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New Castro, Same Cuba

Hopes ran high when an ailing Fidel Castro handed power to his brother, Raúl, but little has changed for the people of Cuba

By Patricia Smith


To learn something about life in Cuba these days, check out the listings on revolico.com, a website that's like a Cuban version of Craigslist: There's a person selling his place in the visa line at the Spanish Embassy in Havana to someone trying to emigrate, and offers of arranged marriages abroad. People with permission to travel outside Cuba are sought out to bring back clothes, electronics, and other goods that aren't available at home.

"In Revolico, one sees Cuba exposed, the daily lives of the Cubans, things that say much about the Cuba of today," says the site's founder, who lives in Spain but asked to remain anonymous out of concern for the safety of his family back in Cuba.

Cuba today is a place of great economic hardship and political repression. Despite some initial signs that President Raúl Castro—who took over temporarily from his ailing brother, Fidel, in 2006 and then officially in 2008—might be willing to open the Communist nation up to the world, not much has changed.

In his first weeks as President in 2008, Raúl Castro allowed Cubans to buy cellphones, computers, and DVD players for the first time, which many hoped was a sign of more substantial changes to come. But bigger reforms did not follow.

"Raúl came to power telling the people they could open up," says Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami. "He allowed a short period of complaining, then he said 'enough' and began to clamp down. There's been no political change whatsoever, and very small economic changes."

The Revolution

Fidel Castro took control of Cuba in 1959, when he and a band of guerrillas overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. At the height of the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and the Communist powers, Castro aligned Cuba with the Soviet Union, embracing its repressive political system, state-run economic model, and hostility toward the U.S.

Castro also nationalized, without compensation, U.S. businesses in Cuba. In response, Washington imposed an embargo that remains in effect today. (That's why Havana is full of vintage American cars like the 1950 Dodge and 1954 Buick recently for sale on revolico.com.)

In 1962, the Soviets deployed missiles in Cuba—which is just 90 miles off the coast of Florida—and the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. After an American naval blockade of Cuba and 13 days of tense negotiations, the missiles were withdrawn.

Soviet aid kept Cuba's economy afloat until the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba went into economic free fall. Today, Cuba is one of the last countries in the world with a state-run economy: Cubans still live on rations and cope with chronic food shortages (see Voices). Government salaries average about $12 a month—even for doctors and teachers.

Those who work in tourism and earn tips in dollars and those with relatives abroad fare better: There are 1.5 million Cubans in the U.S., mostly in Florida and New Jersey, and they send $600 million a year to their families in Cuba.

When President Obama took office last year, he relaxed restrictions on travel to Cuba, making it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit relatives on the island. There's also been some discussion of easing the half-century-old trade embargo.

Blogging from Havana

The Castro brothers have long blamed the U.S. embargo for Cuba's economic woes. And while the Communist regime has been credited with some progress in education and health care, its repressive policies continue to violate human rights.

"Raúl Castro has been just as brutal as his brother," says José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch. "Cubans who dare to criticize the government live in perpetual fear, knowing they could wind up in prison for merely expressing their views."

Despite the risks, Yaoni Sànchez writes a blog about the hardships of life in Cuba. It's called Generation Y.

"I feel a terror that almost doesn't let me type," she wrote in a recent post, "but I want to tell those who today threatened me and my family, that when one reaches a certain level of panic, higher doses don't make any difference. I will not stop writing, or Twittering; I have no plans to close my blog."


(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, March 15, 2010)