There are no campaign buttons or rallies and no one will lose when Cuban voters go to the polls March 11 to ratify pre-chosen slates for the National Assembly of People’s Power — Cuba’s parliament — and for provincial assemblies.
But this year’s election will be different.
On April 19, the newly seated National Assembly will select Cuba’s new president and for the first time since the early days of the Cuban Revolution the country won’t be led by someone whose last name is Castro. Raúl Castro, 86, plans to retire and apparently move to Santiago de Cuba, the cradle of the revolution, on the other end of the island. He is still expected to lead Cuba’s powerful Communist Party.
The coming election marks a generational shift in power, a last hurrah for the octogenarians who fought alongside Fidel and Raúl Castro during the Cuban Revolution, and the introduction of the protagonists of Cuba’s future.
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Many Cubans interviewed by the Miami Herald about the election and their hopes for Cuba’s future spoke of change, especially changes that would give them a better standard of living. That desire for change bubbling up from below may be the biggest challenge the new Cuban government will face.
“The elections aren’t too open, but it is important to participate,” said a 19-year-old law student as he waited on the steps of the University of Havana law school for his next class. “And I would hope there is a change, a change toward something fresher. We’ve been on the same course for more than 50 years and if we keep following it, this island is going to end up like Atlantis.”
The power shift in government comes at a delicate time. The Cuban economy is in the dumps, a budding relationship with Cuba’s old nemesis the United States is on the rocks, and Cuba desperately wants to attract foreign investment. As Cuba looks toward an uncertain future, its citizens have their own views about where the country is headed and the new leadership.
In the front of a small wooden building in Guanabacoa, two cuentapropistas (self-employed workers), an independent watch repairman and a private shoemaker, quietly ply their trades. But the back door of the Unidad la llama opens to the pounding soundtrack and clanking weights of a private gym.
For the past five years, watch repairman Lionel Lima Verdecía has rented a square meter of space in this township on the eastern outskirts of Havana from the Cuban state for 360 Cuban pesos a month. Business is pretty good — “at least enough to live,” he says, “but I think [the rent] is too much.”
Lima, 44, was born well after the 1959 Cuban Revolution and the two Castros — Fidel, then his brother Raúl — are the only presidents he has ever known. “I’m not afraid of this [having a non-Castro in power], but what I hope is that if change is coming, it’s a change to improve things.”
Although Lima says he makes about double what he did as a factory worker, it still isn’t easy. His chief complaint is how hard it is to get the parts to repair watches. “I have to buy old watches to get the pieces,” he says.
Roberto Veiga, a lawyer, former magazine editor and political analyst, thinks the coming generational shift in power will unleash demands for greater reform of the political system. The island’s new leaders need to not only represent the people but also satisfy their needs, he says. “If they don’t deliver, it could result in failure of the system they are trying to preserve.”
Veiga directs the independent Cuba Posible from his Centro Habana apartment. He and Lenier González, his partner in the civil society project, say what they have created is a laboratory of ideas. Cuba Posible researchers publish on political, economic, cultural, and workplace issues affecting Cuban society, maintain a network of international contacts, hold conferences and encourage debate and dialogue on Cuba-related topics.
For the first time in modern Cuban history someone is going to arrive in the presidency without recognized power derived from being one of the historic revolutionaries, Veiga says. Without Fidel or Raúl at the helm, he expects the system will become more decentralized.
He doesn’t think Cuba is particularly well prepared for the transition. Among the reasons, he says, is Castro thought he would be able to improve the economy and couldn’t, many of the best and brightest have given up on Cuba and left the country, the current government never thought the Democrats would lose the White House, and Cuba can’t depend on unified support from Latin America at this point.
If Raúl Castro had thought he would be faced with this scenario, Veiga says, “perhaps he would have prepared another way for transferring power. But he ran out of time.”
Castro has left a lot of unfinished business. Electoral reform, a legal framework for private enterprises, new laws for associations and the press and constitutional reform to support the changes have all been discussed, but none have come to pass. “The process stopped,” says Veiga, as more conservative members of the Communist Party gained sway.
