Amid hints of change, unseen leader shadows celebration of 1959 revolution
By Alan Gomez
HAVANA — An illuminated sign facing Havana's boardwalk says it simply:
"50." And there are a few modest banners to commemorate what, under
other circumstances, might be a day of non-stop revelry, cigars and rum.
Thursday marks a half-century since Fidel Castro rolled into Havana with
his brother Raúl, Ernesto "Che" Guevara and their bearded band of
rebels. Yet, even among die-hard supporters, the anniversary of Cuba's
communist revolution has taken a back seat to questions about whether
Fidel will make his first public appearance since falling ill two years
ago — and whether Raúl, who has been in charge since then, can rescue
the island from its long malaise.
"We've been fighting for 50 years, and we can fight another 50," vows
Julio Garcia Perez, 63, a former soldier who received Soviet training
back at the height of the Cold War. "But we've got some big problems
that need big answers. We can't try to tinker little by little."
The anniversary comes at a critical time for the Castro brothers:
Dignitaries and the news media are flying in from across the globe to
attend a military parade on Thursday and perhaps catch a glimpse of
Fidel. Meanwhile, the incoming Obama administration has raised hopes of
a meaningful thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations.
Another no-show from El Comandante, who is 82 and has appeared only in
carefully staged videos and photos since undergoing intestinal surgery
in July 2006, would further cement the perception that Cuba has begun a
"The Cubans have moved on," says Jaime Suchlicki, director of the
University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.
"Very few people are talking about Fidel anymore. They're all talking
about what Raúl is going to do."
That was true of Reyniel Castillo Lopez, who was hanging out by the
famed Malecon seawall late Monday with a friend, strumming a guitar. At
21, Lopez has known only the food shortages, collapsing housing and
other problems that followed the demise of the Soviet Union, Cuba's main
sponsor, and the tightening of the U.S. trade embargo.
"Everyone is waiting for things to change," said Lopez, who as a
saxophone player in a military band holds what qualifies as a good,
steady job on the island. "I wasn't alive when things were great. My
parents, my grandparents, they saw that."
However, like many Cubans, Lopez is guarded about just what kind of
changes Raúl, 77, is capable of bringing — especially since Fidel is
still formally head of the Communist Party and could be blocking any
moves that might undermine his legacy.
Raúl has shown signs of being more moderate than his brother by
instituting modest capitalist-style changes such as allowing Cubans to
buy cellphones and computers. He also has tolerated more criticism than
before. But it is still dangerous here to talk about the sweeping
democratic changes that 10 U.S. presidents — as well as the
Cuban-American communities in Miami and elsewhere — hoped would
accompany Fidel's departure.
Lopez, who like other Cubans in this story was interviewed in Spanish,
thinks the economy has improved slightly under Raúl, and he's willing to
give him time. "People say things would get better if this system fell,
but how do you know that?" he asked.
Indeed, any kind of appearance at the parade from Fidel — in person or
through a recorded video message — could prompt further speculation
about who is really in charge, and whether anyone can end Cuba's
economic isolation as long as Fidel is alive.
"I think Raúl and his gang are doing the best they can to keep (Fidel)
from going, because it really sends a message that (Fidel) … is still in
control," says Frank Mora, a professor of national security strategy at
the National War College in Washington.
Or, as Perez, the former soldier, put it using the colorful vernacular
so typical here: "If Fidel looks at a tree and thinks it's the greatest
tree in the history of the world, Raúl can't look at that tree and say
it's (expletive). That's disrespectful."
For decades after the Jan. 1, 1959, revolt when the Castros toppled Gen.
Fulgencio Batista's pro-U.S. regime, Raúl became accustomed to playing
second-fiddle to his more charismatic brother.
Fidel was all about cigars, fiery six-hour speeches in the tropical sun,
and the brazen anti-American brinksmanship that peaked with the Cuban
Missile Crisis of 1962, when Soviet installation of nuclear missiles on
the island, 90 miles from Florida, pushed the world to the verge of
Meanwhile, Raúl played the quiet technocrat, using his official post of
defense minister to expand the military's control of the economy to
eventually include hotels, domestic airlines and retail outfits across Cuba.
That background in business — or what amounts to it in communist Cuba,
anyway — raised hopes that Raúl would be a more pragmatic leader than
When Fidel first became ill in 2006 (the official cause is still treated
as a state secret) and transferred power to Raúl, he shocked Cubans —
and more than a few outside observers — by openly welcoming critiques of
the economy and society as a whole.
