Friday, May 02, 2008

Cuba is changing... a little.

My memory of Cuba will always be of a messed up, beautiful place with messed up, beautiful people. I don't know if that makes much sense. And I think the most significant part of this isn't that Cubans can buy certain consumer goods, but that they're noticing the "messed up" parts of the country. Because by far the strangest part of talking to Cuban high school students, for me at least and for a lot of the other students on the trip I think, was that Cuban high school students honestly thought that we were the ones with the repressive government and they were the ones with freedom of speech and expression. And as much as I hate the Department of Homeland Security and think that George W. Bush and his administration have hijacked the country and stolen many of our liberties, well, we're still pretty far from Cuba. To put it bluntly, our acceptable political expression is more than a tongue-in-cheek comment and a knowing smile, which was basically the most that any Cuban would do even in private.

So if young Cubans are noticing how messed up the country is, well, that's at least a step in the right direction. I know it's not much, especially not in such a brutal dictatorship. But it's a step. It means it's not hopeless.

The other thing of note is that, well, Raul Castro isn't much younger than Fidel, and Fidel's son ("Fidelito") has no interest in running the state. So in the foreseeable future, there will be a Cuba run not by a Castro but by... someone else? And who knows what that mystery person will do, or who that person will be, or how much unrest there will be in the country due to that exchange of power. Fidel to Raul was remarkably easy; I remember people worrying (hoping?) that when the elder Castro resigned or died, Cuba would explode or implode or whatever it is that such countries do without a leader.

But another interesting thing, for me, is that I don't really think China's model will work so much in Cuba. This is for purely personal reasons. The culture and the persona of Cuba was shockingly similar to our own. I got a strong sense of individualism and enterprise. (As perhaps best indicated by the pimp/economist who would not leave Noah alone. To this day I swear they were talking about Bush's economic policies.) This is in the middle of one of the most oppressive communist regimes, and people were still thumbing their noses and winking their eyes as if to say "Yes, it's wonderful isn't it, we all know that, but..." The 'black market' was blocks and blocks and blocks of stalls. It's obvious even from the article: the cab driver who wants to make himself an expert in cellular phones the minute he can buy one. In customs, everyone pushes and jostles to get to the front of the line. People weren't shy, they weren't formal or deferential or whatever. They were rowdy and noisy and alive.

And I haven't done the research to know if this is really different or not, but Raul Castro opened up the internet and immediately, there were people publishing blogs that were unfriendly to the state. They hide their faces and their names but they post candid truths anyway. When he said obliquely that people should make their concerns public, women came out in the streets to protest unjust imprisonment of their husbands. It doesn't work; the government tries to stamp it down, but if after such a veiled offer of an ear people are willing to take the chance and speak their minds, well, that's got to be a good thing.

On the other hand, this isn't the sense I got while in China; in a purely cultural respect. So much more of China's culture seems to be based around respect for your elders and knowing your place, it's hard to fit a raucous and brazen personality into that. That might be part of why communism (or authoritarianism, really) on such a massive scale has worked in China. If there were 1.3 billion Cubans instead of 11.39 million (that's a 100-fold, yikes!), Cuba's policies of repression might not work as well as they do. Of course, I'm not an anthropologist and I might be completely wrong, and in any case it's impossible to know for sure.

Part of me hopes that a little bit of economic freedom in Cuba will force the political freedom that I would like to see. It's interesting to me because of how I reacted to visiting both Cuba and China. I felt like China had the bad parts of Americana without the good parts -- McDonalds and Microsoft without pick-up games of softball in the park and laughter in the street. Cuba seemed, at least a little bit, closer to the good parts of my culture, the parts I'm proud of. The personality and the vitality was there, half hidden under the dust of the crumbling buildings. So every time the reporter compared Cuba to China, I winced a little bit. I hope that, with these small economic reforms, parallel social reforms are made -- I wouldn't want Cuba to turn into China.

Edit to add: On a more hopeful note, who wants to go back to Cuba with me when they open the borders again? Mango? Easha?


John said...

I'm definitely in. Though the "donde en el mundo esta Fidel Castro" might be a slightly more mournful tune.

Elizabeth said...

And more philosophical at that. Where is Fidel? Is he in heaven? Hell? Nowhere? Enshrined in some tomb? Does he even exist?

And "Donde esta Raul" just doesn't sound as... Cuban. *sigh*