“I wonder how the Castros are doing. They've had a rough week,” whispered a woman in the crowd at the Rolling Stones concert in Havana. “First Obama and now this,” she said of the concert by a band that was banned in Cuba only some decades ago.
Mick Jagger, lead singer of the iconic British group, had just told the crowd in Spanish, “We know that years ago it was difficult to listen to our music, but we're finally here. It seems that things are changing.”
Juan Tornés, 54, agreed. A rock fan, he acknowledged that when he was young he never would have thought that such a concert could be held in Cuba. His generation was never free to listen to rock, music that appealed to youths that Fidel Castro once denounced as “elvispreslian” and “feminoid.”
Men and women of that generation remember when police broke up parties where young people played the “bourgeois” music and confiscated their LPs and cassettes. But Castro is now 89 and on Friday, March 26, more than one million people listened to the British rockers, even if a little late.
The concert venue provided room for nearly all sectors of an increasingly diverse Cuban society, even though the government has made it clear it will not tolerate political dissent.
Groups that don't usually interact found each other in Ciudad Deportiva — Sports City — in the Cerro neighborhood of Havana. Children, old people, foreigners, everyone was there even though the government had not issued one of its usual calls for a mass “mobilization.” Teenagers and young adults, who from their clothes appeared to be fans of reggaeton music, shared the grounds with punk rockers and even asked timidly for photos with the musical “others.”
But even within this sector, inequality is growing more evident by the day.
While the paladares in the tourist-heavy neighborhoods of Vedado, Miramar and Old Havana flourish, restaurants in less traveled Centro Habana languish as former state cafeterias converted into cooperatives and now run by former employees.
They are part of an “experiment” launched by the government in an attempt to reduce state controls on the economy. But they do not appear to be succeeding. One of the cooperative cafeterias on Neptuno Street offers a plate of fried rice through an outside window as a “hook” for clients, but few step inside the grimy restaurant, which appears to have changed little despite the change in management.
Little change is also evident in the decrepit shop that repairs fans, TV sets, rice and pressure cookers, clothes washers and shoes. The locale is rented out by the state enterprise that used to run the shop, but its employees now work for themselves.
“We earn what we can. We don’t have warehouses for spare parts, and if we don’t have warehouses, we can barely work,” said one worker named Damian. The labor costs from 20 to 60 pesos, or about $1 to $3.
Everyone who has the opportunity to sell something, rent his home or start some private business seems to have tried it, including Rubén Díaz Daubar, whose “House of Tango” in Centro Habana offers salsa dance lessons to tourists for the equivalent of $10. With that income, he offers free sessions to the neighborhood.
Some Cuban professionals, such as architects, have requested licenses to establish cooperatives in their respective areas, without success so far.
The majority of the private businesses are still so small that they have no impact on the national economy. And they do little to overcome the poverty which afflicts large sectors of the population that live off low state salaries and face rising prices for food and transportation.
News media alert to the “danger” of engagement
“Cuba is changing,” says a U.S. businessman at the Havana airport. His company, which makes souvenirs and decals, has been trying to establish a commercial relationship with Cuba for the past 12 years, he said. “My company is big. We can have the luxury of waiting, but we want to be the first ones there,” he explained.
Many Cubans, however, say that there are myriad roadblocks for the development of Cuban enterprises, as well as benefiting from the business openings proposed by President Barack Obama. All relationships with foreign companies are still managed exclusively by the government.
Even the state-controlled news media has complained about the slow implementation of Cuban ruler Raúl Castro’s so-called “guidelines” for economic reforms, and the delays in efforts to decentralize the management of state enterprises. A report Thursday in the Cuban Communist Party’s Granma newspaper again noted the problems.
And yet some of the same media, and organizations more or less akin to the party’s ideology have launched a campaign warning about the “danger” presented by Obama’s decision to try to engage rather than isolate Cuba, sparking concerns that Castro will try to slow down the improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations, specially after his brother Fidel recently made public his disapproval of the process, writing that “we don’t need the empire to give us anything.”
Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez appeared to agree with Fidel Castro when he praised the former leader’s comments as “extraordinarily timely.”
The PCC congress to be held in Havana this month will be an important indicator of whether Raul Castro will really push the reforms that his people are asking for.
The biggest question hanging over the island’s future is whether Cuban youths will have the luxury of waiting for the reforms to have an impact on their personal lives. The year 2015 set a record for Cubans arriving in the United State without visas – more than 40,000 – and 2016 may set a new record. About 10,000 Cubans without visas arrived in the United States in January and February alone, according to U.S. government data.
White House officials have said that before Obama’s trip to Cuba, they received several recommendations that he specifically offer hope to young Cubans during the visit. That’s what Obama did during his speech from the Gran Teatro, when he asked “young people … to look to the future with hope” because “the youth of Cuba … will rise and build something new. The future of Cuba must be in the hands of the Cuban people.”
The message was not lost on Cubans. “Obama is a ray of hope, to keep advancing and moving forward,” said Rolando Valdés Suárez, one of the young waiters who served Obama and his family at the paladar San Cristóbal on the first day of the their visit.
But other youths said they want more than rhetoric.
While waiting outside the U.S. embassy in Havana, hoping to get a photo of Obama on her cellphone, Cuban state television producer Adonais Fontes Suárez, 37, said Cuban youths “expect to see results from the conversations” between the two countries.
Although “political changes take time,” she said, Cuban youths want to make sure that “the concrete result” of the negotiations “will not be mere words.”
Nora Gámez Torres: @ngameztorres