Now a new government will need to build social consensus, says Veiga. “What’s very clear to me is these new leaders will have to change what they offer to society and take more steps toward freedom.”
At the University of Havana, Laura de Leon, in her first year of pharmacy studies, doesn’t agree with a popular perception that young people in Cuba are apolitical and more interested in trying to figure out how to leave than planning for a future on the island.
“There are those who are interested [in politics], others who are not; those who study politics, and those who have opinions without knowing what they’re talking about. You really can’t generalize,” de Leon says. “I like politics. I was a student leader for two years.”
But other young people just shrug their shoulders and say they really have nothing to say about the elections or politics.
The coming election, de Leon says, is “very important. It’s going to provide a different context for the country without Raúl Castro; something different for the future. I think the country is prepared for change.”
Disillusioned in Guanabacoa
“No, no, no this isn’t going to change. It’s always going to be the same. It’s the same little group,” says William Esperón Losano, 64, who lives along a rutted street in Guanabacoa. “Here hope is totally lost.”
Esperón used to work as a mechanic, but now, after serving time for a drug conviction, he says he is “obligated” to work as a guard at a garbage dump. “Yes,” he says, “I was a consumer of marijuana.”
In a country with no tolerance for drug abuse, his prospects for the future are just about zero and he doesn’t think that will change no matter who is president. He thinks it’s possible the Castro family will remain in power.
Daylight shows through the roof of the home where he lives with eight members of his extended family. When it rains, he says, everything gets wet but there is no money in the budget to fix the colonial-era house.
“The economy is on the floor,” Esperón says, as he grabs a small package of bacon out of his refrigerator. “Look this is 20 pesos and I only earn 250 pesos a month. “We don’t have a future in this country. This isn’t a revolution; it’s an empire.”
Outside a shipping terminal in Regla, across the bay from Old Havana, Gabriel de la Concepción, 26, waits in a long line of trucks that are trying to pick up large packages shipped from abroad to family members or small businesses.
De la Concepción plans to vote in the National Assembly election but he’s making no predictions about whom the next president will be, and he’s more interested in talking about the state of Cuba’s economy than politics.
“Everything is very expensive now. Tomatoes and peppers are 10 pesos a pound. Before they were five pesos,” says the truck driver. “The prices of things don’t correspond to the salaries we earn. Hopefully, there will be changes [with a new president],” he says. “I would say the main thing I hope for is that we would be able to support ourselves on the salaries we earn.”
Along Callejón de los Peluqueros, a Centro Habana street where dozens of Cubans have started their own businesses, Luis Puerta Batista swirls acrylic paint on a canvas where he is creating a saxophonist, one more in a series of paintings on his favorite theme — jazz musicians.
“We are on pins and needles to see what changes might happen with the new government,” says the 46-year-old artist in his studio. “There needs to be political, structural, economic changes. Cuba’s new leaders must try to be capable because the people are hoping for a response.”
He’s no fan of the U.S. embargo, but says the bloqueo has often been used as a pretext to justify the miscues and failings of the Cuban government: “Here the government was afraid of a lot of [Barack] Obama’s measures. With the opening, it wasn’t so easy to hide their failings.”
On his wish list for the new president: a better relationship with the United States.
“This paint comes from China,” says Puerta as he grabs a small can of paint. “There’s better material available in the United States. Cuba could be an important market. The United States hasn’t taken advantage of the opportunities that Cuba offers. There are so many historic ties between the people of both countries that it’s stupid to think about a return to the Cold War and not to look toward the future.”
He also would like to see a more open economy and a less centralized government. “It’s slowly happening, but the government needs to decentralize more. I just wish there wasn’t this constant tension between the United States and Cuba.”
“I hope it won’t be too long before change comes,” says Puerta, the father of three. “I hope we won’t have to wait until the next generation.” He says Cubans need to overhaul the way they think about the economy, politics and society. “If we can’t change the older people, then let’s change the thinking of the children.”
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi