Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner recently reported on the signature series Cuba After Fidel. He describes political life in Cuba and the changes in society he’s seen over the last couple of decades.
Before my recent reporting trip to Cuba for Worldfocus, I hadn’t been back to this island nation for 14 years.
I’d spoken with Cubans here and kept up with developments, but with the Fidel Castro era at the crossroads, I was interested in reporting firsthand what might be changing on the political and economic fronts as well as on the street.
Politics in Cuba is largely a guessing game. Since Fidel Castro receded from view, his brother, Raúl, has tantalized the country with scenarios hinting of a new era — do they await a Cuban glasnost?
Cubans have been encouraged to debate more in public, and the gregarious islanders are doing that, gingerly. I heard little griping in public back in 1995. This time I found Cubans, old and young, far more willing to speak outside the party lines, and give their names.
Not enough food, too much bureaucracy, too few jobs — the complaints came from people not about to jump on inner tubes and make their way to Florida. I spoke to people who complained but also valued what the Cuban revolution had accomplished.
Some wanted to leave, no question; but I heard mainly political discontent far short of insurrection, from people intent on staying. They did not mass behind the old party line. I was hearing both the complaints and the aspirations of people who were frustrated enough to try out the freedoms that apparently were being offered them. Stay tuned.
Cubans have more food to eat than they did back in 1995, the toughest part of the “Special Period” when the Soviet Union stopped its food supplies and financial aid, further isolating its statist model in the Americas.
Back then, I spent time with a group of Cuban writers and was overwhelmed by their creativity, their poetry and their generosity of spirit. One day back then, at lunchtime, I was hanging out with a group of five or six writers; one pulled out a package wrapped in paper from his shoulder bag. It was two homemade flour tortillas with processed cheese melted in the middle. Everybody tore off small pieces of the tortilla and they offered a bit to me — they called it Cuban pizza. There was hardly enough lunch for six.
It is evident — and Cubans agreed when asked — that life is much better now. State-controlled rations “guarantee” a decent amount of food to everyone, though there are often shortages in the stores where ration coupons can be used. Scrounging the money for extras, and sometimes for basic necessities such as shampoo, requires conniving or bending the rules and working the black market.
Cuban government officials argue that the U.S. trade embargo is not only unjust, but also anachronistic. While we were there, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet came to town for the annual Cuban Book Fair. Progressively, other countries have disregarded the U.S. trade embargo, which a succession of presidents enforced with pressure tactics on U.S. allies, especially those in the hemisphere.
That policy has collapsed; Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the Cuban National Assembly, told me that at first he considered the U.S. trade embargo a nearly successful effort to isolate or even annihilate the Cuban revolution. But he was proud to say that Cuba survived, and “few countries could have withstood that pressure for even three months.”
Now, 47 years later, “it is the United States that is isolated,” he said.
– Peter Eisner