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Cuba’s Next Transformation

Sixty years after the revolution, a Communist stalwart may be moving closer to democracy.

By Jon Lee Anderson

Mr. Anderson is a journalist who has written extensively about Cuba.
Jan. 5, 2019

A banner in Santiago de Cuba marking the 60th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and vowing to uphold its spirit.


Yamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


A banner in Santiago de Cuba marking the 60th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and vowing to uphold its spirit. CreditCreditYamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On the 60th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, which the ruling Communist Party celebrated on Tuesday, the island nation is stable, having overcome such existential threats as the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and a half-century of diplomatic isolation and withering economic sanctions imposed by the United States.

Cuba has also weathered the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main Cold War benefactor, and a slew of traumatic internal ructions including the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and the Cuban raft exodus in 1994. Last but not least, Cuba has managed its first major political transitions, following the death in 2016 of its defining leader, Fidel Castro; the presidential retirement, last year, of his younger brother, Raúl Castro; and Raúl’s succession in office by Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, a 58-year-old Communist Party loyalist.

For the first time since 1959, in other words, Cuba is ruled by someone other than a Castro, and it has handled the transition without the drama or bloodshed that many other revolutionary states have experienced after the death of their patriarchs.

The Cuban Communist system shows no sign of collapse. But the internal struggle over whether to have more democracy or continued dictatorship is well underway in Cuba, although it is not couched in those terms.

How that struggle is resolved will determine the nation’s future. Although most of the debate is conducted in a rhetoric that is almost liturgical in its strictures, there is a growing space for differing points of view. It is increasingly clear that Cuban society is no longer — if it ever was — a homogeneous bloc of revolutionary workers willing to simply applaud or fall silent at the decisions of their leaders.

In a possible sign of change, Cubans will vote next month on a new Constitution to replace the country’s Cold War-era charter. Several hundred changes were made to the draft to incorporate the views of Cubans who were consulted on proposed reforms. Not all of the changes are progressive: In response to apparent widespread public demand, a clause was dropped that would have explicitly allowed same-sex marriage; another alteration reinstated language that describes Cuba’s ultimate political goal as “advancing toward communism.”
Thomas Munita for The New York Times

CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times

There was also public pushback against a draft law prohibiting the accumulation of private property. In response, the government agreed to a compromise in which state regulators will decide what property can be owned case by case. Another recent decree that has generated resistance seeks to impose a system of prior official approval for cultural performances and of censorship of art determined to have “immoral or vulgar” content or which “misuses patriotic symbols.” The government has agreed to step back aspects of the law.

This wrangling underscores the evolving struggle over the nature of the Cuban state. Some of the concerns raised about the draft Constitution clearly reflect the will of older Cubans, many of whom are socially conservative, have spent most of their lives living under Communism and constitute a growing percentage of the population. Other concerns point to the emerging self-confidence and clout of younger Cubans, increasing numbers of whom are involved in the country’s new economy, known as cuentapropismo — or self-employed work, which was authorized and significantly expanded during Raúl Castro’s presidency.

A private storefront in Havana. “Cuentapropistas” and their employees represent nearly 600,000 of the country’s work force.

Nowadays, cuentapropismo accounts for the work of nearly 600,000 people (about 13 percent of Cuba’s work force) and arguably constitutes the most vibrant, innovative and lucrative part of the nation’s economy. The tendency of the government, though, has been to try to slow down its growth. Recently, private taxi drivers went on an informal strike, an almost unheard-of action, after the government announced nettlesome new regulations for such drivers as well as plans for more public transportation.

A main concern of the government is how to sustain an economy that had a dismal 1.4 percent growth rate last year and how to maintain its free education and health systems as well as its food security and housing and job programs while balancing the budget.

But though most of the news coming out of Cuba nowadays is about economics, it is peppered with items that have an out-of-time quality. In December, for instance, there were headlines about how Cubans were going to get 3G on their mobile phones, an event prosaic in most Western countries but huge for Cubans, who were not allowed even to own cellphones until 2008, when Raúl Castro decreed that they could.

