Cuban Days: The Inscrutable Nation

I made my first reporting trip to Cuba in 1994 to cover the balsero crisis. Over a four-week period in August and September of that year, about 35,000 desperate Cubans took to the sea on makeshift rafts (balsas), hoping somehow to reach Florida. It was a time of crushing economic pain and deep discontent on the island. The collapse of the Soviet bloc a few years earlier had cost Cuba nearly five billion dollars a year in subsidies, and by 1994 living and working conditions had descended to levels not seen in decades. Mindful of the political challenge he faced, Fidel Castro instructed the Cuban Coast Guard not to interfere with people fleeing by sea, no matter the condition of their vessels. It seemed to be a cunning move on Castro’s part: energy that might otherwise have gone into political opposition would be channeled instead into building rafts and planning a voyage across the 90-mile-wide Florida straits.

For years, Cubans had been sneaking off the island on flimsy boats, usually under cover of darkness, but now they were free to construct seagoing vessels in their backyards or on neighborhood streets. Most of the balsas were of dangerously rudimentary design: heavy wooden planks bolted to oil drums or lashed to big inner tubes, with chunks of Styrofoam wedged in the open spaces. Some had bedsheets strung up as sails. The balseros would drag their rafts to the water’s edge and then paddle off into the surf, generally with great fanfare. Among the rafters I interviewed were doctors, teachers, engineers, even Communist Party members. In all, a thousand or more people were leaving each day, and large crowds showed up on the beaches every afternoon and evening to watch. Vendors sold peanuts and fruit drinks. Uniformed policemen and plainclothes state security agents observed carefully but did not interfere.

The spectators talked quietly among themselves about how sad it was that so many young Cuban men and women felt compelled to leave everything behind and risk their lives crossing shark-infested seas for a chance to start new lives in a foreign land. Public conversations like that were exceedingly rare in Cuba, and as the rafting exodus became the talk of the land, it took on a political significance that Fidel Castro may not have fully anticipated when he authorized it. I visited a fifth-grade classroom in Havana one day where the teacher had initiated a class discussion about the balseros. She had intended to focus her students’ attention on the effects of the Yankee “blockade,” but the discussion took an unexpected turn when she asked a ten-year-old girl named Anita what was behind the rafting phenomenon.

“The balseros say they are going because the police won’t let them live in peace,” Anita innocently answered, “and because they don’t earn enough to buy what they need to eat and because when they’re sick and have to go to the hospital, the buses aren’t running and they die along the way.” The teacher tried desperately to steer the conversation back to the embargo, but it was too late. “People get upset,” Anita continued, “because nothing is available in our country.”

I had just come back to the United States after four years of reporting from Eastern Europe. I had observed the sudden collapse of socialist governments from Poland to Bulgaria, and I suspected the same phenomenon was under way in Cuba: A regime is shown to have a shaky foundation, people dare to challenge it, and the repressive apparatus proves to be ineffective. I was not alone in having that thought. A few months earlier, a cover story in the New York Times Magazine based on extensive reporting from the island was titled “The Last Days of Castro’s Cuba.”

That was fifteen years ago.

I have returned to Cuba fourteen times since that 1994 visit, and I have learned never to claim I know what will happen there. It is a multi-layered country of conflicting forces and peculiarities, and it’s hard to read Cuban minds. I remember one occasion in September 2006, about six weeks after Fidel became ill and turned over power to his brother Raúl. I was at the Havana airport, waiting for a flight to Santiago, when the evening television news began showing on the monitors in the departure lounge. The broadcast included footage of Fidel in red pajamas meeting in his hospital room with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. I watched the faces of the Cubans around me, to get a sense of what they were thinking. It was impossible. Though everyone was staring at the television screen, no one said a word nor registered any emotion. There was no whispering, no raised eyebrow, no furrowed brow. It was as if no one wanted to convey anything at all. They were strangers to each other. I could not imagine another country where people were so determined to be impassive at such a momentous time in their national life.

