Tuesday, February 26, 2008

CUBA: Exit Fidel

Cuba is back in the news. Last weekend, after 48 years in office, Fidel Castro relinquished power, passing the reigns to his younger brother Raul (who’s 76). Although this official transfer of power is important, Raul has been de facto running the island since July 2006 when Fidel “temporarily” gave up control of the island because of some mysterious yet grave ailment (nobody really knows what he is suffering from- the CIA once again missed the mark when they predicted he would be dead by December 2006).

Despite the prognostications of some experts, nobody really knows what’s going to happen in Cuba. Raul has been called a pragmatist, but was also a hard line communist. Last weekend he called for unspecified degrees of reform, yet simultaneously put old guard hardliners in key positions. Life could continue the same. Or there could be some vague Chinese style democratic opening. Or there could be a true transition to democracy. It’s anybody’s guess. All the same, I would venture to say that nothing substantive will happen until after Fidel is officially dead.

I spent a month studying in Havana while I was in college. I could never say a month is sufficient time to really know a place, but I found Cubans to be very nice and friendly. I also found the Cuban regime to be very repressive (although I’ve met other Americans who studied on the island and found that “Cubans love it!”).

Case in point: in one of my first few days in Havana some friends and I met a local “fixer” named Mike. Fixers are fairly common in the third world. They are very enterprising street-smart people who, for a price, offer to show tourists and foreigners around. Good ones can get you some really nice deals and take you to some really cool places (alternatively, bad ones can get you kidnapped).

Mike was a rapper who styled himself the Cuban Tupac Shakur (he had “Thug Life” tattooed on his stomach) and was very disenchanted with life on the island. He spoke little English but had managed to learn “Fuck Fidel” and “Fuck Socialism.” He was constantly going on about how life was so much better before the collapse of the USSR (which more or less bank rolled Cuba) and how he wanted to move to the United States. At one point we were walking down the street and he was spouting forth some critique of the regime, people around us began to glance at him worriedly (or maybe fearfully), telling him to take it easy. His response was that he didn’t give a shit anymore.

At one point he asked us how life was in the States. We told him that life wasn’t as easy back home as many people thought, especially if you don’t have an education. “But if you work hard, there’s a chance you could succeed?" he then asked. "Here there’s no chance. Fidel decides.”

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