Havana A City under Siege

Havana A City under Siege

When you set foot on this equatorial paradise with its abundant rain, you will feel that you have returned once again to the starting-point of the journey which you have made. In Cuba you seldom feel that the place is strange or the people around you are different. The similarity required to banish feelings of homesickness and difference is not a basic condition on this island which lies in the Caribbean Sea. Sincere smiles and the transparency of feelings are the homeland that every stranger seeks. Anything other than that is merely details that can be overcome with the passage of time.

A warm sun all the year round, and thick clouds cover the excessive heat at the appropriate time. A capital colored by its buildings and its inhabitants, whom history has mixed in profusion and through migration, a people who reject anger, and love Salsa music to the last drop, and want it always to reach their ears from every street and alley, and finally a deep-rooted history of struggle against colonialism and foreign domination, before which one must stand in respect.

It is indeed an environment which urges one to stay in it. And why not? Ernest Hemingway, the author of the masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea, was a captive of its beauty for twenty years as a writer and a pleasure-seeker. Whoever escapes from its magic falls into the clutches of its luxurious cigars, like Winston Churchill, the greatest politician in Britain in the last century. He often said, Cuba is always on my lips .

Uncle Sam a Guest of Uncle Fidel

After fifteen years of disconnected flying over two continents and an awesome ocean, we arrived at José Marti Airport in the Cuban capital Havana. It was eight o clock in the evening, which meant that the darkness of night would hide from us views of the remaining life and activity of the city. We were looking for surprises from the time of our first minutes in the country, which had once made the world hold its breath. The final world war between the two giants Russia and America had almost broken out because of it in what was known as the Cuban missile crisis. The surprises did not keep us waiting long. No sooner had we received our suitcases than we learnt that it had been legal to use US dollars in Cuba since 1992, and there was no need to change them into the local currency, the peso. The second surprise was that American tourists came to Cuba through neighboring countries like Jamaica thereby defying the trade boycott decisions which their government was imposing on Havana. These tourists did not have their passports stamped, in order to make it easier for them to visit Cuba. The last surprise was the fact that in the airport and all the streets of Havana, as we saw subsequently, there were no photographs of the leader Fidel Castro, the President of the country. Instead of them it was photographs and statues of the Cuban national hero José Marti and the internationalist revolutionary Che Guevara whi ch filled the streets and public places.

The Independent Cuban Personality

The next morning, which began with light humidity, we were on an exploratory tour of the sights of the two halves of Havana, the old, and the new on which work had begun since the success of the Revolution in 1959. From the Miramar area in New Havana we set out, and from the beginning the calm of that area was noticeable, that area whose low houses were surrounded by leafy green trees. This, of course, is what made it the favorite place for most diplomatic missions in Havana. On our way to Hemingway s Marina, some buildings and abandoned palaces from the leftovers of regimes before the Revolution loomed over us with amazing haughtiness. Their broad open spaces were filled with piles of grasses that had been neglected.

We left New Havana and headed towards the old part of it. Gradually the people and the traffic congestion became thicker around the bus stops, which in Cuba are called camels . Cuba, which has more than ten million inhabitants, suffers from a transportation crisis as a result of the small number of cars and high fuel prices. This has made many people use bicycles and low-cost motor cycles. The authorities have provided small-sized taxis, which have room for two persons only, at cheap prices, in order to solve this crisis or reduce its manifestations.

In the seafront area of Malecon, dozens of colored buildings rose up in front of us, against which buffeted the invigorating air which blew in forcefully from the Gulf of Mexico. There were hotels which the American Mafia gangs had manipulated in bygone times. Shortly before we arrived at the point from which we were to begin our exploration of Old Havana, we saw a small market which sells oil paintings that express Cuban life, and hundreds of small, light souvenirs and gifts. In this narrow market one could observe all types who had joined the melting-pot: whites, blacks and colored people, to produce the independent Cuban character for us. In Cuba everyone is inclined to explain in detail just like the Arabs and everyone is overflowing with hot emotion like the peoples of Latin America. Everyo ne is also endowed with tolerance like the countries of South-East Asia. Some international events have contributed to the makeup of the Cuban people, who were originally formed from Spaniards and slaves who had been brought from Africa. The revolution which broke out in the island of Haiti at the end of the eighteenth century pushed large numbers of French to settle in the city of Santiago. When the economic crisis began in Spain in 1921, a large wave of emigration from it began towards Cuba. And there was also the Arab immigration with which I shall deal later.