Today Cuban leaders are again facing major political challenges. Severe economic problems have returned, and the awkward division of power between Fidel and Raúl Castro has again put the regime on a shaky footing. After assuming responsibility for day-to-day governing in August 2006, Raúl vowed to raise living standards on the island. In the summer of 2007, he called for “structural changes” in the economy and encouraged Cubans to air their grievances. But then Raúl’s interest in reform seemed to flag, perhaps due to resistance he encountered from a recovering Fidel, perhaps to a concern that Cubans’ eagerness for change could prove unmanageable. A survey undertaken discreetly on the island for the International Republican Institute in the summer of 2008 found more than 80 percent of the respondents to be in favor of free market economic reforms. Sixty percent reportedly said they would vote for someone other than Raúl Castro if they had a choice.

Among the notable Cubans angered by the reform retreat was Pablo Milanés, the founder of the nueva trova songwriting movement. For decades Milanés had sung the praises of Fidel Castro and his revolution in concerts around the world, but in an interview with a Madrid newspaper in December 2008, Milanés said he had lost faith in Cuba’s leaders. “They are doing nothing to move the country out of this paralysis we’re in,” he said. “I don’t trust any Cuban leader who is older than seventy-five. . . . Their old revolutionary ideas have turned reactionary.” To Cubans, two-thirds of whom were born after Fidel came to power, it was a devastating charge. The fresh face on the scene belonged to forty-seven-year-old Barack Obama in Washington, who within three months of taking office was calling for “a new beginning” in his country’s relations with Cuba. “We are not dug into policies that were formulated before I was born,” Obama said. An African American president, addressing an Afro-Cuban majority population on the island and raising the prospect of better times ahead, was a dramatic new element.

If only Fidel Castro’s revolution had not made Cuba such a hard country to change.

T he debate in the United States over whether Cuba should be engaged or isolated rages relentlessly, but both sides are in agreement on one point: the policies of the last half century have not moved the country closer to democracy. Advocates of the Canadian and European approach to Cuba say it’s the U.S. embargo that has been a failure. Advocates of isolation argue that fifty years of trade and tourism from the rest of the world have brought no softening of the Castro regime. Both arguments are correct, but both exaggerate the importance of external factors. The explanation for why Cuba is still the way it is mostly has to do with Cuba itself. Years of living so close to the edge have made Cubans risk averse. A totalitarian regime has gone to extraordinary lengths to suppress ideas and action that challenge its authority. The combination of fierce repression and a paternalistic state has squelched initiative and fostered a culture of passivity. Years of seeing privileges going to those Cubans most willing to mimic the party line have produced a deep and widespread cynicism in the country.

Living in Cuba means dealing with chronic stress due to food and housing shortages, transportation woes, the inability to care properly for elderly parents, or harassment from the authorities. In recent years the harsh reality of daily Cuban life has been described by a small network of “independent journalists” whose informal reports are transmitted occasionally by telephone or e-mail and appear outside Cuba on www.CubaNet.org and other Web sites. Most are ordinary Cubans, often writing anonymously, who relate small but telling developments: a soon-to-be-married couple in Santa Clara waits all night at a government office for a document entitling them to a single night in a local hotel, only to be told that all such “honeymoon reservations” were suspended “by order of the national government.” A man named Ricardo is sentenced to twenty-two months in prison for driving a pedicab without a license. Pharmacies in Havana have not received their monthly supply of sanitary napkins. (Cuban women between the ages of ten and fifty-five should be able to buy ten napkins per month if they have registered for the ration, but only if the pharmacies get their allotment.) Three government inspectors seize cigarettes and candy worth four dollars from a seventy-five-year-old woman named Zoila, who was selling the goods at a bus station to augment her fifteen-dollar-a-month pension.

