Cubans Doubt a Change at the Top Will Bring Change at the Bottom

The New York Times, April 21, 2018

Cubans Doubt a Change at the Top Will Bring Change at the Bottom


HAVANA — The streets brimmed with people going about their day, hauling handcarts of fruit down narrow side streets, shuffling along sun-faded esplanades, waiting impatiently at the crosswalks of busy intersections.

The new president of Cuba — the first non-Castro to lead the nation in decades — was talking. But no one seemed to be listening. The televisions at the bus station were tuned to other channels, while cafes airing his first remarks as president appeared largely empty. Radios, at least those in public areas, garnered little attention.

In the midst of yet another historic moment on an island with its fair share of firsts in recent years, the anointment of a new president this week passed with little fanfare in the capital.

Instead, a collective sense of apathy seemed to permeate Havana, a feeling that appeared to have been fostered, at least to some degree, by the government itself. There were no big public events to mark the arrival of President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, the flag bearer of Cuba’s new generation of leaders, or any banners in sight to fete him.

Rather, the long-awaited transition was a seamless and carefully managed affair, cloaked in the quiet formalism of a modest ceremony before the nation’s national assembly.

“In other countries, when a new president is elected, it brings change in one form or another,” said Jose Luis Armenteros, 28, a psychologist taking a smoke break on Thursday afternoon, the day Mr. Díaz-Canel became president. “Here, a new president comes and no one believes there will be change.”

He stood in the sun accompanied by his friend Ulises Menendez, an electrician, who nodded quietly and added: “Illusions are a terrible thing in Cuba. You cannot have them because you never know what will happen and we are tired of disappointment.”

There is a serious lag between change at the top and change on the bottom in Cuba.

After Raúl Castro officially took over the presidency from his brother Fidel in 2008, he pushed through unprecedented reforms to open up the economy and chart a new future. That included brokering a deal to make peace with the United States, which paved the way for a flood of well-heeled American visitors that is now, under President Trump, slowing drastically.

Here on the island, many feel deflated by so much promise with so little impact on their daily lives. They express a sense of a hopelessness — a disappointment more deeply felt because of all the anticipation that preceded it.

Those economic reforms? Some have failed to materialize, while the most successful — the issuing of licenses to start small businesses — has all but stalled as the state deliberates how to move forward. The rapprochement with the United States? President Trump all but torpedoed it, at least in tone. Even the island’s historic escape valves — visas and undocumented migration to the United States — have been turned off.

In the most recent blow, the United States Embassy in Havana vastly reduced its staff and stopped issuing visas to Cubans after dozens of its personnel were mysteriously sickened in what the State Department has described as attacks of unknown origin.

That happened after the immigration pipeline of Cubans trying to reach the United States had already been abruptly squeezed by the Obama administration. Before leaving office, President Barack Obama put an end to the longstanding policy known as wet-foot-dry-foot, which allowed Cubans who made it to American soil or border crossings without a visa to stay in the United States.

Now the Trump administration’s decision to shut down many of the functions of the Havana embassy is making it even harder for Cubans to head north.

Without an operating consular office, Cubans had to travel to Colombia earlier this year to even apply for their visas, a costly endeavor considering that their average salaries amount to about $1 a day. Today, that pipeline has been blocked, too. Visa issuance for Cubans hoping to visit their families in the United States is now being done from Guyana.

“There are thousands of parents who have children in the U.S. and who are not going to be able to visit them,” said one Cuban doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she and her partner are trying to leave the country without permission. “With Obama, there was a big step forward because relations were reestablished. And now just because of Trump’s whim, things have become worse than ever.”

It is still unclear exactly how Mr. Trump’s promised reversal of Obama administration policies will play out over the long haul. Some American visitors to Cuba say they did not take any measures to come to the island that were not already in place following the opening of relations between the two nations.

But the immediate impact of the Trump administration has been felt all the same. Many Americans are staying away, either because of Mr. Trump’s decision to stiffen restrictions on traveling to Cuba, or out of fear of the mysterious attacks on embassy personnel, which prompted the State Department to issue a travel warning.

In the first quarter of 2018, visits to the island from non-Cuban Americans dropped by nearly 60 percent, according to government figures.

For Cubans who have been fortunate enough to find work in the booming tourism industry, the results have been devastating.

Náyade Triniño Ginori, a 44-year-old teacher who joined the wave of private-sector opportunities as a tour guide, says she has not hosted a group of Americans since last June. While leading tours, she earned about $100 a day, an enormous sum in Cuba — 100 times her state salary as a teacher.

“Because of the policies of the new U.S. president, I’m out of work,” she said.

For now, she has decided to return to teaching, at a slightly better salary than before, but nowhere near what her tourism job paid.

Feeling trapped is nothing new to Cubans. Many stayed in the country during its toughest periods either because they could not find a way to leave or because of their commitment to the ideals extolled by Fidel Castro.

But today, some feel as though they are in a pressure cooker, or a fishbowl, looking out at the world from the confines of Cuba yet unable to participate.

Alejandro Rodriguez, 29, a popular DJ in Havana, scrolled through his Facebook feed on a recent night with envy.

He shook his head.

“He’s gone, she’s gone,” he said, ticking off the friends who have fled. “People are leaving any way they can.”

Midway through a scroll, he stopped.

“This guy just claimed political asylum in France on his layover to Russia,” he said with grudging admiration. “What a move.”

The very idea of a political transition to a new Cuban president makes little sense to him — especially one he expected to propagate the same reality.

“I didn’t even know there was this transition happening, and I would bet that most of my neighbors didn’t know either,” he said. “It’s not that it’s not important. It’s just that whatever happens up there doesn’t trickle down to us. S o why does it matter?”

Like others in his generation, the future seems a distant concern, perhaps more of an idea than a reality. With so much reform and so little change, daily life is where hopes begin and end.

As Cuba’s new president traded off at the podium with the old one at the National Assembly this week, residents in the neighborhood of La Ceiba took to other forms of entertainment. They huddled in a worn down park, browsing the relatively new luxury of public internet that has come to Havana in recent years.

It was a midmorning affair, with well-groomed youth staring down at cellphones, dashing off messages or chatting with family abroad. Nearby, parked outside of the neighborhood bodega with a few friends, Luis Ernesto Rodriguez, 28, sized up his day.

As a construction worker, he helps build and finish houses, irregular work that earns him less than $80 a month. Today, however, he was off.

“The people I am working for can’t afford to buy the materials, so what can I do?” he said. “Here, it’s day-to-day.”

Older men worked along the periphery of the denuded space, collecting trash or fixing cars.

“The youth of today are different from us,” said Alberto Gonzalez, a 54-year-old trash collector whose pushcart was littered with glass bottles and refuse. “They didn’t see firsthand the benefits of the revolution that we did.”

He and at least some of his generation buy into Cuba’s social compact. They have seen better times, and to them working toward a common prosperity amounts to more than just words.

Still, life is hard. On his base salary of about $10 a month, there are few luxuries for Mr. Gonzalez. Beers cost $1 a piece, after all. Though in some ways he resents the young men and women sitting around in the park and not working, he understands.

“Today,” he said, “there is nothing for the youth.”

Hannah Berkeley Cohen and Ed Augustin contributed reporting.