The Cuban Cigar: You Are in its Country of Origin

A discussion about Cuba in any gathering, without mentioning its sumptuous cigars of brands like Cohiba and Romeo y Julieta, is a discussion whose basic elements are incomplete. The two are linked together by an eternal Catholic marriage. Cigar lovers throughout the world might suffer one or more heart attacks when they visit Cuba. An evening in Havana rains down cigars from all sides, for which they have long endured the hardship of searching at exorbitant prices. Behind the massive Capitolio Building at the end of Marti Street lies the Partagas cigar factory, which was built in the middle of the nineteenth century and renovated in recent years to become more elegant and radiant. Inside the factory one can see the cigar production line, from the moment when the tobacco leaves are brought in until the cigars are dropped into their boxes. Doz ens of skilled workers sit in rows wrapping, cutting and pressing tobacco leaves at a fantastic speed. The tobacco leaves are protected in the fields from the burning rays of the equatorial sun by wrapping them in pieces of cloth to ensure that they are safe. One of the workers in the Partagas factory said about the best kinds of cigars that he makes, They are those which are wrapped from one leaf, with medium pressure, because too much pressure makes it difficult to smoke the cigar, and too little pressure makes the cigar burn quickly. When I asked him about the cigars that are wrapped on the legs of virgins, he laughed a little, and answered, That s just a myth. The process of wrapping is done on the metal board in front of me. Any leaves that are placed on legs are to bring them together before wrapping them. It is a process that everyone carries out, it s not confined to virgins. The workers of the Partagas factory produce more than five million cigars a year.

In Cuba there are two cigar markets, one official and the other a black market. In the first market, in which the cigars are sold in elegant shops, the price of the most expensive box of 25 cigars is US $250, which is not negotiable. This price, by the standards of visitors to Cuba, is more than reasonable compared with prices outside Cuba. The government cigar shops allow their customers to sample the type they want to buy, and every box which leaves the shop is stamped with the seal of excellence and has a bill proving that it was legitimately acquired. In the black market the situation is completely different. Cigars are sold by retail and packaged for those who want them for a cheap price, but the problem with these kinds is that their excellence is not guaranteed. Some of them were wrapped in an unskilled manner and others are full of s awdust. The sources of cigars for the black market are homes and workshops, and some of the quantities which are obtained in one way or another are from state factories.

The Cuban airport and port authorities confiscate all boxes of cigars bought from the black market. They only allow those to pass which have a bill of purchase and the seal of excellence. As a kind of hospitality, the authorities do not object to tourists taking two boxes from the black market, but anything in excess of that is confiscated.

Repairing Old Havana

The old city of Havana which UNESCO in 1982 declared a World Heritage Site is a city open to the horizon. Whoever explores its streets does not feel suffocated by concrete. The sun is bright in its interiors throughout the day, and one can see the sea through its center as well as through its edges. Whoever designed made it impossible to get lost in it. It is rather like an endless storeroom full of works of art and valuable acquisitions. No sooner do you pick one of them up than another more beautiful and valuable one appears behind it or from under it, and so on ad infinitum. For example, one cannot reach the famous Plaza de Armas in the antique and second-hand book market without seeing dozens of archaeological sites, the largest of which is the Castillo del Moro built at the h ead of the Bay of Havana. Opposite it on the other side is the castle of San Salvador de la Puenta. It is as if the two castles are a gateway to the entrance of the Bay of Havana. As you come close to the Plaza, you pass beside the castle of La Fuerza, which is surrounded by water on all sides. If you think that you have finished, someone comes up and says to you, Have you visited the palace of the Spanish governor from colonial days? By the way, it overlooks the antique and second-hand book market.

