One Man is an Island

Author: Anthony DePalma

When Fidel Castro launched his revolution in the late 1950s, The New York Times famously described him as “the rebel leader of Cuba’s youth.” Today, half a century later, it is difficult to reconcile that storybook image of a dashing young guerrilla fighter being interviewed in his mountain hideout with the most recent photos of Castro, gray-bearded, bedridden and barely able to speak. In July of 2006 he provisionally handed over power to his brother Raúl, and early this year Fidel stepped aside for good. It came as no surprise when he was permanently replaced as president and commander-in-chief in a rigged election process by Raúl, who at 76 is five years younger than Fidel but hardly a young man.

By chance, I was in Cuba on the day Fidel announced his retirement from politics and government. I was with my wife, Miriam, who was born there, and our three adult children—Andrés, Laura Felice and Aahren ‘04—who were setting foot in their mother’s homeland for the first time. Being there at that particular moment with them offered me a glimpse deep into the soul of Cuba that helps put the long-standing feud between our two countries into focus. And it exposed the fundamental truth about the future of Cuba—it will be determined not by the old men in the government palace but by the young people in the streets of Cuba’s cities.

For us, it was an officially sanctioned family reunification. We had spent months getting all the necessary visas and licenses from the governments of both Cuba and the United States. Each threw up serious roadblocks that underscored the unreal aspect of how these two nations—so close to each other yet separated by so much—relate to each other.

Logic is sometimes made to stand on its head when it comes to Cuba and the United States. The long-standing U.S. embargo against Cuba forbids Americans from spending money in Cuba because that would constitute trading with the enemy. Without the ability to spend money, traveling to Cuba is impossible. The only legal way around that prohibition is to apply to the U.S. Department of the Treasury for a special license to spend money. For us, that meant asking for permission to visit my wife’s relatives, who live outside Havana. We had to identify them by their official Cuban I.D. numbers before the folks at Treasury would issue the licenses that permitted us to spend $50 a day while in Cuba.

The Cuban government quickly approved visa requests for all of us except Miriam. “Born Cuban, always Cuban,” is the way Havana looks at the world. In this case it meant that the Cuban government did not recognize Miriam’s U.S. passport. She had to apply for a special visa as a Cuban citizen. Getting it took nearly two months, and the papers didn’t arrive until just a few days before we were to leave.

With all our documents finally in order, we boarded a charter flight in Miami that took us directly to Havana. I’ve been there many times as a correspondent for The New York Times, but this was my first time there with my family. Until now, Miriam had always been too worried that something would go wrong to attempt such a trip. Given the always heightened state of tension between the United States and Cuba, as well as the bleak reality of how international politics had torn her family apart, I never pressed her. Now that the kids were adults and about to go off on their own, Miriam conceded—somewhat reluctantly—that the time was right for such a trip.

The end of Fidel
We had just begun our stay in Cuba when word came that Fidel was stepping aside. What had been planned as a family retreat suddenly became a work assignment. Everyone understood as I rushed off with my laptop to find a place in old Havana where I could get Internet access and transmit articles to New York. I didn’t even have a working cell phone with me, and the foreign desk of The New York Times couldn’t reach me. When I called them early that morning they were relieved. “We knew you’d call,” they said. I was one of the few U.S. reporters in Cuba.

After half a century in full control of nearly every aspect of every Cuban’s life, after five decades of belligerent rhetoric that infuriated 10 U.S. presidents and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, after 50 years of seducing the world press and playing the dual role of dictator to some and hero to others, Fidel was through. Whether they revered him or reviled him, Cubans were going to respond to this monumental event, and I would relay that scene to the world.

But nothing happened. No special bulletins on the radio or TV. Regular programming wasn’t even interrupted. No one took to the streets except those who would ordinarily be there—the garbage collectors, the transit inspectors, the mass of people going to work. I traveled through several small towns along the highway to Havana, and it was quiet everywhere. Surely, I thought, things would be different in the capital. I was wrong. No one was expressing anything—not fear, nor fury, not jubilation nor expectation. Nothing, just as the Castro regime had planned.

