Rory Carroll and Andres Schipani: As hard times bite, Cubans show little appetite for celebration

Roundup: Talking About History

[Rory Carroll is the Guardian's Latin American correspondent and Andrés Schipan is Bolivia contributor for the BBC and contributor on Latin American issues for the Guardian.]

Carmen Gonce remembers the triumph of Cuba's revolution as the happiest day of her life. Fidel Castro and his guerrillas swept down from the Sierra Maestra and delivered the island from a corrupt and brutal dictatorship. People danced in the streets and welcomed the "bearded ones" into their homes. It was 1 January 1959 and a time for hope. "We were nearly all Fidelistas," she said.

Half a century later, the girl of 15 is a pensioner of 64 who watches sunsets over the Caribbean from a cracked chair on the balcony of her Havana home a few blocks from the Karl Marx theatre. Much has happened since that day, yet it seems close enough to touch. "It feels just like last year."

Gonce still supports the revolution's principles and is grateful for a recent heart bypass operation. "A top surgeon - and I didn't pay a cent!" But celebrating the anniversary is not an option. The former author and book editor is nearly destitute. She has no money for decent food, cooking oil or soap, let alone treats. So she will stay at home, follow the anniversary commemorations on TV and reflect on a process that has simultaneously inspired and impoverished her. "The ideals are good but the reality of daily life ... " Her voice trails off.

The ambivalence reflects the complex legacy of a revolution which invested in health and education, crushed dissent and provoked admiration and revulsion. Cuba reaches today's milestone with the echo of the prediction Fidel Castro made from the dock as a young revolutionary in 1953: "Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me." Well, did it?


There is no disputing the revolution's durability. It survived the Bay of Pigs invasion, the missile crisis and the Soviet Union's collapse. Castro outlasted 10 US presidents and dodged countless CIA assassination attempts. Absolution or not, history will certainly remember him.

The anniversary coincides with a period of flux. Castro, 82, resigned as president last year because of an intestinal illness, but his recent partial recovery has revived his influence. His brother and successor, Raúl, 77, signalled modest reforms, but they have stalled. Barack Obama has promised to ease draconian US restrictions and shake up a policy pickled in vinegar since JFK.

"It feels that the end of the story has not been written. Nobody knows what is going to happen and that is unsettling," said Daniel Erikson, a Cuba expert at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based thinktank.

One safe bet, however, is that there will be no mass outpouring of jubilation to mark the anniversary, for a simple reason: living standards are dire. "Our situation is so precarious nobody wants to celebrate," said Gabriel Calaforra, 75, a former ambassador and high-ranking official. "There is almost total indifference. People are waiting for change."

The authorities have booked popular musicians for a free concert at the Anti-Imperialista Tribune on the Malecón, Havana's seafront, so there will be dancing. But joy, like so much else on the island, will be scarce. The struggle for decent food and basic goods makes people obsess about vegetables and conserving everything from soap to toilet roll. Few are in party mood.

Material hardship was eroding trust in the system, said Erikson. "A lot of people think the revolution has important accomplishments but pervasive scarcity puts economic questions at the front of their minds."

The government blames the long-standing US embargo. Unquestionably it has wrought havoc, but most analysts say communist central planning, stifling bureaucracy and lack of economic freedom have proved even more ruinous.

The state controls about 90% of the economy, obliging almost everyone to work for it, but pays an average monthly wage of about £12. A ration of rice, beans and other staples, and supposedly free public services, keeps people alive but does not avert grinding poverty.

To buy goods in the few decently stocked shops Cubans must change near worthless pesos into convertible pesos, a dual currency worth 24 times more that was designed for tourists.

"After I pay my rent I have $2 left for the month," said Miguel, 32, a whip-thin hospital doctor. As a favour, a European friend recently married Miguel to help him obtain an exit visa. "I want to get out," he said.

Poverty reeks from the decaying, overcrowded buildings of central Havana. Though from a distance they are picturesque, up close you see the grime and smell the plumbing. Likewise, the 1950s Chevrolets and Fords, surreal mechanical marvels, lose their charm if you are a sardine-wedged passenger or pedestrian choking on the fumes.

Cuba became dependent on tourism after the end of Soviet subsidies in 1991 triggered savage austerity and a need for foreign currency. With a casual tip dwarfing state wages, scientists, teachers and other professionals quit their jobs to become waiters, chambermaids and taxi drivers. "Our most brilliant minds - serving coffee," lamented Alvaro, a university lecturer turned tour guide...

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