Another notable bit of news at year’s end was that Cuba reached a new high in tourist visitors: 4.75 million. That figure is nearly double that of just four years ago, when President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced their diplomatic breakthrough, which restored relations between the United States and Cuba after a half-century’s rupture.

In contrast to the Obama administration, the Trump administration has adopted a posture of hostility toward Cuba, imposing sanctions intended to deny financial investment in or assistance to Cuban businesses and institutions, including some tourist hotels and resorts, in which the Cuban military or intelligence services have a stake.

Relations between Washington and Havana have also deteriorated as a result of mysterious “sonic attacks” that have affected several dozen American and Canadian diplomats on the island since late 2016, bringing about a virtual shutdown of the United States diplomatic presence in Cuba. The State Department has moved its consular services for Cubans to its embassy in Guyana, 2,000 miles away. In the fall, the national security adviser, John Bolton, castigated Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela as a “troika of tyranny” and vowed to enact polices that would help bring down their governments.

While Cuba’s official relationship with the United States remains precarious, the contacts between ordinary Cubans and Americans have generally deepened and improved. That Cubans are now able to own their own businesses and to travel — something that required official permission just a decade ago — means that they are less isolated and freer than they used to be.

All of this bodes well for the future of Cuba, although its rulers still need to be convinced that freedom of speech, assembly, art, literature and media is not to be feared. They will also need to continue to be shrewd in their dealings with the United States to avoid a repetition of the sort of containment polices that isolated them during the Cold War, and which are being used again today to isolate Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela.

At a time when the United States can no longer lay claim to being the democratic bastion it once was, Cuba has an opportunity to compete, albeit on a much smaller scale. In much of the world, and for all its faults, Cuba is respected for its pluck in standing up to the American behemoth over the last half-century. Cuba is also beloved and admired for its international medical assistance program, for its prowess in music and dance, in art and in athletics. But such achievements are not enough to keep the island going.

To exist in a way that is not only about survival, Cuba needs to find a new role for itself. It can begin by seeking to avoid taking sides in a newly polarized world order.

Most immediately, that means rethinking its relationship with Venezuela and Nicaragua. Both are countries with which Cuba has longstanding ties and much shared history, but which have become increasingly repressive and are no longer friends to be proud of. Cuba need not betray its friends in order to do the right thing: It could deploy its considerable political and diplomatic resources to take a leadership role in ensuring that the political transitions necessary in Venezuela and Nicaragua be peaceful ones.

Cuba’s rulers also need to continue to open up. Just as it did 60 years ago with a revolution that, for better or worse, helped reshape the modern world, Cuba can once again choose its own path, and once again be a leader among nations. It can choose to be more democratic. Now that would be truly revolutionary.

A version of this article appears in print on Jan. 6, 2019, on Page SR8 of the New York edition with the headline: Cuba’s Next Transformation. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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La prochaine transformation de Cuba

Soixante ans après la révolution, un fidèle communiste pourrait se rapprocher de la démocratie.

Par Jon Lee Anderson

M. Anderson est un journaliste qui a beaucoup écrit sur Cuba.
5 janvier 2019

Une bannière à Santiago de Cuba marquant le 60e anniversaire de la révolution cubaine et promettant de maintenir son esprit.


Yamil Lage / Agence France-Presse - Getty Images


Une bannière à Santiago de Cuba marquant le 60e anniversaire de la révolution cubaine et promettant de maintenir son esprit. CreditCreditYamil Lage / Agence France-Presse - Getty Images

À l'occasion du 60e anniversaire de la révolution cubaine, célébrée mardi par le parti communiste au pouvoir, la nation insulaire est stable et a surmonté des menaces existentielles telles que l'invasion de la baie des Cochons en 1961, la crise des missiles cubains en 1962 et un demi-siècle de guerre. isolement diplomatique et sanctions économiques féroces imposées par les États-Unis.