Most of the stories simply draw attention to quotidian problems and grievances, but taken as a whole they illustrate the tableau of frustration and hardship against which Cubans struggle and explain why the selective allocation of favor and privilege can be such a powerful control mechanism. People live so precariously that the prospect of dramatic change frightens even those who want it. “We have so little,” a friend in Santiago once told me, “but that only means we cannot afford to lose what little we have.”

For the past two years, the existential reality of Cuban life has been beautifully and daringly chronicled by the thirty-three-year-old blogger Yoani Sánchez, who manages to sneak her short commentaries onto her “Generation Y” Web site, www.DesdeCuba.com/generationy, via friends with Internet access, often in tourist hotels. Some of Yoani’s posts are angry, some are funny, all are irreverent.

I argued with a lady in line for malanga root. She wanted to let her two friends cut in, but I figured that if they did I wouldn’t get my ration. In the end I let the two old ladies cut the line and didn’t even insult them when the clerk announced, “It’s closed, there’s no more!” It depresses me to get into a fight over food, which is probably why I’m so skinny. When I see myself reduced to fighting for food I feel badly and prefer to come home with an empty shopping bag. Of course my family offers no thanks for my pacifism.

To console them, I bought a few boxes of bouillon cubes, which has come to be the most common food in this city. When some confused tourist asks me what a typical Cuban dish is, I say I don’t remember, but I know the most common recipes: “Rice with a beef bouillon cube,” “rice with hot dog,” or the delicacy—“rice with a chicken and tomato bouillon cube.” This last one has a color between pink and orange that is most amusing.

Few Cubans dare to express themselves so clearly. Sánchez spent two years living in Switzerland, where she gained a perspective on her Cuban life. She returned to Havana with a new conviction that Cuban citizens should feel free to say what they think. The country’s officials ridicule her for having virtually no readers on the island (mostly true, because only 2 percent of Cubans have access to the Internet, one of the lowest rates on the planet), but that is beside the point. Yoani Sánchez does not write to her fellow Cubans as much as she writes for them.

I am aware that I have been silent, that I have allowed a few others to govern my island as if they were running a hacienda. I accepted others making the decisions that touch us all, while I hid behind the excuse of being too young, too fragile. I applauded—like almost everyone—and left my country when I was fed up, telling myself that it was much easier to forget than to try to change something.

The example Yoani sets with her writing clearly troubles the Cuban authorities. She has won international awards for her writing but is prohibited from leaving Cuba to receive them. State security agents hang out at the door to her apartment building, taking note of her comings and goings and anyone who stops by for a visit. In December 2008, Yoani and her husband Reinaldo were summoned to the local police station and warned against going ahead with a meeting they were planning with fellow bloggers. “You have transgressed all limits of tolerance by associating with counter-revolutionary elements,” they were told.

The accusation was important. For fifty years, Cubans who have dared to criticize the government or the Cuban leadership have had to worry about being labeled “counter-revolutionary,” as though their only choice was to endorse the “revolution” in its totality or join the ranks of its enemies. Fidel Castro himself laid down the central principle in a 1961 speech to Cuban intellectuals: “Inside the revolution, everything. Outside the revolution, nothing.” In Cuba, there is no gray area, no undefined civil space that is not claimed by the regime. Every public action must fit within the framework of the revolution and affirm it.

I saw how this essentially totalitarian idea works in practice when I reported on Cuba’s response to Hurricane Ivan, which swept across the western end of the island with winds exceeding 100 miles per hour in September 2004. In Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago the storm had killed twenty-five people and left 150 injured. But not a single Cuban was killed or injured, due to a highly organized evacuation. The United Nations cited Cuba’s actions as exemplary for other developing nations.

