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."

News
Shoppers at Selfridges department store in central London
news

News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
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

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game