HAVANA — A mix of grease and melted cheese drips from the pizza to the concrete floor. It’s a hot day and the man is holding the slice at the counter of a coffee shop. While he waits, the clerk comments on how this is “a country where no one understands.” To which the customer replies, now with his mouth full: “Well yes, and that 21st-century socialism thing is going to have to wait until the 22nd century.”
So far, the government of Raúl Castro has issued nearly half a million licenses for people to work in the private sector. This is a huge change from 1968, when every single job — even shining shoes — was nationalized. During the revolutionary offensive, all small businesses ended up in the hands of the government. Private Cuba was swept away and stigmatized, only to be reborn decades later. In 1993, spurred by an economic crisis, Fidel Castro permitted the reopening of the private sector. This turned out to be Mr. Castro’s worst defeat — one he tried to mask as a victory, as he usually did whenever he stumbled.
But it was left up to his brother Raúl to make the most concessions to the free market. “The longest distance between capitalism and capitalism is socialism,” according to a joke heard on the streets of Havana. This confirms the economic course taken by the administration in the last five years. Voices in the circle loyal to the system are accusing the government of betraying the regime’s Marxist-Leninist principles.
Those critics are right. Since taking power in 2008, Raúl Castro has granted a series of concessions that spin the island’s compass toward a system without paternalism, but also without rights. Permission to set up small private companies coincided with the layoffs of hundreds of thousands of Cubans, who held government positions for decades and are now unemployed. The term for them in the official lexicon is “available.” This way no one can say they have lost their job in the proletarian paradise.
It is like trying to control a car that has been stranded for decades, but now that it is in motion, nobody knows which direction it will take — not even the driver.
The Castro regime has lost power with these small changes. Allowing Cubans to sign cellphone contracts helped swell the state coffers but gave citizens a tool for information and communication. Every little move toward flexibility has provided some economic relief to the administration and, simultaneously, a relative loss of control.
When immigration reform was enacted in January 2013, the new ability to travel without major restrictions eased social unrest. But dozens of dissidents and activists are now able to attend international conferences where only official representatives were allowed before. What Fidel Castro had prevented for decades began to happen.
Various governing bodies and other groups around the world can now hear the proposals, arguments and demands of Cuba’s democratic forces. The myth of the Cuban Revolution suffered a great loss as soon as its critics’ voices started to be heard. It is no longer a monologue. Now there’s a different and polyphonic choir, one the official propaganda tries to silence with the useless strategies of demonization and fear.
On the economic field, caution, fear and slowness characterize the so-called “Raúlist reforms.” The octogenarian leader appears to know that if he speeds up change, the entire sociopolitical model could dismantle before his eyes. While he keeps delivering the same message and proclaiming that changes are “for more socialism,” the reality makes it clear that Cuba is transitioning to a sort of capitalism exempt of labor rights and civic freedom.
On a street in Havana, a woman asks another if she watched the “educational channel three” the night before. She is cryptically referring to the signal captured illegally by satellite dishes — a phenomenon the police have tried but failed to eradicate. A growing number of Cubans build their own receivers to enjoy television programming from Florida. Copies of those shows, popularly known as “the package,” are distributed on USB sticks or external hard drives by clandestine networks.
Officials criticize “the package” as consumerist and banal, but the truth is the government fears the weakening of the information monopoly it holds. If children do not grow up watching shows and cartoons loaded with nationalism and slogans, it will be hard to have them behave like loyal soldiers of the Revolution. The television screen has always been a very effective means for government indoctrination.
It is probably this fear that is prompting the official propaganda backlash against technology. When the “Cuban Twitter,” known as Zunzuneo, came to light, the government media used the situation to demonize mobile phones, email, social networking and every single peripheral with which we communicate in these modern times. A few days ago, the newspaper Juventud Rebelde ran a cartoon of the Statue of Liberty holding a cellphone instead of a torch. The message was clear: Information and communication technology are the tools of the enemy.
Castrismo, however, is losing the battle. Biology is ending the historic generation, while the economic opening is creating a class that does not depend on government salaries, the growing dissident faction is slashing the regime’s international prestige, and the loss of control over information is reducing its leverage over people. All of these are, at the very least, death-threatening obstacles in its way.
The clock of history is advancing in Cuba, but in daily life time still struggles to move forward.
Yoani Sánchez, a Cuban writer, has launched the island’s first independent digital newspaper, 14ymedio.