What I found in covering Ivan, however, made me wonder whether the Cuban hurricane response would be replicable in a democratic society. The Cuban news media are controlled entirely by the government and for several days in advance of Ivan’s arrival, programming was devoted almost exclusively to instruction in hurricane preparedness. The groundwork for the evacuation was carried out by the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), a citizens watch group normally dedicated to policing Cubans’ behavior and looking for signs of political deviation. The hurricane response as a whole was organized by the Communist Party, and without the strict authority of the Party and the state behind it, the operation would have been far less effective. Camilo Pérez, a member of the Communist Party’s “ideological committee” in central Cuba, acknowledged that the Party used the hurricane as an exercise in social mobilization. “With our mass organizations, we’re always working to keep the people united and cohesive,” he told me, “and this is an occasion to do that around a concrete situation. The role of the Communist Party at a time like this is to guide the society and make sure every organization carries out its assignment.”

Cubans appreciate that their government handles hurricanes capably, but not the political control apparatus that lies behind such operations. The CDRs are supposed to monitor who visits whom, who says what in daily conversations, which Cubans “volunteer” for extra community work, who speaks up in defense of the Cuban leadership in workplace or neighborhood gatherings, who attends Party-organized rallies, and who knows the Party line and shouts Party slogans the loudest. Based on such tallies, the local CDR leaders recommend which households get telephone lines and whose sons and daughters get opportunities for university studies in their field of interest. It is an effective way to control the population, but the use of the CDRs inevitably breeds resentment against those Cubans who are seen by their neighbors as positioning themselves politically for personal advantage.

The politicization of public life is even seen in health care and education. The government has devoted substantial resources to vaccination campaigns, nutrition education, and community clinics, but the services are delivered in such a way as to reinforce the authority of the Party and the state. Health workers serve the Cuban revolution, not the Cuban patient. There is no such thing as doctor-patient confidentiality and no concept of individual patient rights. The schooling story is similar. School administrators are held to high standards, and Cuban children score highly on standardized achievement tests. But Cuban schools are centralized, with a hierarchical chain of command and no parental role in governance or policy decisions. Rote learning is the rule, and students are taught to be subservient to the Communist Party and the Cuban state. A chill went up my spine the first time I visited a Cuban classroom and heard the students line up in formation and shout, “¡Seremos como el Che!” We will be like Che!

American visitors to the island often bring along ideological baggage from their own experiences back home. I know I have. My one visit to Cuba prior to my 1994 reporting trip was in 1980, when I went there as a young teacher. I was curious about Cuba’s implementation of its “Schools in the Countryside” program, which had struck me—on the basis of what I had read—as an interesting secondary education model. Each of the schools was attached to a farm, and the students alternated classroom learning with productive work in some aspect of the agricultural enterprise. In theory, the students took responsibility for generating the revenue needed to support the school and in the process learned valuable lessons about enterprise management. The school I visited in Cuba seemed to be working well, and I came away impressed.

It was only years later, back in Cuba as a journalist, that I learned that the escuelas en el campo were deeply unpopular. Students from urban backgrounds were sent to the countryside schools involuntarily, and many parents saw them as institutions of political indoctrination, designed at least in part to substitute the Cuban state for the Cuban family in the formation of adolescent thinking and values. Moreover, discipline was loose in the farm schools, and the pregnancy rate among the girls was very high, as was the number of abortions performed in health clinics serving the student population. Such thoughts had not occurred to me as an idealistic young American being guided around the one school I visited.

It is always important to evaluate Cuban programs and institutions within their political context, not separately from it. No imperative ranks higher in Cuba than the preservation of the political system. Schools and hospitals are woefully underequipped these days, but Cuban security services are still well financed. Salaries for policemen in Cuba are half again as high as doctors’ or teachers’ salaries, and state security agents are paid substantially more than policemen. Even in times of economic hardship, the secret police have the resources to monitor every dissident voice in Cuba.