The Cuban government has allocated the equivalent of 30 million dollars to preserve the old parts of Havana which the Spanish colonialists built in 1519 AD, and commissioned the city s historian Eusebio Leal for this task since the 1970s. The actual work began ten years ago, when he and his team consisting of 6,000 people restored a beautiful palace in Lambaria Street which had been built in the nineteenth century. Leal s project faces many difficulties, among them the time factor. There is a limited time in which to save things and buildings that will disappear for ever, he says. He also faces criticisms to the effect that the restoration operations are aimed only at the aristocratic sites which tourists prefer, whereas the center of Havana which is full of buildings and churches has remained as it was. We have a lot of work in front of us, Leal himself says, and half of Havana is still ruins. The growing tourist sector in Cuba is regarded as the artery which activates the national economy, after it overtook the ailing sugar sector. Hundreds of thousands of tourists from Europe, Canada and other places visit the country, and they are particularly eager to visit the old city and its historic landmarks, and sit in its cafes to listen to Salsa music and the famous song Guantanamera.

Where Are You, Young People of the 1950s?

From the time we left José Marti Airport I had been following a live film of American cars such as I had only seen in old films. I had thought that it was only a matter of a few dozen cars, but the number increased in a crazy manner the more I wandered in Havana. Most of them dated back to the start of the US trade embargo against Cuba in the early 1960s. Sitting on the wall of the sea front at Malecon, with the sea behind you, is the best opportunity to see dozens of old cars with their bright colors, as they drive back and forth on the road in front of us. A 1958 model green Ford, followed by a 1956 model blood-red Plymouth, and a little way after it a 1956 model Buick in two colors, yellow and white, then a 1950 model blue Cadillac, and a 1950 model white Chevrolet with a blue top, racing each other in a comical manner. Thus the parade of cars goes on endlessly. We did not leave this sight, which contained so much significance, without a question. Some people alleged that those cars were originally owned by members of the Mafia gangs and the rich classes before the 1959 Revolution. Another group said that Cuba before the Revolution was one of the richest countries in Latin America, and the owners of some of these cars, who allowed us to photograph them, told us, We are living on an island, and a trade embargo has been imposed on us for forty years. So naturally we cannot obtain new cars, as there is no way for them to come except by sea. Dozens of old cars are used secretly as taxis in Havana, and their owners are eager to be in places crowded with tourists, who pay in hard currency. One of them called Ernesto, who had inherited his 1956 model Chevrolet from his grandfather, as we were trying the experiment of riding i n his antique car, warned us not to tell the truth in front of the traffic police, and only to say that we were on an excursion with Amigo (our friend) Ernesto .

Hemingway s White House

Going out of Havana, even for a short time, gives new dimensions to the city which one cannot see from inside it, particularly if the route of one s journey is the same as that followed by the American novelist Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), who left Havana and its Ambos Mundos Hotel, which became famous because of him, and headed towards the nearby Francisco de Paula area, where he rented his farm which he subsequently bought. There he wrote his best novels, particularly his novel The Old Man and the Sea, for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

In a short journey by car which took no more than an hour, in an equatorial forest that was quiet when Hemingway had chosen it as his residence but today had become full of movement and the sounds of people and machines, we arrived at the gate of the four-hectare farm. After a shorter distance on a winding road, Hemingway s house appeared with its white walls, surrounded by mango trees and bamboo on all sides. The Cuban government has been taking care of Hemingway s farm since he left Cuba in 1960 because of severe illness. He had asked for its doors to be opened to visitors, and to leave all his possessions as they were. Whoever enters Hemingway s study or the sitting room of his house feels that the owner of the house left it only a short time, not more than four decades, ago.

Hemingway left behind him thousands of books distributed all over the place, and even his typewriter, which he was accustomed in his latter days to standing up in order to write on it. He did not think of taking it with him, and left it in its place. Hemingway s different kinds of possessions reflect the hobbies which he used to pursue.

