Change and Cuba. After 54 years the world is holding its breath. Fidel Castro said in 1959, “This time the revolution is for real.”
In 2013 is change for real? Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez’s message, delivered repeatedly during her recent presentations in the United States and Europe, is that, yes, it is true. But Cuba is changing not because of the government’s reforms, but because the Cuban people are changing.
The changes that are happening in Cuba are in a country where political mechanisms have long been frozen. Cuba is now entering uncharted waters with few navigation aids. The first non-Castro, Miguel Diaz-Canel, has been nominated to lead the government but he is largely unknown to 11 million Cubans. Cubans can now leave their own country without government permits. They do, however, know that the intolerance of pro-government hecklers knows no boundaries. Cubans can sell their properties and Cubans can work for themselves. They can employ other Cubans and pay taxes on their profits. Cubans can now visit hotels in their own country.
When we lived in Cuba, our then-15-year-old son was immensely proud to have been thrown out of a Havana hotel because he was thought to be a Cuban. These are simple things for most countries, but, truly, big changes are afoot.
The government is admitting the mistakes of the past. Raúl Castro has called on Cubans to face reality after 54 years of the brothers’ government. “The accounts don’t square up,” he has said. “You have to act with realism and adjust the dreams to the true possibilities. Two plus two always equals four, never five.”
Diaz-Canel has said that only the easy issues have so far been addressed. “Now what’s left are the more important and complex choices that will be more decisive in the future development of our country.”
Many countries face tough choices. But the difference in Cuba is the absence of political processes. There is no mechanism for managing change nor explaining why it is needed. Cuba has no political campaigning and allows only one candidate for each national assembly seat. There have been no significant political speeches made by anyone other than a Castro in over 54 years. Cuba’s media is a part of government. Raúl Castro has called his own media “boring” and “superficial,” prone to sugarcoat the national reality.
So when the Castro brothers leave the scene Cuba has no decision-making enforcer. In the past the Castros could twist and turn, with ‘rectifications’ and regular re-perfecting of socialism; strategic dependence first on the Soviet Union then on Venezuela; banning the Beatles, then erecting a statue of John Lennon; and scrapping Christmas, only to reinvent a Christian Cuba.
The complex choices Diaz-Canel mentions cannot be settled in a Council of State, which has long ceased to communicate with its people. The revolution is jettisoning some of its favorite policies but has not said where it wants to go. Will media sycophancy continue, as in the rambling interview Fidel Castro gave recently to Granma, or will there be a new license to debate?
Will Venezuela’s largesse — coming from an economy itself riddled with problems — still be the only way to fund Cuba’s public services? Is the vision of socialism in Cuba essentially any different from Canada or the United Kingdom where healthcare and public education are free? And will only “bonsai” companies be allowed in the private sector? If, as Raúl Castro says, egalitarianism is dead, how rich can Cubans get?
And how long will it be before the vastly distorting effects of the dual currency system are tackled?
Without politicians and an arena for debate, who can Cubans look to for guidance?
Enter Yoani Sánchez, Rosa Maria Payá, and, yes, Mariela Castro, all of whom confront real issues. A Castro and an independent blogger are never going to agree but they accept their Cuba is changing and challenge orthodoxy.
Sánchez points to the ally of technology and mocks the distinction between Cubans and Cuban Americans. For her the non-conforming black market of ideas is becoming the new politics. One day, she jokes, there will be a statue in Havana to the memory stick. Sánchez has no party, belongs to no institution, but she has a blog. Cubans have cell phones, funded by family visits. They can connect with each other and their families under the radar of controls. The “self-employed” in the economy need other Cubans more than the government. Politics is pushing up from the underground and the disenchanted youth are enjoying it.
The battle of ideas in Cuba — ironically a slogan of the Castro revolution — is now happening on a new stage. Diaz-Canel is being shown to Cubans because he is not a Castro and needs to become a politician.
In the Venezuelan election, a nominated successor deriving his status from political cronyism has struggled to be accepted. The Cuban system has ensured that Diaz-Canel’s main challengers are not other politicians or parties but ideas. The ideas articulated by Yoani Sánchez that Cubans are connecting, interacting, losing their mask of fear. The suffocating structures of Castroism are intact, but the black market of Cuban politics is already in full swing.
Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba and deputy head of mission in Venezuela, now teaches international relations at Boston University.