Those who had so masterfully manipulated the media from the earliest days of the revolution had triumphed again. The transition from Fidel to Raúl had been choreographed exquisitely, and here it was being performed without flaw. The 19 months that had passed since the announcement in July 2006 of Fidel’s illness and the anointment of Raúl as provisional president had enabled Cubans to get accustomed to the once-unthinkable idea of life without Fidel. The long interregnum also dampened any hope that a new president would bring real progress in their daily lives. Oh, there were more buses on the street than there had been during my previous visit a year earlier. Raúl has, in quick order, strengthened ties with the Vatican and patched ties with Mexico that have been rocky for six years. Still, nothing of significance had changed for the vast majority of Cuba’s 11 million people. Food is scarce, housing inadequate and Cuban jails continue to hold scores of political prisoners whose only crime is demanding freedom of speech and other basic human rights. There was plenty of talk in the state-controlled media about how Raúl has been encouraging debate about Cuba’s problems. On the street, people said Raúl actually was encouraging Cubans to open their mouths but only because that made it easier for him to cut off their tongues.

At first such cynicism is mystifying to Americans, who expected the mass of Cuban people—led by the young—to pour into the streets to celebrate the end of the dictatorship. But that reveals a misunderstanding of the reality of life in Cuba today. Anyone under 50 in Cuba has experienced little in the way of change, but they do know the troubled history of their melancholy homeland and how the promise of change often brought crisis.

Many know that when Fidel was in the mountains surrounded by his group of 20-something bearded ones, he had promised to restore the legal constitution and hold elections to replace the corrupt ruling dictatorship. They know he promised to break Cuba’s economic dependence on sugar and make the country truly independent for the first time in its history. But every time they look into a nearly empty refrigerator or pass below the crumbling balcony of a decrepit building in Havana or hear that a neighbor had been taken to prison because of something he said or didn’t say, they also know that those promises had not been kept. The lesson? Change isn’t always for the better, so be careful what you wish for.

When we finally had our family reunion, the news of Castro’s resignation added special significance to the get-together. Now we would be meeting the new generation in Cuba, those who would be expected to move the country forward. Our own kids also represented a generational shift, too, and with an election pending in the United States, where talk of change was on everyone’s lips, the possibilities seemed endless.

Reality was different.

We hired a smoky ‘58 Dodge to take us out to see the family in the forlorn countryside outside Havana. Neither city nor suburb, it is a motley collection of six-story proletarian apartment buildings interspersed with small cottages built by hand and with the ingenuity for which Cubans have justly become famous. When I first visited 30 years ago, the family lived in a single wooden cabin on the site. Now Camilo, one of Miriam’s stepbrothers who supports the Castro regime, lives there in a new, two-story, concrete-block house with his wife and daughter. Behind him, on part of the same original lot, seven of the others live in a new single-story house of about 1,000 square feet, half the size of Camilo’s. There, Castro is cursed. Though separated by only 5 feet of grass, the two sides of the family rarely cross the fence from one side to the other.

My wife’s stepmother is old now and so fragile that she burst into tears when we walked in. A physical difference between our kids and their Cuban cousins was apparent right away. After living their entire lives with rationed basics such as milk and eggs, the cousins simply didn’t look as vigorous as our children.

Cloudy futures
That was not the most noticeable difference. The greatest gap between them became apparent when we started discussing their lives and their hopes for the future. Aahren is now a lawyer, about to get married, with a tremendous head start on a bright future. Laura and Andrés also have graduated from elite universities and are well on the way to satisfying, complex lives filled with great promise and opportunities bounded only by their imaginations.

Not so their cousins, especially one named Javier, who is almost Aahren’s age. The most promising development in his life so far was hooking up with a friend who has helped him figure out a way to make black-market ham in the backyard. With pork they manage to buy from a butcher they know, they grind the meat, put it into casings and then cook it in tubs in Javier’s bedroom. The last step is to smoke the pieces—they’re called "biggies"—for 12 hours in what used to be the bathroom of the old wooden cabin. When the meat is cured it forms a kind of processed ham that they sell back to a store for a small profit.

It’s all done under the table because even this kind of humble ambition, this modest toe-touch in the world of private enterprise, is forbidden.

“Just imagine what we could do if we were there,” Javier said, referring to the United States. “I don’t know much about how things are in the north, but I know that if you work hard, you can get ahead. Not like here.”

His own uncle, Miriam’s stepbrother Tomás, had felt much the same way when he had tried in 2006 to make the dangerous journey from Cuba to Florida. Squeezed into a tiny boat with half a dozen other men, including his own son, he had expected to make the journey to Florida in just a day or two. But the boat was blown off course, the engine failed, and they were stranded without sufficient food, water or shelter. We don’t know exactly what happened, but Tomás apparently suffered a heart attack in the boat and died. With no recourse, his son and the other men threw his body overboard. Eventually, they were picked up by a passing European steamer heading toward Havana and brought home.

