Havana Patiently Awaits Change

WE ARE STANDING on Raúl Rivero's tiny balcony, smoking pungent Cuban cigarettes, watching the sun set over the dilapidated rooftops of El Cerro, a central, working-class neighbourhood in Havana.

Havana Patiently Awaits Change

WE ARE STANDING on Raúl Rivero's tiny balcony, smoking pungent Cuban cigarettes, watching the sun set over the dilapidated rooftops of El Cerro, a central, working-class neighbourhood in Havana. The capital city of Cuba seems very much like the cliché: loud music blares from every window and porch, women dance between potholes and debris, men lean against elegant, decrepit, European-style façades. Boys play baseball in empty lots where buildings have collapsed, hitting cloth-and-tape balls with wooden sticks, and running bases between the famous jalopies of Cuba - these particular ones jacked-up on blocks, cannibalized for parts, and rusting in peace.

"Cubans love Havana," Rivero says in his raspy voice, "and Havana gives it back. It is not cruel to its people." A hefty man, white hair, big paunch, he could pass for a retired truck driver - until he starts talking about his city. "It is noble, old, beautiful, and open. It has the heart, the soul and the indomitable attitude of the great port cities." Rivero, a poet and journalist, goes on. "But Havana has been hijacked. It has become a sort of dreadful Pyongyang, dead and deserted at night but for a few pockets of fun and luxury reserved for foreigners and the rich. And we have become a nation of servants who sing and dance at tables for them."

Rivero is also a political dissident, openly critical of the Soviet-style Communist regime that Fidel Castro has so craftily kept in place since 1959. "The socialist revolution has been a failure, and everyone knows it, but nobody says so publicly, so we keep pretending," he says. "The regime survives because it is a police state. There is no public opinion here - the government controls the information. And it controls the citizens too, by distilling fear. We are kept hostages in our homeland, and have been promised a bright future that keeps being postponed."

As I express surprise at hearing such hard criticism of a political regime known for silencing its critics, he shrugs. "I am just describing the situation," he explains. "But I feel less pressure now than, say, five years ago. The stranglehold the government had on the city is loosening."

Then Rivero adds a statement that turns out be somewhat prophetic: "But you never know here. Things in Havana are never quite what they appear to be, never."

Indeed. Since March 19, Raúl Rivero has been a political prisoner. Not long after our encounter, he was arrested and thrown in jail. Rivero was part of a group of 78 dissidents, many of them from Havana, charged with sedition and threatening national security, who were rounded up while the rest of the world was looking the other way, at the invasion of Iraq.

The arrests, occurring after the Castro regime had conceded a measure of liberties to citizens, are further examples of the baffling contradictions of this baffling town: it's an Old World city in the New World, has a socialist economy that runs on U.S. dollars, is a tourist haven in a police state, and sells nostalgia to visitors - while promising citizens a better future.

This latest sweep against dissidents sent ripples through diplomatic and intellectual circles. At first, though, the street in Havana seemed to take it all in stride. "We have seen that happen before," said a friend who lives here. "Besides, we knew it was coming. The heat had been on for a few weeks. First, they cracked down on drugs in nightclubs, then on jineteras [Havana's famous hookers], then on all those trying to make private money. It figured that the dissidents would be next." Then, weeks after the rest of the world had learned about it, the news broke in Cuba about the sentences - up to 28 years in jail for the dissidents - following lightning-quick trials. Habaneros were stunned into subdued silence.

HAVANA IS TOO BEAUTIFUL, too romantic and just too plain cool to look or feel like a gulag. The waves of the Atlantic crash and spill over the Malecón, the spectacular, if derelict, ocean drive, next to fortresses from which real cannons have shot at real pirates. The city has the richest heritage of the Spanish colonial era, and vast expanses of smart and ornate buildings, witnesses to several different eras of wealth and power. Most of those buildings, however, are now crumbling; many have already collapsed. "You don't see shantytowns here as elsewhere in Latin America," a woman says. "That's because we have turned 19th-century palaces into slum dwellings."

Other things one does not see in Havana also create a powerful impression. Very little electric light at night, so the stars shine between rooftops. Few major arteries, and very little traffic for a population the size of Montreal. No neon signs, floodlit gas stations, fast-food joints or pinball arcades, and none of the smoked-mirror, postmodern towers that make the world look the same from Kuala Lumpur to Istanbul.