Over several years, I followed the treatment of three brave Cubans in particular. Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a former diplomat and government economist, was imprisoned in March 2003 after publishing critical commentaries through CubaNet, which at the time was receiving some indirect U.S. government funding. Raúl Rivero, a former Communist Party journalist who once directed the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, was arrested in the same crackdown. He had organized the first network of independent journalists in Cuba. Hilda Molina was the first female neurosurgeon in Cuba and the founder of the Center for Neurological Restoration, which became world famous for its experimental surgical treatments for Parkinson’s disease. When Fidel asked her to devote her clinic services exclusively to foreigners willing to pay in hard currency, Molina refused, especially because he also asked her to be more aggressive in promoting her surgical treatments than she thought medically wise. To defy Fidel Castro in Cuba is to invite serious repercussions. Her clinic was taken away from her, and she was barred from practicing medicine and prohibited from leaving Cuba. (Under international pressure, the Cuban authorities in June 2009 finally agreed to let Molina travel.)

The lesson Cubans take from such examples is not to challenge authority. The result has been a culture of passivity in Cuba, from top to bottom. Generally, there is little to be gained and much to be lost by taking an initiative without knowing whether it will be welcomed by those higher in the chain of command: better simply to fit in.

It is not necessarily shameful to do so. There is much to be accomplished in Cuba, and many professionals care about their work. Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Raúl Rivero, and Hilda Molina toiled for decades in responsible positions within the political system. All were loyal Communist Party members who believed in the Cuban revolution. The doctor assigned to the school I visited in January 2000 struck me as a dedicated professional who clearly took seriously his responsibility for overseeing the health of the students. On that same visit, I met a teacher who made all her instructional materials by hand, because there was no budget for worksheets or other accessories. I have also met historians, museum curators, and scientific researchers who take professional pride in their work. The uniformed Cuban policemen with whom I have had contact have been unfailingly polite and disciplined. A critical question for the country’s future, however, is whether Cubans will dare to venture out of their safe zone, to speak up when they see something that needs changing. What distinguished Espinosa Chepe, Rivero, and Molina from their professional colleagues was less their ideology than their courage and self-confidence. For average working Cubans, the inclination to conform is even more deeply felt, fostered by a highly paternalistic state that provides for Cubans’ basic needs without nurturing individual responsibility.

With passivity comes cynicism, of course. Raúl Rivero once told me that many people who offered to write for him as “independent journalists” were mostly interested in getting their byline on a story so they could take it to the U.S. diplomatic mission as evidence they were “dissidents” and therefore entitled to political asylum in the United States. “Sometimes I feel like I’m running a travel agency,” Raúl said, after several of his “journalists” emigrated.

On that occasion, in January 2000, Raúl also told me he worried that some of his writers were collaborating with the secret police. In fact, when he was arrested three years later, the main witnesses against him were two undercover state security agents who had long worked for Rivero as “journalists,” Odilia Collazo and Manuel David Orrio. I interviewed them a few weeks later. Orrio had specialized in documenting flaws in the Cuban economic system. I had been impressed by his critiques, especially with respect to the practice of Cuban agriculture, and I told him so. “Thank you,” he said, beaming. “I predicted all the problems with the Cuban sugar industry.” To my amazement, he said he would like to find a way to continue working as a journalist, apparently seeing no irony in the fact that he had just helped send his mentor to prison.

Odilia Collazo had a similar attitude. During her undercover years, she had specialized in documenting human rights abuses in Cuba. Like Orrio, she proudly said she would not take back a single word of what she had written. “Every year I made a human rights report for the [U.S.] State Department,” she said. “It was the most complete report of human rights violations prepared in this country. Anyone who came here with that report would know that what they had in their hands was the truth.” It did not seem to trouble Collazo (code-named “Tanya”) that she had been working for the number one human rights violator in Cuba, the state security agency. When I met her, she had two state security medals pinned on her red t-shirt. She had earned them by incriminating Raúl Rivero, but she could not bring herself to say a bad word about him. “I admire Raúl Rivero,” she said, her eyes tearing. “I love him. He’s a wonderful person, a person with a good heart. He gave what he had to support a cause. When he won money from some journalism award, he always shared it with us, all the people who worked with him.”