The head of the massive buffalo hanging in his study is evidence of his hunting adventures with a rifle in the jungles of Africa. As for his valuable yacht, which is now installed in the tennis court, its owner related dozens of stories about it and the precious moments he spent on its deck. It is thought that Grigorio Fuentes, the fisherman who used to work on Hemingway s yacht, was the person who inspired him with the character of the old man in his famous novel The Old Man and the Sea. It tells the story of the bitter struggle between a Cuban fisherman and a giant swordfish, which continued for three consecutive days and ended in him losing it. This novel has been made into a film, which added to its fame and that of Fuentes, who turned into a cultural landmark for the rest of his long life. Hemingway gav e him his yacht before his final departure for America, out of appreciation for the role he had played in his life, it appears. In turn, Fuentes donated the yacht, named Pilar, to the Cuban government to place it in Hemingway s farm. In January 2002 Fuentes passed away at the age of 104 years, after continuing in his last four decades to express his sorrow at the loss of his friend Ernest Hemingway.

Cuba: A History of Colonialists

In the first voyage of Christopher Columbus to discover the New World, he passed by the island of Cuba on his way on 21 October 1492, and called it Guana. Some accounts say that some Arab sailors accompanying Columbus, when they saw Cuba from a distance, shouted Qubba, qubba! (a dome), because they saw something on that island that looked like a dome. From this word the Latin name Cuba was derived. In 1511 Cuba was in fact colonized by the Spanish, who turned the island of Cuba into a base from which to launch their naval fleets towards South America. The operation of building castles and impregnable fortifications remained the main preoccupation of the Spanish, who were annoyed by repeated attacks by pirates against their booty. The commander Diego Velazquez built several cities one after another, the most notab le of which were Santiago in 1514 and Havana in 1515, to achieve this aim. During the seventeenth century the island faced many attacks by French and Dutch pirates who plundered the village of Sancti Espiritu in 1665.

This quantity of invaders was not enough for Cuba, as 30,000 English soldiers transported by 27 warships carried out a brief occupation of Havana in 1762. Spain recovered it the following year without a fight, following the Paris Agreement whereby Spain ceded Florida to Britain. The Cuban people struggled for many decades for their independence from Spain. On 10 October 1868, the two leaders of the Ten Years War, Carlos Manuel Zespides and Maximo Jumez, declared the independence of Cuba, although this attempt failed. The second attempt was under the leadership of José Marti, who decided in 1895 to lead a campaign for the liberation of Cuba which he launched from American territory. He did not succeed and was killed in ac tion, as he himself had expected before the beginning of the campaign.

The third and last attempt to liberate Cuba from Spanish occupation came at the end of the phase of Spain s collapse and inability to protect its distant colonies in the Caribbean Sea. Conversely, this was the phase when the star of the United States of America was rising as an international military power, which aspired to dismantle the possessions of the Spanish Empire and control them. After an American ship had been blown up in the Bay of Havana in 1898, the United States of America declared war on Spain, which was defeated in the end. Spain was forced to leave Cuba for ever and sign a peace treaty with Washington, in which it recognized the independence of Cuba. It also ceded Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands. The American Army only left Cuba after it had signed a treaty giving it the right to lease the b ase of Guantanamo in 1903, and the right to intervene to protect its interests.

The Arab Union in Cuba

On 4 April 1979 the Cubans of Arab origin succeeded in founding a single union which united the Arab family in Cuba by combining the Lebanese Association in Havana, the Central Arab Association and the Palestinian Arab Association in Cuba. This was after the number of Arab Associations in Cuba had reached thirty recreational or charitable associations. In the largest and most famous of all the streets in Havana, Paseo de Marti which begins at the castle of San Salvador de Porinta overlooking the Bay of Havana and ends at the massive Capitolio Building, in the middle of that street, a board looks down on us on which is written in Arabic script, The Arab Union in Cuba . It is a union that represents all those descended from Arab origin in the whole of Cuba. It was nearly twelve o clock noon. We climbed up the long n arrow stairway leading to the headquarters of the union. From a distance a pleasant-looking man looked down on us as if he were waiting for us at the top of the stairs. As soon as we reached him he greeted us with a warm smile and said in broken Arabic, Welcome. I know a little Arabic. He took us, my colleague the photographer and me, to a small Arab-style room in which there were many black and white photographs. Our host was Mr. Ario Jabbour, a man in his seventies. His father was Cuban, and Jabbour says of his relationship with the Arab world, I went to work in Libya twenty years ago. I visited Damascus for a short while, and from there I learnt a little Arabic. It seemed clear that Jabbour was eager for news of the Arab world and the Middle East region. After a long conversation in which our newly-born Spanish helped us, Jabbour sighed a little, and then continued, I want the Arabs to be one package, because a package is not broken easily. We asked Jabbour about the old photographs surrounding us, and this place where we were sitting, which did not look like the headquarters of a union. These photographs represent some waves of Arab immigration to Cuba, he answered. We are now sitting in the Arab restaurant whose revenues finance the expenses of the union. The headquarters is a short walk from here. Every Saturday is the appointed time for the regular meeting for members of the Arab Union. Its cultural and artistic activities are also held on that day.

