50 years of Castro

The Cuban revolution is half a century old this week. But to many of its children, the Communist regime is as rickety as the crumbling buildings of Old Havana. Leonard Doyle reports

With a nose ring and a mop of black curls, Gorki is an unhappy child of Fidel Castro's Communist Revolution. The punk rocker, who is passing into middle age, sat in his sparsely furnished flat in Havana yesterday contemplating the viciousness of his recent punishment: four years of hard labour for irritating the neighbours by holding band practice at home.

Gorki, who has been released on probation, is a model of good behaviour. His flat is bare boards and unadorned. There are no instruments around and the ashtrays are overflowing. The single couch is ripped at every seam.

He tips back and forth on a wooden rocker, trying to make sense of his predicament: as an enemy of the Revolution he is now forbidden from performing in public. The 40-year-old musician mimes with an air guitar how he and the band practice as silently as possible. "I am being slowly suffocated by this regime," he says with a look of desperate hopelessness.

A four-year jail sentence was lifted after a global outcry in August. But the threat of prison still hangs over him. "Cuba is just like Alice in Wonderland," Gorki says. "Everything is upside down, nothing makes sense. I'm not into politics but my songs are deemed politically incorrect and I get sentenced for practising! Its absurd."

He survives as a silkscreen artist making rock band tribute T-shirts.

As he described his predicament, on his flickering television set play scenes from an invitation-only birthday party honouring the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. On the screen, Raul Castro, 77, the author of Gorki's misfortunes, intoned that many difficulties and much work lay ahead in the never-ending Revolution.

"There are many positive things, but at the same time there are new problems that we have to confront. We haven't had peace, we haven't had tranquillity," he told the assembled party apparatchiks. Later last night, Castro was due to speak from the balcony in Santiago de Cuba where his brother, Fidel, declared victory over the ousted Batista dictatorship on 2 January 1959.

Gorki snorts in derision.

Havana woke yesterday from a night of New Year celebrations without much of a hangover. There was a brief flurry of fireworks as midnight struck and sound trucks dashed around the city extolling the virtues of the Communist Party. Most families gathered for loud celebrations in their apartments but ignored the official events.

In the heart of Old Havana the fastest way from Ernest Hemingway's favourite hotel to La Floridita, the bar where he took his sundowners, is up the cobbled Avenida de Obispo. It is where tourists and Cubans rub shoulders and a good place to see the apartheid system that has grown up in 50 years of Communism. Alberto Riojo was sipping a shaved ice cone while going though the motions of celebrating. "Welcome to our Socialist utopia," he says with bitterness as all around him drunken European tourists handed over hard currency for mojitos. Each round costs more than an average Cuban is allowed to earn in a month.

The Communist state survives, nonetheless. Poor as they are, Cubans are among the best educated and healthiest in the world. Life expectancy is almost as high as in the United States, 76 years for men and 80 for women. In its near neighbour Haiti, by contrast, people die 20 years younger on average.

Raul Castro, now 77, is in charge and as dour a Stalinist technocrat as can be found. He has little of his ailing older brother Fidel's strategic vision and none of his genius for publicity. And now, his Communist regime faces a time of great peril. Three hurricanes ravaged large parts of Cuba last year and the hard currency that pours into the regimes coffers from tourism is sharply down. For decades, Cuba could blame its problems on the bellicose US and the American trade embargo, in place since 1961.

But with Barack Obama heading to the White House and extending a hand of friendship to the Cuban people, the regime finds itself on boggy ground as it tries to whip up anti-American sentiment.

When Raul Castro formally took over in Cuba in February, he was hailed as a pragmatist who would relax the Communist Party's grip. There was a flurry of excitement when he allowed Cubans to buy mobile phones. But the call tariffs, at $1 a minute, are among are the most expensive in the world. He also ended the ban on Cubans staying in hotels, another meaningless gesture. A night in the Hotel Riviera, where the mobster Meyer Lanksy held sway in the Fifties, costs the equivalent of several months salary. Yet as masterful as Fidel Castro was at uniting Cubans against Washington's predatory plotting, Raul has none of his flair. His expertise instead is instilling fear.

Raul's purges of the military have worked spectacularly well. There has never been a coup attempt, never a mutiny or even a barracks revolt in the regime's 50 years of existence.

One of Raul's most scathing critics inside the country is Yoani Sanchez, 33, who is Cuba's best-known blogger. She openly describes the regime as "scientific repression". Her ironic blogs are popular outside Cuba. Inside the country they are blocked.

She lives high above Havana in a modern 14th floor apartment. Like so much in Cuba, everything is crumbling. The lifts have been broken for longer than anyone can remember. Infirm old women trudg up narrow flights of stairs to their apartments, wheezing for breath. Piles of construction materials littered the hallways.

Inside her flat, Ms Sanchez keeps up her searing attacks on the regime: "They don't have to kill us with bullets any more, these days the regime uses a more scientific method of killing us as citizens," she says. "The regime understands it's not necessary to kill us physically. All the Cuban citizens are already dead. We police ourselves and censor everything we say before we open our mouths, we are dead men walking."

Words like those would be enough to earn Ms Sanchez a 20-year jail sentence but she feels protected, thanks to the internet. She is often asked why she is allowed to stay free while so many others rot in Raul Castro's jails. "The security services are well aware that if they so much as lay a hand on me, the internet will explode," she says. "They will have an even bigger problem on their hands then."

Ms Sanchez's dispatches are translated into 12 languages and available at desdecuba.com/generationy. When she was awarded Spain's prestigious Ortega y Gasset prize for online journalism this year, the regime refused her permission to travel to pick up her award. She describes the personal internal Gulag that Cubans have learnt to construct inside their heads to survive under Communism. "We censor ourselves much more effectively than the regime ever could," she says. "We even police our brains before we even utter an idea." Like so many in Havana, she holds out high hopes for changes under Barack Obama and is optimistic that one distant day, the Communist regime will collapse in on itself. "Our society is like one of those rotten old buildings in Old Havana," she says. "At some point, someone will pull out a nail, at the whole thing will come tumbling down."

The name Barack Obama pops up in almost every conversation around Havana these days. His charm and easy smile already herald an end to decades of sabre-rattling between Washington and Havana. Mr Obama may be able to disarm the current Cuban regime without another shot being fired in anger. In May, while campaigning in Miami, Mr Obama met Hector Palacios, a prominent Cuban opposition leader just released from jail on health grounds. Mr Palacios appealed to Mr Obama to show flexibility.

Mr Obama took a risk on Cuba in the campaign by calling for "a new strategy" to improve the lives of Cubans. Two immediate changes are expected as soon as he takes office – the lifting of all travel restrictions for Cubans to visit their families and raising the limit on financial transfers from the current $300 every four months. Cuba will not be Mr Obama's top priority in office but it may be the first test of his promise to engage in "direct diplomacy" with America's enemies. If direct talks take place he will be the first US president to engage directly with Cuba since 1961.

Optimists are already building scenarios in which the 75 political prisoners in Cuba's jails are released in return for US concessions, followed by the return of Guantanamo as the US rids itself of the infamous 45 acres, which have only brought it ignominy in recent years.

"Not so fast," says Ms Sanchez. "This regime fears being swept away by the changes" and predicts that it will keep moving the goal posts and make it impossible for Mr Obama to come to an agreement.

Another Cuban dissident was more hopeful. "I couldn't care less about the mafia who run this country," says Carlos Serpa Cheipe. "We're waiting to hear what President Obama has to say."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links