Orrio and Collazo are extreme cases, but they exemplify all those Cubans who work to keep the regime in power even while personally acknowledging the fraudulence at its core. When I asked Collazo how she could justify the imprisonment of Oscar Espinosa Chepe and Raúl Rivero, knowing as she did that their criticisms of the Cuban system had been well-founded, she answered simply, “They were on one side and I was on the other.” Truth was irrelevant in the game she played.

Between the risk averseness, the repression, the culture of passivity, and the deep cynicism, it is no wonder reformers in Cuba get discouraged. But Yoani Sánchez says she runs every day into another person who has become disillusioned.

“There are those who turn in their Communist Party cards and emigrate to live with their married daughter in Italy, or those who choose the peaceful work of caring for their grandchildren and waiting in line for bread. . . . I sense this conversion—slow in some, dizzyingly fast in others—all around me, as if under the island sun thousands have shed their skin.”

If Cuba is to change, the impetus is likely to come from the top. Some contours of a scenario are already evident. A decade and a half of joint ventures between the Cuban state and foreign corporations have produced a constituency for Cuba moving toward a more capitalist orientation. Many of the Cuban technocrats who work in the mixed enterprises know they stand to benefit personally from a major transition to market economics. Among them, for example, are the senior Cuban employees of Havana Club International, the highly successful French-Cuban enterprise that produces and markets Cuba’s Havana Club rum around the world (except in the United States). A couple of years ago I asked one high-ranking Cuban at the enterprise whether he saw a bright future for his rum company. “Well, he can’t live forever,” was his cryptic response. His meaning was clear. This was a government manager who probably owed his job to his Communist Party connections. His candid answer hinted at the extent to which the Cuban nomenklatura are biding their time, eager to leave behind the fifty years of economic stagnation that Fidel Castro has left them.

One untold story is what, exactly, lay behind Raúl Castro’s abrupt dismissal in March 2009 of Carlos Lage, the executive secretary of the Council of Ministers, and Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, along with several other senior officials. Lage, 58, had effectively served as Cuba’s deputy prime minister and was widely seen as Raúl’s likely successor. Pérez Roque, just 44, was also seen as a future leader. In a newspaper column after their dismissal, Fidel suggested (without naming them) that the two officials had been seduced by “the honey of power.” Both men are said to have been secretly recorded at social gatherings making derogatory comments about various Cuban leaders, including Fidel and Raúl. In their public speeches, of course, Lage and Pérez Roque had lavishly praised the Castros and emphasized their determination to defend the Cuban revolution against all enemies. If in reality they were only interested in the pursuit of their personal political interests, it suggests that the competition for power in the aftermath of Fidel and Raúl’s departure from the scene will be intense.

I suspect that change in Cuba, when it comes, will be less sweeping than some in Washington—or Miami—have called for. Cubans have learned to depend on their government to meet many of their needs, including free (if often shoddy) medical care, and there will be continued demand for social welfare services, no matter who takes power. On the other hand, it is hardly clear that Cubans will be as reflexively jealous of their independence as some Cuba experts predict. Cuban nationalism has been a powerful force on the island since the earliest days of the struggle for independence from Spain, but it has almost certainly been weakened by fifty years of Fidel Castro harping ad nauseam on the U.S. threat. One dissident Cuban, writing anonymously on the CubaNet Web site in 2004, argued angrily that the Castro regime “has destroyed any nationalist sentiment among the youth sector of the population. . . . Emigrating to the United States or waiting for Fidel Castro to die, those are the favored options in Cuba. If there were a referendum to choose between sovereignty and annexation to the colossus of the north, the independent Cuban nation would perish unnoticed. And this is the crime that history will not pardon.”

As for the Cuban people, years of suffering and buried resentments could produce an eruption of anger in the post-Castro era, but it is not clear who would be the targets. Yoani Sánchez imagines Cubans “with a stick or a knife under the bed, waiting for a day they can use them . . . against those who betrayed them, denied them a better job, or made sure their youngest child could not study at the university.” But in the post-Castro era there could also be animosity toward those Cubans who return from years in comfortable exile and try to reclaim their grandparents’ properties or lecture their Cuban relatives over their failure to have opposed Fidel more energetically.

