Cubans have seen this before: the possibility of change for the better. Should they look to newly elected President Raul Castro with hope? Or have nearly 50 years of ration lines and communist control left them disenchanted?
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Since Fidel Castro came to power, Cuba has charted the same course—and Cubans under the age of 50 have grown up experiencing little change in their nation. They have waited in ration lines and endured socialist propaganda. They have been taught about the “empirical” United States and the stifling effects of its trade embargo against Cuba. Government control of consumer goods, $15-a-month salaries, and tight restrictions on travel and voicing one’s opinion about the government have made life difficult for millions.
For those born after 1959, the only Cuba they have known has been a nation of a single-minded communist vision, orchestrated by Fidel Castro.
During the latter half of the 20th century, Cuba remained on an even keel—dissenters were silenced and the “bourgeoisie” (the middle class) did not have upward mobility in society. Cuban-U.S. relations came to an impasse; although both nations made demands, neither side would budge.
“Fidel’s Cuba” witnessed 10 different U.S. presidents take office; saw America move through the “Swinging 60s” and the 1970s “Me Decade,” into the economic boom of the materialistic 80s; weathered the fall of the Soviet Union, onward to the Information Age in the 90s, and past the September 11, 2001 attacks.
During those years, many Cubans became disillusioned about what they hoped for when Fidel Castro came into power.
However, on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008, the Communist dictator announced he was resigning from the presidency, stating in the Cuban daily Granma that the office requires “more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer.”
Just days later, his brother, Raul, was chosen by Cuba’s National Assembly to be President of the Republic of Cuba.
Fidel Castro’s resignation leads one to wonder: What does this mean for Cuba? Will Cubans finally live in a nation where all citizens can lead productive and rewarding lives?
While acting as a stand-in head of state since July 2006, Raul Castro remained in his brother’s shadow, not deviating from the overall vision of “Fidel’s Cuba.”
However, since being affirmed after Fidel’s resignation, his conflicting actions have made it impossible to determine Cuba’s future.
Raul Castro, 76, the “fist” of the revolution, has long commanded the Cuban Revolutionary Army. Upon taking office, he filled his new government with staunch senior communists—including his 77-year-old vice president. In a speech announcing his presidency, Raul Castro said his brother will still be consulted on big decisions and will maintain the title “Commander in Chief of the Revolution.”
“Fidel is Fidel,” he said, referring to him as “irreplaceable.”
However, as Cubans and international onlookers maintain there will be no transformation, Mr. Raul Castro appears to be slowly changing long-held policies.
Shortly after being sworn in, the new president signed two international human rights treaties that his brother long opposed, and hosted a visit from a Vatican representative. He lifted strict limits on consumer goods; products such as microwaves, televisions and DVD players will eventually be available to the public. He also promised to expand to other appliances in upcoming years.
In addition, Cubans will soon be able to purchase cellphones, even cars and homes as well.
BBC reported that Cuban officials have discussed easing travel restrictions, which have made it nearly impossible for Cubans to leave the island.
The younger Castro has seemingly shown he is his “own man,” and will bring change to how the communist state is run. Unlike his brother, he has not (at the time of this writing) hosted anti-U.S. rallies. Since taking office, he has worked to fix the post-Soviet economy and often seeks counsel from multiple sources. He was even quoted by Granma as telling Havana University students to debate “fearlessly” and bring their concerns directly to him.
In response to decisions made by Raul Castro, Fidel claimed his brother has “all legal and constitutional faculties and prerogatives to lead Cuba” (Associated Press). With Raul in charge, Fidel has seemingly taken a sideline role, even though he regularly contributes anti-American editorials to Granma.
But after 50 years of the same leader, will this “passing of the torch” signal a change in thinking for Cuba’s government, its citizens—and America? Or are these revised policies and loosening of the communist grip merely a face-lift?
Despite seeing small but hopeful changes take shape, for now it appears the Cuban people will have to continue to wait for a government that will deliver on its promises.
For years Cuba has identified itself by its oppression from governments—both at home and from abroad.
The possibility of change in American-Cuban relations is not lost on U.S. voters, given that Fidel Castro’s resignation occurred during a U.S. election year.
