to increase the amounts of foreign currency coming into the country by creating conditions favourable to tourism. It’s also a lot easier for Cubans to travel abroad.

Cubans have been able to embark on limited kinds of free enterprise for some time. They have, for example, been allowed to offer foreigners bed and breakfast accommodation in designated casas particulars since 1997.

Many Cubans have also opened up their homes as restaurants, known as paladares, since the beginning of what Granma calls Cuba’s “updating” of its economic model – although finding food to serve can often be a job in itself, it seems.

photo (1)In addition, Raúl has replaced some of the old guard who surrounded Fidel with younger officials and indicated a desire to separate the Cuban state from the Cuban Communist party. There’s a belief that things are changing.

Around 20 per cent of Cubans now own mobile phones. It’s easier to use the internet, theoretically, although in practice it remains limited to government employees and those with access to the big tourist hotels’ wi-fi networks.

Combined with the Obama administration’s softening on restrictions on the amount of goods and money Cuban émigrés in the United States can send back to their families back home, all this adds up to a tectonic shift in Cuban society, and one which is no less profound for being so seemingly unhurried.

Widely regarded as a liberal influence, Raúl takes care to quote Fidel in speeches and has assured more conservative elements within the party that he still regularly consults the unstoppable old revolutionary on matters of importance.

“The perception is that Raúl wants to change things quicker but people believe that Fidel is telling Raúl to slow down,” says Carlos, a seasoned Castro-watcher. “Fidel is still searching for a perfect kind of socialism and doesn’t want the changes so quickly.”

“It’s a system that has failed in other countries and it’s failed here,” says older Havana resident Pilar more bluntly. “Fifty-four years is a long time to wait. Maybe some things changed for the better, socially, in some small ways after the revolution, but for most people born after the revolution, they hate it. That’s my opinion, from what I see.”

While the older Cubans who remember the days before the revolution may see the benefits of this radical shift in Cuban society, she explains, many of those born after the revolution simply see the restrictions and hindrances of a living in a country in a permanent state of siege. Clothing was recently taken off the state ration card, for example.

photo (8)“The young people expect to see material results for the sacrifices made by their parents’ generation but the roads are in bad state of repair, street lighting is limited, food is often an issue,” admits Carlos. “Rations are poor quality, with a reduced number of items on the card. But without the ration card, many families would suffer.”

This scarcity of resources had some unexpected effects. When the oil ran out, Cuban agriculture rapidly evolved into more sustainable, permaculture-style of farming simply because oil-based pesticides were unavailable. The old focus on sugar cane (as a cash crop for export) was replaced with more diverse crops for domestic consumption.

Reluctant Cubans were forced to adopt a diet less reliant on meat and dairy and many became healthier as a result. Unfortunately, there was also accompanied by an increase in the death rate of older Cubans.

People get by as best they can. In the UK, we would describe it as the Blitz spirit. It Cuba, echoing the campaign slogan of the current US presidential incumbent, they just say, ¡Si, se puede!

A society that already made a virtue of the necessity to make-do-and-mend has turned this cheerful self-sufficiency into a fine art – perhaps best seen in the hundreds of ancient Chevys, Buicks and Corvettes that ply their trade as ‘collectivo’ route taxis throughout the country (and which you often see undergoing running repairs at the side of the road).

One lovingly tended classic car I took a ride in had a Toyota engine and transmission that had been carefully shoehorned into the elegant body of a 60-year-old Pontiac. The car had been passed down from the driver Alexei’s grandfather to his father, before his father passed it onto him in turn.

It’s a truly beautiful vehicle but I can’t help but hope that Alexei will be able to buy his son a new car one day – and maybe even a car that doesn’t leave a trail of thick, black smoke behind it.

No one knows what will happen in Cuba – or indeed what role the Catholic church will play following Pope Benedict’s historic visit to the island earlier this year.

Carlos, for example, approves of the changes to the law about private property, but is concerned that “people don’t know the real value of things” after living for so long in a world where prices are set and maintained by the state.

Poor housing remains an issue for many Cubans. An overcrowded, dilapidated area like Centro in Havana is immediately next to the chi-chi bars, hotels and apartments being created by the tourist-orientated regeneration body Habanaguex on the Malecón seafront.

Such pronounced inequality can surely not sit well in such an egalitarian city.

photo (6)

Carlos seems pretty well informed and astute, and clearly recognises the need for change, but he also questions continuing US sanctions. Like many Cubans, he simply cannot understand why the US is now happy to trade with both Vietnam and China and yet retains its decades-old position on Cuba.

Others remain unconvinced about the intentions of the political elite:

“The people in power here, they want to keep the power. It’s passed down to their family. It’s like a dynasty,” says Pilar. “But I love my country and I love my city. I don’t want to leave but I don’t like the system. This is my life here, my friends are here, my home is here.”

She shrugs.

“Sooner or later, Cuba and the US have to come to some agreement but I don’t know whether I will see it. Maybe my grandchildren will.”

[First published in the Big Issue North in October 2012]

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