Requiem For A Revolution

Just before midnight on New Year's Eve 1958, the dictator Fulgencio Batista boarded a plane for exile. Thousands of Cubans chanted and sang all night long-then went into the streets to celebrate the revolution. New Year's Eve 1992: Fidel Castro sits on a plywood stage in Havana's Revolution Plaza flanked by huge video screens, disco lights and banners. Roberto Robaina, the middle-aged head of Cuba's Communist Youth Union, bounds to the mike and invites George Bush to "come and see how communism has not collapsed in Cuba." Militants packed into the front rows wave little flags and cheer; the rest of the crowd ignores him. Security policemen fling leaflets from a nearby roof, nobody tries to catch them. After half an hour, Castro and a dozen other Central Committee men shuffle off. Revolutionary Cuba's singing idol Silvio Rodriguez, now pushing 50, steps up to the mike. The crowd finally roars.

The new year promises only hardship for the Western world's last bastion of proletarian revolution. Cuba is a living museum of the former Soviet bloc's ills, from worthless currency, tapped phones, endless lines and empty shelves to teenage hookers, rundown buildings and copies of banned books smuggled in from abroad. A Havana couple show off their year-end ration bonus: a can of guava jam, a small bag of black beans and a frozen quarter chicken they'll save "as a souvenir." An engineer quits his job to fish from a rubber inner tube; the money is much better. A TV director watches his life's work erased because there is no budget for fresh tapes. Havana story: asked what he wants to be when he grows up, a child responds, "a foreigner."

Revolutionary Cuba was a chimera, a piece of palm-fringed Caribbean window dressing of schools, hospitals and film festivals, paid for by $5 billion in annual subsidies from the Soviet Union. Its economy incorporated the worst features of both the East bloc and the Third World. Further strained by the 30-year-old U.S. trade embargo, Cuba today exhibits all the pathologies of the empire of which it was once the glorious high-water mark, except one: collapse. And that's clearly on the way.

Fewer and fewer Cubans can still muster even a semblance of standing "with Fidel," as the phrase goes. Castro's main prop now is fear-of a system directing ever-fiercer repression at "enemies of the state" and of the chaos and bloody nightmare that many believe will follow his fall. But as the country's slow-motion fall continues, the man who stands over it rails on. Intellectuals already are debating whether he properly belongs in the category of old-fashioned Stalinist, Latin caudillo or something new: Macho-Leninist. "This isn't a revolution anymore," says a Cuban journalist at a glum New Year's Eve gathering of Havana's intellectual elite. "It's just a police state." Observes one well-known writer: "The mask has finally slipped ... [Castro] lives with the phantom of Batista."

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Under Batista, gambling, prostitution and the Mafia flourished. Castro, too, now pitches shamelessly for tourist dollars. "They're selling all the best things to foreigners-the beaches, the women, the food," complains one 19-year-old loitering by Havana's sea wall, known to hundreds of regulars as "the couch." And today, any tourist who cares to stray from the beach can't miss just how haunted the landmarks of Castro's revolution have become.

Santa Clara, the last big city before Havana on the old national highway, is where an Argentine doctor named Ernesto Guevara made his name commanding the guerrilla army that was closest to the capital when Batista fled. Today there is a towering hilltop monument to Che, who was killed by a CIA-led Bolivian counterinsurgency force in 1967. It includes a museum featuring everything from his third-grade report card to the zippered leather jacket he wore for his most famous portrait in a beret. "Can you give me a pen?" begs a barefoot, shirtless 8-year-old boy, before an old watchman with an unloaded carbine chases him away. Be careful of thieves on bikes, he tells visitors.

Is the government's own watchfulness slipping? Outside town, a training camp in urban warfare is overrun by waist-high grass. Even the secret police have trouble getting gas to follow suspects, some Cubans say. By the roadside, a 29-year-old engineer, his wife and young daughter are on their way to visit friends for the weekend-part of the horde strung out along the main highway, waiting for a lift from one of the trucks or tractor-and-wagon combinations pressed into service since the buses began to fail. It's midafternoon, and they've been on the road since 5 a.m.; sometimes 15 minutes pass between vehicles. Nonetheless he spouts the official line straight out of Granma, Cuba's Pravda. "We're going to find oil in the coming year," the man says. "Otherwise biotechnology and foreign tourism will save us." Farther along, a half dozen horse-drawn carts are the only vehicles at a gas station. ON THE CORRECT PATH, a huge propaganda billboard says.