On the second visit to the headquarters of the Arab Union in Cuba, the situation was completely different from the previous visit. We noticed that there was a bustle of activity in it and more visitors. In the large hall there was a lecture about to begin on the subject of Arab civilization between yesterday and today. It was to be delivered by a specialist professor from the University of Havana. In a smaller room, which had been prepared painstakingly as a classroom, an Arabic teacher sat in front of his four Cuban pupils, teaching them the principles of the Arabic language in a weekly lesson for nine months. While we were engrossed in writing down that scene, we met the Cuban President s adviser for Arab affairs, Aguado Vilar Emil, who explained to us that he had just returned from a conference of Arab communiti es in South America, which had been held in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires.

The Chairman of the Arab Union in Cuba is Alfredo Darwish, who belongs to the same family as the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. He said that the Arab presence in Cuba was very old, and mentioned that he would not talk about those who had come with Columbus or before him but rather about the last wave of Arab immigrants to Cuba, of whom we are the grandchildren. We have a document from an Arab person who had been baptized in one of the churches in 1784. Darwish added, Our history in Cuba is rich. Arabs took part in the wars of independence of 1865 and 1895, and fought those struggles as Cubans. In 1905 the Arabs began to establish associations in various parts of the country as a result of the increasing Arab migrations to Cuba. They were formed on the basis of the country from which an immigrant cam e, without that preventing the establishment of mutual relations between those associations. That situation continued until we succeeded in forming the Arab Union in Cuba, which includes all those associations. We chose the date for announcing it to coincide with the convening of the Sixth Non-Aligned Summit Conference in Havana in 1979, to give the Arab leaders who participated in it an example of the possibility of Arabs succeeding in establishing a single union that unites them.

Darwish affirms that the 1959 Revolution with its Socialism contributed to making Arabs with money and businesses emigrate from Cuba, particularly since a large proportion of them had emigrated from their original homelands for economic reasons. Since that date immigration to Cuba had stopped except for a few Arab students who studied in one of the universities of Cuba and decided to stay there after their graduation. Before the Revolution, Cubans of Arab origin participated, and they still participate, in all the social, cultural and political establishments of the state. At present we have members in the Politburo of the ruling party, ministers, undersecretaries, members of parliament, diplomats and prominent people in all walks of life.

Darwish spoke about how members of the union feel towards their mother country: We as Cubans feel that we are Arabs sincere to the Arab blood which flows in our veins and our customs and traditions, and to this day we derive them from our Arab roots. Our activities in their various forms center around the Arabs and their questions of destiny of which we feel that we are a part. Here we represent a cultural phenomenon inside Cuban society. The principles of the 1959 Revolution helped us to unite and establish the Arab Union in Cuba.

On the basis of documents of the union, Darwish explained that the number of Cubans of Arab origin is estimated at 45,000, of whom 10,000 are members of the Arab Union. The great majority of them are Lebanese, and the remainder are Syrians and Palestinians. In addition to social activities and the restaurant, they finance the budget, which does not receive support from any internal or external quarter. In spite of the financial difficulties we face, our modest work is equal to that of similar Arab organizations in Latin American countries which have many rich Arabs.

Darwish concluded with a smile, With all humility, we are an unusual and unique phenomenon in the world of Arab immigrants, particularly in Latin America.

