Cuba: Braced for change

Can the ailing Castro's revolution survive a handover of power? <strong>Alice O'Keeffe</strong>, one

Ask anyone on the streets of Havana about the city's current mood and they will tell you the same thing. "Ah, tranquilo", they say - calm. The news that, after 47 years in power, Fidel Castro had ceded control of the country to his brother Raú was greeted euphorically by the rabidly anti-Castrista Cuban exile community in Miami. But back home it has been met with an uncharacteristic display of sober resignation.

Despite some rumours of small-scale anti-government protests, people have not taken to the streets in large numbers. Youths are still hanging out drinking rum on the city's sea wall, hustling tourists, playing baseball. Salsa still blares from every street corner. Even the weather seems calmer and more airless than usual. It's as if no one dares move in case everything crumbles around them.

As so often in Cuba, the appearance of calm belies a turbulent reality. People are tense; you can see it in their faces. They are more reluctant than ever to talk politics with a curious foreigner. Inquiries are met with a fixed smile and a breezy air of false optimism. "Don't you worry - there's much more to come of Fidel," chirps a taxi driver. "He'll live until he's 99!"

"He's recovering well. He'll be back at work in a few months," an acquaintance tells me confidently. "He's been overdoing it, that's all." Another, asked what she thinks of the situation, simply replies, "What situation?" Those who are happy to speak more openly do so on strict condition of anonymity. "Nobody knows what is going to happen now, and you don't want to get caught on the wrong side," says one resident of Havana whom I ask to interview.

I meet Simón Fernández at a run-down café in central Havana. A young, fiercely intelligent writer and journalist, he is happy to talk politics over a couple of lukewarm Tropicolas (Coca-Cola, of course, remains off the menu) but asks that I do not use his real name. "People want to believe that he's going to get better, but of course everyone knows it is very serious," he says. "It's particularly tense now because the government is creating this air of mystery around what's going on. Until Raú makes a public appearance, we're all left hanging."

Raú's silence has served to exacerbate existing suspicions about him. He may be respected as a military man, but he lacks his elder brother's formidable charisma. (And charisma has a particular importance in Cuban politics, as Juan de Marcos González, founder of the Buena Vista Social Club, once explained to me. "People forget that Cubans are like Africans," he said - "we need a tribal chief: the guy who's the bravest, the best-looking, who goes to bed with all the women - a Fidel!") Rumours are flying around about his no-show: he is suffering from depression, he is dying of cancer. "This country has only one leader," says an acquaintance who works for the government. "People may accept Raú for now, but he will never replace Fidel."

In the past, resentment at years of economic hardship has been contained by Fidel Castro's sheer force of personality. In 1994, at the height of the "special period", when the Cuban economy imploded following the collapse of the Soviet Union, rioters took to the streets on Havana's seafront. The situation was contained only when Castro made a personal appearance at the scene. Soon afterwards, the Cuban authorities granted temporary permission to leave for Miami, and up to 30,000 people fled the country on makeshift rafts in the space of three weeks. "Sometimes this place feels like a tinderbox," says Fernández. "You feel that there is so much pent-up resentment and frustration that the smallest thing could make it explode."

Castro's absence is unlikely to trigger another such crisis straight away. Internal dissidence is contained by the fear that any display of anti-government feeling within Cuba will only encourage an intervention from the Miami Cubans or from the United States itself. "People's biggest fear is that if they take to the streets, the Miami Cubans will see it as an invitation to start streaming into Cuba, demanding their old houses back," says one friend.

In any case, the Castro regime has effectively stamped out the potential for organised opposition to Raú's succession. After a period of relative openness in the early 2000s, the small pockets of organised opposition on the island were practically obliterated in March 2003, when 75 members of dissident organisations were arrested on charges including "acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state". Some were given jail terms of up to 28 years. Amnesty International called the move "an alarming step backwards in terms of respect for human rights".

Osvaldo Payá, the Havana-based leader of one of the best-known movements, the Varela Project, was one of the few who escaped arrest, though he claims to be under constant state surveillance in his home. He has argued forcefully that, given the chance, Cuba could make the transition to democracy without outside help.

"We can keep the many good things which the revolution has given us - the education system, the hospitals - but without denying people their basic human rights," Payá told me in an interview shortly after the arrests. "In Cuba we have a better basis for true democracy than anywhere else in Latin America. We have an educated population, an equitable distribution of income. The problem is that people have always seen it as a choice between Fidel on the one hand and the US on the other. We need to 'de-Americanise' the opposition to the Castro regime."

There is no doubt that any direct US military intervention would be vastly unpopular: through all the years of hardship, Cubans have developed a fiercely independent identity. In Havana, I visited some old friends, a middle-aged couple who live in the respectable Vedado neighbourhood. Alejandro is a civil servant, his wife Gloria a housewife. If they were British, they would live in Middle England, but this is a looking-glass world, and they are fervent revolutionaries.

"There are many differences of opinion here about the regime, and about what our future should be," says Gloria. "But there is one thing on which we are all agreed - neither the Americans nor the Miami exiles are going to have any say over it." And her husband says: "If the Americans intervene, we will fight them off even if it means we destroy Cuba in the process. They know that the war will spread to Miami, too. So they wouldn't dare."

