Mark Henley / Panos
In Havana, the Cuban capital, you can run your own private restaurant but it cannot, by law, contain any more than 12 chairs and you are not permitted to serve beef or lobster, deemed the exclusive preserve of state-run restaurants. At non-state restaurants in Matanzas no chairs are permitted at all – customers must either stand or take their food away with them. This is the free market in one of the world’s last communist strongholds.
Since the early 1990s, in response to the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and thus the catastrophic loss of 85 per cent of Cuba’s trade, the State has been playing a game of stick or twist with the economy, gambling with the principles of the Revolution. The trick has been to bet only in small amounts, using just enough capitalist reform to allow the economy to expand and generate sufficient wealth to support the enormous welfare state. With economic growth in 2006 at 12.5 per cent, amongst the highest in Latin America, the game is arguably being won – but the gains have come at a cost.
On the streets of Havana there are two relatively common sights that wouldn’t have been seen 20 years ago: cellphones and beggars. Crudely speaking, most Cubans are now divided by their position in relation to tourism, the expansion of which has brought the trappings of a class system and a distorted job market. Those getting ahead are renting rooms or running restaurants and, in contrast to the recent past, entrepreneurial skills are now more useful than a degree. Doctors are driving taxis and teachers are waiting tables. The quality of life for the most successful entrepreneurs has undoubtedly improved in the last 10 years. Meanwhile innumerable families live in desperately overcrowded apartment buildings, surviving on state wages that barely cover basic necessities. Cuban society now has winners and losers and its people are caught somewhere between the capitalist devil and the deep red sea.
Yet the Cuban Revolution has survived. There remains an equality amongst Cubans more dominant than the differences which separate them. All Cuban citizens still enjoy free education, free healthcare and a level of rationing that, uniquely in Latin America, ensures no-one suffers from malnutrition. Many complain of falling standards, particularly in the health service, but the shortages of medicines and textbooks can be most directly attributed to the US economic blockade, still stubbornly maintained over 45 years since it was established.
Cuban citizens are still denied certain basic freedoms. The entire national press is effectively a Government mouthpiece, while the pervading feeling of paranoia, fomented by an extensive network of surveillance, is best reflected in the common habit of criticizing the regime only in hushed tones. All Cubans, not just political opposition groups, suffer from the State desire to control the flow of people and information in and out of the country – hence the ban on home internet connections (though email is permitted) and the system of checks necessary for anyone leaving the island.
Though Fidel Castro is still widely respected, many associate his death, quite possibly imminent, as an opportunity for change. While many in the Miami exile community wait to celebrate a perceived new era with the passing of Fidel, in Cuba the post-Fidel era has effectively already begun. Though Raúl Castro is still officially only the acting President, having taken over in August 2006 when his brother was hospitalized, the reality is that Fidel will be too physically weak ever to run the country again. Cuba under Raúl has already begun to take shape with further liberalizing economic reforms and a less hardline approach to political dissidents, but there is a difference in emphasis rather than a complete rethink of policy. The million-dollar question is not what happens in Cuba when Fidel dies but what happens in Washington.