It would be interesting to know who first floated the idea that Cuban writers have a special gift for predicting the future. Whenever foreign journalists interview writers from the island, they are invariably asked how they see the future of the country. And each time the writer has to take out their crystal ball, fire up their imagination, slip into their 21st-century fortune-teller garb and try to convince the journalist that since we are often unable to understand the present, it must be near impossible to make out the future.
The persistence of this question is a clear indication that Cuba and its destiny are a problem that worries those beyond the island as well (and, of course, people are interested in more than just its poor writers). But the questioners have good reason for their persistence: between domestic uncertainty and threats from abroad, the majority of those interested see Cuba's destiny as a dark cloud in which you can barely make out a few silhouettes.
However, even granting that my doubts outweigh my certainties, I think the year that ends with the US presidential elections of November 2008 might be, for a number of reasons, decisive for the future of Cuba.
As is well known, the Cuban ‘problem’ has an undeniable value in the US vote market. Thus, availing himself of the proverbial opportunity to be inopportune, President Bush outlined his final policy towards the island just days before the UN General Assembly approved by a great majority a Cuban draft resolution calling for an end to the US embargo (or blockade). Mr Bush proposed not only to reinforce the embargo but also to encourage domestic subversion and to assist the island once it begins its ‘democratic, post-communist’ period.
Bush's proposals are neither new nor surprising. They are typical of the traumatic relationship between Cuba and the US, which since the 19th century has been twisted by the imperial arrogance of Washington's policy towards the island, and which in the last 50 years has reached startling levels of irrationality and determination. How is it possible that Washington has normal relations with China – and even Vietnam – but refuses to soften its stance towards Cuba?
The belligerent talk of the US President had an immediate effect, as it always does, with Havana hardening its position in response to concrete threats. Just a few months beforehand – last July – acting President Raúl Castro had signalled to Washington an openness to come to an understanding on an equal basis. Bush’s move destroyed any such possibility and returned the countries to their permanent Cold War footing. Cubans on both sides of the Florida strait are now setting their sights on next November’s elections, after which a new US President will choose one of two paths: maintaining the current hostility or beginning a thaw which many Cubans and Americans have been dreaming about for years.
The year that ends with the US presidential elections of November 2008 might be decisive for the future of Cuba
The hardening of Bush’s policy towards Cuba comes at a time when there are real discussions under way on the island about what might accurately be called a possible transition: the search for structural and conceptual changes that Raúl Castro has himself demanded.
Although the Government insists that the option of Cuban socialism is eternal and irreversible, a sizeable part of the population is asking for a profound shake-up. Even areas where there have been huge gains – like public health and education – are plagued by a shortage of qualified personnel and corruption. Ordinary Cubans are demanding more flexible economic policies – characterized by some as more realistic – and even changes to the decision-making system.
Cubans want realistic salaries, more housing, a revitalization of economic models and freedom to travel. This clamour for improved living conditions is a clear indication of a lack of support for various structures that have been frozen by orthodoxy, bureaucratization and volunteerism.
An important question is whether the Cuban Government, in an atmosphere of belligerence from the US and serious economic problems at home, has the political space (and the will) to make these changes. How far can it go if entrenched conservative forces on the island opt for immobility, even if this means going against a public that is increasingly hungry for change?
The problems are real. For decades Cuba has been unable to find a solution to shortages of consumer goods and a lack of housing. Interest in work has fallen in direct proportion to the impossibility of meeting daily needs with one's salary. Production in sectors like agriculture is inefficient. The circulation of two currencies – Cuban pesos and US dollars – has generated huge disparities, depending on who has access to the latter. Corruption, prostitution and street violence are growing. The introduction of ‘structural and conceptual’ changes is clearly advisable, if not indispensable.
It seems that the future of Cuba of such interest to visiting journalists is being decided at this very moment. The future is in the present and it is being played out both on and off the island. The necessity of change without threats and interference will determine that future – which could also involve political change. But immobility on one side and imperial aggression on the other will only deepen the problems until they become asphyxiating – or until the future becomes only an imitation of the present.
Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist. His most recent work, La nieblina de ayer, won the Hammett Prize for the best crime novel written in Spanish for 2005.