Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Despite Underlying Current of Uncertainty, Life Moves On

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Jan 30 2007 (IPS) - A strange sensation of normality seems to reign in Cuba, interrupted only by isolated tensions, doubts about the future and the deafening silence on the part of the government and the state-controlled media with regard to certain issues like Fidel Castro’s convalescence.

“It’s not easy,” a commonly heard refrain at the height of the severe economic crisis in the 1990s, has made a comeback, with its multilayered meanings and nuances. Nothing is easy when you’re talking in Cuba about the present, the future, the high temperatures, transport problems, food prices or the TV programmes on offer.

The 20-metre humped-backed “camellos” (camels) – 18-wheel trucks converted into buses to which covered trailer sections were added, that can carry up to 300 people – are going extinct, food prices remain high, and despite the wage hikes granted to public employees in 2005, formal incomes barely cover basic needs, and most families also depend on remittances sent from relatives abroad.

>From early in the morning, Obispo street, the main route through Old Havana, is packed with window-shoppers and customers visiting the government stores that only accept hard currency, people taking in the sights in the historic centre of the capital, and passersby. The everyday chaos remains unaltered by current events.

One man is selling two Dalmatian puppies on the corner, an elderly man is offering the day’s paper to a group of tourists, a nurse is making her regular rounds to old people in the neighbourhood, neatly uniformed children mill around outside their school before it opens, and dozens of people stand in line to send email at one of the few cybercafés operating in Havana.

“Nothing has changed,” says the owner of a private art gallery. After he was forced to close down for several years by a government resolution, he reopened his gallery a few months ago, along with similar businesses that line Obispo street, functioning with permits or thanks to the tolerance of local authorities.

“Sometimes I think one thing, and other times I catch myself thinking exactly the opposite. No one here knows what might happen in the future,” he remarks to IPS.

Six months after Castro’s last public appearance, the media continue to refrain from reporting on his state of health, which has been declared a “state secret”. Nor does the press usually report the isolated statements by Cuban officials on this issue of concern to all Cubans, whether they are for or against the 80-year-old leader.

On Jul. 31, Castro’s personal secretary read out a public statement in which the president announced that he had undergone emergency surgery and that for the first time since 1959 he would have to temporarily hand over power to his brother Raúl, the defence minister and chief of the armed forces.

According to press reports from around the world, Castro has undergone further stomach operations, and has reportedly had trouble with the healing process. However, none of this information has been confirmed by the local authorities.

Nothing has been seen of the president since his discreet diplomatic activity during the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, held in Havana in September, his Oct. 28 appearance before television cameras, and his videotaped year-end message. Nor has he confirmed or denied the contradictory reports on his state of health or on whether or not he will return to power.

The latest version to reach Cuba came from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who read out a letter from his friend and held the Cuban leader’s signature up to the television cameras to prove the message was authentic, during the Jan. 24 signing of 16 new bilateral cooperation agreements.

“We are really pleased, Fidel, with the news that we have received about your recovery,” said Chávez, who added optimistically that Castro was up and walking about, indeed “almost jogging.”

Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said Jan. 26 in Guatemala that Castro “is keeping up on the main current events” in Cuba, that “he is consulted for the most important decisions,” and that he will return “to the full exercise of his faculties as soon as the doctors” give him the go-ahead.

While the local press and television have been opening up and discussing questions like the inefficiency of economic policies and discrimination against homosexuals, they have kept mute on Castro’s health and on an intense debate that has been going on among Cuban intellectuals on cultural policy in this socialist Caribbean island nation.

“Where did this come from? I don’t know a thing about it,” reacted a 37-year-old engineer to a declaration by the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) which was published by the official Granma newspaper on Jan. 18. The statement made the organisation’s position clear on the controversy, which had never even been reported on by the local press.

“It’s as if they lived on one island and we lived on another,” the engineer commented to IPS. He complained that he had a right to be informed, “even though I’m not an intellectual and it would appear that this debate has nothing to do with me.”

The controversy has focused on the consequences of a misguided cultural policy that in the late 1960s and for much of the 1970s led to the censorship of art work, the closing down of artists’ cooperatives and associations, and the ostracism of some talented local writers.

But above and beyond the debate, perhaps the most important one carried out since the announcement that Castro was temporarily stepping aside, the heating up of tensions with the United States, and the strengthening of Cuba’s alliance with Venezuela, day-to-day life on the island seems to have changed little for many Cubans, who spend their evenings at home, watching the latest Brazilian or Cuban soap operas.

“Life goes on, you can’t just keep waiting forever,” said a public employee. But late last year she finally received the news that she would be granted a licence to rent one of the rooms in her house to foreign tourists, for which she had applied “I don’t know how long ago.”

“I thought that was a thing of the past, that the government wasn’t going to issue permits anymore to anyone, and all of a sudden, they surprise me,” said the 44-year-old woman, who lives in Old Havana and will now be able to bring in more income to support her family through her new small business.

The de facto freeze on the granting of small private business licences in a limited number of trades, seen since the start of this decade, was never officially announced, just as the possible resumption of licence issuing has not been mentioned.

If this is truly a new tendency, and not just isolated cases – something that is hard to confirm in Cuba – it could be a sign of the pragmatism that more than a few observers have attributed to Raúl Castro, especially in the area of economic policy.

Attempts to address the severe urban transport crisis, which especially affects Havana, a city of 2.2 million, are interpreted along these same lines. “If the government resolves the transport problem, it would eliminate a source of permanent tension,” the executive of a mixed enterprise company, who asked not to be identified, told IPS.

Some observers believe the status quo could be maintained if the Cuban government, under Raúl Castro’s leadership, is able to make the economy more efficient, curb inflation, renovate and expand the mass transit fleet, make some economic regulations more flexible, and give private initiative more room.

Others say changes would also be needed on the political front, with regard to guarantees of personal liberties like freedom of speech and association and an opening up of spaces to give a voice to the entire range of civil society actors in Cuba.

There are also those who would like to see both economic and political changes, but without giving up the advances in universal education and health, for example, achieved over the past few decades.

While foreign analysts say the transfer of power has already occurred in Cuba, many Cubans are merely focusing on surviving day to day, but without entirely forgetting the underlying uncertainty about what is to come.

“That is the great contradiction among Cubans,” said the 44-year-old woman who is getting ready to rent out a room to foreign visitors. “I myself would like to be a little better off, have a house just for my family and not have to live with my parents-in-law, have the option of leaving my job and open up a business. But I wouldn’t want to give up certain rights like free education, maternity leave, access to free abortions. It’s not easy.”

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