You can talk to John Lennon at any time in Havana; just don't expect much of an answer. Cast in bronze, life-sized and bespectacled, the former Beatle sits on a bench in a small park shaded by the scarlet leaves of flame trees. He might seem an incongruous presence among the graciously down-at-heel mansions and avenues of green, suburban Vedado. But the Fab Four were, and are, idolised in Cuba. On this baking Sunday afternoon, a trickle of devotees turns up to pay homage to the metal superstar. After some regrettable spec-nicking incidents, he even boasts his own, ancient attendant.
In his own way, the Liverpudlian legend on Calle 17 matters in Havana. The Beatles in their prime became targets of official displeasure. So Cubans were amazed that, when the statue was inaugurated in 2000, another Sixties icon did the honours: Fidel Castro himself. Since his revolutionary forces entered Havana in January 1959, their views on Cuban cultural connections with the outside world have swung like an unbolted door in an autumn hurricane. Fidel's blessing of the Beatle came at the close of Bill Clinton's presidency, when hopes grew for an end to the US trade embargo. It embodied one moment – among several – of relative tolerance. Soon after his victory, Fidel had issued his gnomic dictum on cultural freedom: "Within the Revolution, everything; outside it, nothing". The trouble was, and remains, that the government alone fixed those boundaries.
Now, the door to public dissidence has suddenly slammed shut. Early last month, as the world watched the Iraqi war, Cuban courts summarily tried and jailed 75 independent journalists, librarians and human-rights activists, many under the draconian "Law 88" that punishes contacts with a foreign power. The sentences ranged from six to 28 years, with most leading figures locked away for two decades and more. Many are now held in prisons hundreds of kilometres from their homes.
This savage assault on free expression is Castro's responsibility. Yet the Americans cynically set a trap for him, and he took the bait. Since August 2002, James Cason – the meddlesome diplomat who heads the US Interests Section in Havana – has grown ever brasher in his backing for dissent. Crucially, a seminar for 34 opposition journalists at the residence of this far-from-quiet American on 14 March gave the authorities their pretext for a swoop. Many victims were led there by misplaced trust in Castro's most spectacular double agent: Manuel David Orrio, aka "Agent Miguel", ostensibly the head of the Independent Journalists' Co-operative in Havana, in fact a state informer for 11 years. "You put yourself in the skin of this character until you believe in it," he told the Communist Party daily newspaper Granma.
"The opposition is dead. It will never raise its head again," crowed Aleida Godinez, alias "Agent Vilma", personal assistant to the economist Marta Beatriz Roque (who's now serving 20 years) and another long-term informer.
Yet reactions to the crackdown continue. On Sunday, Mother's Day in Cuba, 30 female relatives of detainees staged a silent protest outside a church. They included Gisela Delgado, the wife of Hector Palacios, who is beginning a 25-year sentence. Palacios helps to run the Varela Project, which has legally collected more than 30,000 signatures requesting a referendum on electoral reform. Its leader, Oswaldo Paya Sardinas – winner of the European Union's Sakharov human-rights award – remains at liberty, as yet untouchable.
Further down Calle 17 in Vedado stands the elegant offices of the Cuban Writers Union (UNEAC), its magnolia-and-cream façade immaculate amid other time-worn frontages. In a country where intellectuals have made history as much as interpreted it, the union has always been much more than a talking shop. In the Eighties, the most celebrated victim of the April crackdown worked here as public relations director: the poet and journalist Raul Rivero. Once a favoured state scribe, Rivero left UNEAC in 1989. Two years later, he signed a "Letter of the Intellectuals" in which 10 leading writers condemned political imprisonment. Of the 10, only Rivero stayed in Cuba.
From 1995, he ran the non-governmental Cuba Press agency. Constantly harassed, it operated from a tiny office in Havana's dingy Chinatown, on a narrow restaurant street filled with caged birds and jaunty paper dragons. Fearless and funny as he was, Rivero the paper tiger proved no match for the regime. In April, he picked up a 20-year sentence. "What they found on him was a tape recorder, not a hand grenade," lamented his wife, Blanca Reyes. A while ago, Rivero wrote an article that sums up the position of the detainees: "Nobody can make me feel like a criminal, an enemy target, a turncoat, or any of the other name-calling nouns the government uses to try to degrade or humiliate us. I am merely a man who writes; one who writes in the country where I was born."
On a May weekend in torrid but laid-back Havana, this vicious bout of persecution could almost be unfolding in another galaxy. Mansion by mansion, the breathtakingly ambitious restoration of the old town continues under the scholarly command of the city's official historian, Eusebio Leal. Amid a discreet riot of lovely pastel stonework and cool jungly courtyards, you could be forgiven for concluding that the "Oficina del Historiador" really runs the place. Eat your hearts out, Starkey and Schama.
Even in La Habana Vieja, however, there's no escape from Cuba's surveillance society. In the most picturesque corners lurk offices of the CDR: the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. There's one almost next door to the tourist-trap Bodeguita del Medio bar, where Ernest Hemingway drank mojitos; another on the exquisitely spruced-up Calle Oficios, not far from a Benetton store. The CDRs (15,000 in Havana alone) do contribute to local welfare and security. In the most dilapidated alleys, I felt at risk solely from the children's high-speed games of street baseball. But they also act as the ever-vigilant eyes and ears of state and party: CDR gossip figured in the indictment against Rivero.