Santiago is still proud of its revolutionary tradition. "We're people who don't like to discuss things-we just start fighting," a retired military officer working as a tour guide offers cheerfully. Cuba's second city is where Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill in 1898 in support of a guerrilla army fighting the Spanish. Castro first gathered his forces in the nearby Sierra Maestra mountains-and drew his first blood in 1953 in a failed attack on a government barracks. If any Cuban city should be a shrine to the revolution, this is it:

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Instead, Santiago is moribund. Even at midday there is hardly a car on the six-lane expressway that sweeps down out of the mountains and into the city, passing stinking hillside slums that look remarkably like those on the outskirts of Caracas or Santo Domingo. The old Texaco oil refinery, nationalized in the early 1960s, has not been running for more than a year. At the port, officials from the Ministry of Internal Trade sell oranges dumped on the ground at five pesos a bucket-the average daily wage-and a crowd quickly forms. "If you don't have work, you can't even eat an orange anymore," says one woman. "They used to be everywhere." The food-shortage jokes are like Moscow circa 1985. "Why are Cuban eggs like a missile? 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0!"

The city's most important revolutionary shrine-Moncada Army barracks-raises as many questions as it answers. A blown-up photo of Fidel coming out of jail crops out the man next to him-Mario Chanes de Armas, who went on to serve 30 years in Castro's jails on political charges. The International Solidarity Room similarly features Ho Chi Minh, Salvador Allende and a large number of recently vacated blank spaces-for Cuba's former patrons.

Even in Santiago, the revolution never quite rubbed out the traces of America's 19th-century invasion of the island. San Juan Hill is now a lover's lane just behind the resolutely unrenamed Motel Leningrado. All but one of the various monuments to what Cubans call their War of Independence have had their bronze plaques pulled off, or the inscriptions plastered over with concrete. In the middle of it all is a pile of fresh dirt, a six-foot hole and a Sign: DANGER ZONE. It's a vent for one of the thousands of air-raid tunnels dug over the past two years in every Cuban town and city. "We must be prepared for permanent threat of a Yankee invasion," the government warns relentlessly, desperate for a scapegoat and a distraction.

A rare liberated zone is tolerated near Santiago, at El Cobre, the country's most famous Roman Catholic shrine. Fidel and Raul Castro's mother contributed little silver figurines to the shrine to thank the Virgin for getting her sons out of the Sierra Maestra mountains. Now there are testimonials from imprisoned Catholic activists, and pleas "for those who struggle for human rights in Cuba." The bottom shelf of one glass cabinet has a tiny piece of the Berlin wall. And on the table out front is an October declaration by the country's Catholic bishops, denouncing the security police for entering Havana churches to drag away worshipers who shouted out, "Liberty!" Says one of the lay workers who man El Cobre's sanctuary around the clock: "The police don't come in here."

In the search for tourist revenue, no humiliation seems too large. At a dollars-only tourist cabaret in Camaguey, about 300 miles from Havana, the beer is Milwaukee-brewed, Classic Coke goes into the cuba libres and the music runs to "Rock Around the Clock." "How do you like our mulattas?" asks the maitre d', leering at the women dancing at the bar. Even at the Bay of Pigs, where the inevitable museum features enough guns to equip a small army, the action is at the motel on the narrow beach itself. It's still early in the season, so a few lucky Cubans and their families are permitted to mix at poolside with pale, plump French Canadians enjoying what one calls "the deal of the century"-$600 for a week in the sun, including air fare. Even the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay is milked for tourist dollars. On a once restricted hilltop, visitors can now inspect the base through binoculars.

Still, a few of the unintended ironies along Cuba's tourist trail clearly have become painful even to the bureaucrats. Havana's huge Museum of the Revolution, once Batista's National Palace, has everything from one of Raul Castro's old sport coats to the original radio transmitter used for rebel broadcasts from the Sierra Maestra. Out back is the yacht Granma, in which Castro and 82 would-be rebels first landed from Mexico. And, six months ago, there was a before-and-after exhibit inside, featuring 1950s-era photos of prostitutes and cane cutters-even the wheel from an oxcart, examples of "inhuman labor." That's closed off now, a guard says, "for repairs." Now that Castro has announced that oxcarts will replace tractors during a "Special Period in Times of Peace," it's harder and harder to separate the "before" from the "after."

Requiem For A Revolution | News