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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: en l’absence de Fidel

by Bernard Duraud, special correspondent, Havana

Cuba: In the Absence of Fidel

Translated Monday 1 January 2007

Since his operation last summer, President Castro has hardly been seen at all. Between waiting and resignation, Cubans are already in the "post-Fidel" period.

We had not returned to Cuba for the last six years. In the year 2000, the Caribbean island was barely emerging from the "special period", those dark years of deprivation and solitude, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Naturally, in this month of December 2006, nothing is quite the same as it used to be. And Fidel does not appear any more.

Cuba is not cut-off from the rest of the world, although, for more than 40 years, the embargo imposed by the United States has never given Cuba breathing room. One can see anywhere in Cuba, as was the case during the ceremonies celebrating Fidel Castro’s 8oth birthday, this special osmosis with all the countries and movements of the nearby continent. It is this connectivity that shows how much the island remains a political and cultural point-of-reference for Latin America. "After, nearly 50 years, this is something to be proud of", as Alberto Guerra, the Afro-Cuban writer, author of "Cristal", tells us. (See the interview with him)

If Cuba is today once again in a sort of solitude and stangely silent, it is searching for the way the Revolution can continue, without its "lider maximo de la revolucion". Fidel is ill, and obliged since last summer, to pass power "temporarily" to his brother Raul.

Since then, rumour and speculation has abounded. Fidel, who is not seen anymore, is said to be dying, in the terminal stage of a cancer; the rare items in official news channels, on the contrary, deny this and want to be reassuring, talking of "a long convalescence", following a very serious operation and that Fidel is old.

Wasn’t it the minister of foreign affairs, Felipe Roque, who evoked, in the Havana convention center, "this rather special time for Cubans who quietly follow the convalescence of Fidel"?

Are the Cubans comfortable about what is happening? Yes, if one judges their attachment to their "Comandante". People declare openly their attachment to Fidel, a way of going beyond the reality of a single Party (the Cuban Communist Party) and of a single press. It is a way of saying we have only known Fidel and that we agree with his historical project, his empathy with people, even his humour and his tantrums. "He is our grand-father, our father or our brother, who advised us, encouraged us, gave us orders or chided us when things were not right", explains Armando, 40, previously employed by a Canadian-Cuban enterprise and more recently a adept of finding ways of getting by. No, the Cubans are actually not so quiet, fearful about their leader and of the void created by his absence. On another hand, nothing appears so frightening, says Armando, as the perspective of being led by Raul "who nobody knows" and who has the reputation of being "tough".

Everything is already prepared to evolve in "the continuity" of Fidel, one responsible of the CCP assures us. The younger brother is starting to give substance to his name, to the point that one speaks in Havana of "raulismo" - without any consideration what the future could bring with leaders such as Carlos Lage, Ricardo Alarcon or Felipe Roque. This means a re-direction of power, with the sacking, about two months ago, of the ministers of transport and of communication, a stronger police presence to contain "part-time prostitution" alongside tourist areas, and potential demonstrations by "opponents", the beginning of a challenge to the social order, with, among other changes, a decree to be applied in January 2007 to combat absenteeism at work more seriously. Finally we are seeing a small concessions to the United States to "resolve at the negotiating table" the problems between the two countries since 1961, while still respecting national sovereignty.

One knows that George W. Bush and US Congress want to impose their own "transition" on Cuba, according to a project costing more than $60 million (repeated by the US President on 3 August 2006), money that is destined to the "dissidents" who will be trained and receive equipment and material, a plan that also contains a confidential appendix, secret "for national security reasons".

Dissidents? Gabriel Molina, director of Granma International, tells is heatedly that "these people, in any other country of the world, would be considered as traitors". For him, Cuba has lived through a major conflict for the last 50 years. He speaks directly to us, we who contested the wave of repression of 2003. He invites us to consider the Cuban situation "through the eyes of the poor countries".

In fact, the dissidents - Cubans speak of "opponents" - are themselves also keeping very quiet. The Mothers of Prisoners are on the streets every Sunday after Mass and a Christian activist whom we contacted for his opinions, preferred to call off the interview, judging it was not the time to express himself.

Interference, becoming a colony of the United States … this is not, in any case, the language accepted by the Cubans, who, despite all the problems they are facing, do not want to just destroy their notion of solidarity. It is in the name of such solidarity that Carlos, sound-technician, 27 years old, dreams of a windfall, coming from tourism, from nickel and now from oil in the north of the island (production coupled with the delivery of crude oil from Venezuela), better distributed "to live better and eat better". As for the rest, mentioning education and health-care, Carlos says: "We must continue on the same path!"

Such is the obsession of the present: satisfying an inextinguishable hunger "beyond a plate of rice and of black beans", products available at low prices with the ration card.

Even if cities are disorganized and transportation is chaotic, large quantities of food are today reaching the stalls of private markets, but they are sold at prices prohibitive for the majority of Cubans, whose average salary does not exceed 250 pesos monthly (about $10).

Better distribution is also means ending the increasing social inequalities that have existed since the private sector became part of the country’s landscape. Cuba has now its "new rich" who receive dollars from relatives in Miami or those that work in tourism and are sometimes able to earn 30 times the salary of a doctor or a teacher. This situation really is unbearable and is pushing a great number of men and women without access to dollars to hunt for precious dollar bills or fin d work on the black market. (since the end of 2004 the dollar has been replaced by the "convertible peso" which can be openly exchanged at par with US dollars). Feliz, in his wheel-chair, is one of the black marketeers. He lost a leg in the war in Angola. His pension is 225 pesos a month. "It covers half of my needs" he explains. Unable to feed a family of five, including his sick mother, he sells plumbing materials, difficult to find elsewhere in the streets of central Havana - and he has been robbed.

"Havana kept the forlorn beauty of a city trying to avoid sinking by becoming more colourful, but ’We need a lot more paint’", Jorge, a well known musician, insists. Everywhere, especially on the Malecon, the majestic boulevard along the sea front of Havana, the cement is crumbling, eroded by the humidity and the salt from the sea. Attempts at restoration are constantly being renewed, with stronger and more expensive material. The crowds are on the streets, there is more traffic. The beautiful antique American cars or the eternal Ladas are being gradually replaced by more modern cars.

Some boulevards have been completely renovated, there are cafes, restaurants, shops, Internet clubs and hotels which have sprung up like mushrooms to satisfy an armada of tourists. Old Havana has been rediscovered, and classified by Unesco as a World Heritage Site. It has dozens of places where construction is taking place, overseen by a reputed building historian, Eusebio Leal Spengler, heading up a regiment of architects and craftsmen given the task of renovating the heart of the historic capital.

Cuba is not gearing towards a market economy, but, like ther poor nations, it has multiplied its economic ties with China, that has agreed to provide 1000 buses. Cuba is also profiting from its advantageous position with Latin America, with Venezuela in particular. The country wants to keep controlling its options and its values, built around education, health-care, national independence and its rampart, the army.

But this is a challenging for the State, functioning as the architect of the social sector, and confronted with the need to make huge investments necessary for the development of the country. At the same time, all those who gravitate in the private sector can sell what they produce on their land or they are independent, having certain rights and being in a position to make a claim for expressing the new expectations arising in the country.

So, after Fidel, what next?

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