Resigned Cubans expect no changes

This article was written by a correspondent not authorized by Cuba to report there.

Liliana has three months left on a maternity leave she can't afford to take.

The paid year off following childbirth may seem generous by capitalist standards, but it is compensated at her official $12-a-month salary at the neighborhood barberia.

That salary never paid Liliana's way in the first place. What allowed her to scrape by each month was the $200 she earned cutting and styling hair after hours, at her apartment.

So, with 9-month-old Orlando lurching about within the netted walls of his ancient playpen and her unemployed husband, Luis, brooding over a beer at the kitchen table, Liliana snips and blow-dries on their tiny covered patio at whatever hour friends, family and referrals turn up at her door.

"No one lives off a salary," the young mother says with a disparaging flip of the scissors. "Look at the prices! If you didn't work on the side you wouldn't eat."

Four months into a creeping transition to life without President Fidel Castro, frustrated workers such as Liliana who never bought into the revolution's ideals of selflessness and solidarity have moved from cautious hope for change to despair and resignation.

"I don't expect anything now," Liliana says dejectedly. "I'm 28 years old. I've spent my entire youth waiting for things to get better and they never do. Those in power like things the way they are."

The 80-year-old Castro announced on July 31 that he had handed over governing responsibility to his brother Raul, kindling expectations that the communist strictures might loosen to allow more private enterprise and boost personal income. Only Fidel Castro's fierce commitment to an economic equality that has failed throughout the communist world kept Cuba out of the democratic reform wave that swept Soviet mentors and Eastern Europe 15 years ago.

Behind Castro's back, Havana officials -- even his own brother -- embarked a dozen years ago on a mission to lure foreign investment and jump-start tourism to a largely undiscovered Cuba. Now, more than 2 million foreigners come to Cuba each year, infusing at least $2 billion into an economy bolstered by cheap oil from Venezuela and hard-currency payments for the services of doctors, teachers and technicians deployed abroad.

The big picture of booming revenue from tourism and exports of nickel and human talent isn't obvious, though, to the dejected proletariat. For years, even decades, Cubans have been waiting patiently for the Communist Party hierarchy to heed the winds of change that have swept away most of their ideological allies.

The big question

But nothing has changed except the leader's first name.

The question in every Cuban's mind is what will happen once Fidel Castro dies, a prospect seemingly more imminent since the ailing leader failed to take part in postponed birthday celebrations this month.

Cuba analysts predict that nothing much will happen -- the Communist Party has effectively executed the succession to Raul Castro and a handful of other party stalwarts.

"I expect continuity but gradual reform within that," says Julia Sweig, head of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She predicts a three- to five-year period of modest economic tinkering and Communist Party retention of political power.

Like many of her fellow Cubans, Carmen, a 41-year-old special education teacher, says she is paralyzed with frustration, impatience, distress. She shrugs and splays her fingers in a helpless gesture when asked whether she expects change soon.

"No one knows. We just know it can't continue like this," the trim blond woman says. Her husband works in Europe, visiting home only a few times each year, so he can better support her and their 18-year-old daughter.

Once irrepressible and expressive, finding joy in salsa dancing and baseball, Cubans now turn to those distractions to block out daily life, not to celebrate it. At the Sunday African music street parties in Callejon de Hamel, at the foreign movies playing at this month's Havana film festival, at the new baseball season drawing thousands to Latinoamericano Stadium, Cubans seem to be shutting out the rest of life with a determination that borders on panic.

Maria, a 57-year-old journalist, says most Cubans prefer escapism to confrontation.

In her spare time, in her real life, she writes ironic tales of Cubans clashing with their dysfunctional system -- stories that authorities would deem subversive.

"What I write is for posterity," she says, explaining that her prose stays in a locked drawer in her bedroom. "I don't care if it is published posthumously, as long as it is eventually published."

Once an ardent supporter of Castro's revolution, Maria lost faith over the lives squandered in years of foreign conflicts. She expresses contempt for the "mafia" she says is running the country. She complains that Cuban schools and hospitals are suffering because the most talented professionals are sent abroad in the government's thriving trade in human resources.

"It's slavery, clearly!" she says of the tens of thousands of Cubans whose pay for work in countries such as Venezuela goes to the Communist government.

Despite growing despair, she senses no critical mass of indignation that could bring Cubans to demand change. People are paralyzed and impotent, collectively resigned to the regime's failures, corruption and stranglehold on all economic levers.

"Cuba is as sunk as the Titanic, and 11 million people have been cast into the sea," she says. "Some may learn to swim, but the majority are drowning."

One reason Cubans are hesitant to demand reform, she says, is fear of losing the gains of the revolution, including free healthcare and universal education, to the cutthroat form of capitalism that prevailed in Eastern Europe after people there overthrew their socialist systems.

Desperation and hustle

But the revolution's early protection of workers has been undone by the need for many to work outside their state jobs. Lines for buses in central Havana are longest on Sunday, when peasants flood the capital to sell their surplus produce, setting up makeshift stalls at busy intersections.

Carpenters, shoe shines, mechanics and plumbers take on side jobs at night and on weekends. Pensioners unable to augment their monthly income -- as little as $6 -- sell matches, peanuts rolled in paper cones, cigarettes culled from the monthly food ration, bunches of bruised bananas from wild roadside plants.

In the scruffy courtyards of the capital's dilapidated apartment buildings, Cubans outside the intellectual and power elites vacillate between desperation and hustle.

"Pretty lady, I love you," a buff twentysomething man in a muscle shirt calls out to a woman more than twice his age, her most attractive attribute probably being the Western passport he thinks could transport him out of Cuba.

A few blocks away, at a seaside cafe along the crumbling Malecon promenade, another personal deal to escape the day's deprivations is being brokered.

"You buy me one beer. We go to my home. Later, you take me out to dinner and dancing," a teenage Cuban beauty explains in English to a European tourist in his late 40s, as dispassionately as though giving directions to a lost stranger.

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