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Cuba from the Bottom Up

After Fidel, life's little struggles go on

In the corridor of a busy market, a wall is painted with propaganda and an excerpt from a famous speech by Fidel Castro, but no one ever stops to read it. Ophelia Lenz

On Feb. 19, the day Fidel Castro announced his departure from public office, ending the longest tenure for a world leader in modern times, I spent the morning in Havana’s old city at the home of a friend who scalps theater tickets for a living. She talked my ear off about the ballet.

In the city park near her tenement home, dozens of middle-aged men meet every day along a row of stone benches to argue with each other, mostly over sports, though I’ve witnessed some orators here come nearly to blows over the Iraq war, North Korea’s nuclear program and the U.S. presidential race. On this day, many arrived with the communist daily newspaper, bearing Castro’s farewell letter on page one, tucked neatly under their arms. They talked baseball.

Nowhere has news of what was, by all accounts, one of the most anticipated transitions of power been received with more yawning than in Cuba itself.

A short bus trip south lies Havana’s largest produce market, at a bustling crossroads where locals bet on numbers from the Florida lottery almost as openly as they purchase black beans. But the day Fidel called it quits, customers haggled over prices, not politics. A pound of pork chops was going for 35 pesos at the time, more than a tenth of the average monthly salary at a state job.

A produce vendor who has known me for a long time said, “Everything at the bottom remains normal.” There may be a private struggle “at the top,” as he put it, some maneuvering among power brokers seeking to preserve their influence once Raúl Castro assumed formal command from his elder brother. But “down here,” the daily ritual of making a living in hard times would continue, business as usual, its best practitioners supplementing meager wages with whatever hard currency they might reap from creative endeavors.

Cubans playfully call this el invento. Often these rites of invention end in difficult decisions about whether to stay in Cuba, or to leave the country, or to sell that new pair of Nikes your favorite uncle sent you from afuera, the “outside.”

In the days, weeks and months that have followed Fidel Castro’s resignation, the Cubans I know, most of whom live in urban areas and have relatively good access to varied sources of information, have expected little in the way of change from above and have gotten more or less what they expected. Nowhere has news of what was, by all accounts, one of the most anticipated transitions of power been received with more yawning than in Cuba itself.

Indeed, practiced indifference has been raised to the level of art in Havana, where I lived for 15 months in 2007 and 2008 while conducting fieldwork for a Ph.D. in anthropology. The low-level bureaucrat behind the desk of a state agency, servers at a curbside food stand, even workers with coveted jobs at a tourist resort—they all can be perfectly friendly and humane people in their private lives. Yet many seem to become, for a few hours each day, automatons programmed to look through clients as if they were glass, to roll their eyes deep into the recesses of their heads, and quietly sigh at the simplest request for help.

Naturally this can be frustrating. But I came to sympathize with this apathy when I started to understand what it meant and how it reappeared in other realms of life.

My research has focused on forms of private enterprise legalized to a degree during the time of economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Service in this growing but limited self-employment sector is better. But another kind of indifference is practiced in this realm, with no less precision. It’s an indifference aimed at rules that are designed to strangle the very entrepreneurship they envision.

One of my friends has a license to repair bicycles, but if he tried to do this in his home, on a narrow street with little traffic, he would be out of business in a day. So he rents space from a house in a busier part of town. Not legal. He hires a mechanic to help him work on bikes while he tends shop. Not legal. He buys and sells used bikes. Not legal. And sometimes, if necessary, he’ll give a prized 26-inch tire to a roving inspector who is willing to look the other way.

He is not alone or even anomalous. I haven’t met a single licensed entrepreneur who operates comfortably within the letter of the law. In a very real way, “the system” itself is changed by this collective, everyday reworking of its internal contradictions. From other vantage points, some call it corruption. For Cubans, it is simply la luchita, the “little struggle.”

In this light, the communal yawn they offered at the news that their commander-in-chief was stepping out of office, if not out of sight, may be seen as practiced indifference practiced on a mass scale.

His Feb. 19 farewell was, for one, anticipated. Fidel had been ill for more than a year and a half, appearing only occasionally on TV and writing rambling “Reflections” for the state-run newspapers. Raúl had been running the government in his brother’s stead. And the new National Assembly was set to meet at the end of the week to reconstitute the Council of State, Cuba’s highest executive body.

To be sure, debate about Raúl, Fidel and the country’s political future is going on in conversations on street corners and at dinner tables, but the changes people are hoping to see in the years ahead are not necessarily in line with the mantra of “regime change” inherent in five decades of failed U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Even the most openly critical Cubans I know don’t care much who is in charge, so long as a few critical issues are addressed. A student at Cuba’s prestigious computer science university was seen confronting these issues plainly, if carefully, with the president of the National Assembly in a pirated video that has resonated tremendously with people across the island.

Bouncing from memory stick to memory stick, the video spread as fast as the highly effective rumor mill Cubans call la bola. In it, a student now affectionately known as “the boy from Las Tunas” questions assembly leader Ricardo Alarcón, making the elder statesman look perfectly irrelevant, if not downright foolish. Alarcón can’t explain why Cubans need exit permits to leave the country, why a toothbrush costs three days’ wages, and why government ministers aren’t accountable to the public they serve.

Nor are these real and widespread grievances addressed in the carrot sticks the new Castro government has been feeding the international media. Reporters seem to be falling over each other to break stories on everything from the freer sale of computers, medication and cell phones to the opening of new stores for Cuban farmers, who can now buy supplies and equipment at urban outlets rather than receive items allocated to them by the state bureaucracy.

Many of the news stories have cited unnamed sources and high-level memos, but missed the point that most of the recent decisions merely formalize exchange systems Cubans had already put into practice on their own—from below. In every case, the regulatory changes were announced abroad before the news reached most Cubans. When I asked friends about it, they seemed amused: We can buy computers freely now, but we can’t go online. We can stay at tourist resorts, previously off-limits to us, but who can afford $200 a night?

There’s no guarantee such peace offerings in the quiet war of ennui that is everyday life in Havana will add up to anything significant. The decrees from above represent at best minimal successes of practiced indifference, at worst a song and dance for the foreign press corps.

It may well be that domestic pressure will lead officials to address the major issues—travel, salaries, access to information—sooner rather than later. If that’s the case, I can only hope the international journalists will give credit where, I believe, much of it is due: to the folks “down below,” like my friend the ticket scalper.

She talked to me about the ballet the day Fidel Castro resigned not to be evasive but because that is her passion. On plenty of other days, she has scorned the revolution, praising some of its achievements but ultimately blaming it for the absence of her two grown daughters, who left their country behind for brighter fortunes in Italy.

Even when I asked my friend about the “real news,” she politely ignored the question. A minute later, casually, she lifted the remote control and turned on the TV. It was tuned to Univisión, broadcasting on Channel 23 from Miami and arriving to her tiny living room via satellite. Not legal. While pundits deliberated the significance of the news from Cuba, the station played a continuous loop of file footage, with Fidel in the Adidas sweats he has favored while recovering from multiple surgeries.

“Ack,” my friend grumbled. “They’ll be talking about this all day, and that means they’ll have to cancel my afternoon soap opera.”