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In Eerily Calm Havana, Cubans Ponder the Future


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.



And I'm Melissa Block. It has been ten days since the news that Fidel Castro had undergone surgery and temporarily delegated power to his brother, and there is still no official word on the Cuban president's condition. Today, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close friend and ally of Castro, said the Cuban leader is in a great battle for life. But Chavez added that he received a message from Castro yesterday that he said filled me with more optimism, with more faith.

NORRIS: NPR'S Lourdes Garcia-Navarro visited Havana right after the news broke about Castro's surgery. When she presented herself to authorities for accreditation as a journalist, she was told not to do any reporting or recording or she would never be allowed to return. During her week in Havana before she was expelled, she had the opportunity to talk to many people in the capital, and these are her impressions.


It's sultry and stormy in Havana this season. The thunder sounds like the crack of a cannon. Lightening flares through the sky like tracer fire. But turbulent weather, it is otherwise calm as the official state-run media keeps telling the Cuban people, over and over, like a mantra.

Little other information about Fidel has come out, of course, and the tourists keep coming in to see the charms of an island still stuck in time, with its glorious sagging buildings that look like they've been dredged up from under the sea and the old pastel-hued American cars. Cuba trades on its revolution at almost every street-side cafe, someone plays the iconic song (speaking foreign language), Until Forever, dedicated to Fidel's late comrade-in-arms, Che Guevara.


(Soundbite from Until Forever)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But inside this country, the question lingers, whispered in the air. Is change finally coming to Cuba?

(Soundbite from Until Forever)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A 57-year-old man gave me a lift one day. He's retired. Even though it's illegal to drive foreigners, he says he's forced to try and get some hard currency in order to survive. His $12 a month pension is not enough to live on. His Soviet Areolata (ph) is on its last legs, and the hot wind is blowing in our faces as we putter down the (speaking foreign language), a seafront promenade that arches along the edge of the city. Two of his sons are in Miami; another is in Moscow, he tells me, the vagaries of Cuba's history reflected in immigration patterns of his children. Castro lost his way, he goes on. He says Castro went to extremes. He reminisces about the early days of the revolution, how optimistic they all were, and he feels that Castro's stubbornness has slowly eroded some of the great successes here: education, health care. But he says he doesn't want what he thinks the Miami Cubans are peddling. The Miami people want to come back to Mombat (ph), he says, to boss us around. They were exploiters then, and they want to continue exploiting us.

I hear that opinion echoed over and over. There is a genuine distaste here for the celebrations that erupted in Miami.

So what does he want, I ask? Not capitalism, he says. Something like Vietnam or China or, I don't really know. He stops the car to let me off. He answers finally, no more extremes.

A Cuban friend of mine quips when I see her, have you ever seen Cuba so calm. Isn't this the calmest you've ever seen this place?

Well, on the surface life, is ticking by. There is a lot of tension. Neighborhood watches have been established. Soldiers have been called to barracks and all leave has been canceled. The police are everywhere, but discretely. One woman told me that her local Communist Party office has called a meeting and told the members to look out for (speaking foreign language), or worms, who would try and cause disturbances.

There have been none. The dissidents, who in any case want a peaceful change, are generally ignored or mistrusted by the masses. And what many people outside this country don't understand is that every aspect of life on this island is under tight control. To get even a phone line installed in your house, you need a recommendation from the local Communist Party boss. Misbehavior means your life becomes impossible very quickly.

Two days after the announcement of Castro's operation, the state-run paper, Granma, ran these headlines with stories to match: We Will Continue Our March. More Socialism. Nothing Will Stop Us. Viva La Revolution. And my personal favorite, El Commandante Always Tells Us the Truth

It's good to have this reaffirmed from time to time, I guess. Interviews with music icons like Silvio Rodriguez wishing Castro well were also published. Rodriguez' song (speaking foreign language) was dedicated to Fidel and it is reportedly one of his favorite songs.

(Soundbite of music)

The nightly (speaking foreign language) or Roundtable television program, is where most of the population gleans what little information they can. It's a public affairs-style show that has a different topic of discussion every evening. Last week, every broadcast would begin with interviews of Cuban citizens praising Fidel and then, crucially, his brother Raoul, who is now supposedly in control of the country.

With complete uniformity, they express their love and devotion to their leaders and the revolution.

Behind the pundit-style guests who sit around the Roundtable are ordinary Cuban citizens who are invited into the audience. You can barely make them out in the background. They sit there, unsmiling and grave, like a painted backdrop. Passive observers, they are never addressed and they never speak.

(Soundbite of music)

I accompanied a family I know well here to a hard-currency supermarket. There is subsidized food on the island, but it's never enough and most people in Havana have to come to these supermarkets to buy key things that they need. Still, even here sometimes the shelves are full and sometimes there's almost nothing there. On this day, there's a huge line waiting for (speaking foreign language), or ground meat. My friend tells me (speaking foreign language) is popular because you can make it stretch.

We re-use everything, he goes on to say. I will wash out the plastic bags they give me here and keep them until they break. Suddenly, he spies an apple. He confesses he hasn't had one of them in years, as they're very uncommon here. As we talk about global warming and American excess and what it all means, he said maybe people over there have something to learn from Cuba.

I buy him an apple. He bites into it and smiles.

(Soundbite from Until Forever)

The Cuban authorities want things to go smoothly and slowly at this critical time, so no one knows Castro's real condition. Is he dead? Is he in a coma? Speculation here is traded like fact. Someone told me both Raoul and Fidel had died.

But in the heat of the summer, as the soporific days slide by without incident, Cubans are starting to believe that nothing has really changed. And crucially, that nothing will. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.