John Simpson

    What Cuba was really like under Fidel Castro

    What Cuba was really like under Fidel Castro
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    27 February 1993

    `Que undo est el, how beautiful he is,' sighed a stately woman beside me in the crowd, showing a remarkable lack of teeth and a prodigious amount of bosom. I thought about the portly figure in the green uniform who had just driven off in his unmarked Mercedes. A living monument, certainly; charismatic, no doubt; romantic, if you like that kind of thing; a survivor, unquestionably. But beautiful? Perhaps I was not a proper judge of that. Yet even as she put her hand on the impressive bosom and looked in the direction he had gone, I felt instinctively that all those gleeful articles in the American press I had been reading about the imminent downfall of Fidel Castro must be wrong. In the weeks before the revolutions in central and eastern Europe, working-class women did not sigh about the beauty of Honecker or Ceausescu.

    Havana simply does not feel like a society which is about to rise up and overthrow its government, no matter how disappointing that may be to the Cuban exiles in Miami. There is no sense of tension, and the streets are not heavily policed. This is my fourth visit here since 1979, and I have never found it easier to talk to ordinary Cubans. Usually in the past, some snooper or member of the revolutionary Defence Committee or security policeman would turn up and make it impossible for people to speak freely. This time we have not been stopped once, and people have opened their hearts in a way I never thought to find here. It is not because they are contented with the way things are; on the contrary, there is more discontent than ever. The reason people talk so openly is that they are sick and tired of the shortages and the hardships of everyday life.

    The area where Fidel Castro had descended, like a god out of a Mercedes, was the old quarter of Havana. Some of the houses date from the 18th century, when the British were briefly in charge here; most are from the 19th. Delicate iron grill-work rusts on the upper storeys, lions and votive olive branches crumble on the architraves. The houses are in an advanced state of decay, desperate yet somehow never quite terminal. Children of all colours play marbles and a strange form of baseball together. Cats nuzzle the rubbish in the gutters. In the growing darkness, the shutters which swing loosely on their rust- ed hinges give little glimpses of the life of the seriously poor: men in torn vests, women in dirty underwear, a table with an empty plastic dish on it, pictures torn from a newspaper and pinned onto the wall. One of the pictures is of Che Guevara; the Cuban revolution still has its strongest supporters among the urban working class. Things may be bad here, but they are still not as bad as they were under the old regime.

    Nevertheless, time and again we found people who wanted to speak to us about the problems they were going through. They wouldn't talk in the open street: we would have to go with them to a private flat, or a subway tunnel, or anywhere else they felt safe. There they would tell us how impossible it was to live on the rations: a single bread roll a day, half a pound of chicken a week (but only if you have a child under 13), six pounds of rice and seven ounces of black beans a month to make the mixture which the Cubans call Moros y Cristianos — Moors and Christians. You get one bar of soap, one tube of toothpaste, four ounces of coffee per month, and one bottle of rum per family.

    Once when we were wandering around the old part of the city we knocked at a door purely at random to see if someone would speak to us. We were invited in by a young woman with the classic, dark beauty of Cuba who told us, without any hesitation and in good English, exactly why she was so sick of things here. She had, she explained, just been discussing that very subject with her boyfriend and a couple of other people, who were sitting there with her. They nodded and agreed, but were too cautious to say anything on camera themselves.

    There is a great weariness here, an overwhelming desire for a life which would be a little easier and more enjoyable. Several miles from the narrow streets and feral smells of old Havana, that evening, as every evening, a dozen or more attractive young daughters of the middle class were standing on the corners of Avenida Cinco, Fifth Avenue, amateur hookers waiting for some foreign tourist to stop and take them out to dinner at an expensive restaurant; after which they would pay for their entertainment in kind. Not long ago, a well-known television personality drove past and saw his own daughter standing there. The girls in my class all know,' said a leading Havana economist, 'that they can earn more in a single night than I can earn in an entire year.' Yet this is a long way from the miserable prostitution of despair. It is not need, it is the desire for fun. And fun is something the revolution in Cuba has not provided. If it did, things would be easier to bear.

    Food shortages, hardship, prostitution: technically speaking, these things should all add up to a bitterness which would drive out the Marxist-Leninist system here as it has done in so many other places. Cuba has lost its Moscow gold: the annual subsidy of $3 billion in aid and credits, the use of Soviet merchants to convey Cuban exports across the ocean, the deal by which a ton of Cuban sugar bought three tons of Soviet oil. Times are horribly hard now, and the shortages are getting worse. Yet there is no obvious corruption at the top, and the bitterness is not, for the most part, political; only one of the people who came up and spoke to us was opposed to Castro and the Communist Party, and he confided to us, with that extraordinary trust which people often have in western journalists, that he worked secretly for one of the big Cuban exile groups in Miami.

    In Eastern Europe, communism was imposed by Moscow as an act of conquest; the revolutions of 1989 were a revival of nationalism as well as of the capitalist system. In Cuba, Fidel Castro made a wrong- headed decision to rely completely on the Soviet Union for almost everything; but the Russians were not here as conquerors. Everyone here, even those who are angriest about the shortages, knows perfectly well who is causing them: it is the United States, and the United States has always seemed to want the final, humiliating submission of Cuba, not merely the liberalisation of the Castro government.

    Which is why he had turned out that evening in Old Havana. We had been walking home from an expensive, tourists-only restaurant when we spotted a crowd down a side street, in the 18th-century gloom that results from the power shortages here. Now we could see half-a-dozen Mercedes, guarded by men in the green uniforms and British Rail-style caps that Castro himself favours. He was, it turned out, holding an impromptu meeting in a local Communist Party office. Shortly afterwards, his security men began forcing a way through the enthusiastic crowds, and the man appeared himself, looked vaguely around at the cheering people, clamped an indulgently large cigar in his mouth, and left.

    He had been there because one of the candidates in the election he had called was regarded locally as a useless Party shoe-in, and Castro wanted every one of the candidates on the ballot-paper elected. Since no one was allowed to stand against them, only a big vote for the entire list would give the kind of impression Castro wanted to give — which was that the Cuban people were united behind him. If the idea had been spreading in the United States that communism was on its last legs here, he wanted to show that there was life in the old revolution yet.

    No matter how bad things are at the moment, most Cubans seem to understand that their island has changed itself in the most extraordinary way since the revolution. Instead of being on a par with Haiti or the Dominican Republic, it has become a highly educated society with health care that looks as good as the National Health Service in Britain. Nevertheless, Castro has not given people everything they need, and they are becoming angrily, painfully aware of it. 'I reckon,' said a university professor, who might well have been a boot black if the Revolution had not happened, 'that he's got three years to give people better conditions. Everything depends on the Americans, and whether they keep the embargo going.'

    The beautiful girl who let us into her house in Old Havana put it more simply: 'I wonder what would happen if the Americans weren't our enemies any more. I wonder how our government would react then. Maybe it wouldn't know what to do.' For 34 years, every shortage and every sacrifice has been blamed on the Americans, and the Revolution has survived accordingly. If the Americans were no longer to blame, things might finally change here.