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Cuba : The Change Enigma

Publié le 1 octobre, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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This think piece ponders the rhythm of recent Cuban history and seeks to open a space of reflection about how to envision the passage of history. In Cuba, a post-revolution political imaginary often seems to have bound the past to one place. Within obscure time dynamics, the future, in turn, appears uncertain and blurry, or even, for some, unreachable. To what extent can Cubans live present times outside of past shadows?

Mural:  Cuba 2005
Franco Folini, Mural: Cuba 2005, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

Since Raúl Castro took over the Cuban presidency on February 25, 2008, the international community conjectures about the future of the Communist island. The “change enigma” unravels panoply of analysis. I will first consider the mainstream media approach to Cuban issues, in which the treatment of information generally follows a top-down approach. Observing social dynamics at lower levels, however, might contribute to grasping with more subtleties the ongoing processes of social change and internal restructuring. Generational divides, as I will subsequently suggest, provide an example in the matter.

A Top-Down Endeavor

In a world where, as mass media tell us, nothing seems to change, the Cuban government billboards planted alongside the island’s roads confirm such impressions. As horses, bicycles, and cars pass by, the official propaganda cries its repertoire of slogans—entangled in the memories of revolution, it prolifically celebrates its champions, hardly ever moving away from 1959. Travelers searching for the next McDonalds exit will be disappointed. In Cuba, highways do not advertise commercial products—they teach history. Gazing through the windows of your vehicle brings back to life national heroes. Lessons are straightforward, clear and easy, for the same four characters unequivocally return in the mirrors, as haunting reflections of the revolutionary past. Recalling contemporary events and the controversial debates surrounding Cuban leadership, José Martí, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Fidel Castro, all oddly appear as archaic remnants of an era that seems to be about to collapse.

And yet, the appearances of immobility deceive. For many Cubans and international observers the revolution effectively seems to be out of breath, and about to move on. The nation’s clock, put on hold some fifty years ago, apparently retrieved motion as Fidel Castro retired from the political scene. Perhaps timidly, its hands nevertheless started ticking again. When the younger Castro brother officially took over the presidency on February 25, 2008, he made sure to follow the jefe supremo’s advices and promised no radical changes (1). He did reckon, however, that the government “needed to change to survive in the new era” (2). Ever since, a panoply of analysis invaded editorial lines, theorizing and speculating on the outcomes of the “promising” new era. And today still, “change” is on everyone’s lips. Is there change? Will there be change? Which direction will government forces ascribe to Cuban politics? When, how, supported by whom, which leaders and which communities will take over and rule the country?

In its edition of July 31, 2008, The Economist qualified the measures that Raúl Castro introduced as “small but significant changes” (3). For example, increased consumption flexibility and performance-related pay bore liberal tinges and promised social mobility. Le Devoir, however, seemed less optimistic. On July 28, it reported that Cuba had refused to bring about the promised structural reforms. Increasing oil prices and poor food production hampered Raúl Castro’s political will to start dialoguing with Washington (4). Nevertheless, in a society in which peanuts and red meat are sold on the black market, the government’s decision to distribute in usufruct 51% of the island’s cultivable lands to private farmers carries hopes of increased production; hopes that hard-line communist dogmas are currently unable to convey (5). Even though private property does not yet appear on the agenda, many outsiders enthuse about what seems to be a liberal breeze. The Economist accordingly reported that “some investors are betting that Cuba is heading on an increasingly capitalist route” (6). The real question, however, is not whether or not the capitalist dreams will drift and reach the Malecón shore, for their attraction always remained part of the equation. Rather, the question that one must ask has much more to do with predicting when and how – and not if – official authorities will launch their entry amid what, for almost half a century, was regarded as belligerent ranks.

Strangely though, something seems to be missing in all these savant reflections. A sensation of unease remains. A silence that may strike the readers’ attention. The problem is that all these articles focus almost exclusively on top rank officials and national government. Cuban people are very seldom consulted, and when they are, most journalists communicate statements that reaffirm only too well the “change” enigma that they earnestly portray. “Fidel was here, now the brother comes”, and “there is no difference”, confessed for example to the New York Times the retired janitor, José Clemente Calvo (7). This was in February. Seven months later, Le Devoir took the pulse of the population and gathered similar reactions. Commenting on Raúl Castro’s government, Yolanda Fernández, 43, complained: “J’espérais autre chose, des mesures, des changements, mais non, rien. Tout continue comme avant. Pour moi, il n’y a rien de neuf, rien de bon, vu que les choses vont empirer” (8). On the one hand, these statements elicit that many Cubans are longing for change. On the other, however, another impression that may emanate from this treatment of information is one of passivity. Although accurate, such comments, if not read properly, may mistakenly lead us to believe that Cuban people act as passive agents and docilely wait for change to fall from the sky. The reality of everyday life that I discovered last summer in the Western regions of the Island, however, tells a different story. And even more so amongst younger generations, boiling with ambition, dreams and political opinions.