Cuba a également résisté à l'effondrement de l'Union soviétique, son principal bienfaiteur de la guerre froide, et à une série de traumatismes internes, notamment le pont élévateur Mariel en 1980 et l'exode du radeau cubain en 1994. Enfin, Cuba a réussi son premier grand conflit politique. transitions, à la suite du décès en 2016 de son dirigeant, Fidel Castro; la retraite présidentielle, l'année dernière, de son frère cadet, Raúl Castro; et la succession de Raúl par Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, un loyaliste du parti communiste âgé de 58 ans.

En d'autres termes, pour la première fois depuis 1959, Cuba est dirigée par une personne autre qu'un castriste et a géré la transition sans drame ni effusion de sang que bien d'autres États révolutionnaires ont connus après la mort de leurs patriarches.

Le système communiste cubain ne montre aucun signe d'effondrement. Mais la lutte interne pour savoir s'il faut plus de démocratie ou le maintien de la dictature est bien engagée à Cuba, bien qu'elle ne soit pas formulée en ces termes.

La manière dont cette lutte sera résolue déterminera l’avenir de la nation. Bien que la plupart du débat se déroule dans une rhétorique dont le contenu est presque liturgique, il existe un espace croissant pour des points de vue divergents. Il est de plus en plus évident que la société cubaine n’est plus - si elle l’a jamais été - un bloc homogène de travailleurs révolutionnaires disposés à simplement applaudir ou à rester silencieux face aux décisions de leurs dirigeants.

Comme signe possible de changement, les Cubains voteront le mois prochain sur une nouvelle constitution destinée à remplacer la charte du pays datant de la guerre froide. Plusieurs centaines de modifications ont été apportées au projet pour intégrer les points de vue des Cubains consultés sur les réformes proposées. Tous les changements ne sont pas progressifs: en réponse à la demande apparente généralisée du public, une clause autorisant explicitement le mariage homosexuel a été supprimée; une autre modification a rétabli le libellé qui décrit l'objectif politique ultime de Cuba comme étant «la progression vers le communisme».
Thomas Munita pour le New York Times

CreditTomas Munita pour le New York Times

Un projet de loi interdisant l'accumulation de propriétés privées a également été rejeté par le public. En réponse, le gouvernement a accepté un compromis dans le cadre duquel les régulateurs de l'État décideront quels biens peuvent être détenus au cas par cas. Un autre décret récent, qui a suscité des résistances, vise à imposer un système d’autorisation officielle préalable des représentations culturelles et de censure des œuvres d'art dont le contenu est «immoral ou vulgaire» ou qui «abuse des symboles patriotiques». Le gouvernement a accepté de revenir sur certains aspects la loi.

Cette querelle souligne l'évolution de la lutte pour la nature de l'État cubain. Certaines des préoccupations exprimées au sujet du projet de Constitution reflètent clairement la volonté des Cubains âgés, dont beaucoup sont socialement conservateurs, ont passé la plus grande partie de leur vie sous le communisme et constituent un pourcentage croissant de la population. D’autres inquiétudes témoignent de la confiance en soi et de l’influence émergentes de jeunes Cubains, qui sont de plus en plus impliqués dans la nouvelle économie du pays, connue sous le nom de cuentapropismo - ou travail indépendant, qui a été autorisée et considérablement développée pendant la présidence de Raúl Castro.

Une vitrine privée à La Havane. Les «Cuentapropistas» et leurs employés représentent près de 600 000 personnes dans la population active du pays.

De nos jours, le cuentapropismo représente le travail de près de 600 000 personnes (environ 13% de la main-d’œuvre cubaine) et constitue sans doute le volet le plus dynamique, novateur et lucratif de l’économie du pays. Cependant, le gouvernement a eu tendance à essayer de ralentir sa croissance. Récemment, des chauffeurs de taxi privés ont entamé une grève informelle, une action presque inouïe, après que le gouvernement a annoncé de nouvelles réglementations épineuses pour ces chauffeurs, ainsi que des plans pour davantage de transports en commun.