Since President George W. Bush began his second term as president, travel restrictions to Cuba have tightened and U.S. citizens are only allowed to send $100 dollars per month to Cuba.
While both Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have said they are interested in pursuing relations with Cuba’s government, Republican nominee John McCain is firmly opposed to any compromise.
“This moment, this opportunity when Fidel Castro has finally stepped down, I think, is one that we should try and take advantage of,” Mr. Obama said, asserting that he would meet with Raul Castro “without preconditions,” reverse President Bush’s monetary policy toward Cuba, and lift travel restrictions.
Mrs. Clinton was more reserved. On the day of Mr. Castro’s resignation, she issued a statement to the new Cuban government: “The people of the United States are ready to meet you if you move forward towards the path of democracy, with real, substantial reforms.”
On the other hand, Mr. McCain said that if elected, he will maintain the same hard-line stance as Mr. Bush, adding that “Raul is worse in many respects than Fidel was.”
While addressing veterans who participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion, Mr. McCain, a former U.S. Navy pilot and Vietnam War veteran, told the audience he was tortured by Cubans while imprisoned in Hanoi, Vietnam—a claim Mr. Castro hotly contested in an editorial in Cuba’s Juventud Rebelde.
“Let me remind you, Senator McCain,” Fidel Castro wrote, “The commandments of the religion that you practice prohibit lying. The years in prison and the wounds that you received as consequence for the attacks on Hanoi do not excuse your moral responsibility to the truth.”
But now that Cuba is under the control of Raul Castro, who has shown an apparent willingness to cooperate with others, will the new U.S. government be able to restore its tarnished relationship?
Generally, most Americans think little about the island nation; any hardships that sanctions may have initially caused have long been absorbed and forgotten.
But stepping onto Cuban soil reveals the embargo’s crippling effects. Turquoise 1950s Chevys prowl past faded facades of crumbling Spanish-style stucco buildings of a once-prosperous Havana. Barefooted Cubans, their skin tanned from the hot sun, fish using metal hangers along the Malecon, or the boardwalk, where the Straits of Florida crest over Havana’s sea walls. Outside the nation’s capital, children play baseball on unpaved, dusty streets, many players wielding bats brought to the island by Americans before sanctions were imposed.
The U.S. trade embargo is not the first time Cuba has been controlled, whether directly or indirectly, by an outside nation.
Since Christopher Columbus first landed there on behalf of the Spanish crown in 1492, Cuba has been tossed among larger nations—Spain, England and the U.S.
For more than two and a half centuries, Spain controlled Cuba, deciding what and with whom Cuba could trade. In 1762, England took control of the island nation for one year and allowed it to trade freely. But Cuba was restored to Spain the following year.
Eventually, the U.S. helped rid Cuba of Spanish control. However, subsequent Cuban governments supported by the U.S. brimmed with crooked politicians, gross corruption and heavy censorship—and largely benefited the wealthy. Many Cubans grew to despise American influence over their nation. Political unrest bred the socialist revolution, which gave way to Fidel Castro’s ascent to power in 1959.
Mr. Castro was a strongman who promised stability for the country. Trumpeting slogans such as “Cuba for the people!”, he easily convinced Cubans he could restore pride to the nation. It seemed that the bourgeoisie’s dreams of equality and freedom would finally become reality.
However, these dreams diminished as relations between the U.S. and Cuba soured. In 1962, the White House imposed a trade embargo, banning all Americans from entering or trading with the island nation.
From then on, Mr. Castro toiled to create a society in a constant state of defense—with many Cubans believing the United States was preparing to attack them. He lined the country’s highways with billboards to remind Cubans of the purported U.S. threat. “Always in Combat!” proclaimed one sign. “They will never have this country!” read another near Mariel. Others, typed in large block lettering, decreed, “Fatherland or Death!” During his rule, newspapers regularly featured full transcripts of Fidel Castro’s six-hour, mostly anti-American, speeches.
With the revolution, many citizens happily pledged their loyalty and unending faith to the socialist system. In eager anticipation that a positive new era for the nation had arrived, they cheered, “¡Viva Fidel! ¡Viva la Revolution!”