Our second interview was conducted in the exhibition hall for the winning paintings in the Abdullah Competition, which the Arab Union in Cuba organizes. It was a short discussion, but of the effective type which is not easily forgotten, in terms of the opportunities for interaction of its concise and distinctive events which make you imagine their details connected with history. He was of Algerian origin, with Palestinian identity and Syrian upbringing, an architect studying at present for a Master s degree at the University of Havana. His Algerian great-grandfather has come to Syria with the famous Arab hero Amir Abdulqadir Al-Jazairy, who had resisted the French occupation. This fighter had then moved to Palestine where he had a son, the grandfather of the man we interviewed, who told us: My grandfather lived an d died in Palestine, and after a time his family migrated to live in Syria. He said that they are trying now to return to their mother country, Algeria, with which they never cut off their family connections. He is Ali Al-Sharif, whom we saw teaching his pupils Arabic.

Before we left the headquarters of the union, Jabbour slipped a small piece of paper into my hand, and told me, Go to this place where you will find a treasure of information about the history of the Arabs in Cuba. When I got into a taxi I opened Jabbour s piece of paper and read Casa de los Arabes . I wondered what was awaiting us there.

The House of the Arabs and the Solitary Mosque

In spite of our repeated visits on the first two days to the Plaza de Armas in Old Havana, and repeatedly passing by near the Ambos Mundos Hotel, in which Ernest Hemingway had lived temporarily before settling in his farm, we had not noticed the presence of some small houses adjoining that hotel. Each one of these exhibited acquisitions from one of the well-known civilizations. Among them was the House of the Arabs, which our friend Ario Habbour had pointed out to us. At the entrance were the Arab clothes used in most of the Arab countries. There were also pieces of carpet and a Bedouin Arab place for sitting. The second main element was in fact a Moroccan-style Arab courtyard with a small fountain. A real peacock went past us as if we were in a story from The 1001 Nights. We went up the stairs leading to th e first floor, and on the left we came to the treasure room, or the room which contained the most important documents related to the Arab and Islamic presence in Cuba. Among the most important of these were the names of the first Arab immigrants registered officially in state documents, and photographs of some of these immigrants, singly and in groups. On the second and last floor we arrived at the only mosque, not only in Havana but also in the whole of Cuba. It was cared for by the Cuban government, which provided it with ablution facilities and a minaret from which God s name is proclaimed.

The Roots of the Arab and Islamic Presence in Cuba

The first evidence of the Arab and Islamic presence in Cuba appeared in the form of royal orders issued by the Spanish crown throughout the sixteenth century, warning the colonial authorities of the illegal presence in the New World of persons who had become Moriscos , which was the name they used to apply to Spanish Muslims. These orders also included African ethnic groups like the Berbers and the Julufi, who were also Muslims. In 1593 a Morisco man of Berber origin was baptized in the Vicarate of Greater Havana, and took the name of Juan de la Cruz. Three years after that a few dozen Muslim slaves arrived, among them a group whose origin went back to the Mamlukes of Tunis, Morocco and Tarmisin. It seems from the documents that we obtained that there was spontaneous confusion between Muslims and Arabs, and they w ere all lumped together in one category. Those who came as immigrants after Columbus may have been Muslims and not necessarily Arabs, and vice versa, but the documented immigrations after that were clearer in this respect.

The major Arab waves of migration to Cuba came in the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the first half of the twentieth century. They included Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians. One of the first representatives of that wave was Yusuf Jabbour, who arrived in Cuba in 1870. Immigration statistics reveal to us that between 1906 and 1915, 30% of the Arabs who arrived in Cuba came from what was called "Asiatic Turkey , and from European and other American countries. Lebanese Christians formed the greater part of Arab immigrants to Cuba, after they had been restricted by the Ottoman Empire on the one hand, and because of bad economic conditions in their country on the other.

Between 1920 and 1931 a total of 9,337 Arab immigrants entered Cuba. Most of these preferred to settle in the urban and commercial areas, and in the developed villages in the sugar industry and livestock farming. They engaged in various commercial activities, among them retail trading in textiles, miscellaneous items and jewelry, tailoring, and Oriental restaurants. A large number of Arab immigrants concentrated in the "Arab quarter" of Havana, which extends from Monte street as one of its main streets to other streets like San Nicolas and Corales. In the city of Santiago de Cuba, the previous capital of Cuba, the Arab immigrants concentrated into the Tivoli quarter. The Arabs in Cuba have had their own distinctive newspapers, like Al-Faiha, which was first published in 1931, Al-Sayf in 1932 and Al-Ittihad in 1918. None of these has continued to this day, except for El Arabe magazine published by the Arab Union in 1980 in Spanish.