The power of the greenback

However, the reality is that the US invasion is likely to take a more subtle form. Under the "Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba", the US has committed more than $80m to helping "rebuild the Cuban economy". It will be very difficult for the Cubans to resist such financial intervention, in the long term. "People are tired of struggling for their food day by day," says Fernández. "It's not about ideology: people will welcome anything which makes their lives just a little bit easier. The Americans know that all they have to do is come over here selling cheap food and they'll be heroes. We are a very Americanised society anyway - I think one day soon we will turn around and find that there's a McDonald's in the Plaza de la Revolución."

The appetite for economic and political change is strongest among the younger generation of Cubans - a generation with which the Castro regime has failed to engage positively. They may have received an excellent education under the socialist system, but they all spent their formative years living out the "special period", and many experienced prolonged periods of hunger. They are well aware that in any first-world country their talent and education would guarantee them opportunities and a standard of living they can only dream of in Cuba.

Gloria and Alejandro's son Alejo is a typical example. Sporting long hair and a Metallica T-shirt, he plays along with his parents' revolutionary chatter, but as soon as their backs are turned is unable to rein himself in. He tells me he is planning to leave the country for Canada, where some friends have promised to write him letters of invitation - the only means by which ordinary Cubans are permitted to leave the country. "They tell us that Cuban society is the best there is, but if that's true why don't they let us leave so we can see for ourselves?" he asks. "I'll tell you why - because they know that it's a lie. They know that if we leave the country we will never come back."

The limitations on free expression on the island have given young people few legitimate channels through which to air their resentment. One acquaintance, a graduate in journalism, told me about his university course. "There was no real debate, because the state's tentacles reach into every house and every classroom. You were always aware that you didn't know what the repercussions might be for speaking your mind. A few of us tried to form a group of the more critical students, and when we graduated none of us were given jobs."

Instead, this generation has grown up surviving through creatively playing the system: selling boxes of cigars on the black market, stealing this or that commodity from the workplace, extracting a few precious dollars from tourists. "Cubans have a propensity towards illegal activity now, because they have had to learn in order to survive," says a friend. It does not bode well, considering the problems of organised crime in other post-Communist countries.

The night before I leave Cuba, I drop in on the concert that had been planned to celebrate Castro's 80th birthday, for which the whole Malecón - Havana's main harbour drag - has been shut off. The event has been rebranded Concert for the Homeland, because Castro is too sick to attend. Appearing on stage is a procession of musicians of every colour and type: an Afro-Cuban drumming group, a schmaltzy bolero singer, a white rock band. All try to summon the emotion of a historic occasion, exhorting the audience to chant for the speedy recovery of the Comandante. But the crowd feels strangely thin, and I can't help noticing that the loudest cheers are coming from large groups of foreign students. Dozens of Cuban school buses are parked down the street, but where are all the Cubans?

On the way home, I find them. Down a nearby backstreet, reggaetón is booming from a car stereo, and a large crowd has gathered furtively in the gloom. Youngsters swig beer from paper cups, and couples bump and grind furiously on the pavement. They don't want to spend their lives at a political rally; they want to party in peace. And who can blame them? But in their hands is the future of the Cuban revolution.

All the interviewees' names have been changed

The chat at the Castro dinner table

By Seamus Mirodan

It's a family drama like no other: after almost five decades in power, Fidel Castro is believed to have conceded power permanently to his younger brother Raú. But what is life with the Castro clan like behind the scenes?

A typical dinner with Castro's extended family is an elegant affair. The men tend to sport designer polo shirts, brands such as Lacoste and Ralph Lauren. The women are glamorous, perfectly made up, and not shy of showing a fair bit of leg. The cocktail of choice is the Cubata, seven-year-old rum mixed with Coca-Cola and a dash of lemon. The drinks flow freely into the early hours, but it seems that cigars have gone out of fashion since Fidel gave up the habit: few people in the Havana jet set now smoke them.

Conversation over the dinner table often revolves around friends and family living abroad. "Ernesto in Miami is doing great. He's opened up his own clinic and is well on the way to becoming a millionaire," comments one. Raú's grandson is studying economics in Madrid, but his father is somewhat preoccupied that "he seems to be living in the gay quarter, even if it is also one of the city's most affluent areas".

The whole family and their social set share a passion for heavy rock and religiously attend the gigs of a local group called Los Kanes, whose average age of 60 does not stop them sporting hair down to their knees, skin-tight leather trousers and Iron Maiden T-shirts. On 13 August, the family celebrated Fidel's birthday by attending a Los Kanes concert at an exclusive Havana nightspot. The group performed rock classics such as "Sweet Child O' Mine" and "Sweet Home Alabama".

Naturally, the dinner-table conversation at times turns to politics. The clan is optimistic about the future of Fidel's revolution, and insists that Raú's presidency will bring economic liberalisation akin to that seen in China in recent years. "Raú is more of a pragmatist and his administration will focus on internal rather than external politics," said one member of the family. "The Cuban people will be consulted and involved in the future of the economy for the first time."

But the question that dominates the conversation in Cuba's first family is whether the political system will evolve towards a more liberal, western format. The consensus is that the system will open up, but not according to the American model. "As the government decentralises, we will gradually evolve towards an entirely new form of leadership: a 21st-century democracy."

Cuba by numbers

47 number of years Fidel Castro has been in power

11.3 population of Cuba (in millions)

$80m amount the US pledged in July this year towards a "pro-democracy" programme

79 life expectancy for women. For men the age is 75

98,000 barrels of oil received daily from Venezuela at preferential rates

97% adult literacy rate