Change comes to Cuba
By ANITA SNOW
Associated Press writer
December 21, 2008 6:00 AM
Cuba at a glance
Here is a look at Cuba, now 50 years beyond the Communist revolution
Largest island in Caribbean, covers 44,344 square miles, about the size
of Pennsylvania. Sierra Maestra mountains at eastern end, but mostly
flat or slightly rolling countryside.
Population 11.2 million. About half mixed-race, 35 percent white, 15
percent black, with scattering of people descended from Chinese and
other non-European immigrants. Parts of population have traces of
original Indian peoples, but indigenous cultures died out long ago. Life
expectancy of nearly 77 years and infant mortality of about 6 deaths per
1,000 live births, lowest in Latin America.
Head of government and state is president of the Council of State and
president of Council of Ministers, positions Fidel Castro held until he
resigned in February 2008. Castro's younger brother, Raul, was elected
by National Assembly to replace him on Feb. 24, 2008. The Communist
Party is the only legal party in Cuba.
Still recovering from economic crisis that began in 1990 after losing
Soviet aid and trade, Cuba posted steady annual growth beginning in late
1990s. Cuba blames economic problems on U.S. trade embargo; detractors
blame inefficient centralized planning. Government experimented with
modest economic reforms in mid-1990s to survive, but by 2004 reasserted
more centralized control over economy. The U.S. dollar, used widely for
more than a decade, was taken out of circulation as legal tender in
2004, replaced with convertible local currency. Important sources of
income include health services exported to Venezuela, tourism, sugar,
nickel, tobacco, citrus, coffee, pharmaceuticals.
Editor's note: Anita Snow opened The Associated Press bureau in Havana
in 1999 and has covered Cuba for 12 years. As Cuba marks the 50th
anniversary of its communist revolution, she profiles the island, the
successes and failures of the Castro era, and Cubans' hopes for the
future under new presidents both here and in the U.S.
HAVANA — In the palace of a fallen dictator, the grade-school children
in their red Communist Pioneer bandanas are getting their mandatory
introduction to the glories of the revolution.
Clattering from one display case to the next, they gaze wide-eyed at an
antique gun, a fighter's bloodied shirt, the engine of a downed U.S. spy
plane. Moving on, they stare at the yacht named Granma that carried
Fidel Castro back from exile to launch his guerrilla war, and the combat
boots his brother-successor wore as a ponytailed 27-year-old rebel.
The palace of Fulgencio Batista, the ruler whom Castro overthrew, is now
the Museum of the Revolution, and these 6- and 7-year-olds are the heirs
to a communist government about to turn 50, a system that might be
softening at the edges but appears determined to crush any threat to its
grip on power, lest it crumble like its onetime godfather, the Soviet Union.
Since Castro declared victory on New Year's Day, 1959, the day after
Batista fled the country, his rule has prevailed through 10 U.S.
presidents, the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion, a world-shaking
missile crisis, the U.S. embargo, the Soviet collapse and the onslaught
of globalization. Now 82, he is ailing and out of sight but still the
head of the Communist Party of Cuba. Raul Castro, his successor as
president, is taking baby steps toward change and vowing to fend off any
challenge to his brother's legacy.
But today, between the extremes of enforced communist dogma and the
die-hards of the Cuban diaspora still dreaming of bringing down the
Castro regime, other faces of Cuba are emerging from deep underground:
rappers, gays, dissident bloggers, installers of pirate satellite
dishes, teenagers with tattoos and pierced belly buttons, and the women
who call themselves Las Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White.
Each Sunday, these women deliver a muted counterpart to the official cry
of "Viva Fidel! Viva la revolucion!" by marching down Quinta Avenida, a
busy Havana thoroughfare, each dressed in white and carrying a gladiola,
silently demanding the release of their husbands from political
Dissidents have a new way to reach the outside world: blogging. Yoani
Sanchez, 33, gets her message out by dressing like a tourist and
slipping into a hotel that has Web access for foreigners. She works
quickly at a computer terminal and gets out before someone notices her.
In a posting this month, Sanchez noted that the government, which used
to send gays to labor camps, now accepts homosexuality. So why not
political opposition? she asked. "Why does the adjective
'counterrevolutionary' continue to be used for those who think differently?"
But few of Cuba's 11.2 million people have access to the Internet, and
anyway are preoccupied with staying afloat in a sclerotic economy in
which basics such as toilet paper often disappear from store shelves and
most people eat meat only a few times each month.
In such conditions, the slightest hint of new thinking at the top can be
Cubans felt it after Castro stepped down and his brother Raul, now 77,
took over in February, cutting a much lower-key, more pragmatic figure
than the bearded, expansive Fidel. He has lifted a ban on cell phone
service for ordinary Cubans and allowed them to stay in tourist hotels
that hitherto were off-limits. He has let them buy DVD players,
computers and coveted kitchen appliances. He has legalized some home
ownership, upped payments to farmers, acknowledged that state salaries
are too small to live on and rebuked bureaucrats who don't properly
serve the public.
Now Cubans are excited by the prospect of Barack Obama becoming the U.S.
president, offering to talk to the Cuban leadership and promising to
immediately lift U.S. restrictions that strictly limit how often
Cuban-Americans can visit their relatives and how much money they can
A Havana billboard portraying George W. Bush as a bloody-fanged vampire
was taken down this autumn. No official reason was given, but Cubans
were happy to read it as a good-will gesture to Obama as he campaigned
for the presidency.
