People in Havana Talk

People in Havana Talk

Raúl Castro has relinquished his post as General Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. The government speaks of continuity, and only continuity.

A woman walks near a poster of the Eighth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in Havana, on May 3, 2021. (Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images)

The following essay by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura was written in the weeks preceding the Eighth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, held from April 16 to 19. At the congress, Raúl Castro stepped down from leadership of the party and his successor Miguel Díaz-Canal was elected. The essay was originally published in Nueva Sociedad and is translated here by Peter Bush.   

People in Havana talk. They talk about everything. They talk a lot, for example, about the resurgence of COVID-19, which in the last two months has reached figures verging on a thousand daily new cases of infection, when we had become used to less than a hundred. They talk about the news of so-called additional restrictive measures as a consequence of the pandemic: more closures, more controls. They talk about their poor neighbor who has just tested positive and is in the hospital. They talk, naturally they do, about the various embryonic Cuban vaccines, pinning their hopes on them as a future lifeline.

They are also talking, right now, about how the Cuban government authorized the country’s farmers to kill cattle to sell their meat and gave them the facilities to sell milk after an almost sixty-year ban on such activities. And that’s no small deal: you were given a worse sentence in Cuba for killing a cow than in India. You could go to prison for twenty years, for much longer than some murderers. Now, you will be able to sell meat and milk but, of course, subject to controls. Everything in Cuba is regulated and controlled, although everything soon sidesteps regulations and spirals out of control, like the spread of the epidemic. The real problem is that few cows remain in Cuba, a country that once exported meat.  

The decision to “liberate” livestock comes as part of an array of sixty-three measures of which, the official media assures us, “thirty are considered to be a priority and others of an immediate character, in order to stimulate the nation’s production of food”—something, as people keep saying, that is a problem that only gets worse. Those measures also included a reduction in the price of electricity for food producers, and price increases determined by the government.

People talk all the time about their money not going far enough. The long-awaited, much heralded currency unification has been implemented, removing from the scene the so-called convertible pesos (CUC), which had a degree of parity with the U.S. dollar, but were exchanged at a rate of 24 Cuban pesos (CUP) for each CUC . . . although sometimes at 12, or one for one, according to the commercial or administrative context of the exchange, the logical result being that you never knew the exact cost or worth of anything. That’s how the national economy functioned, or attempted to.

The official exchange rate for one U.S. dollar has now been set at 24 CUP, to avoid an excessive devaluation of Cuba’s currency. And state pensions and salaries have been increased fivefold in CUP, if not more, while the prices of products in state shops have gone up sevenfold, if not much more. However, as those state shops are out of stock, and there are long lines outside that may cause a hopeful shopper to spend five or six hours in the sun and rain with no bathroom to do what you have to do (people talk about that, endlessly), the black market for currency exchange has set the dollar and euro at more realistic rates: around 48 pesos to the dollar and 56 to the euro. And rising.

Naturally, people also talk about the fact that President Joe Biden hasn’t once glanced in our direction. They were hoping for changes to the extremely restrictive measures imposed by the previous administration, which ramped up the embargo, practically banned the transfer of remittances from the United States to Cuba, shut down the consulate in Havana, and made travel harder for Cubans with family on the other side of the Straits of Florida. Nowadays, any Cuban citizen hoping for a visa must go to a third country. To Guyana, say. And when they’re talking about that, people wonder: is Biden more of the same? So far Cubans feel that’s the case.  

But, most of all, people talk about “things” being bad. About the economy being in crisis, what with tourism being paralyzed and the traditional lack of efficiency, about the increase in dissident activity, about life becoming increasingly expensive and people going under. Even Miguel Díaz-Canel, the President of the Republic, says as much when he calls for immediate solutions—it’s urgent, and there’s no time for long-term palliatives.

And although people do talk about the Eighth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, I’m sure that fewer words, comments, and thoughts are being devoted to it than one might reasonably have anticipated. Even the official media, controlled by the party, has talked much less about it than on previous occasions. People find it hard to fathom what the congress will debate as regards “the updating of the Conceptualization of the Cuban Economic Model of Socialist Development and the implementing of the Lines of the Social and Economic Policy of the Party and the Revolution.” That is, they’ll talk the same talk, yet again.

Moreover, it’s said the congress will initiate changes. But we can only be sure about one, which we’ve known was coming for several years: General Raúl Castro will relinquish his post as General Secretary to the present President of the Republic.

What will that change bring? People don’t know and are hardly in a position to speculate. They know, because they’ve been told, that the congress will be an exercise in continuity, in the reaffirmation of the irreversibility of socialism in Cuba, or, in other words, that existing forms of government, politics, and social organization will basically be preserved.

If we had more information on what an assembly of the country’s maximum decision-making body might imply, people would perhaps have more to say. But secrecy is part of the Cuban political system. Nevertheless, one imagines that the departure of historic cadres and leaders will not transform past political practice, even though at an economic level, as I’ve pointed out, changes have gradually been introduced, because the country is suffering one of its worst crises in terms of finance, production, and supplies—not as severe as the 1990s, but almost.

With less expectation in the air than perhaps ought to be generated by a meeting of the only party of government, it would be desirable if the congress, held between April 16 and 19, were to raise more issues for debate and provide an idea of potential outcomes. That one result of the conclave could be a more thorough shake-up of economic structures that have been openly plagued by dysfunctional mechanisms and laws (like those that decimated the country’s livestock) or of the much delayed currency unification, which happened, because it could be deferred no longer, at the worst possible moment for the national economy (to cite only a couple of examples following on from what I previously mentioned), changes that could bring more hope to a population experiencing a period of infinite hardship, aggravated by the presence of the pandemic, which has disrupted the world economic order, and not only the island’s.

At a symbolic level, the congress marks a historical change in Cuba, since for the first time in six decades neither Fidel nor Raúl Castro will be at the helm. Over recent years, and increasingly over recent months, General Raúl Castro has made only sporadic public appearances, while President Díaz-Canel has enjoyed levels of visibility that surpass Fidel’s (if my memory serves me). As a result, we must wait to see whether the handover of power is for real and complete and what it means in terms of the new realities facing the country and the world. Although, I repeat, they speak about continuity, and only continuity.

A big vaccination campaign against COVID-19, with Cuban-made vaccines, may be the one great legacy of the Eighth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in April 2021. Raúl Castro’s exit from the active political scene logically represents a quite visible historical turn in the immediate term. But people need more. Not simply to talk about, but to improve their daily lives. I believe we Cubans deserve that much after making so many sacrifices.

And urgently, right now: no more long-term solutions that mostly never materialize, that vanish in time and space, in incompetence and oblivion.

Leonardo Padura is an award-winning Cuban novelist and journalist. Among his works are The Havana Quartet and The Man Who Loved Dogs.

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