By ANTHONY DEPALMA | Updated: Oct. 27, 2009
A half-century ago, on Jan. 1, 1959, Fidel Castro brought down the
curtain on Fulgencio Batista's right-wing dictatorship in Cuba. As Mr.
Castro planted himself firmly in the Communist camp and began to
nationalize businesses and property and clamp down on dissent, an exodus
began that eventually brought hundreds of thousands to the shores of the
United States; Miami became Cuba's second city.
In the shadow of the 50th anniversary of the revolution, Cuba is a
repressive society long under a single ruler -- the ailing, aged Mr.
Castro still holds Cubans in his thrall even if he formally handed the
presidency to his younger brother, Raúl, in July 2006 when he was taken
sick with an undisclosed stomach ailment.
Through a labyrinth of rations, regulations, two currencies and four
markets (peso, hard currency, agro and black), people make their way.
Life for most Cubans is filled with injustices and indignities-a
currency system that keeps many consumer goods mockingly out of reach;
swank tourist hotels that few Cubans can afford (or until 2009 were even
allowed to enter); recurring shortages of necessities like milk, eggs,
beans and even toilet paper. Health care is free, but seeing a doctor
can be a day-long ordeal that ends with a prescription for drugs that
cannot be found, or a recommendation for surgery that cannot be
performed. The creaky old American cars in Havana that rumble past the
historic yacht Granma that Mr. Castro used to start his revolution
underscore the static nature of life in Cuba.
For the last 50 years, a long line of American presidents-Republicans
and Democrats alike-have tried to stare down Mr. Castro, without much
success. He has proven to be a master of imagery, a complex strategist
who managed to turn U.S. attempts against him and his country to his own
advantage again and again. In the end, it appears that nature and human
frailty may do what assassination attempts and a half-century-long
embargo have failed to do-bring the Castro era to an end.
Fidel Castro's Rise to Power
After seizing power, Mr. Castro promised to restore the Cuban
constitution and hold elections. But he soon turned his back on those
democratic ideals, embraced a totalitarian brand of communism and allied
the island with the Soviet Union. He saw himself as Cuba's messiah, and
he governed with an ideological fervor that bordered on
self-destructive. He brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in
the fall of 1962, when he allowed Russia to build missile launching
sites just 90 miles off the American shores. He weathered an
American-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs and used Cuban troops to
stir up revolutions in Africa and Latin America.
Declassified Pentagon documents indicate that in the 1980s, Mr. Castro
pushed the Soviet Union to take a tougher stand against Ronald Reagan's
military buildup, and urged the Soviet generals to seriously consider a
nuclear strike on the United States, even if it meant catastrophe for
Cuba. And after a pair of powerful hurricanes devastated large swathes
of the island in 2008, leaving behind $10 billion in damage, the Castro
regime refused to accept foreign assistance offered directly to the
Cuban people. All aid had to go to the government, or it would be turned
Actions such as these have earned him the permanent enmity of Washington
and led the United States to impose decades of economic sanctions that
Mr. Castro and his followers maintain have crippled Cuba's economy and
have kept their socialist experiment from succeeding completely. The
sanctions also proved handy to Mr. Castro politically. He cast every
problem Cuba faced as part of a larger struggle against the United
States and blamed the abject poverty of the island on the "imperialists"
to the north.
For good or ill, Fidel Castro was without a doubt the most important
leader to emerge from Latin America since the wars of independence of
the early 19th century, not only reshaping Cuban society but providing
inspiration for leftists across Latin America and in other parts of the
world. But he never broke the island's dependence on commodities like
sugar, tobacco and nickel, nor did he succeed in industrializing the
nation so that Cuba could compete in the world market with durable
goods. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of its aid to the
island, Cuba has limped along economically, relying for hard currency
mostly on tourism and money sent home from exiles..
Raul Castro's Turn
Some experts have said that Raúl Castro is more pragmatic than his
hot-tempered brother. Involved in the revolutionary struggle from the
beginning, Raúl had run the armed forced efficiently for decades. But
nothing about him was charismatic, and he did not command loyalty
outside of the barracks.
Understanding that he needed to make concrete changes if he was to win a
measure of support from the Cuban people, Raúl acted quickly after
taking over as provisional president. He ordered a fleet of Chinese
busses and put them on the streets of Havana, vastly improving daily
life for thousands. He also agreed to allow Cubans to enter tourist
hotels, and to buy DVDs and computers (even though one could cost
several years salary).
He has given signals he might try to follow the Chinese example of
state-sponsored capitalism. But his regime has made no significant
changes. In March 2009, Mr. Castro announced a shake-up in his
administration. That his brother was still calling shots was obvious
after the 2009 purge that saw several top ranking officials, including
two who had often been mentioned as possible successors, unceremoniously
removed. By all account, their crime was ambition.
People say they have seen small improvements in the economy that do not
go far enough. Many roads in Havana have been repaired. Microwave ovens,
DVD players and cellphones are now in stores.
The nation still imports more than 80 percent of what it consumes, and
Mr. Castro is trying to encourage farming by giving fallow land to those
willing to work it. But the money they can earn selling the food remains
below what is needed for the tools and labor needed to start a farm.
Three hurricanes in 2008 cost Cuba $10 billion, or 20 percent of the
gross domestic product. Salaries remain low, food prices are high and
housing is scarce. Bartenders, with access to dollars, earn wages many
times that of physicians. Tourism was up in 2008 but the price of Cuba's
top export, nickel, dropped by 41 percent.
Many Cubans are putting their hopes for the economy on President Barack
Obama's easing of longstanding restrictions on family travel and
remittances to Cuba, although the Cuban government charges hefty fees on
Recently there have been other small signs of détente. Cuban and
American officials have talked about resuming direct mail service, and
the Obama administration has given American telecommunications firms the
OK to provide cell phone services in Cuba. The Cuban regime has promised
to make Internet service more available, though it still does not
tolerate direct criticism, online or off.
In the meantime, as the American embargo continues, foreign companies
are gradually increasing their presence in Cuba. Brazil, China and
Russia have joined the search for oil in Cuban waters in the Gulf of
Mexico. Spanish companies have always had a strong economic presence,
and relations between the countries have grown stronger since Spain
passed a law in 2008 that allows anyone with Spanish grandparents to
become a Spanish citizen.
Instead of lifting the trade embargo with Cuba, enacted in the 1960s in
an unsuccessful attempt to force a change in government after Fidel
Castro came to power, Mr. Obama is using his executive power to repeal
President George W. Bush's tight restrictions and the looser
restrictions issued under President Bill Clinton so that Cuban-Americans
can now visit Cuba as frequently as they like and send gifts and as much
money as they want, as long as the recipients are not senior government
or Communist Party officials.
In a sense, the policy shift is an admission that a half-century of
American policy aimed at trying to push the Castros out of power has not
worked -- as the Cuban American National Foundation, the most powerful
lobbying group for Cuban exiles in Miami, conceded in April 2009. Cuba
policy experts characterized Mr. Obama's moves as important humanitarian
steps but said they still left open the broader question of how the
United States and Cuba plan to engage in the future.
Cuba - The New York Times (31 December 2009)