HAVANA TIMES — I could tell you exactly where I was when I found out about the transfer of power from one Castro brother to another [July 31, 2006]. It was something I feared would happen as it would further entrench the regime.
My hopes laid in Fidel’s brontosaur-like ego, hoping he would continue to rule until his last breath just like his kindred soul, the Spaniard Franco, did. In my imagination, I reasoned that his sudden death would create an interval where a Cuban Adolfo Suarez would rise up, but thank God (and I’m being very serious), there isn’t an ETA in Cuba, and Raul, now known as Castro II, could inherit this power in a peaceful transition.
On the other hand, I used to see an affectionate and human Raul in my childhood memories. My grandfather and granduncles’ stories, war comrades and comrades in peace, described him to be very efficient, with a business-like character far-removed from his brother’s verbosity.
To them, Raul is a sensible and organized man, who created a mini state in the Second Oriental Front when he was still very young. A practical leader, he was concerned about the technical training of bureaucrats. In Sierra Cristal, schools were created, healthcare was developed by Machado Ventura and farmer congresses were even held and he had the rebels’ only combat aircraft. Fidel couldn’t do any of this in the First Front.
When he found out about Batista’s escape, my grandfather says that Raul exclaimed, “What a shame the war couldn’t last another couple of years so we would have time to train up the people we need.”
I wanted to see a ray of light in the technocrat Raul, a light I felt grow with his swift announcements of economic change, liberalizing rights that had been largely limited until then and the complete reduction of Fidel’s Battle of Ideas and similar propaganda. He then followed by the almost sudden removal of the Comandante’s top applauders.
I must admit, I got excited and even though this wasn’t the reason I decided to move back to Cuba, I did do this more willingly and with greater optimism.
Ten years and some grey hairs later, I’m only left with the rancid taste of my scorched illusions’ ashes, the absolute conviction that within the Cuban State’s current constitution there are no solutions, and that only an exorcism or a good stripping of all our “revolutionary” spirit will be able to pave the way to progress.
More than ten years of Raul in power have served to make the distance between the government and those it governs enormous. The exciting and dynamic start to his leadership, when he set aside disgraceful measures that kept us as third class citizens, was applauded by the people. However, people got annoyed when we were left as second class citizens still without political rights and much less financial rights that anyone of another nationality who wants to invest in the Mariel Special Development Zone has.
This proved that it wasn’t only Fidel’s cult absolutism that was the cause of the country’s paraplegia, but the system that Raul upheld, which is driven by its own interests and thwarts any rational dynamic, hindering every attempt to modernize the economy or political system until it stifles them. It puts up a defense and establishes a stalemate in defensive and cowardly moves in the face of any trace of mental heterodoxy. It crushes and corners people and ideas with its repressive forces to then ridicule them in public asking for lists of dissident prisoners.
The most important result of this era can be symbolized in the outpouring of people cheering the US president’s limousine, to their great humiliation and fear. A rapprochement that brought us Air BnB and a fleeting increase in GM chicken from Texas as something positive. The disadvantages included a spike in national repression, the clampdown on immigration facilities towards the US and us being left like idiots for thinking that the political detente would have amounted to something other than Obama wanting to go down in history books, the Rolling Stones walking the Cuban moon and Hollywood producing a Fast and Furious disaster, which I haven’t watched out of general culture.
Self-employment was another great achievement, a monster that groups humble shoemakers and millionaire hostel owners. They are all the same to the government, vermin who want to live outside of the State’s nationalized economy, who are mistreated every chance the government gets, cut off, exploited and last but not least, closed down before they can even give signs of accumulating wealth and new licenses have been suspended until further notice, as Raul himself likes to say, this process is without haste but without stopping, but without haste.
The youngest of the Castros in power (the youngest until now) other great feat was renegotating the country’s immense foreign debt that had been building up because of chronic insolvency. They managed to cancel all of the interest on their repayments and some important write offs from their main debt, but they have committed themselves to large repayments which they have had to meet by decapitalizing the country even more, a country which has entered a downward economic spiral since two years ago and this can be best seen in the empty shelves at pharmacies and markets, as well as the seemingly eternal madness to have two currencies and five or so different exchange rates.
What was a hope ten years ago has now been translated into our reality today and we Cubans can have cellphones, the most expensive in the world but we still have them, we can go to a hotel where it costs a teacher’s annual wages to stay the night, we can buy and sell houses and cars and leave the country without causing great family trauma to be able to send them loathed dollars, dollars that are then swindled off the people at the State’s expensive and monopoly network of TRD (hard currency) stores. Ten years just for us to resemble a normal country a little more, this has been the great legacy of the efficient, practical and humane Raul, Castro II.