Is What Comes After Raul Castro Worse? / Ivan Garcia

Photo from the travel blog Chavetas.
Photo from the travel blog Chavetas.

Ivan Garcia, 8 February 2016 — The family dinner hour is almost sacred in Cuba. After a frugal meal or a delicious supper, depending on what one can afford, comes the time for coffee, a smoke and a debate about the present and the future.

There are two factions: optimists and pessimists. Among each there are various sub-groups, those who are moderate, hopeful, neutral or disillusioned. Meal time, which usually takes place around eight, often coincides with the nightly television news.

On the island, as in much of the world, the television has a special place in the home. The family of Ignacio Remon, a private taxi driver, makes himself comfortable in his living room’s large brown chairs as his family begins chatting about this and that.

Ignacio pleads for silence so he can listen to the news. “Old man, you must like science fiction. Only lunatics and bums pay attention to Cuban news,” his children joke, moving to the front porch to chat about frivolous things.

“My family is right. The only place where things are going well in Cuba is on the nightly news. Young people don’t care about being informed — not by TV, radio or newspapers. They are into their own thing, into fashion, football and making plans to emigrate. The future of our country should be of interest to everyone,” he says while sprawled out smoking on the sofa.

The future? It makes a good topic for national debate. When you ask Ignacio’s wife, children or parents about their plans for the future, they remain silent. “I don’t see myself in Cuba five years from now,” says one of his children, a college student. “It’s always the same old story: no money, living day-to-day, the same old rhetoric about prosperous and sustainable socialism.”

Milena, his sister, is a nurse and works in a dilapidated Havana hospital. She does 24-hour shifts and then rests for three days. “The hospital operates by candlelight. There is a shortage of doctors and specialists, and patients complain. The daily topic of conversation is about how money does not go far enough, how expensive food is and how the country is not progressing. If I were to be sent on on a medical mission overseas, my life would be completely at the hands of those people (the regime),” she observes.

The taxi driver’s wife and parents believe they have lived long enough to realize that the government’s strategies amount to delaying tactics. “In Cuba it’s better not to talk about politics or the future. Everyone understands that. That’s why people prefer to disconnect by watching soap operas, or a baseball or soccer match, or reading books. This isn’t socialism or capitalism. It’s just a bunch of friends holding onto power,” notes one of the three.

During nightly dinner-time chats or lazy Sunday afternoons it is difficult to find a Cuban family that looks upon the current state of affairs with a sense of optimism. But they do exist.

Magda, a single mother of a seven-year-old girl, has climbed the social ladder through talent and determination. A professional worker, she is convinced that in Cuba the best is yet to come.

“There’s no doubt that, when you look at the current national situation, people are disillusioned. GDP grew by four percent but no one sees any growth. They see three and a half million tourists but the economy is not improving. On the contrary. Agricultural output has flatlined and prices are going through the roof. These old guys (the country’s leaders) are hanging up their gloves. I am convinced that, once they die, the country will take a blg leap forward. Emigration is not a solution. We were born here and it is up to us to bring about change for the better,” says Magda.

Encouraging words but how to turn them into reality? The state has not provided avenues for people to participate in national life effectively. Without batting an eye, Magda responds, “We won’t be worse off. There is discontent on the street but I am Catholic and I am convinced that in 2016 something will happen, something peaceful and untraumatic.”

Not even the vast class of bureaucrats, which survives by suckling off the state, is as optimistic as Magda. One example is Reinier, the head manager of a grocery store, who has opinions quite different from those of Magda.

“Cuba’s future is unpredictable,” confesses Reinier. “Those who use their government positions to steal today could be in prison tomorrow. But if they are well leveraged, they could end up in even better positions. All you need to do is open the floodgates and do business with the Yankees. But real business, not the pretend kind we’re doing now. I am placing all my bets on capitalism and that we’ll leave all this foolishness behind. Actually, we already have capitalism, but the bad kind.”

For many people on the island socialism and the benefactor state are part of a fictional narrative. “What we have in Cuba is a kind of African capitalism controlled by a government that levies taxes and earns yields much higher than the most ruthless capitalist entrepreneur,” says Joel, a high school teacher.

Normando, a retiree, prefers not to lose sleep thinking about it. “When you are eighty-four years old, the future is today. Tomorrow, we’ll see. What comes after Raul Castro will be worse, with military clans owning all the businesses. It’s all the same to me; I don’t have much now anyway,” he says.

The future does not much concern the country’s leaders either. It would good to ask them if they have a long-term plan for Cuba and its citizens. Or if if all just amounts to speeches and newspaper headlines.

From Hispanopost, February 4, 2016