News travels swiftly through Havana, bumping against people so they turn, then rolling on. Cubans have a phrase for it: la bola en la calle, the ball in the street.
Raúl Castro’s announcement on Friday that he is to retire and bring 62 years of Castro rule on the island to a close caused barely a ripple, even if it sent waves around the world.
Cubans were expecting it, and for those battling to buy food in what are increasingly tough times, there was skepticism about what difference it would make.
“I don’t think there will be any significant changes in the near future,” said one man. “Not as long as the old guard casts its shadow and influence on Cuban politics.”
He was instead following news that chicken had been spotted at a shop on Linea avenue, one that accepted Cuban pesos rather than US dollars. A vast queue had formed, swelling and writhing at its centre as tempers flared. The police arrived to keep the peace.
In his speech to the eighth congress of the Cuban Communist party (PCC), Castro told delegates he was stepping down with the satisfaction of having fulfilled his duty and “with confidence in the future of the country”.
Even if the population was distracted, the speech was intriguing. It distilled what we know about a man who for decades was a shadow next to his flamboyant brother.
It showed how far he had travelled from Marxist-Leninism in the 1960s toward market solutions, so long as the one-party rule he sees as a bulwark against US exploitation remains unthreatened.
Since he took over from Fidel as president in 2008, and then as the more powerful first secretary of the party in 2011, he has introduced important economic reforms. Small-scale private businesses appeared, the buying and selling of houses and cars was allowed, and then came the arrival of mobile internet.
On Friday he said: “We have to eliminate the tired illusion … that Cuba is the only country where you can live without working.” He told the state media not to obscure the country’s problems with “triumphalism and superficiality”. He returned to his call for a new generation of leaders to emerge.
When the two brothers emerged from the Sierra Maestra mountains in 1959 with a surprising number of those still in positions of power, they were at the forefront of the battle for gender and racial equality. Many Cubans, however, believe those early gains have long been given up. Pockets of dissent have started appearing in poorer barrios.
Castro acknowledged the problem. The party released figures to show it reflected the make-up of society, but he said the promotion of women and people of colour was “still insufficient in terms of the top offices in the party, state and government”.
Change does not come easily, though. It’s all but certain that Castro will be replaced as the party’s supremely powerful first secretary by Miguel Díaz Canel, the 60-year-old, white male president.
Rune-readers now look to a new second secretary for a shift. “There is one person who would send a message,” said William LeoGrande of the American University in Washington. “The [Afro-Cuban] first secretary of the party in Havana, Lázara López-Acea. People speak really highly of her.”
For Cubans, the priority remains food. Donald Trump derailed Castro’s most significant achievement, the 2016 detente with the Obama administration.
Trump’s administration retightened sanctions, making financial transactions on the island all but impossible. Relatives lost their ability to wire money to Cuba through Western Union. Cruises were banned, tourism discouraged.
A rally against “the US blockade” took place in Havana recently, a long, loud trail of bikes and cars flying Cuban flags passing the US embassy on the Malecon corniche.
Even hard-nosed business people have been surprised at Joe Biden’s refusal to reverse Trump’s course. “He hasn’t even made the changes that were telegraphed,” said John Kavuvitch, the president of US Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “Removing the cap on US remittances wouldn’t even require an interaction with the Cuban government.”
Covid destroyed what was left of the economy, despite Cuba’s initial success in keeping it out and a remarkable move to create its own vaccines. By the government’s own measure the economy shrunk by 11% in 2020, causing imports to fall by 40%.
Díaz-Canel shows no signs of veering from intransigence. He cleaves to #SomosContinuidad – we are continuity – as a Twitter hashtag. The slogan of the Congress is “Continuity and Unity”. Ada Ferrer, the author of the forthcoming Cuba: An American History, says: “Continuity in what? Scarcity?”
Marta Deus is the 33-year-old founder of Mandao, a sort of Cuban Deliveroo. It is the business success story of lockdown, keeping many of Havana’s restaurants – not to say residents – alive.
“Running a business here is super, super complicated,” she said. “Some ministers and vice-ministers want to change things, but the bureaucracy is still super hard. In my experience, nothing much has changed.”
Outside the shop on Linea the queue has gone, along with any memory of chicken. All that remains are endless shelves of filtered water.
News also travels swiftly through Havana by WhatsApp in the form of brutal memes, and one comes to mind. Why do Cuban shops now resemble the human body? Because they’re 70% water.