Cuba under Siege

Throughout the 1990s Cuba suffered from successive economic crises, after the resounding collapse of the countries of the Socialist Bloc. This faced its political system with difficult challenges no less bitter than those it faced in the early years after the success of the 1959 Revolution. The first challenge, which the Cuban leadership has succeeded in overcoming, was for the system to stand firm until this day, after many had expected it to fall automatically, as happened with the countries of Eastern Europe whose Communist regimes collapsed one after the other.

On the surface of the Cuban economic crisis several problems emerged, foremost of which was a halt to generous Soviet aid to Cuba. This made it for the first time aware of the danger of the American trade embargo imposed on it since 1961, particularly with Washington alone leading the world, and the decline in the prices of sugar, which is the main commodity that Cuba exports to the world. This led to the final closure of 71 out of 155 factories, and the conversion of seven factories into museums. The decline of the tourist industry after the events of 11 September compelled the country to close 112,000 out of 136,000 hotel rooms available in Cuba in late 2002. The agricultural sector faltered and a food crisis emerged. And finally Hurricane Mitchell cos t Cuba's state budget nearly $2 billion.

This difficult phase was marked by the implementation of economic reforms which, particularly since they did not adopt the Russian and Chinese patterns, depended on the tourist sector, decreased government spending on the military machine and reduced the army from 300,000 to only 50,000 soldiers. Dealing in US dollars was legalized, as was the establishment of joint ventures between the state and investors from abroad. A system of ration distribution was adopted to cope with the food crisis. The Cuban authorities also allowed the parks in the cities to be planted with fruitful crops and established agricultural co-operatives from which peasants could sell their produce directly without middlemen. Parallel to these reforms, the Cuban government stepped up its concern with social services (education and free health services), so tha t they would reach the standard of one teacher to every 12 pupils, and 3.5 doctors to every 1,000 people. It also struggled to keep unemployment at its lowest level and resist the raising of food prices.

Talk of the Future

Many questions push themselves forward to one s mind about Cuba as one is leaving it. The most difficult of these center around the future of the small island after Castro s death, and the destiny of its Socialist regime. Any person in Cuba can easily answer these two questions. The subject of the succession has been settled since 1977 in favor of Raul, President Castro s younger brother, who is the General Commander of the Armed Forces. With regard to the future of the Socialist system, at the end of June 2002 the 600-member Cuban Parliament agreed to a constitutional amendment incorporating Socialism into the Cuban Constitution irrevocably . In order to inject new blood into the ruling Cuban Communist Party, changes have been carried out in recent years with the President s bless ing that have enabled young party leaders and activists to reach decision-making positions and discuss sensitive subjects related to the future of Socialism in Cuba and its ability to stand firm in a liberal capitalist world.

Apart from the foregoing answers, which some people believe are not enough to face the challenges of the future, three important factors emerge which are expected to contribute in one way or another to defining the features of Cuba in the post-Castro phase. These are: the younger generation, the Cuban émigrés who live in Miami only 90 miles away from Cuba, and lastly the United States of America. The closest conception one can expect for this unkn own phase is that Socialism will remain in Cuba in name only, and the Chinese pattern will be adopted for the transformation into a free market economy without encroaching on the social services. That does not close the door to other expectations, including one that considers it likely Castro will remain a force even after his death, or another that thinks the government is likely to collapse within a short time.

We went to Havana University and asked some of its students, who it appears were used to discussing the subject of the future of Cuba without photographs of course. On the one hand they praised the system of free health and educational services which had enabled them to reach university studies. And on the other hand they wanted to open up more to the world and establish a normal relationship with their neighbor the United States. I don t want change which is illogical and makes us beggars, like Russia and the Eastern European countries, said Maria, a law student. But we want to see different aspects in every field, so we can choose what we want. Osvaldo said very succinctly, We don t want all freedom, just a small part of it.


Ibrahim Al-Mulaifi


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