Javier said he was not expecting any real change under Raúl or anyone connected to the Castro regime. His partner in the ham-making business, Miguel, was older at 32 and far more world-weary. Just three months earlier, he had been picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard somewhere between Havana and Key West. “The captain asked me what I did, and I told him that I worked at a leather factory and took home extra pieces to make belts or shoes that I could sell. The Coast Guard officer looked at me kind of funny then; he probably thought I was a thief. From then on, he treated me differently. I shouldn’t have told him the truth. I shouldn’t have told him I was a criminal.”

Miguel was brought back to Havana. When officials found out what happened, he lost his job at the leather factory. Making ham with Javier became his livelihood while he schemed to make the perilous trip again across the Straits of Florida.

“We all are criminals now because we steal what we need to live,” he said. Bartering for services or medicine or a better position on a line to see a doctor has become necessary in order to survive. Someone who works in a paint factory steals a gallon of paint and trades it for a few ibuprofen tablets at the pharmacy. The pharmacist then trades the paint for cooking oil. On and on it goes. “There’s nothing here for us, but the Cubans have lost too much heart to work together to make anything change,” Miguel said. That’s what 50 years of totalitarianism has done, he said. The spirit has gone out of many Cubans. Their ambition is not to stay and change the system, no matter which Castro is in charge. It is to leave.

Even those who support the regime struggle to keep hold of their modest futures. Cubans who are able to go to university do not have to pay much, if anything at all, for tuition. But computers, books and other supplies are not always available, and that can turn a university education upside down, as we learned from Camilo’s daughter Yésika. She was studying finance but said she had not been able to get her license because she had not yet taken the required examination. The books she needed to study in order to take the exam were not available.

Time for change?
Nearly every analyst of Cuba expects Raúl to have a hard time keeping the Communist regime going. The odds of him retaining power—and the system Fidel created continuing—depend in large measure on the kind of relationship he establishes with Cuba’s youth, who have lived their entire lives under Fidel and the hardships his rule imposed. Starting out, Javier, Miguel and many others like them have made it clear they have no love for Raúl or his inner circle. But will they grow angry enough at the slow pace of change to organize and rise up as university students have done in the past and demand change, much like Fidel did when he was a student leader at the University of Havana? Or will Raúl provide just enough goods, just enough access and just enough freedom to keep them off the streets and out of the sea?

In March, the government announced that it was lifting the ban on purchasing computers and DVDs because the supply of electricity has improved. But salaries have not. At the average wage of about $10 a month, it would take at least 10 years to save up the money to buy a computer. And no one is promising those who can get a computer that they will have broader access to information on the Internet. Raúl’s government understands the danger that access represents. Still, even with current controls, brave young people like Yoani Sánchez, who puts out the Cuba blog Generacíon Y, are willing to risk everything they have to communicate their dissatisfaction with the way things are. No one knows how long Raúl and his followers will be willing to tolerate them, but, for now, they are leaders of Cuba’s youth.

When we left Cuba, a chartered 737 with a U.S. crew took off from an isolated corner of José Martí airport. A seat is left open on these flights for an American mechanic because the law prohibits the charter company from paying for any services while it is in Cuba. The jet had barely reached cruising altitude when the Florida Keys came into view. It was a stark reminder of how close these two nations are to each other. As I remembered Javier’s hams and Aahren’s newly minted law degree, I couldn’t help but think of how unnaturally far apart we have drifted over the decades since Fidel was a young man.

It was not geography that had given one of these fine young men a bright future and the other a grim outlook on life. It was an artifice of man, a political division thrown up by governments that were designed to serve the societies which created them. Obviously, government had not lived up to that obligation in the Cubans we spoke to. The past in which Cuba was frozen, with its 1950s cars and Cold War rhetoric, proved that time there had stood still. Cuban youth are young in a country that has grown old.

Ultimately, whether through insurrection or the force of nature, the revolutionary generation of Fidel and Raúl Castro will be replaced. But by whom? If young Cubans remain wary of change and dedicated not to improving their lives in Cuba but to leaving the island for promising American shores, Cuba’s future will remain uncertain. Without them, who would be left to lead the next revolution?

Some of the family names used here have been changed for their protection.

Anthony DePalma is the author of The Man Who Invented Fidel . A regular contributor to this magazine, he is a correspondent for The New York Times and has reported extensively from Cuba and other countries. In 2003, he was a visiting fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies.