YOU have to search long and hard to find any statues of Fidel Castro in Cuba.
Unlike just about anywhere else you care to mention, consumer advertising was replaced by stirring revolutionary imagery, snappy slogans and useful cultural announcements decades ago.
There is no shortage of statues and images of Castro’s revolutionary compatriot Che Guevara. The iconic stencil-style image based on Alberto Korda’s photograph of Che is everywhere. From murals and T-shirts to tattoos and three-peso notes in Cuban pockets, Che’s black beret, flowing locks and smouldering eyes are never far away.
Similarly, every street corner seems to have statues and memorials to José Martí, the poet and writer who gave a voice to the earliest notions of Cuban independence in the 19th century.
You’ll sometimes see Fidel, wearing his trademark beard and peaked military cap, alongside Che and fellow revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos, on colourful and appropriately heroic murals throughout the island.
Occasionally, there are inspiring quotes from Fidel on roadside hoardings (although many have him eulogising his martyred comrade-in-arms Che). But there’s not a single road named after Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz anywhere in Cuba.
These days, Fidel (nobody ever seems to use his second name) looks very frail in his rare public appearances, and chiefly communicates with the world via his weekly Reflections of Fidel column in the Communist party newspaper Granma.
Even the ancient cabin cruiser the paper takes its name from is more visible. Having transported Castro and his band of 82 fighters from Mexico to Oriente province before the revolution, the Granma is now preserved under glass in a purpose-built pavilion in Havana.
However, thanks to a rather convenient law prohibiting statues of living Cubans, there were no monuments to Fidel himself until recently. Now there is one solitary statue of el Commandante (depicted at the head of ranks of heroic workers), located in Vedado, a shabbily handsome suburb of Havana that was synonymous with Mafia corruption before Castro and his bearded companeros deposed the military dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
This lack of visibility fits in with the pragmatic, often contradictory style of Castro. Though he’s never exactly been a shrinking violet on the world stage, domestically, there still appears to be a clear effort to steer away from the kind of omnipresent personality cult that often surrounds the type of leader who is known by just one name.
After dominating Cuban political life for more than five decades – simultaneously giving the tiny island an international profile far higher than its size and relative isolation might suggest – Fidel appears to settling into his retirement. But how far has Cuba really travelled in the years since he stepped down?
In 2008, Fidel’s younger brother Raúl, the head of the armed forces, took control of a country still reeling from the effects of the collapse of the USSR 15 years earlier, when Cuba lost its main trading partner and principal aid donor in one fell swoop.
Cuba’s sugar, which had largely been exchanged for oil (at international socialism mates’ rates), was no longer required by the disintegrating Easter bloc, leading to a catastrophic shortage of vital petrochemicals of all kinds and widespread and sustained hardship. Cuba’s troubles during this time, now euphemistically known as the Special Period, were exacerbated by the US’s tightening of the trade embargo it put in place in response to Castro’s nationalisation of millions of dollars worth of American-owned assets after the 1959 revolution.
Assuming power at the ripe old age of 75, Raúl has slowly begun to shift direction. He has presided over relaxations in the rules for private ownership of land, houses and businesses, as part of a determined effort to increase the amounts of foreign currency coming into the country by creating conditions favourable to tourism. It’s also a lot easier for Cubans to travel abroad and for emigre relatives to send money and visit (often laden down with huge amounts of consumer durables).
In the past, everyone could rely on the state for a job, but not anymore. Not coincidentally, Cubans have been able to embark on limited kinds of free enterprise for some time, such as offering foreigners bed and breakfast accommodation in designated casas particular. There is a list approved jobs for people who want to be self employed,
Many Cubans have also opened up their homes as restaurants, known as paladares, since the beginning of what Granma calls Cuba’s “updating” of its economic model – although finding food to serve can often be a job in itself, it seems.
In addition, Raúl has replaced some of the old guard who surrounded Fidel with younger officials and indicated a desire to separate the Cuban state from the Cuban Communist party. There’s a belief that things are changing.
Apparently, around 20 per cent of Cubans now own mobile phones. It’s easier to use the internet, theoretically, although in practice this is still limited to government employees and those with access to the big tourist hotels’ wi-fi networks.
Combined with the Obama administration’s less combative attitude towards Cuba, all this adds up to a tectonic shift in Cuban society, and one which is no less profound for being so seemingly unhurried.
Raúl takes care to quote Fidel in speeches and has assured more conservative elements within the party that he still regularly consults the unstoppable old revolutionary on matters of importance.
“The perception is that Raúl wants to change things quicker but people believe that Fidel is telling Raúl to slow down,” says Carlos, a seasoned Castro-watcher. “Fidel is still searching for a perfect kind of socialism and doesn’t want the changes so quickly.”
“It’s a system that has failed in other countries and it’s failed here,” says older Havana resident Pilar more bluntly. “Fifty-four years is a long time to wait. Maybe some things changed for the better, socially, in some small ways after the revolution, but for most people born after the revolution, they hate it. That’s my opinion, from what I see.”
While the older Cubans who remember the days before the revolution may see the benefits of this radical reshaping of Cuban society, she explains, many of those born after the revolution simply see the restrictions and hindrances of a living in a country in a permanent state of siege. Clothing was only recently taken off the state ration card, for example.
“The young people expect to see material results for the sacrifices made by their parents’ generation but the roads are in bad state of repair, street lighting is limited, food is often an issue,” admits Carlos. “Rations are poor quality, with a reduced number of items on the card. But without the ration card, many families would suffer.”
This scarcity of resources had some unexpected effects. When the oil ran out, Cuban agriculture rapidly evolved into more sustainable, permaculture-style of farming simply because oil-based pesticides were unavailable. The old focus on sugar cane was replaced with more diverse crops for domestic consumption.
Reluctant Cubans were forced to adopt a diet less reliant on meat and dairy and many – not all – became healthier as a result. But education is well funded and universal, as is free healthcare. How many countries can boast that?
People get by as best they can. In the UK, we would describe it as the Blitz spirit. But it’s a Blitz that’s been going on for more than five decades. In Cuba, echoing the Obama campaign slogan, they just say, ¡Si, se puede!
A society that already made a virtue of the necessity to make-do-and-mend has turned this cheerful self-sufficiency into a fine art – perhaps best seen in the hundreds of ancient Chevys, Buicks and Corvettes that ply their trade as ‘collectivo’ route taxis throughout the country (and which you often see undergoing running repairs at the side of the road).
One lovingly tended classic car I took a ride in had a Toyota engine and transmission that had been carefully shoehorned into the elegant body of a 60-year-old Pontiac. The car had been passed down from the driver Alexei’s grandfather to his father, before his father passed it onto him in turn.
It’s a truly beautiful vehicle but what Alexei really wanted was one of the US Army Jeeps that Vietnam had gifted their Cuban allies from the thousands left behind by departing US forces after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Running along pre-determined routes through Havana, you simply hop into collective taxis with as many other people as can jam into the wide seats (up to seven passengers, plus the driver), close the door (gently, doors can, and do, fall off) adjust your hearing to account for the unfeasibly loud reggaeton blasting out of the state-of-the-art sound system, strap yourself in (this is a merely figure of speech, there are no seatbelts in collectivos), and get ready for the ride of your life.
You cross the island on wide motorways with barely any traffic and scores of hitchhiking soldiers sheltering from the sun at junctions.
There’s probably a big metaphor to be drawn about the holiday multinationals – Sandals, Hilton, Hertz – currently circling the still resolutely-revolutionary little island of Cuba as it comes to terms with its place on the tourism map and the huge vultures which glide majestically over the lush valley of Vinalles on the look out for an easy meal. Except the vultures are a lot more graceful and a lot less venal than Hertz and the Hilton hotel chain.
Looking out over the impressively verdant valley with the lush vegetation of the mogotes in the distance, it’s very difficult to believe that this sturdy little island has any trouble feeding its 11 million inhabitants. Unfortunately, while it’s true that there are such staples as eggs, pork and rice in abundance, you’ll often be hard-pressed to find any cheese in the shops.
Wherever you are in Cuba, people seem hungry, but not necessarily for food.
We head back to the hustle and bustle of Havana. Once you’ve said no gracias to the thousand and one people who want to take you on tours of old Havana, you then have to contend with the million and one people trying to entice you into bars with “the best mojito in Cuba”, the most delicious “moros y cristianos” (the rice and peas / red kidney beans familiar to anyone who has ever stepped foot on Jamaica) on the island, and, occasionally, the statuesque jinitas who would very much like to do fucky-fucky with you, yes?
No one knows what will happen in Cuba in the years to come.
Carlos approves of the changes to the law about private property, but is concerned that “people don’t know the real value of things” after living for so long in a world where prices are set and maintained by the state.
Poor housing remains an issue for many Cubans. Much of Havana is literally crumbling to the ground after 50 years of neglect. But while some parts of the city are changing, others remain much the same. An overcrowded, dilapidated area like Centro in Havana is immediately next to the chi-chi bars, hotels and apartments being created by the tourist-orientated regeneration body Habanaguex on the Malecón seafront.
These people have put up with so much for so long and yet their indomitable spirit shines through. Even off the tourist track, you’re seldom far away from the sound of laughter and music and drinking and dancing. And, from what I saw – including a simply fabulous night at the Music Hall watching Los Van Van – they really know how to dance.
I can’t really argue with people wanting a nice telly and a flash car. Or just a decent house that doesn’t let the rain in and roads with streetlights and no gaping pot holes. Or to be able to buy cheese.
Cuba is a truly incredible place full of generous, decent and inspiring people – as well as all manner of grafters, gangsters, hustlers, entrepreneurs and people who are simply trying to make a living. If they can do what they do with such style and class and joy de vivre with absolutely nothing, imagine what they could do with a bit of money.
As an outsider looking in, I want Cuba to retain much of what it is now – especially in Havana, which is one of the most extraordinary cities I’ve ever spent any time in. The fact that there is not a single Gap, McDonald’s, Starbucks or KFC on the entire island – only 90 miles from Florida – just makes me like Cuba even more. They shall not pass, indeed.
Meanwhile, old habits die hard. According to the BBC, “Cuba has fallen foul of international agencies, including the UN’s top human rights forum, over rights abuses. The UN’s envoy has urged Havana to release imprisoned dissidents and to allow freedom of expression.”
I had to change the names of everyone I talked to for this piece because people can and do get evicted from their homes and imprisoned for talking to the foreign media, even now. I’ve not mentioned the lovely places and neighbourhoods we stayed in because our hosts had to take our passport details and pass them onto the authorities at the beginning and end of our time with them. Police states can supposedly be a bit crap and inefficient (and everything can seem like too much effort in the Caribbean), but would you want to take that chance with someone else’s life?
Carlos seems pretty well informed and astute, and clearly recognises the mood for change, but he also questions continuing US sanctions. Like many Cubans, he simply cannot understand why the US is now happy to trade with both Vietnam and China and yet retains its decades-old position on Cuba.
Many people in Cuba remain unconvinced about the intentions of the political elite:
“The people in power here, they want to keep the power. It’s passed down to their family. It’s like a dynasty,” says Pillar. “But I love my country and I love my city. I don’t want to leave but I don’t like the system. This is my life here, my friends are here, my home is here.”
“Sooner or later, Cuba and the US have to come to some agreement but I don’t know whether I will see it. Maybe my grandchildren will.”
[This is a longer version of a feature that originally appeared in the Big Issue North in September 2012]