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Cuba No Es Fi(d)el: Impressions on the Duelo Nacional

14/12/2016 14:27

The Duelo Nacional might imply that Cuba stopped for Fidel Castro's death. Our conversations with Cubans suggest a rather different story.

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Since the death of Fidel Castro was announced in the early hours of Saturday, Cuba appears to be united in the mourning of their revolutionary leader. During the nine days of Duelo Nacional, no entertainment could be presented in bars, clubs, hotels and restaurants, drinking was forbidden, governmental stores were partly closed, services were limited, the football tournament was suspended, and the island's musicians were hushed. Yet, this official mourning did not mirror most Cubans' attitude towards their loss.

Habana Vieja and Centro's rhythm remained unchanged on Saturday and Sunday. The sun-filled streets were hectic, all shops, restaurants and bars were open until late. Rowdy Cubans continued selling peanuts, churros and papas fritas, as well as overpriced illegal newspapers twenty times more than their officially set price. Even the less touristic areas of East and West Havana were as lively as usual. The only clues of sadness witnessed came from an old man collecting rubbish in his Fidel-branded kart and a pro-Revolution lady, Modesta, outside of the Etecsa internet store, lamenting "the loss of one of the brightest minds of the twentieth century". The sentiment of indifference was so widespread, that with no access to TV, Internet or newspapers (at least until 2 pm) it took us almost ten hours to learn that the Líder Máximo had passed.

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A similar atmosphere also characterised the public ceremony held in the iconic Plaza de la Revolución on Monday and Tuesday. Among the crowd of elderly supporters, old comrades, curious tourists and state employees, only the older generations were truly distraught. Their incredulity and petrified silence stood out from the chit-chatter of middle-aged Cubans complaining about having interrupted their daily routines, accompanied by the flashes of the generals' selfies. Upon entering the memorial room, the detachment perceived became stronger. The empty space only contained a pair of flower crowns and statue-like soldiers framing probably the most well-known picture of Fidel.

Everything was aesthetically impeccable yet most Cubans did not seem to be emotionally involved. Perhaps this is not surprising considering that participation was not entirely voluntary. Several employees and students were given a day off to attend, transported to the venue by governmental buses. "Many people attended because they were scared of the practical repercussions their absence could have had on their careers," confessed Raúl, a young government employee who managed to sneak out.

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In other provinces, the situation was not dramatically different. In Trinidad, the elderly were all closely following Fidel's funeral speeches, which echoed in the empty streets where the younger generations were struggling to attract tourists in their restaurants and bars. "During high season, 9 days of Duelo are too many,"said Rodrigo, an engineer turned entrepreneur in the tourist sector. Such a feeling was shared by many, and if you slowly moved away from the common tourist routes and destinations, you would have had no problem finding someone who would openly serve an exquisite cocoa liqueur or a Piña Colada.

In Santa Clara, buildings were covered in banners, flags and pictures of Fidel. A lady working in a government store, María, revealed that "the town was in true despair and collectively manifested their Duelo in the streets during the passing of the ashes". However, you only had to dig a little deeper to understand that Cubans privately felt differently about the event. Miguel, a science graduate working in the tourist economy, confessed his disappointment in the lack of music and club opportunities: "My city is dead, yet neither I nor my friends care about his death. Everything you see around you is product of the government propaganda. A friend of mine was paid to distribute manifestos and pictures of Fidel."

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These experiences suggest that the Revolution in Cuba is suffering: most Cubans no longer identify with the values and practices of the regime. Youngsters lament the lack of economic, political and intellectual freedom, which seems to be the product of the government's dogmatism rather than that of careful policy-making. Middle-aged workers are grateful for security, universal healthcare and education, but re-evaluate this sentiment in their struggle to access basic commodities - like clothes, soap, meat and vegetables - because the large influx of tourists has increased prices and eroded their purchasing power. Only the older generations, who still remember Batista's corrupt government, feel truly bound to the political establishment.

What does this imply for the future? If the Revolution is no longer alive - at least in the minds and hearts of most Cubans - might this mean a political change is imminent? The straight answer is probably no.

As suggested by the contrived façade and quiet streets of Cuba, the government is still effective in enforcing respect. The diffused fear of personal and professional repercussions, as well as fines or license retrievals, make resistance to the government initiatives costly. Censorship and scarcity of Internet (only available in public spaces) further contribute to rendering counter-revolutionary activity difficult.

And, most importantly, the majority of Cubans do not wish to risk their settled lives to catalyse a political change. As Cuban sociologist Manuel Moreno Fraginals, describing the life in the sugar mills that once used to dominate the economy of the country, said in El Ingenio: "The problem here is to survive." Such a statement largely resonates with Cuba's population today, who would rather invest their time and energy exploiting their (limited) newly acquired economic freedom. This striving to survive, as well as the effectiveness of government control, make political change unlikely. At least for now.

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