Contradictions still abound. In Old Havana, there is a memorial garden for Diana, Princess of Wales. The green corner dedicated to "Diana de Gales" sports not merely an odd phallic column, a pond and a river view. A crown, symbol of hereditary monarchy, curiously adorns its wrought-iron gate. The public face of Fidel's revolution now reflects a tropical variety of what you might call Heritage Communism. Reverence for the past conceals an alarming vagueness about the future.
Wonderful as they are, the grizzled maestros of the Afro-Cuban All Stars/Buena Vista Social Club network slot neatly into Heritage Communism. (The regime always backed Afro-Cuban culture, and only the most cynical curmudgeon could fail to enjoy Havana's attitude-free, multiracial ease.) On Saturday, a band featuring three Buena Vista veterans was playing at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
Commanding the broad curve of the bay from palm-fringed lawns, the Nacional remains absurdly glamorous. Photographs of celebrity guests, from Frank Sinatra to Kate Moss, fill its "history hall" and line the stairs. The rock musician Peter Frampton left his guitar here. Naomi Campbell's signed picture labels her "Top Model": a bold claim here, given that any Havana street will reveal competition that could knock today's catwalk queens off the runway.
Yet swanky dollar-only hotels also belong in the ideological galaxy created by Fidel. (In the Nacional, you'll find a picture of Che Guevara wielding a golf club.) For a start, Cuba's revival as a tourist honeypot owes more to necessity than choice. After the flight of Cuba's Soviet friends after 1990, the economy fell off a cliff into the desperate privations of the "Special Period". The years of dearth began to imperil even the huge achievements in schooling and public health that had turned Castro's Havana into a safer place than President Bush's Houston for the young, old and sick.
The decision in 1993 to make the US dollar legal tender granted the government a fiscal get-out-of-jail card. It also created a grossly unequal two-tier society. The strains show, not so much in overt dissent as in the constant low-level hustling for greenbacks that greets every visitor. Cuban jineterismo – jockeying – stretches from straightforward prostitution to touting for paladraes (private dining-rooms), and the hilarious way that every one of Havana's vintage Chevrolets and Buicks turns into a taxi when you stroll past. Jineterismo can have its charming, harmless side. After dark, in those US cities which the US wants Havana to resemble, you'll find crack and smack for sale. On Saturday night, in a downtown side-street, someone made me a whispered offer of sinful, delicious paella.
Often, the jineteros sincerely want to talk, as well as to relieve you of dollars. They're hungry for information; but they may be simply hungry, too. A bicycle-pushing musician gave me a spanking new peso note in exchange for a couple of small bills. He needed the greenbacks, he said, to buy soap and shampoo for his mother's birthday. True or not, that sounds perfectly plausible. In a city where every billboard delivers not advertising slogans but the mantras of equality, wrenching inequality deepens. Cubans notice, and understand. Besides, their exiled families in "La Yuma" (the US) help to keep the nation afloat, with $1.2bn (about £750m) annually in remittances.
The block of the US Interests Section squats on the Malecon seafront. Nearby stand the huge steel arches of the so-called protestodromo arena, planted near the American citadel after the diplomatic tussle over six-year-old Elian Gonzalez. Shouting out to sea – and Florida – is a poster that shows a Cuban soldier telling Uncle Sam: "Mister Imperialists, we're not afraid of you at all". A gaggle of polite kids fussed around. Then they sat on the sea wall facing Florida and chatted: immaculately turned out, immaculately behaved, a quartet of 10-year-old Afro-Cubanas who presented a far better advertisement for the Revolution than any crude cartoon.
"Another, better world is possible", urges another poster slogan. As a message, it's classic late-period Fidel: hard-edged Marxism now fades into vague humanitarian uplift. Cubans may now interpret that "better world" in an unofficial way, but they have proved extraordinarily patient about seeking it. People here do a lot of waiting, and they do it well. At the weekend, crowds stood merrily in line outside the much-loved Coppelia ice-cream emporium, a Sixties concrete spaceship grounded in its own little park. Behind the queue, a poster shows Fidel looming up behind the balding pate of Jose Marti, poet and rebel, the revered national hero of the struggle against Spanish colonialism, who was born 150 years ago. "Always keep in your heart the lessons of the master", advises the nebulous slogan.
What lessons would those be? National self-determination, for sure: Marti distrusted the nascent power of the US as much as the decadent power of Spain. Devoid of fresh ideas, Fidel now depends more than ever on the patriotic mantle of Marti. If, on Cuba's old National Day (20 May, next Tuesday), President Bush announces more interfering anti-Cuban measures, he will serve Castro's purposes. Last week, the director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, told Congress that aggressive US policy "is counterproductive to the cause of human-rights reform".
Fidel also has an anniversary of his own in the offing. This year, 26 July will mark half a century since the "Asalto", when he and 120 followers tried to jump-start their revolution by storming the barracks of Moncado in Santiago. "Condemn me if you will. History will absolve me," he proclaimed at the trial that sent him to jail and then into Mexican exile.
Of course, the jury of history is still out on Castro. As for PresidentBush and his cohort of White House interventionists, it has scarcely even convened. Perhaps an amnesty for Cuban political detainees, announced on 26 July, would sway its verdict decisively. Meditating forever in his tranquil Vedado park, John Lennon knows that we're always free to imagine that other, better world.Reuse content