Notebook: The land where time stands still

This week marks not the start of a new millennium in Cuba, but the 41st anniversary of Fidel Castro's tarnished revolution
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The Independent Online
THE MATHEMATICS of the millennium are slightly askew in Havana this weekend. Forget 1,000 years, the Cuban people are thinking 41 here. "Happy 41st anniversary of the revolution," read the posters thoughtfully provided by the Central Committee for the windows of the few remaining shops that contain any goods worth selling in this, one of the most gracious and sensual cities in the world.

Don't rush to knock it. For the Cuban government, at least, there is something genuine to celebrate. Fidel Castro, father of the revolution, once compadre of Che, now chum of the Pope, is about to enter his fifth decade as leader, largely unchallenged in his own country, and so far unassailable by the outside world. Goodbye, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Mao, Tito, Honecker, Ceausescu, the Berlin Wall, Lady Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and seven other American presidents who have tried variously to assassinate him, invade him, starve him out or put explosives in his cigars.

El Commandante, though minus the Cohiba cigars these days for health reasons, is still very much here. You can be sure, because he says so on the front page of Granma, the party daily, telling how he unravelled a plot to kill him at the recent World Trade Organisation talks in Seattle.

For Christmas yesterday, as McDonald's and the board of General Motors continued to burn in hellfire, Fidel allowed Jesus a day on earth, albeit with the commissars carefully watching over the flocks. It was only the second time since the revolution that Cuban workers were formally given the day off to celebrate, and the city's churches could scarcely cope with the queues for Mass. In the cathedral of San Cristobal, memorably described by Graham Greene as "having been formed through the centuries under water, like a coral reef", the rosaries and Virgin Mary statuettes were selling fast.

Just as well, since there was little else to put in the Christmas stocking for most people. Along Calle St Rafael - before the revolution, the equivalent of Oxford Street or Fifth Avenue - seasonal shopping has been a grim experience. The Fin de Siglio, the famous department store once owned by Sears, used to be one of the consumer Meccas of the Americas. Now its long-defunct neon signs creak in the wind and its ranks of counters are threadbare - some rubber shoes here, a plastic bucket there - if you're lucky, a nylon shirt or a Chinese spanner.

It's different, though, if you have dollars in your pocket. The topsy- turvy economics once common in the Communist world, but now confined only to Cuba and a few other socialist holdouts, mean a hotel bell-boy with a few dollar tips is richer than a brain surgeon paid in pesos. Remittances from those lucky enough to have relatives in Miami are also a passport to Western goods in the dollar shops.

The latest of these is the newly opened Harris Brothers emporium (so called after the name etched on the grand classical facade; the original Harrises having presumably fled in 1959) on Calle O'Reilly in Havana Vieja. Here, after negotiating the secret policemen and heavies on the door, is a wonderland (at least by Cuban standards) of palatable food, electronic goods and clothes that do not look like hand-me-downs from a bag lady. You can buy ice cream, cakes, coffee, whisky and have your films processed - ordinary things which have been unobtainable to ordinary Cubans for, well, just about ever.

It is an apartheid which is only just tolerated by ordinary people. True, the tourist trade (and President Castro is not far off his million-a-year target) has performed miracles in offsetting the slump in the sugar price and the loss of Soviet markets, but it has merely accentuated the sense of humiliation which many Cubans privately feel.

Worse still, fewer dollars have been trickling down this Christmas, since the police have been conducting a new purge on the jiniteros - the hustlers, hookers and hopefuls who have long been able to squeeze a few freelance bucks from the tourists.

A year ago, you could hardly get through the entrance of the Inglaterra or any of the other smart hotels around the Parque Central for a throng of skinny girls in Lurex promising male tourists at least a fumble on the waterfront, and often a lot more. Now there are only whippet-like secret policemen with walkie talkies. The paunchy groups of middle-aged Canadians in rhinestone shirts and cowboy boots sit drinking insipid Crystal beers in bars along the Obispo, wondering why on earth they came.

It is at moments like this that President Castro can always trust the US government to misbehave and sprinkle a little virtue back on the revolution. The saga of Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old Cuban boy found clinging to a raft off Florida last month after an accident in which his mother drowned, has been a gift to the regime almost worthy of the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

The international custody battle between Cuba and the US has brought out the crowds. Never mind that Eliades Ochoa, star of Buena Vista Social Club, is in town, the place to be is at one of the mass demos, clutching a "Free Elian" poster. American officials have put the child in custody of relatives in Miami while authorities consider demands by his Cuban father that he be returned home.

For President Castro, it has been the perfect opportunity to re-sell the revolution to Cuban youth, to whom the fall of the Batista regime now seems remote. "I think of the value our revolution has given to the life and happiness of all children, and of course, I think about Elian, whom we will see return to the bosom of family and to his fatherland," he wrote in a letter to disabled students last week.

For the rest of the world it may be a new millennium, but in Cuba it's just how Fidel likes it: permanently 1959.