But their high hopes soon gave way to a harsh reality: The nation was now Communist; it stressed the interests of the state over the individual. It was an atheist state; officially, religion had no place among the people. Cuba no longer received trade from its largest trading partner; Washington now viewed the island nation as a threat to national security. To be a Communist in Cuba meant gaining government approval—but at the cost of being cut off from religion and the financial backing of the U.S.
Citizens were forced to rely upon the socialist state.
Cuba today is a crumbling shadow of what it was in the 1950s. Unlike the burgeoning economy then, the people are now forced to wait in long lines for food rations doled out by the government.
Margarita Alarcon, an international relations specialist at the Casa de Las Americas, an educational institution in Havana, said before the 2004 U.S. presidential elections that Cubans understood how much their lives could change if Cuba is exonerated from U.S. trade sanctions.
“Cubans are aware of the fact that once the embargo is lifted, life will be different,” she said.
Cuba’s 11.2 million people are rationed about four bars of soap a year per person and a pound of chicken a month per person. Other rations include rice, beans and milk.
On an island that boasts the highest ratio of doctors per capita, medicine cupboards are often bare, with no way to treat patients ailing from even the most curable illnesses.
Some feel a little bit of chicken here and there is enough. “At least there is always rice and beans,” goes a common saying among the people. “In Africa, they have nothing.”
But, those who make enough to move economically upward cannot. “I could have bought a car,” a thirty-something Cuban man said, while walking through Havana, “and a nicer apartment, but the government won’t let me.”
Despite the negative propaganda, most Cubans do not see Americans as adversaries.
“American leaders bad, Cuban leaders bad,” a taxi driver said, while driving in Cuba’s capital late one night. “American people good, Cuban people good.”
During a visit with American students, Reinaldo Taladrid, a Cuban journalist and news anchor, said that the world looks at Cuba differently compared to other countries. “We are analyzed under a big [microscope] and other countries are not,” he said. “People in Cuba don’t see Americans as the enemy…It’s not an ideal situation.”
Although most people are hesitant to talk on the streets, and access to computers is limited, it appears the Cuban people are becoming more vocal about their country’s future.
According to a report from the International Herald Tribune regarding Internet usage, “University students recently clashed with the president of the National Assembly over the subject, an embarrassing scene for the government that was filmed and distributed clandestinely throughout the island.”
Those who have fled Cuba say that its government has brought nothing but shame to the country and should be scrutinized.
“The image is one of the defender of the oppressed and defender of just causes,” said Cuban-born Cristina Martinez, who fled the country and moved to Spain after Fidel Castro took power. “People who understand the Cuban reality know it is not like that. It is not something they would want for themselves or their own country. Or, they are opportunists who use Cuba as a symbol knowing full well what is happening” (The New York Times).
Throughout history, the citizens of Cuba have been subject to the whims of governments, political figures and corporations that fulfilled their own interests at the people’s expense. Each time a new and possibly better beginning came into view, their hopes were dashed. The Cuban people seem to have reason to be cynical about their new president. After all, he still bears the name Castro.
The small changes seen under the rule of Raul Castro appear to be slow-moving, requiring additional patience from the average Cuban.
There are still no new electronics in sight. They still cannot travel freely. They still must wait in line for rations.
And some have already given up on how much Cuba will change for the better under Raul Castro. They look instead to the day he will no longer be president. They look to a “Cuba for the people”—a government that will truly deliver equitable laws and fair judgments across all socio-economic classes.
Such a government is coming—and soon! Billions of professing Christians are unaware that when Jesus Christ came “preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent you and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15), He was talking about a supergovernment that will rule over all nations for 1,000 years. Christ will rule His government—God’s kingdom—and administer true justice for all.
Notice: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon His kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this” (Isa. 9:6-7).
The peoples of Cuba and all nations throughout the earth will reap innumerable benefits from Jesus Christ’s perfect rule.
Until then, how much Cuba can change under Raul Castro remains to be seen. The citizens of Cuba must, as they have done in the past, continue to wait—but not for very long.
To some, it seems a government truly “for the people” is impossible, and will never come. But God’s Word promises otherwise!