Iván García, 26 April 2018 — The building at the central intersection of 23rd and 12th streets in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, where 57 years ago, without prior popular consultation, Fidel Castro suddenly declared the Communist character of Cuba, was renovated to serve as backdrop to the military celebration for to honor that day, 16 April 1961.
Nearby, on 23rd and 10th, where the old Ten Cent Store is now a market that sells food and preserves in the devalued national currency, about twenty people are waiting for the store to open. On the sidewalk, a couple of dirty puny dogs fight over pieces of a cheese pizza and in the smelly Loipa coffee shop, a salesclerk reads the boring Granma newspaper.
The sun heats up the asphalt and in the Charles Chaplin movie theater, headquarters of the ICAIC (Cuban Film Institute), located opposite the former Ten Cent Store, there is a poster announcing a 3D version of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Around the corner, two beggars rummage in trash cans next to the home of Magaly, a housewife, who is preparing ground turkey croquettes for her grandchildren’s lunch.
Coming from Magaly’s kitchen we can hear the guttural voice of Esteban Lazo who was recently ratified as president of Cuba’s monopoly parliament, inviting the newly elected members of the Council of State to take the stand. “And now I give the floor to the president of the Council of State and Ministers, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez,” Lazo announces in a flat voice.
Magaly wipes her hands on her apron and listens to Diaz-Canel. “His first speech was not anything special. People expected him to talk about economic issues. It was rumored that he was going to announce the end of the dual currency system. But nothing. With that suit and tie, I found him uptight, as if the position is too big for him. I believe that Díaz-Canel has the last chance to change things in Cuba for the better. Otherwise, this is going to blow up like a bomb.”
Eusebio, owner of a small umbrella repair business, believes that “because there are 52% women deputies and 47% blacks and mestizos, the future looks better. I see that there are many young people, but politically the deputies are not trained. Politics is a profession, it’s not amateurish. Most of those people who supposedly represent us, are only there to raise their hands unanimously. Now we have a ‘vanilla-chocolate-chip’ (whites and blacks) government, ready to carry out orders. I do not know if it’s going to work.”
His opinion animates the debate among those in line at the market on 23rd and 10th. “I am not a racist. In Cuba, anyone who doesn’t have a little Congo blood has a little Carabali. But I don’t like the idea of people unfamiliar with politics making decisions just because they are women or blacks. Esteban Lazo may have spent many years in government, but what has he done? And Salvador Valdes, the new first vice president, is 72-years-old and did not even make his mark when he was secretary general of the Cuban Workers Center (CTC) for seven years (2006-2013). That position they gave to Salvador Valdés should have gone to Lazaro Expósito, the first secretary of Santiago de Cuba, and I don’t know why he’s not on the Council of State,” says a woman who claims to be from eastern Cuba and a retired teacher.
Igor, a high school student, is filled with pessimism. “None of them will fix this. The problem of Cuba is the factory. You have to change the system.”
At his side, a man nods and says: “What is coming is more of the same, or worse. Because this guy isn’t going to rule alone. Raúl, Ramiro and the rest of the old men who fought in the Sierra are not there as decorative figures. Those changes are to create a different image for the international gallery. Here in Cuba, nothing happens without the owners of the farm authorizing it.”
A corpulent man in a security guard’s uniform asks if “Salvador Valdés Mesa is the first niche [black] to hold a position of first vice president in Cuba” and regrets that they have not given the job to “Mercedes López Acea, a mulata who is the first secretary of the party in the capital, or Inés María Chapman, a black engineer who has done a good job in the Aqueduct in Havana. They had to put in one of the two, so there would be a woman in an important position.”
In response, Mario, 76, retired, clarifies: “First black vice president, we never had one. The only mestizo president in Cuba was Batista. In 1940 he held the position and did good, in ’52 he started doing bad.”
The debate loses steam when the market opens. On the other side of the city, in the slum neighborhood of Mantilla, I ask Pepe, a private seller of fruit and vegetables, who reluctantly replies that he is not interested in Diaz-Canel and “doesn’t give a shit” about him.
He is upset that 60 pounds of papaya went to waste. While he calculates on his Chinese-made calculator, he explains that he has lost more than 700 pesos. Calmer, he says: “I have not been thinking about politics for a while. All those people are shameless. They live like the rich and exploit the people for their interests. Díaz-Canel is in that position because his compadre Raúl gave it to him. Neither he nor his government will solve the difficulties in which we Cubans live.”
Gonzalo, a bank employee, thinks that “Díaz-Canel should be given the benefit of the doubt. We will have to wait a while to see how the man unfolds. He’s a pig in a poke. Maybe he’s the savior of Cuba.”
Diario las Américas spoke with twelve people, six men and six women, aged between 15 and 81 years. Two preferred not to comment and the rest, they said they have few expectations about the performance of the new government.
It remains to be seen if the new government has the guts and autonomy necessary to undertake the in-depth reforms that the country needs. It is likely that on Friday, April 20, after the celebration for his 58th birthday, in the privacy of his home, the new president of the Republic of Cuba will calmly review his life. (For his birthday, official media agreed to highlight his political career with photos published in the digital editions of Cubadebate, Granma, Vanguardia, the newspaper of Villa Clara, his native province, and Ahora, de Holguín, where they say that Díaz-Canel is an ordinary guy from Holguin).
Like any human being, Miguel Díaz-Canel must have many questions without answers. Goals. Longings. Dreams. In his hands he has to make history or kill the aspirations of a nation.
He has said that his government is going to listen to the people. We hope that he fulfills that promise.