"They say with Obama tourism should improve, that he'll let family
members come whenever they want and maybe all Americans. That would be
good for business," says Roberto Garcia, who paints pictures of old
American cars, topless women and bottles of Havana Club rum.
Garcia sells his acrylics for up to $60 on the Malecon, the four-mile
stretch of seaside highway that runs through Havana and has witnessed
some of revolutionary Cuba's most dramatic moments.
Here a tumultuous crowd greeted a 32-year-old Fidel Castro when he and
his bearded fellow commanders reached Havana on Jan. 8, 1959, just a
week after their victory in eastern Cuba spelled the end of the Batista
government. Ernesto Plasencia, a bony 76-year-old ex-rebel, remembers
that day on the Malecon.
"It was a fiesta, like carnival! We were so happy! The tyrant was gone!"
He augments his disability pension of 140 pesos (about $6.70) a month by
selling candy on the Malecon and has no major complaints. The
government's broad social safety net ensures him and all other Cubans
free medical care and heavily subsidized services, including a very
cheap monthly food ration that provides about a third of the average
dietary needs. Education through university level is free.
Like his government, Plasencia blames Cuba's hardships on the U.S.
embargo, imposed after Castro embraced communism and nationalized
219 political prisoners
The last time Cuba carried out executions was in 2003, when three men
went before a firing squad for trying to hijack a passenger ferry to the
U.S. Their deaths followed a crackdown that condemned 75 government
critics to long prison terms, dashing hopes of any relaxation following
Jimmy Carter's visit, the first by a former U.S. president to Castro's Cuba.
In jails scattered across the island, Cuba holds 219 political
prisoners, according to Elizardo Sanchez, of the independent Cuban
Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. In 1964 Fidel
Castro acknowledged holding as many as 15,000 political prisoners.
Sanchez, 60, is a former professor of Marxism who broke with the system
nearly 30 years ago and spent eight years in Cuban prisons. For him, the
bottom line of the revolution is sad and simple: "After 50 years, the
government still cannot guarantee any civil or political rights."
If Cuba is sometimes frozen in the 1950s, small signs of the 21st
century are popping up along the Malecon, which was built in 1901 when
American forces occupied Cuba following the Spanish-American war.
The boom-BAH-boom-boom-boom of reggaeton music pours out from windows
above once-elegant colonnades, and some long-neglected buildings are
getting a foreign-funded facelift in funky yellow, green or apricot,
reminiscent of the art deco style seen in Miami Beach, where many Cuban
The Malecon's seawall today is a long concrete couch, where the crashing
waves occasionally spray canoodling couples, pole-casting fishermen,
rum-swigging workers, and a lone saxophonist playing a mournful tune
that floats toward the Florida Straits.
Since few people can afford a boat, or legally own one lest they use it
to escape, the most common craft in view are a few bobbing inner tubes
and fishermen's plastic foam rafts. Occasionally a freighter arrives, or
a cruise ship carrying European tourists who will spend a few hours
here, mingle with the kids in the museum, drink a few minty mojito
cocktails while listening to salsa music, buy a few trinkets and then
The bay used to be jammed with Russian freighters bringing oil or canned
beef, while Soviet arms shipments arrived discreetly at a military port
to the west. In March 1993 a Russian ship carried away 1,500 former
Soviet soldiers and their families, ending a three-decade Soviet
presence on the island which included $5 billion a year in aid.
In late 2001 a freighter brought 500 tons of frozen chicken parts — the
first U.S. commercial food shipment in 38 years.
On Aug. 5, 1994, drama erupted on the Malecon as thousands of Cubans
gathered to cheer a ferry hijacking and grew angry as authorities
intervened, throwing rocks at police and shops catering to foreigners only.
Fidel Castro arrived in a military jeep, waded into the melee, and
calmed the rioters by announcing he would not stop anyone wanting to leave.
People hugging inner tubes and rickety rafts hurled themselves from the
seawall and struck out for Florida, 90 miles away. "They'd just get out
of cars and jump into the water," recalls Wilfredo Mason, a Malecon
barber. "Some left motorcycles behind!"
As many as 40,000 Cubans left. But for Luis Gonzalez, 41, the West held
little attraction. "Born after the revolution, I don't have anything to
compare it with," he says. "But the revolution gives us free medicine
and education, and capitalism doesn't deliver those things."
out of the public eye
Castro was last seen in public on July 26, 2006, at a major celebration
in eastern Cuba — five days before he had intestinal surgery and ceded
power to Raul.
His health today is a state secret. He doesn't appear in public and
looks increasingly gaunt in occasional official photographs. But he
keeps writing essays that are read in full on state TV.
In one essay he responded to Obama's willingness to talk by saying "a
conversation can be held wherever he wants."
Although his brother permanently replaced him as president in February,
state media continue to refer to Fidel as "Leader of the Revolution,"
and many ordinary Cubans still call him El Comandante.
It's telling that apart from celebratory slogans in Havana store
windows, there is no indication that authorities are planning much
hoopla for the 50th anniversary. Raul Castro will lead the main
celebration Jan. 1 in the eastern city of Santiago, but the leadership
reportedly toned down its plans after three hurricanes this year caused
more than $10 billion in damage.
That may be another sign of the younger Castro's pragmatic, unshowy
style. But blogger Sanchez maintains that the revolution died long ago
and needs no birthday bash.
"Let it rest in peace," she wrote in a Dec. 14 posting, "and we will
soon begin a new cycle: shorter, less pretentious, more free."