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They can't believe they're still in Cuba

April 30, 2006|Andres Martinez | Andres Martinez is editorial page editor of The Times.

IT DOESN'T TAKE LONG to figure Cuba out. The whole island is a stage putting on a rather austere production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." What's hard to figure out, as in the play, is exactly what Cubans are waiting for -- even they don't know.

But that sense of waiting, of a suspended reality, is as palpable in Havana as is the sticky humidity that corrodes the vintage American cars and the colonial Spanish buildings. Cubans have been waiting, and waiting, for years -- whether it was for the revolution to fulfill its promise or to run its course as a result of the Soviet collapse. Neither has happened, so Cubans are left to await, with a mixture of resignation and grudging respect, the death of Fidel Castro, who has been in power 47 years and turns 80 in August.

But even that begs the "what are we waiting for?" question, because no one quite knows what will happen the day after.

Certainly the day after cannot just be about Raul Castro, my host in Havana. The dictator's younger brother runs the Cuban military, which in turn runs the tourism industry, making Raul concierge in chief to the hordes of German, British, Spanish and Canadian tourists who flock to Cuba in part to spite Uncle Sam.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 07, 2006 Home Edition Current Part M Page 6 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Cuba: An April 30 article about Cuba misstated the name of the president of the National Assembly as Raul Alarcon. His name is Ricardo Alarcon. It also referred to San Jose University, but the name should have been Universidad Agraria de La Habana, which is located in San Jose de las Lajas.

In a recent interview with a French journalist, Fidel seemed to dismiss his brother's future relevance when he pointed out that Raul is only four years younger than he is and that another generation would have to take over at some point. There are a number of other players vying to succeed Fidel -- Vice President Carlos Lage Davila; Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Raul Alarcon, president of the National Assembly -- but assessing their relative chances and merits feels like a trivial pursuit best left to those who can name the last leader of East Germany.

The real question in Cuba is whether the system, in all its kitschy, anachronistic glory, can survive the only leader it has known, the comandante who rode into Havana from the Sierra Maestra 47 to serve as impish nemesis to 10 U.S. presidents (and counting). That's highly unlikely, and Fidel seems to know it.

His harsh crackdown of recent years -- rounding up dissidents and reversing timid steps toward a market economy -- is driven by his desire to ensure that Cuba's socialism outlasts him. But the man who famously declared that "history will absolve me" when tried by his predecessor half a century ago must know that history will catch up with this island.

"We are more fidelistas than socialists," says Lizardo Gomez, a veterinary student at San Jose University, located on the outskirts of Havana. Gomez is an earnest believer in the principles of the revolution, but he concedes that Cuba is unlikely to be a socialist nation in five to 10 years. He thinks Fidel's successors will be able to muddle through for a year or two, but after that, who knows?

He says all this in the back seat of my rental car on the way to the city of Cienfuegos -- the throngs of hitchhikers such as Gomez and the obligation to pick them up are among the charms of revolutionary solidarity.

CASTRO LIKES to bask in his "Bolivarian" partnership with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and he points to the rise of Bolivia's Evo Morales and Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to suggest hemispheric trends are going his way. But it's self-delusional for him to ignore the fact that these and other Latin American leftists were elected, and that their cities remain teeming bastions of private consumerism, while in Cuba you'd better not lose your rationing card if you want that bar of soap you are entitled to every three months.

Cuba's nightly newscast loves to show fellow Latin Americans rallying against free-trade agreements with the U.S. The goal, once again, is to reinforce the notion that events are going Cuba's way, but the message is mixed.

"If only we could protest spontaneously like that here," says Eliezer, a bookseller in Havana, echoing a common refrain among Russians exposed quarter of a century ago to scenes of anti-nuclear protests in Western Europe. "The trouble with this country," he goes on to say, presumably ignoring the thousands of compatriots who brave the Straits of Florida each year, "is that no one is willing to die for freedom."

Eliezer sells some risque material in his bookshop, but he says the way to stay out of trouble is to not get air-conditioning (a bourgeois comfort that might raise suspicions), stay off the Internet and never learn English. That's quite a survival guide.

Over in Havana's Miramar district, Natalia Bolivar, a prominent intellectual, says: "This is a mystery island where we all manage to get by fine, thank you, despite such absurdly insufficient rations like a monthly pound of chicken. We all are scamming something, paying a high price to live in the land we love." Her survival guide: surround yourself with art, music and other forms of escapism.

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