“Fidel Will Get Better.’

Fear and longing in Havana.

Life goes on in Central Havana. Click image to expand
Life goes on in Central Havana

Two color-coordinated elements of Cuban bureaucracy terrify me: blue-trousered police and green-shirted immigration officers. After being evicted nearly a year ago (my residency and work visa were abruptly revoked by the Cuban government), I returned in mid-August for four days. My usual angst was exacerbated by the knowledge that scores of foreign writers, producers, and journalists, attempting to enter Cuba as tourists, had been refused entry since Fidel fell ill. Traveling with a friend—a Cuban-American who had never seen her ancestral homeland—I had no idea if I’d make it through immigration.

By the time I reached the front of the line, I felt like a character straight out of Midnight Express. Sweat rolled down my forehead, and my shirt was stained from armpits to abdomen. As I walked to the booth, I handed the austere immigration official my passport.

“You worked in Cuba?” he asked in Spanish. “And you are American?”

I nodded my head on both counts.

“In what field?” he asked. More sweat dripped down my forehead.

“Production,” I said. “Documentaries.”

Then I remembered what a colleague had told me two years back. If I ever encountered a problem I should name-drop the partner I worked with—a production company controlled by the military and, by association, by Raúl Castro himself.

“I worked with Trimagen,” I added, neglecting to mention it was only for two months. “I’m just here for a friend’s birthday party.”

He looked at me curiously, closed my passport, and handed it back with a tourist visa. The door buzzed open; I was as free as an extranjero in Cuba could be.

Beyond the airport, life seemed to go on despite the transfer of power from Fidel to Raúl. Workers sucking on hand-rolled cigars crammed into the backs of open-top Jeeps. Women nursed their children, and in the fields, old men, shirtless or in tank tops, cut grass with machetes. And as a backdrop to this tired spectacle stood jingoistic billboards. Their messages are different than they were a year ago, though.

Castro's brand of advertising. Click image to expand
Castro’s brand of advertising

To reinforce the scariness of Bush’s recent pronouncements on Cuban democracy and to counter fears over Fidel’s failing health, a new set of billboards extend the traditional range of signage topics—the glories of the revolution and the evil of the U.S. embargo against the island. Now the signs bluntly assert that if the Bush plan catches on, Cubans will lose the benefits of the revolution—specifically, their homes, health care, educational system, and independence. The political situation has to be black-and-white—Bush is the only alternative to the Castro brothers.

The most ardent party supporters I met with refused to accept Fidel’s mortality, even with his brother’s ascension to power. If Fidel’s revolution had become Cuba, in the minds of many Fidelistas, there could be no Cuba without Fidel.

Off Calle Infanta in crumbling Central Havana, a fiftysomething black woman confirmed just as much. Over cafecitos, the woman, a private dance teacher and active party and neighborhood-watch member who lives in a shabby one-room apartment with her rapper son, shared her views of Cuba’s future.

“Fidel will get better,” she said of the ailing 80-year-old. “It will be a few more weeks of rest. But when he is better, he’ll go back to working, and he’ll work even harder than he did before.”

Raúl’s name was never mentioned.

The response was different in a luxurious (by Cuban standards) apartment in Vedado.

In a 21-story high-rise that offered panoramic views of the city, the young couple cringed at the thought of the system surviving under Raúl or a geriatric Fidel. I conferred privately with a 25-year-old university graduate who worked in Cuba’s film industry.

“What will it be like with Raúl?” I wondered aloud.

Raised eyebrows and rolled eyes. No change. Stagnation. What the majority of the graduate’s contemporaries fear most.

Our conversation wandered to a mutual friend, a 30-year-old who had defected to Spain six months before.

“He’s lucky,” my friend told me. “He did what we all want—to get out of here. If I could, I would in a second.”

This, I had come to know, is the prevailing sentiment of a good number of Cuba’s best and brightest. For Cuban students, the world is limitless (albeit constrained, given stringent travel restrictions), but after four or six years at the university, many I had befriended took a nihilistic view of the future.

It reminded me of what a good friend, a doctor, had told me two years ago.

“I could never have a child here,” she told me. “I would be raising him into nothing.”

It’s probably no coincidence that the most fervent support for Fidel came from the woman who had the least and who would have been the most disenfranchised before the revolution. For her, a world without Fidel was apocalyptic, a nightmarish place where a Miami exile would steal what little she had and all the claims in Granma—Cuba’s state-run news rag—were true. The young man with the most—the product of the revolution’s greatest achievements in education—wanted nothing more than to flee. As 2006 draws to a close, just as it has ever since Fidel took over, the state is using fear to squeeze progressive individuals and maintain control.

Over the last 15 years—or perhaps since 1980’s Mariel boatlift—Fidel has destroyed the nationalist pride of the young people who have benefited from the revolution. I admit it is impossible to verify this, but I left Cuba with the feeling that the artists, intellectuals, musicians, and filmmakers that I met—the beneficiaries of the university system and, thus, of the revolution—have very little interest in supporting Fidel. But they also have very little interest in implementing change.

Instead, they long for one thing—escape. And the people who should be making noise—raising placards, organizing, as Fidel did in the 1950s—are scared to speak publicly because they know their dream of living in a place that is not Cuba is best achieved through silence and waiting. In their minds, the system is much too strong to challenge.

What Cuba needs now is a young leader—a modern-day José Martí—who is not afraid of recriminations and can mobilize the discontent that I know to be present among the nation’s youth.

Until that happens, nothing will change for Cubans. Despite their quiet bellyaching, the system seems to have won out, numbing the population into complacency.