Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this piece misstated Elizardo Sánchez's first name as Elizondo.

As Fidel Fades From the Scene

By Tom Miller
Sunday, February 17, 2008


We were sitting on a wrought-iron bench downtown, Manolo and I, chatting about the December weather, nodding to pedestrians strolling by. I was in Cuba to do some research on José Martí, the national hero who had laid the foundation for the island's war of independence against Spain more than a century ago.

Our conversation was politely interrupted by an officer from the Specialized Police, a force assigned to heavily tourist areas. He asked for identification, not uncommon when a light-skinned foreigner is chatting with a dark-skinned Cuban, then walked away after writing down our data. He returned a couple of minutes later. "Follow me," he said, motioning us to his squad car.

This, I thought, was a miserable way to begin my trip -- but an excellent way to take Cuba's temperature. Ever since Fidel Castro took seriously ill more than 18 months ago and named his younger brother Raúl, then head of the armed forces, temporary president, the word "transition" has been on everyone's lips. They know where their country has been, but no one is sure where it's headed.

The policeman turned us over to a higher-ranking officer who asked whether I had any papers with me besides a few loose sheets stuffed into a small notebook. I had none. Suddenly, several officers put Manolo up against the car, patted him down, handcuffed him and stuffed him in the back seat. I wasn't frisked or cuffed, but officers maneuvered me in on the other side, and off we drove to the police station.

It was a "Dragnet"-era cop shop, with a high desk and officers milling about. I was bumped higher and higher in officialdom, each time asked whether I had any other papers with me. Finally I was ushered into a room where a uniformed immigration officer from the Interior Ministry looked up from his computer screen. He was husky, almost chubby, and his conversation was friendly, or at least not hostile. He, too, asked about papers. "Why is everyone asking about papers?" I asked. He replied with a shrug.

Then a heavy-set plainclothesman from State Security came in. His hair resembled a small dark yarmulke, slightly askew. He thrust a piece of paper in my face. "Have you ever seen this?" he asked sternly. It was the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. "I've heard of it," -- I chose my words carefully -- "but this is the first time I've actually seen a copy."

"Are you sure?" He paused. "We are not opposed to this document, I want you to understand." I thought of the "Seinfeld" line, "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

"Someone fitting your description has been handing these out," my interrogator said, and repeated his Seinfeldian disclaimer.

"Well, it wasn't me," I said. Fifteen minutes later, I was released. I never learned what happened to Manolo.

My two hours in Cuban custody seemed to fit a new pattern. The human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez thinks that under Raúl Castro, there are fewer arrests and jailings and more brief detentions. "Our day-to-day observation leads us to think that the style of political repression has changed," Sánchez told the foreign media last month.

Raúl Castro, who turns 77 in June, has surprised a lot of people. I'd last been in Cuba a year earlier, and I'd seen a dismal population going about the daily business of getting provisions for the following day. That's still what most people do, but this time there was more money in circulation, more low-end street commerce, somewhat less sense of perpetual anguish.

Cubans spoke, if not well, then at least respectfully, of their acting president. In the privacy of his living room, a writer commented on the younger Castro's lifelong military career. "He knows how to delegate," he said. "Things are running more smoothly." Another acquaintance, a retired bureaucrat, speaking openly in a restaurant, said she thought that Raúl was more understanding of everyday hardships: "He lives in a real neighborhood and understands the street."

Fidel fatigue underlies some of this new attitude. A change -- any change -- is welcome, as long as circumstances get no worse. My informal survey took me to La Víbora, a once-tidy Havana neighborhood that rarely sees a foreigner. A longtime acquaintance there had been a well-regarded scientist some time ago, but the contradictions between words and actions had compelled her to leave government work and find solace in the Catholic Church, through which she makes humanitarian visits to prisons. She described a devastating rainfall that had pounded the eastern end of the island weeks earlier. People had lost their homes, buildings collapsed, roads were destroyed, railroad lines uprooted.

"If Fidel had been in charge, he'd have started a speech that would still be going, and he'd blame the imperialists for the storm," she said. "Raúl devoted three sentences to it in a speech and blamed climate change. He told us that the ruin came to $499 million, and he ordered repair crews to work on the damage."

She also credits the new provisional president with a measure of expanded inmate rehabilitation programs. "I tell you," she said, "I've known two leaders in my life, Fidel and Raúl. I'm not a fan of Raúl's, but I believe what I see."

I got another indication of Havana's mood when I joined a dozen artists, filmmakers and writers around a table of good cheer at a private residence, pouring glass after glass of Havana Club rum. One fellow laughed about the time years ago when culture authorities had tried to discourage him from painting a certain way because it was considered counterrevolutionary. Everyone lifted their copitas at the distant memory, and someone else talked about the difficulty the late gay poet Virgilio Piñera had experienced getting published. The table nodded, and someone piped up, "Clothes. Remember we were told we couldn't wear narrow straight pants?" "Yes, and we couldn't wear our hair in Afros! They said it was ideologically diverting." More laughter. I started to hum Dean Martin's "Memories Are Made of This."

"I used to listen to the Beatles on a cassette player in the bushes down by the Almendares," one fellow said. On and on these intellectuals one-upped each other, chortling at memories of authoritarian rule under Fidel. They spoke of the era of cultural autocracy in the past tense, as if it had happened under a previous regime. I asked whether they could have had this conversation 20 years ago. "Are you kidding?" a woman replied. "It would have been suspect just to have a dozen people meeting like this." The liberating air of Fidel's absence gave them enough freedom to indulge in repression nostalgia.

The music of the moment is reggaeton. Under Fidel it was salsa. Reggaeton -- a blend of reggae, Latin beats and hip-hop -- fills theaters with madly cheering fans. At Havana's Teatro América, I saw thousands of Cubans applauding wildly, singing along with the two-man Gente de Zona, whose songs they knew from radio play. The young performers, whose suspenders and gold chains drooped at their sides, poured beer on their bare chests to reflect the spotlight better. Raúl and Fidel were far away.

Out in the provinces, though, life goes on much as it did in the past, regardless of which Castro heads the government. In Camaguey, long supportive of Fidel, the streets are filled with as many bicycles as cars. The bread man pulls his cart through residential neighborhoods, selling loaves of soft white bread with a crumbly crust for five pesos (about a quarter), while another street merchant buys empty rum bottles for a peso to sell at a modest profit at a recycling center. A local businessman named Luis, watching the passing scene with me, reflected on the hardships that, despite Raúl, remain glaringly apparent.

"What we need," he finally said, "is a Cuban Gorbachev."

Few of his compatriots would put it that way, but it was a note of budding hope for his country's future.

Tom Miller, the author of "Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba," has been visiting Cuba regularly since 1987.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company