Generational Divides

Political discourses, in Cuba, are strikingly divided along generational lines. Indeed, the generational schism encountered amongst the communist party direction, in which younger cohorts of leaders debate over appropriate ways to cope with economic woes, reflect broader national trends (9). The traveler who dares venturing beyond the luxurious resorts and beaches will need little time to observe that similar dynamics are met at lower levels. In the comfort of ordinary homes and friends reunions, Cubans gather to exchange opinions and imagine together the future that they want for their country. Generally speaking, beliefs clash with age. Of course, generational categories are not immutable. As the sociologist Elizabeth Jelin and the historian Diego Sempol argue, generations never represent fixed entities. They deal with subjective sentiments of belonging and are, in truth, collective symbols that are defined in relation to a specific temporality (10). I therefore prefer to think of Cuban generational divides in relation to the 1959 revolution, rather than ascribing them precise age intervals. In my opinion, three groups roughly surface from the lot. Similarities in political discourses and ideas, and/or shared cultural behaviors and embodied values, support and coalesce each one of them.

First comes the revolutionary battalion. Amongst its ranks stand Cubans who sat astride 1959. Of course, many attacked the new regime. Many flew out of the country. In the following decades, indeed, a demographic hemorrhage bled white the island. But many, too, entered head-first in the wave, filled with national dreams and promises of better futures. They actively participated in constructing the national reality that they envisioned for their country. Therefore, when a traveler converses with one of them today, it is easy to feel all the revolutionary ideals that still inhabit them. More often than not, the poverty of their household, emptied food shelves, and humble garments betray their loyalty to past memories and convictions before the discussion even lights up. Stealing from, or betraying the government, so as to alleviate their everyday burden, is not an option amongst this group.

In contrast, the social and political stances of Cubans who were born in the aftermaths of the revolution often appear more critical. They weigh the pros and cons of the current national situation equipped with fairly composed and lucid arguments. This generation behaves more pragmatically. It has learnt how to get by and studied the limits of governmental authority. Survival is for them an everyday game that must be played with tact and good spirits. Even if many think of the revolution and its legacy with pride and positive feelings, they nevertheless look around with a critical eye and cope with present days. For this group, the past does not contain all the answers—many actually lay upfront, and thus gazes turn ahead, where stands the future.

Finally, politicians and businessmen who still wonder whether or not change is going to come about in Cuba have obviously never gone out at night. In the Cuban nightlife and the younger generations reside many responses to their ponderings. When the sun goes down and shadows close in on the island, waves of teenagers and young adults invade the streets. They are young – very young – and up for dancing and partying to the rhythms of reggeaton music. The festival period that hits at the end of June renders this reality even more tangible. From La Habana and Trinidad, to Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba, herds of teenagers rush for towns’ central squares and gather on improvised outdoor dancing floors. If their number is impressive, the way in which they dress and dance is even more striking. Their gold chains, white Nike shoes, and Tommy Hilfiger shirts, make smuggling through the American embargo look like child play. Young Cubans change clothes with sunset and adorn gringo garments as partying dressing codes. Others stay away from pop fashion and instead download punk music or attend small and marginal punk concerts. Stefan, 13, calm and solemn, explained that Internet gave him access to his favorite band, Green Day (11). So much for Salsa and Merengue. Stefan, like many others, prefers the American 1990s to traditional Cuban rhythms.

Even if their political positions are not always intellectualized within discursive regimens, cultural behaviors alone testify to the prominent changes that teenagers are experiencing. Cultural codes and attitudes often bear witness to the set of values that they support. In Cuba, the night unveils a reality foreign to the daily atmosphere. As if the communist vs. capitalist binary was reflected within day and night framings. After the clock strikes twelve, neo-liberal fumes invade the island. And with dawn, the world appears to come back in place. A world in which, as many would believe, Cuba and austere communist paradigms walk hand in hand. A world where everything changes, and yet about which everybody seems to blindly conjecture that the hands will start ticking soon. But they are mistaken. The clock is already running at good pace.

How the transmission of historical memory operates and affects the way in which Cubans want to change their country is no trivial question. While the road to molding the future stands partly in collective memories, how the members of a society remember their past provides hints into what is at stake in present conjunctures. Certainly, it does not alone offer the complete solution to international quandaries. It does, however, indicate valuable insights that mass media habitually prefer to disregard. And it certainly tells us that, at times, transferring the focus from top national politics to the “ordinary” Cubans may prove to predict with more acuity the outcomes of the political game. In the meantime, the bets are still up for grabs.


(1) Mckinley Jr., James C. “At Cuba Helm, Castro Brother Stays the Course.” The New York Times 25 Feb. 2008.
(2) McKinley, “At Cuba Helm.”
(3) McKinley, “At Cuba Helm.”
(4) Agence France-Presse, 2008. As cited in “Raul Castro se détourne de ses réformes.” Le Devoir 28 July 2008.
(5) Agence France-Presse, 2008. As cited in “Terres en friche remises à des agriculteur privés.” Le Devoir 19-20 July 2008.
(6) “Big Brother’s Shadow.” The Economist 31 July 2008.
(7) McKinley, “At Cuba Helm.”
(8) Agence France-Presse, “Raul Castro se détourne.”
(9) Mckinley Jr., James C. “Cuba and the World Wonder: Now What?” The New York Times 21 Feb. 2008.
(10) Jelin, Elizabeth and Diego Sempol, eds. “Introduction.” El pasado en el futuro: los movimientos juveniles. Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 2006: 10.
(11) To protect the anonymity of the young man, I chose Stefan as a fake name.

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