L’une des principales préoccupations du gouvernement est de maintenir une économie qui a enregistré un taux de croissance médiocre de 1,4% l’année dernière et de maintenir ses systèmes gratuits d’éducation et de santé, ainsi que ses programmes de sécurité alimentaire, de logement et d’emploi, tout en équilibrant le budget.

Mais si la plupart des nouvelles qui paraissent de nos jours concernent l’économie, Cuba est parsemée d’articles qui ont une qualité hors du temps. En décembre, par exemple, des rumeurs avaient annoncé que les Cubains allaient utiliser la 3G sur leurs téléphones portables, un événement qui a fait l'unanimité dans la plupart des pays occidentaux, mais qui est énorme pour les Cubains, qui n'ont même pas le droit de posséder un téléphone portable avant 2008, lorsque Raúl Castro a ils pourraient.

Une autre nouvelle notable à la fin de l’année est que Cuba a atteint un nouveau record de touristes: 4,75 millions. Ce chiffre est presque le double de celui d’il ya quatre ans, lorsque le Président Barack Obama et Raul Castro ont annoncé leur avancée diplomatique, qui a permis de rétablir les relations entre les États-Unis et Cuba après une rupture d’un demi-siècle.

Contrairement à l'administration Obama, l'administration Trump a adopté une attitude hostile à l'égard de Cuba, imposant des sanctions visant à interdire tout investissement financier ou toute aide aux entreprises et institutions cubaines, notamment à certains hôtels et centres de villégiature dans lesquels l'armée ou les services de renseignement cubains avoir un pieu.

Les relations entre Washington et La Havane se sont également détériorées à la suite de mystérieuses «attaques sonores» qui ont touché plusieurs dizaines de diplomates américains et canadiens sur l'île depuis fin 2016, entraînant une quasi-interruption de la présence diplomatique des États-Unis à Cuba. Le département d'État a transféré ses services consulaires pour les Cubains vers son ambassade en Guyane, à 3 000 kilomètres. À l'automne, le conseiller à la sécurité nationale, John Bolton, a qualifié Cuba, le Nicaragua et le Venezuela de "troïka de la tyrannie" et s'est engagé à adopter des politiques qui aideraient à renverser leurs gouvernements.

Les relations officielles entre Cuba et les États-Unis restent précaires, mais les contacts entre Cubains ordinaires et Américains se sont généralement approfondis et améliorés. Le fait que les Cubains soient maintenant en mesure de posséder leur propre entreprise et de voyager - ce qui nécessitait une autorisation officielle il y a seulement une décennie - signifie qu'ils sont moins isolés et plus libres qu'auparavant.

Tout cela est de bon augure pour l’avenir de Cuba, même si ses dirigeants doivent encore être convaincus que la liberté de parole, de réunion, d’art, de littérature et de médias n’est pas à craindre. Ils devront également rester astucieux dans leurs relations avec les États-Unis afin d’éviter la répétition du type de politique de confinement qui les isolait pendant la guerre froide et qui sont encore utilisés aujourd’hui pour isoler le régime de Nicolás Maduro au Venezuela.

À un moment où les États-Unis ne peuvent plus prétendre être le bastion démocratique qu'ils ont été, Cuba a la possibilité de faire face à la concurrence, même à une échelle beaucoup plus réduite. Dans la majeure partie du monde, et pour tous ses défauts, Cuba est respectée pour son courage à tenir tête à l’énorme mastodonte américain au cours des cinquante dernières années. Cuba est également aimée et admirée pour son programme d’assistance médicale internationale, ses prouesses dans les domaines de la musique et de la danse, de l’art et de l’athlétisme. Mais de tels succès ne suffisent pas à maintenir l’île sur la route.

Pour exister d’une manière qui ne soit pas seulement une question de survie, Cuba doit se trouver un nouveau rôle. On peut commencer par éviter de prendre parti dans un ordre mondial nouvellement polarisé.

