Cuba: changes? What changes?
01 May 09

Ena Lucia PortelaThe Obama regime may be reaching out to Raúl Castro, but it is unlikely any real reform will emerge for ordinary Cubans, writes
Ena Lucía Portela

The recent surprise dismissals of a number of well-known apparatchiks of the Castro regime, including government ministers Carlos Lage Dávila and Felipe Pérez Roque, has perhaps contributed to creating the impression outside Cuba that a great political transformation is taking place. But no, this is not the case. If any such ‘reforms’ do exist, they pertain only to the higher ranks of the government. At the level of ordinary people, my neighbours in the barrio where I live, there is no perceptible, substantial difference from the previous situation. We were up the creek with those high-ranking officials, and now we are just as far up the same creek without them.

Despite all the hype that surrounded the changes announced by the President Raúl Castro, over a year ago –– changes that generated so much hope in the population and, to some extent, international public opinion –– they have been reduced to small liberalisations of the laws concerning Cuban citizens’ rights, such as the right to purchase computers and mobile phones, and unrestricted access to tourist facilities that had previously been exclusively reserved, in flagrant apartheid, for foreign visitors. It is not that these measures are bad — of course they aren’t — but they only benefit a tiny minority of the population of the island: those who can already afford these goods and services.

In spite of Castro II’s trumpeting, there have been no truly important changes so far. The regime continues to keep a stranglehold on what little private enterprise exists among the Cubans living here and puts innumerable obstacles in the path of foreign investors. The dual monetary system is still in force; this involves the co-existence of the peso or ‘national currency’, now dreadfully devalued, in which workers’ miserable wages are paid, with the CUC or ‘convertible peso’, stronger than the US dollar and necessary for the acquisition –– at exorbitant prices –– of numerous basic items. This situation means that no Cuban worker can live on their wages alone. In Cuba, it is not a matter of eating the same thing every day, as so many optimists here claim: there are millions of people who, to put it plainly, often do not have enough to eat. This has not changed.

Nor has there been any change in the serious problems of housing, transport and the electrical infrastructure, while the education and health systems, those mainstays of the Castro propaganda machine, continue to be a couple of dead losses. Castro II talks less and, therefore, spouts less nonsense and tells fewer lies than the Fidel Castro regime, but the new government continues to have complete, unlawful control of the media. It continues to censor any trace of an alternative press or freedom of expression in general; it continues to restrict access to the Internet, limit Cubans’ freedom of movement (it is necessary to have an exit permit to travel abroad), and criminalise the non-violent opposition. In short, the Castro regime goes on being as inefficient, corrupt, deceitful, oppressive and totalitarian as ever.

It is not surprising then, that, after long months of waiting for the implementation of the promised and necessary reforms, the predominant feeling in the country is one of frustration.

US President Barack Obama’s elimination of the restrictions on travel to Cuba and the sending of remittances by Cubans now resident in the United States seem a very positive move, which will benefit hundreds of thousands of my compatriots.

It would be wonderful if relations between the two countries were normalised and the US government were to lift the embargo which, during its almost half-century of existence, has served the Castro regime (which terms it a ‘blockade’) as a justification for both its dreadful mismanagement of the economy and its habitual suppression of our most basic civil rights.

However, if the Obama administration expects an authentic gesture of goodwill from the Cuban government, as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has said, I suspect that things will remain the same for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, Castro I, in a spectral voice, is insisting that the USA must ‘beg Cuba’s pardon’; that is to say, beg his pardon.

Ena Lucía Portela is an award-winning novelist based in Cuba. She was chosen as one of the best Latin American writers under 39 in 2007 by the Bogota 39 project

Translated by Christina MacSweeney