City of ghosts: Waiting for a new Cuba to be born

The age of Fidel Castro is over – but what does the future hold? Leonard Doyle reports from Havana, where the old regime clings tightly to power but dissidents are growing increasingly vocal
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Under a full moon, a theatre of the absurd slowly unfolded in the cobbled square below Havana's magnificent old cathedral. In Fidel Castro's twilight hours, High Mass was about to begin. It would be led by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's top envoy, who ranks second only to the Pope.

This was not a Mass for the faithful in the common understanding of the term. Only a small number of ordinary Cubans were allowed to enter the cathedral square and stand at the back. And that was by invitation only. the plain people of Cuba would have to watch it on television.

The Cuban elite is busy jockeying for position now that Castro has abruptly ceded power and is in a state of rapidly declining health. The great helmsman of the Cuban revolution – who has ruled with a of mix of fear and charisma for the past 49 years, dominating every aspect of people's lives with petty regulations, bombarding them with tiresome speeches – is already in the slipstream of history.

The air in Havana is thick with rumours and with talk of change. Tomorrow the National Assembly will go through what passes for a democratic vote to choose a successor to Castro. But it is already an open secret, shared by mojito-pouring bartenders and voluble diplomats alike, that Fidel's younger brother Raul – who has been running the country for almost two years – is the anointed one.

Before trooping down to their reserved front row seats, members of the Cuban high command ate and drank to their hearts' content at El Patio, one of Havana's finest restaurants, conveniently located by the front door of the cathedral. Dressed in expensive Italian suits, a few with glamorous young partners on their arms, they took their places ahead of rows of nuns, priests and diplomats who sat in plastic chairs in a cordoned-off section of the square.

Then, led by an incense-burning priest, a procession of Cuban bishops arrived, followed by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State for the Vatican, wearing the tall pointed hat that marks him as a prince of the church and holding out his crozier.

The procession moved through the congregation touching off ripples of applause from the faithful. But it veered away at one point, turning back to the altar, rather than encounter a group known as the Damas de Blanco ("Ladies in White"), who are the only public face of resistance left in Cuba.

They were not meant to be at this Mass, although they are devout Catholics for the most part, who walk to church every Sunday, dressed all in white, to bring attention to the terrible fate of husbands, sons and brothers languishing in Castro's jails for up to 20 years for voicing "anti-revolutionary" opinions.

The Ladies in White, a number of whom are in their eighties, were told initially that without invitations they could not attend. Then they were allowed in under protest, but had to stand at the back throughout the two-hour service, although there were empty seats near the altar.

TheVatican has never shied away from courting power, but the church's naked embrace of the anti-clerical power elite had an Animal Farm-like quality to it that left some in the congregation slack jawed. Some of Fidel Castro's oldest cronies made it to Mass. They included the president of the National Assembly Ricardo Alarcon, Cuba's hard-line foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, and Juan Contino Aslan, the mayor of Havana.

All might have passed peacefully if the Ladies in White had been treated with some dignity and seated among the congregation as they had been promised. Instead, mid-way through the service, while Cardinal Bertone made a vacuous plea for reconciliation among all Cubans he was rudely interrupted, as the Ladies in White burst spontaneously into a religious song, crying out "Viva el Christo! Viva el Christo! Viva el Christo!"

Burly, plainclothed security men rushed in their direction and the cameras of the media wheeled around to film the moment of protest. Even the cardinal was thrown off track and had to pause. However, so tin-eared is the Vatican's top diplomat that he gave not a flicker of recognition to the long-suffering women and the hundreds of political prisoners they represent in Castro's gulag.

As soon as Mass ended, Cardinal Bertone descended from the altar to offer the Catholic "sign of peace" and a warm embrace for each member of the Cuban high command. Then it was all over, the cardinal had given his blessing to the Communists while keeping the faithful at bay.

But it will take more than a cardinal's embrace to save Cuba's revolution, when change starts happening in earnest. Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a dissident economist and journalist, is not a believer and he doesn't go to church. His wife, Miriam Leiva, is a believer and also one of the stalwarts of the Ladies in White.

Sitting in a rocker in their tiny Havana apartment, Oscar hoots with laughter at the memory of his last stay in one of Castro's most notorious jails. He was sentenced to 20 years for counter-revolutionary activities, which amounted to hosting a radio show over the telephone to Miami from his little apartment. "We were sent to Guantanamo," he said. "Cuba's Guantanamo that is," he added, savouring the irony of being separated only by razor wire and gun towers from America's infamous detention centre. More than half a century ago, Cuba leased a part of Guantanamo Bay to the US. After 2001 it became a convenient place to detain without trial and even torture terror suspects.

