Cuba faces uncertainty after Fidel Castro
By Anthony DePalma
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Foreigners almost never show up on the ragged streets of the old town
across the bay from Havana. But there was a knock recently on the front
door of the battered yellow house in Guanabacoa that is home to
Marielena and Francisco, a working-class couple, and outside stood an
The stranger explained that his wife had lived in that four-room house
as a child. In 1962, almost four years after Fidel Castro took power,
she and her family fled to New York, and now she wanted pictures to show
their children where she had twirled in the patio and sung old Spanish
ballads as she grew up in another time, and another world.
Marielena welcomed the stranger, but Francisco (he was afraid to give
his last name) stood with arms folded over his bare chest. "You came
here all the way from America just to take pictures," he said
suspiciously. "Are you going to reclaim this house?"
The stranger in Guanabacoa had no intention of reclaiming the shoe-box
house or anything else. I know, because I was the person who knocked on
that door during a trip to Cuba last year. My wife, Miriam, lived in
that house until she was 10.
When she saw the photographs I carried back, she was overcome with
bittersweet emotion. Though now faded and chipped, the pink paint on the
walls and the green and red tiles on the floor were still there, 44
Nothing had changed and, of course, everything had changed in the years
since the revolution triumphed. That's the phrase Fidel Castro's regime
has always used — "the triumph of the revolution" — and it slips off the
tongues of even those Cubans who have benefited little from his rule.
But now, as they await the demise of the only leader most of them have
ever known, Cubans are forced to reconsider what the revolution has
meant. Many on the island are caught between two fears — today's and
tomorrow's. Where will they find the money, energy and enterprise to get
themselves and their children through another day? And when Fidel dies,
will the 1.5 million Cuban-Americans in Florida and New Jersey return to
take back what once was theirs? Castro, who confiscated private property
throughout the island decades ago, has exploited such anxieties to
bolster a sense of national identity, and those fears have only
intensified during his long illness.
And not without reason. The United States maintains a list of some 5,911
compensation claims by American companies and U.S. citizens dating from
the revolution. Including interest, they are now worth more than $6
billion. And lawyers in Florida and the New York area are girding for
one heck of a fight.
To Cubans who stayed, those who left are "gusanos," worms that crawled
away from the homeland. The government turned over any house left behind
to other Cubans long ago, and after so many years the current residents
believe these houses belong to them, though they hold no title because
technically everything in Castro's socialist enclave belongs to the state.
Few exiles have papers either, and unlike the U.S. citizens of a
half-century ago whose claims were registered by Washington, Cubans who
lost property had no mechanism in their own country for recording their
But so much time has passed that many gusanos agree that they no longer
have a legitimate claim to the houses and small properties they left
behind. Miriam's family never even owned the house in Guanabacoa, and no
one claims it as theirs.
Several public opinion polls and surveys of Cuban-Americans conducted
recently in South Florida and North Jersey show that a declining
percentage of the diaspora still dream of reclaiming houses. This is
especially true among the younger generation, whose members never lived
Still, some exiles did sneak out deeds or fish them out of strongboxes
since Fidel became sick. While some undoubtedly will try to reclaim
former residences, most want factories, mills and other commercial
"Cubans are not going to fight over the last few crumbling homes," said
Nicolas Gutiérrez Jr., a 42-year-old Cuban-American lawyer in Miami who
represents many business claimants and for himself seeks the return of
two sugar mills, 15 cattle ranches, a food distribution center and more.
"Out of the hundreds of people I represent and the thousands I talk to,
I've never met anyone who says he's going to go back there and kick
people out. On a base level, that would be immoral."
Even so, the fear held by people like Marielena and Francisco matters,
having been planted by the regime and nurtured by a controlled press
that issues regular warnings about ignoble gusanos and what they might
try in a moment of crisis.
This dense cloud of uncertainty has been hanging over Cuba since the
summer, when Castro, who is 80, ceded power to his brother, Raúl, who is
75. For most Cubans, the fear of the future has little to do with who
eventually replaces "El Comandante." Rather, most are consumed by the
contradiction between longing for change and fearing that change will come.
All but the most strident military families and pampered government
officials hate the current economic system. They have had it with ration
books and wartime restrictions. But they also can't imagine life without
They also resent a two-tier currency system that makes many consumer
goods available to tourists but out of reach for Cubans. And capitalism
itself seems brutal and forbiddingly unequal, a system they can glimpse
only when it rubs shoulders with shabby Castro-style communism in hotels
they cannot enter and restaurants that let them in only if they are on
the arm of a foreigner.
So engulfed have they been in the daily struggle to survive that many
Cubans told me they wanted just to forget about the transition now
taking place. The regime seemed willing to assist them. Visiting
relatives in La Lisa, a poverty-stricken area outside Havana, I saw what
looked like a water tanker in a public square one Saturday night. Crowds
thronged, and I could tell that it wasn't water that flowed from the
tap. It was cheap beer.
Still, there continues to be an undercurrent of pride in Fidel's ability
to stand up to so many American presidents for so long, and a deeply
rooted resentment of the United States and its embargo. So whenever
Fidel dies, there is likely to be a great show of grief in Cuba, and a
funeral fit for a pharaoh.
But the next day will bring the longed-for, dreaded future — the specter
of a new encounter with the outside world that will challenge the
efforts of Cuba's current leaders to make certain that Fidel Castro's
Revolution survives his death.
Already, the leaders are making him more myth than man. New billboards
have sprouted along the main highways around Havana: "Fidel Es Un País"
— Fidel is a country.
But Cuban-Americans in the United States don't see it that way. And it
isn't likely that Marielena and Francisco and other ordinary Cubans do
When Fidel no longer looms over Cuba, it is much more likely that both
sides will focus on what happens when there is another knock at the
door, and another stranger asks to come in.