Instead, Havana has the old American cars - it's impossible to ignore a sprawling, red-and-cream '58 Edsel convertible - and the soundtrack - mambo, salsa, cha-cha and son. Much of it was long-dead folk-stuff for locals, but the music is now de rigueur in every café and park, thanks to the planetary success of the Buena Vista Social Club. For tourists, Havana is pure fifties revisited, and they love it. There would be a fortune in selling posters drawn from the pages of the revisionist coffee-table books currently celebrating the insouciant, pre-globalization times when Cuba was a banana republic run by American gangsters. But the government doesn't get it, of course, and all you find in souvenir shops are icons of Che Guevara, the dead hero of a revolution that has now reached retirement age.

Close to two million tourists visit Cuba annually, mostly from Canada and Europe. Many escape from their all-inclusive resorts in Varadero or Cayo Largo for only a day or two in Havana, so they can be excused for believing that their salsa-dancing, cigar-smoking, rum-soaked, retro-cool good time was the real thing. Hang in here a bit longer, though, and you, too, will hear Guantanamera played once too often; your gaze will meet that of a Cuban who will tell you, silently: welcome to Havana, citizen, where real life is not what it appears to be.

In their day-to-day existence, Habaneros don't smoke foot-long, US$10 Cohiba cigars and don't drink potent rum-and-mint mojitos in celebration of Ernest Hemingway. Instead, they smoke cheap, strong Viceroy cigarettes, drink straight brown rum, no chaser, and listen to kitschy Latino pop on Miami radio. And mostly, they spend their days hatching plans to lay their hands on dollars - real, post-revolutionary, certified yanqui dólares.

The collapse of the Soviet empire a decade ago left Cuba's economy in dire straits. Castro's response was to speed up the development of joint ventures with foreign capitalists. The plan is simple: only the state has the right to play the capitalist game. Cuba deals with investors, developers or visitors at an artificially inflated exchange rate of one peso equalling US$1. But for ordinary Cubans, the rate is 25 pesos to the dollar. Cuban nationals and foreigners live side by side, but are not to mingle. Tolls on the highway are US$2 for extranjeros, two pesos - eight cents - for locals. Admission to the Museum of the Revolution - the palace used by former dictator Fulgencio Batista - is US$4 for me, four pesos (16 cents) for my friend. The few Cubans who could afford to check into hotels are not allowed to do so. Foreigners are forbidden to frequent the so-called peso bars, restaurants, or to hire the jalopy taxis reserved for locals. Most wouldn't anyway.

But one part of this system went awry. In 1993, the government made it legal for ordinary Cubans to hold U.S. dollars - even though they are not allowed to earn them. The response was an instant black market. "Laying their hands on dollars has become a constant obsession, almost a national sport," says a French diplomat. "They can be very clever at it."

THEY MAY BE CLEVER, but they're not crooks. At least that's what my new buddies, Peter and Ernie, tell me as we drink espressos and rum in a peso bar. (Their real names are Pedro and Ernesto, but it's cool to sport an English name in Havana.) "We are not criminals," says Peter. "Everywhere else, ours would be considered normal business. You just can't feed your family otherwise." Adds Ernie, "We have a saying here: he who steals from a thief gets 100 years of leniency." I am not sure what line of business they're in, but they tell me how Cuba's underground economy works. "Simple: things fall off the truck," says Ernie. "The rest can be had por la izquierda - through the left hand."

Cubans are always stealing from their employer, which is almost always the state. Bags of cement, rice, coffee, kegs of rum, cooking oil, steak or lobsters (reserved for tourists) fall off the truck and are retailed on the street. The "left hand" provides by diverting services from their initial purpose. A driver filling up his truck will also fill an extra jerry can on his employer's credit card. Cabbies who pick you up on the fly don't start the meter. Private cars play taxi. The teacher calling in sick to serve as interpreter for foreigners, the cop who looks away while the jinetera works the bar he is supposed to watch, the house maid in a foreigner's household. Customs officials who don't inspect the bags of visiting Miami Cubans, knowing they could carry forbidden items like computers, books or satellite dishes. Clandestine bars, restaurants, rooms by the hour or day, tourist "guides," hookers - all are doing booming, illegal business in hard currency. " 'Black market' does not have the same negative connotation we give it back home," says one Canadian living in Havana. "In Toronto, we think drugs or hot stereos, but here, someone says, 'psst! wanna buy potatoes?' "