"While I was in Cuba's Guantanamo, I found out all about the US one," said Oscar. "The Americans even have a TV station for their Guantanamo, which we could tune into when the guards were out of sight."

Oscar and Miriam's apartment is so small that it must resemble the prison cells he occupied all over Cuba. So many books, reports and papers are piled up to the ceiling that they threaten to collapse and crush the sparrow-like Miriam at any moment.

Now a mainstay of the Ladies in White, Miriam was a senior Cuban diplomat until she was turfed out of her job for refusing to denounce and divorce her husband after his first conviction. She flitted in and out of the room fielding calls from around the world, while Oscar laid out, with the detail of an economist's mind, the sad wreckage of an economy that the incoming Cuban leader will inherit.

"We import 84 per cent of our food," he explained, "much of it from the US, and it is paid for in cash. Cuba doesn't even produce sugar any more, so badly is it managed. The infrastructure is collapsing; 43 per cent of the population have bad health and our doctors have gone to Venezuela to pay for the oil we need."

Suddenly there was a racket in the lane outside, followed by a man's voice loudly demanding their attendance at the monthly neighbour meeting for the "defence of the Revolution".

"Things are changing fast in Cuba," said Miriam, dismissing the intrusion with a wave of her hand. "People no longer fear the neighbourhood snoops and bullies. Now they have to shout because people can't be bothered to attend the meetings."

Miriam and Oscar are kept under constant surveillance by the regime. He is 67, with a number of serious health ailments. She is 57, her life a constant round of keeping the issue of the detainees alive and fearing that at any moment Oscar will be taken back to jail. "The judge warned me that I could be back inside with the snap of her fingers," said Oscar, showing his certificate of temporary release and the 18 years he has yet to serve. It takes guts to push back against a regime that controls every facet of life and holds on to power through fear.

Fidel Castro has ruled with a rod of iron, using the Communist Party to exert control down to the level of the smallest neighbourhood. A promising career can be extinguished for a gesture of perceived disloyalty, or a small act of rebellion can pitch a family into destitution.

Castro's departure opens up all sorts of possibilities in the minds of the opposition. In poor health since he received major abdominal surgery in late 2006, Castro is believed to be fading so rapidly that he may have only weeks left to live. If anything, Cubans seem relieved that he is finally leaving the stage.

Many dissidents, including Oscar Espinoa Chepe, hope that Raul Castro, Fidel's hatchet man during the anti-Batista revolution, will, if he is chosen, live up to his more recent reputation as a reformer.

"People are really hoping for change if Raul is put in charge," said Oscar. "If people speak about Fidel at all it is in the past tense. Now it's all about Raul. But if he disappoints the people there will be blood again in Cuba.

"I am working for reconciliation between Cubans and hope we will finish fighting each other. What we need now is brotherhood not political ideology."

Oscar ekes out a living as a freelance journalist, broadcasting from his kitchen and writing about reconciliation for newspapers in Madrid and Miami. He describes how the regime confiscated his life savings, his pension and all Miriam's savings, although she has never been charged with a crime.

"Look," he says holding out a card filled with tiny writing, "we still have ration cards 49 years after the revolution. This is how Castro keeps his control. Every month a person is entitled to a pound of meat mixed with soy, eight ounces of cooking oil, seven pounds of rice and a few ounces of beans. Much of the population goes hungry and the average wage is 408 pesos (£11) a month.

"But there is huge corruption around the ration cards, which are a complete waste of time because so many Cubans live off money from relatives in the US. It's really a system for keeping people under control."

And the hand of the Communist Party is never far away. "The apartment just above us is used by senior members of the political police," Oscar continued, jabbing his finger towards the corner of the ceiling.

"I don't know what they're doing up there. They [the authorities] know how to destroy people and turn them against each other, even my daughter, a lawyer has to stay away from me. But things are changing because people in the neighbourhood who used to be afraid are now talking openly to me."

As a young man, during the revolution Oscar led the youth wing of the Communist Party in his home town. "Everybody loved Fidel back then," he said, "people came back from America to work for the revolution, he was enormously popular." But then, as a young economist working with Castro, he derided his radical plans to abolish money, stop interest payments and close banks in the 1960s. "I was denounced as pro-capitalist, so they sent me to a hard-labour camp collecting bat excrement from caves to use as fertiliser."

Freed after the intercession of friends in the communist establishment, he and his wife were sent to Europe as diplomats. Soon he was watching the Berlin Wall collapse and getting into trouble for speaking about change in Cuba.

Sacked from his job, he got out an old typewriter and began writing articles critical of the regime and hosting his radio show. That was in 2003 when he was sentenced to 20 years in jail.

Today he is out on furlough because of bad health but knows that his freedom may end at any moment. But that doesn't stop him speaking out at every possible opportunity.

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