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."

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