Cela signifie tout de suite repenser ses relations avec le Venezuela et le Nicaragua. Les deux sont des pays avec lesquels Cuba entretient des liens de longue date et une histoire commune, mais qui sont devenus de plus en plus répressifs et ne sont plus des amis dont on puisse être fier. Cuba n’a pas besoin de trahir ses amis pour faire ce qui est juste: elle pourrait déployer ses ressources politiques et diplomatiques considérables pour jouer un rôle de premier plan en veillant à ce que les transitions politiques nécessaires au Venezuela et au Nicaragua soient pacifiques.

Les dirigeants cubains doivent également continuer à s’ouvrir. Comme ce fut le cas il y a 60 ans avec une révolution qui, pour le meilleur ou pour le pire, a contribué à remodeler le monde moderne, Cuba peut à nouveau choisir sa propre voie et redevenir un leader parmi les nations. Il peut choisir d'être plus démocratique. Maintenant, ce serait vraiment révolutionnaire.

Une version de cet article a été imprimée le 6 janvier 2019, à la page SR8 de l'édition de New York, intitulée: La prochaine transformation de Cuba. Commande de réimpressions | Le papier du jour | Souscrire

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Learning From Cuba’s ‘Medicare for All’

Many Americans would welcome some traits of the island’s free, universal health care system.

By Nicholas Kristof

Opinion Columnist
Jan. 18, 2019

Dr. Lisett Rodríguez talks with Odalys Navarro Carbonell, 31, at a consultorio, or clinic, in Havana. Ms. Navarro is four months pregnant.


Dr. Lisett Rodríguez talks with Odalys Navarro Carbonell, 31, at a consultorio, or clinic, in Havana. Ms. Navarro is four months pregnant.CreditCreditLisette Poole for The New York Times

HAVANA — Claudia Fernández, 29, is an accountant whose stomach bulges with her first child, a girl, who is due in April.

Fernández lives in a cramped apartment on a potholed street and can’t afford a car. She also gets by without a meaningful vote or the right to speak freely about politics. Yet the paradox of Cuba is this: Her baby appears more likely to survive than if she were born in the United States.

Cuba is poor and repressive with a dysfunctional economy, but in health care it does an impressive job that the United States could learn from. According to official statistics (about which, as we’ll see, there is some debate), the infant mortality rate in Cuba is only 4.0 deaths per 1,000 live births. In the United States, it’s 5.9.

In other words, an American infant is, by official statistics, almost 50 percent more likely to die than a Cuban infant. By my calculations, that means that 7,500 American kids die each year because we don’t have as good an infant mortality rate as Cuba reports.

How is this possible? Well, remember that it may not be. The figures should be taken with a dose of skepticism. Still, there’s no doubt that a major strength of the Cuban system is that it assures universal access. Cuba has the Medicare for All that many Americans dream about.

Dr. Rodríguez attends to patients at the consultorio in the Vedado neighborhood in Havana and in their homes.

Lisette Poole for The New York Times


Dr. Rodríguez attends to patients at the consultorio in the Vedado neighborhood in Havana and in their homes.CreditLisette Poole for The New York Times

“Cuba’s example is important since for decades ‘health care for all’ has been more than a slogan there,” said Dr. Paul Farmer, the legendary globe-trotting founder of Partners in Health. “Cuban families aren’t ruined financially by catastrophic illness or injury, as happens so often elsewhere in the neighborhood.”

In Havana, I shadowed a grass-roots doctor, Lisett Rodríguez, as she paid a house call on Fernández — and it was the 20th time Dr. Rodríguez had dropped in on Fernández’s apartment to examine her over the six months of her pregnancy. That’s on top of 14 visits that Fernández made to the doctor’s office, in addition to pregnancy consultations Fernández held with a dentist, a psychologist and a nutritionist.

This was all free, like the rest of the medical and dental system. It’s also notable that Cuba achieves excellent health outcomes even though the American trade and financial embargo badly damages the economy and restricts access to medical equipment.

Fernández has received more attention than normal because she has hypothyroidism, making her pregnancy higher risk than average. Over the course of a more typical Cuban pregnancy, a woman might make 10 office visits and receive eight home visits.

