Which Way for Cuba?

Cubans are angry. Communist Party militants rail at the secretiveness surrounding the selection of Raúl Castro’s successor. A middling Party official in Pinar del Rio complains angrily, over a boozy lunch with friends to which I am invited, that the Party hierarchy hasn’t taken leading members’ views into account in the succession process. “It always used to take soundings. I hear they have consulted at higher levels, but nothing here. We feel abandoned.” She says, pointing to me, “She knows as much I do about the traspaso [presidential transfer]. And there’s another problem. People haven’t warmed to Miguel Díaz-Canel (Castro’s presumed successor). He is cold, distant, he never smiles. He has done little to distinguish himself.” I am astonished she is so forthcoming, so reckless.

I am with a Cuban friend who is doing field work in Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s westernmost province. Many people, Party militants included, tell her the local government isn’t functioning, and they feel abandoned by Havana. My friend asks what they are doing about it. They shrug.

A close friend in Havana, a well-respected writer, is uncharacteristically blunt. “Cuban socialism, our international reputation for upholding human dignity, has ended in this strange quasi-capitalism.” Younger Cubans and those outside official circles tend to be indifferent. Mario, a young but relatively high-level state functionary and somewhat reluctant Party militant, who lives in the poor outer-Havana borough of La Lisa, says his friends are apolitical. “They don’t think the transfer will make any difference. Raúl will remain head of the Party. Their lives will be just as difficult they are today. Nothing will change.”

Ofelia, from Alamar, a Soviet-era housing project east of Havana, sells second-hand clothing donated by the Evangelical Pentecostal Church she belongs to, an offshoot of a California congregation. “It doesn’t matter who is president. The big people will get richer, the people at the bottom, people like me, will remain poor.” She tilts her head and smiles faintly, “We no longer have Fidel on our side.”

When I ask my chum Yudith, a lifelong Party loyalist, how she sees the current situation, she replies, “Let’s not discuss politics. It’s too grim. Let’s talk about pleasant things.”

During three weeks in January 2018, I talk with a dozen long-time friends in and around Havana. I record interviews with Cuban men and women I have been interviewing for fifteen years. I encounter anger, frustration, a newfound outspokenness, and resignation. Almost everyone I meet is gloomy. The mood is contagious.

I participate in a workshop at a leading research institute. Most people in the room criticize the government’s pro-market economic policies. Many of them are studying the effects of inequality. To counter their criticism, a few participants declare that Raúl Castro is doing what needs to be done, and they are confident the government will remain in safe hands. One speaker from the floor weaves extravagant praise for the Communist Party of China into a long tribute to Cuba’s leadership. The audience waits patiently for him to finish, many looking skeptical. Closing the session, the chair furiously bangs her notebook. “Decision-makers pay us no attention. Marxism has been thrown out the window in this country.”

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