"He deserves credit for explaining in detail some of the serious
economic problems that Cuba has," says Phil Peters, vice president of
the Lexington Institute and an adviser to the U.S. House of
Representatives' Cuba Working Group.
For months, Cubans saw things they rarely saw before. The
state-controlled newspaper published investigations detailing how theft
and graft in state-run businesses were hurting the country. Citizens
openly criticized their low wages, the difficulty of finding
transportation, the lack of goods and the inequity that is prevalent in
the socialist country.
Raúl Castro also introduced agricultural changes Peters believes could
be the most significant achievement of his tenure so far.
The government has started accepting applications from ordinary Cubans
to lease parcels of fallow, state-owned land for several years at a time
— a move that would would be heresy under strict communist dogma. That
change, along with new policies that allow farmers to sell crops
directly to neighborhood stores instead of government-run distribution
centers, could be critical for an island that will spend $2.6 billion
this year to import food.
Bruno Rodriguez, 59, a farmer who plants sugar cane in a farm just south
of Havana, says he has seen the positive effects. "You can see more
tomatoes in the store. More plantains. Things are getting a little
Asked whether there have been any other changes, he shrugs. "Everything
is the same."
The pace of change seems to have slowed since February, when Raúl
formally became Cuba's president. Peters sees a simple explanation.
"It's clear that there was a momentum of change that stopped, and it
correlates with an improvement in Fidel Castro's health," he says.
In a video released in July, Fidel looked vigorous as he chatted in a
sunny garden with Raúl and the ally who has taken over his role as
Washington's chief antagonist in Latin America — Venezuelan President
Hugo Chávez. Fidel looked gaunt and there was little sound in the video,
but it showed rare footage of him standing and effectively put to rest
rumors in Havana, Miami and elsewhere that he was on the verge of death.
Since then, hopes have faded for more systemic changes such as
eliminating the requirement that Cubans obtain a government-issued
"white card" in order to travel outside the country.
Thomas Shannon, the Bush administration's top diplomat for Latin
America, says the slowing pace of reforms shows how firmly entrenched
Fidel Castro's people are in the government bureaucracy.
"These changes, as small as they were, are still controversial within
the hierarchy of Cuban leadership, especially with those tied with
Fidel," Shannon says.
Even if Raúl Castro were facing stiff opposition, however, Shannon
believes he could have continued the economic changes and even begun to
change up the political system if he wanted to.
"A lot of people would like to think that he is a reformer who is being
held back by an aging and recalcitrant brother," Shannon says.
"But if he wanted to move faster, he could. There's no doubt that Raúl
has controls of the levers of power, both in the party and in the state.
I think all of this indicates that this is a very conservative government."
U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez — a Cuban American — has called
some of the other changes "cosmetic."
For example, being able to buy a cellphone was a good step, but with
$120 activation fees, it was impossible for most Cubans to purchase
them, says Suchlicki, the Miami professor. The average salary on the
island is about $20 a month.
"Allowing people to buy computers without access to the Internet is like
having a typewriter," says Suchlicki, referring to the government's
tight control over Internet access. "Those reforms were not reforms.
They were minor adjustments."
The most realistic chance for short-term change might come in relations
with the Castros' sworn adversary: the United States.
President-elect Barack Obama has stated that he wants to make
significant changes to U.S.-Cuba policy and has re-energized Americans
who hope to end the embargo in place since 1962. Obama has said he would
be willing to talk with Cuba; Raúl Castro has said he is open to that.
"Fidel, in many ways, was good at confrontation. He flourished in
confronting the United States. He needed it, it seemed," Mora says.
"Raúl doesn't feel that way. He senses that he doesn't need to continue
in this constant fight with the Americans for domestic political reasons."
Obama has said he would need to see some political changes in Cuba —
such as freeing political prisoners — before he agrees to open a formal
dialogue. But Shannon and others believe no such change has taken place.
Access to the Internet is still a privilege, not a right, that is
granted to government workers, employees of foreign companies and few
others. They must still get government permission to travel abroad. They
still cannot own property, move to a new home, buy a car or switch jobs
without government permission.
And if they speak out against the regime, they still face harsh punishment.
The regime "hasn't changed much at all," Shannon says. "One of the
policy conundrums we face is both sides seem to be looking at each other
and saying, 'You move first.' Someone's going to have to move
eventually. This is one of the questions for the next administration."
Even if the status quo holds, Cubans such as Jorge Fonte hope Fidel will
make an appearance this week.
"We have our problems," the 43-year-old waiter says. "But he's held us
"I was born under him," Fonte says. "And as they say, 'If you don't love
your father, you can't love anything.' "