One foreign businessman lives in a splendid villa in the posh neighbourhood of Miramar, which he sublets for $3,000 a month. The owner lives in two rooms above the garage - the two rooms he officially declares that he sublets. "The villa is crumbling, like everything else here, and my landlord is a millionaire," the tenant says. "But he can't fix the house, because, then, he'd be caught and it would be expropriated. My house is the perfect illustration of all that has gone wrong with the Cuban economy."

By most accounts, half of Havana's population has a sideline in dollars. Local and external sources estimate that Cuba's dollar economy - including remittances from exiled relatives - ranks with tourism and sugar at the top of Cuba's currency earners.

Because money fuels individualism - and that's anti-revolutionary and seditious in Cuba's official books - many say the introduction of the dollar marked the beginning of the end of the Castro regime. Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an economist and dissident, told me before he, too, was arrested in the March roundup, that so-called dollarization has divided Cuba into haves and have-nots. "If you are an honest party member, you are poor," he says. "If you have an uncle in Miami, or take your clothes off for tourists, you are rich. That is quite removed from the initial, revolutionary ideal."

A maid, a whore, a potato smuggler are much richer than a teacher paid 400 pesos - US$16 - a month. Back to Peter and Ernie, the black marketeers. Peter used to teach Russian - not a hot subject nowadays - and Ernie was a technician. Cuba's self-congratulatory education system has produced tens of thousands of such skilled workers who have branched out into the alternate economy: engineers driving taxis or waiting on tables or racketeering in commodities for dollars. "Nobody believes anymore," says Pedro, "but we all pretend we still do." That would explain why nothing is ever what it appears to be here. Adds Ernesto: "We have been promised a shining future for too long. Now we are just longing for The Change."

In Havana, no one ever mentions the name of Castro in public, and nobody says he wishes the president would die soon. Instead, people casually refer to waiting for The Change - and it is understood that The Change will not happen until the Líder Máximo, now 76, joins Lenin, Stalin and Che, wherever they may now be.

How does one bring about change in a self-proclaimed revolutionary, but totalitarian, regime? "We go about it by peaceful means," answers Oswaldo Payá, currently the most famous of Cuban dissidents - which helps explain why he was spared in the March sweep. "The first step is to shake our fear, and demand the recognition of our basic human rights." Payá is the leader of the Varela Project, a petition that's making the rounds in Cuba, demanding the return of such basic rights as freedom of association, freedom of the press, and free elections. Despite a blackout in the Cuban media and systematic police obstruction, the petition has made progress all over the island. "We know the majority of citizens secretly wants change," Payá says. "Now, thousands have removed their masks, and have signed their names on a public document."

Payá made these comments during an interview days before the March sweep. Now, most of his supporters pushing the Varela petition are behind bars.

Change, Payá had added, will come about without social disruption only if it happens alongside a process of national reconciliation. "Remember," he says, "that each Cuban family has one member in the Communist party and one in exile, one black marketeer and one dissident or political prisoner."

Reconciliation has become the keyword now, and signs of it have started coming from an unexpected source: the angry and influential community of exiles in Florida. Opinion polls there this winter suggested that, for the first time, a majority of Cuban-Americans think Cubans should be trusted to sort out their future alone, rather than sending in the Marines. According to many Cuban dissidents, it is Castro who wants to see the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba maintained. "The embargo was a mistake by the Americans," said Chepe. "It has become Castro's alibi to justify the repression, and his economic failure. Fidel loves the embargo."

Before the arrests, many investors and diplomats familiar with Cuba said that the notion of a slow and peaceful transition to a sort of state-run capitalism, in a more open democracy, was being upgraded from mere objective to distinct possibility. Many were betting on it, investing the time and energy to establish networks and power bases that will be ready to kick into action when Cuba rejoins Spaceship Earth. But the sweep of the dissidents has put a damper on their hopes - not much business is happening at the moment, they say.

The Change will have to take place first.

Maclean's May 5, 2003