For the exile hard-liners, there has been just one issue: bringing a quick end to the Castro dictatorship. Val Prieto, whose Babalu Blog is widely followed in exile circles, opposed the relaxation of remittance restrictions in a December 2006 posting, arguing instead to keep the pressure on the regime, even if it meant more short-term suffering for ordinary Cubans. “Let Fidel take care of the Cuban people,” he wrote. “And if the Cuban people remain content with that, if they are content being slaves, being second class citizens in their own country, being beggars of tourists and foreigners, living in squalor, with no hope and no future, scrounging for food and selling their asses and souls for scraps, then there is nothing else to say.” But there are not many Cubans on the island whose politics are so pure that they are ready to risk everything to challenge their government. If those few are the only Cubans who deserve the exiles’ respect, the prospects for reconciliation within the broader Cuban nation are not good.

I will know Cuba has changed when there is a new ideological tone in the official discourse. From the earliest years of his revolution, Fidel Castro had nothing but scorn (or worse) for those Cubans who didn’t entirely share his vision. The 10 percent of the Cuban population who chose to flee their homeland rather than live under Castro’s dictatorial rule were gusanos (worms) or worse. “What do the ones who left signify?” Fidel asked in a 1962 speech to Cuban medical students. “It is the same thing as squeezing a boil. Those who have left are the pus, the pus that was expelled when the Cuban revolution squeezed the society. How good the body feels when pus is eliminated!” Cuba will be on a different course when words of reconciliation replace the vitriol.

Another sign will be when the country’s leaders stop urging Cubans to embrace war, suffering, and death. In the early, more optimistic, years of the revolution, Fidel Castro held out the promise of a better life for Cubans, even predicting at one point that “our production of milk will exceed that of Holland, and our production of cheese will exceed that of France.” But after the collapse of socialist solidarity, Fidel’s rhetoric changed. In 1991, he warned that Cubans should be ready to “live in hell” if necessary, and a year later he said they should be willing to commit “the last drop of sweat and the last drop of blood” to defend socialism.

The U.S. government, meanwhile, will be watching for signs that the Cuban leadership is open to friendly relations with Washington. Fidel Castro has been locked into an adversarial relationship with the United States throughout his rule, even seeing it as a necessary element in the regime’s identity. “A revolution that was not attacked would not be a true revolution,” he wrote in 1961. When Cuban leaders no longer see an existential need to have an enemy across the water, the prospects for U.S.-Cuba rapprochement will be much improved.

Barack Obama has already set the stage, with his call in April 2009 for “a new beginning” with Cuba. The problem is Fidel, who is on a ten-president winning streak with Washington and is not inclined to start over. On the day following the Obama administration’s relaxation of U.S.-Cuba travel and remittance policies, Fidel chose to devote his regular newspaper column to the anniversary that week of the 1961 CIA-directed Bay of Pigs invasion. “That date cannot be forgotten,” Fidel wrote. Not by him or his generation perhaps, but most Cubans had no more recollection of the invasion than Barack Obama had.

With his pouty responses to Obama’s rise, Fidel showed only that he was losing his famed political touch. In an October 2008 commentary, he wrote that the United States was too racist to allow a black man to become president. Obama’s subsequent victory and the national celebration around his inauguration only made the eighty-two-year-old comandante look foolish and mean. He later offered some grudging words of praise, but when Obama charmed his fellow leaders at the Summit of the Americas, Fidel complained that the young U.S. president seemed “conceited.” It was not a charge likely to stick with his fellow Cubans, who are yearning for something on which to pin some hope. The future is unknowable, and it will take a combination of favorable developments for change to come. And yet, one by one, the pieces are falling into place.

Tom Gjelten is a correspondent for National Public Radio and the author of Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause.

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