Thirty-four visits, or even 18, may be overkill, but this certainly is preferable to the care common in, say, Texas, where one-third of pregnant women don’t get a single prenatal checkup in the first trimester.

Missing a prenatal checkup is much less likely in Cuba because of a system of front-line clinics called consultorios. These clinics, staffed by a single doctor and nurse, are often run down and poorly equipped, but they make health care readily available: Doctors live upstairs and are on hand after hours in emergencies.

Dr. Rodríguez, right, and a nurse, Zoe Alonso Díaz, with a mother and her newborn daughter in their Havana home.

Dr. Rodríguez, right, and a nurse, Zoe Alonso Díaz, with a mother and her newborn daughter in their Havana home.CreditLisette Poole for The New York Times

They are also part of the neighborhood. Dr. Rodríguez and her nurse know the 907 people they are responsible for from their consultorio: As I walked with Dr. Rodríguez on the street, neighbors stopped her and asked her about their complaints. This proximity and convenience, and not just the lack of fees, make Cuba’s medical system accessible.

“It helps that the doctor is close, because transportation would be a problem,” Fernández told me.

Home visits are also a chance to reach elderly and disabled people and to coach dysfunctional families, such as those wracked by alcoholism (a common problem), and to work on prevention. During Dr. Rodríguez’s visits to Fernández, for example, they discuss breast-feeding and how to make the home safe for the baby.

“It’s no secret that most health problems can be resolved at the primary-care level by the doctor, nurse or health worker nearest you,” said Gail Reed, the American executive editor of the health journal Medicc Review, which focuses on Cuban health care. “So, there is something to be said for Cuba’s building of a national primary-care network that posts health professionals in neighborhoods nationwide.”

Each consultorio doctor is supposed to see every person in the area at least once a year, if not for a formal physical then at least to take blood pressure.

All this is possible because Cuba overflows with doctors — it has three times as many per capita as the United States — and pays them very little. A new doctor earns $45 a month, and a very experienced one $80.

The opening of Cuba to tourism has created some tensions. A taxi driver who gets tips from foreigners may earn several times as much as a distinguished surgeon. Unless, of course, that surgeon also moonlights as a taxi driver.

Critics inside and outside the country raise various objections to the Cuban system. Corruption and shortages of supplies and medicine are significant problems, and the health system could do more to address smoking and alcoholism.

There are also allegations that Cuba fiddles with its numbers. The country has an unusually high rate of late fetal deaths, and skeptics contend that when a baby is born in distress and dies after a few hours, this is sometimes categorized as a stillbirth to avoid recording an infant death.

Dr. Roberto Álvarez, a Cuban pediatrician, insisted to me that this does not happen and countered with explanations for why the fetal death rate is high. I’m not in a position to judge who’s right, but any manipulation seems unlikely to make a huge difference to the reported figures.

Outsiders mostly say they admire the Cuban health system. The World Health Organization has praised it, and Ban Ki-moon, the former United Nations secretary general, described it as “a model for many countries.”

In many ways, the Cuban and United States health care systems are mirror opposites. Cuban health care is dilapidated, low-tech and free, and it is very good at ensuring that no one slips through the cracks. American medicine is high-tech and expensive, achieving some extraordinary results while stumbling at the basics: A lower percentage of children are vaccinated in the United States than in Cuba.

The difference can also be seen in treatment of cancer. Cuba regularly screens all women for breast and cervical cancer, so it is excellent at finding cancers — but then it lacks enough machines for radiation treatment. In the United States, on the other hand, many women don’t get regular screenings so cancers may be discovered late — but then there are advanced treatment options.

As Cuba’s population becomes older and heavier (as in the United States, the nutrition problem here is people who are overweight, not underweight), heart disease and cancer are becoming more of a burden. And the lack of resources is a major constraint in treating those ailments.

There’s a Cuban saying: “We live like poor people, but we die like rich people.”


Cuba invests heavily in health care partly because it’s a moneymaker. Cuba exports doctors to other countries, and this has become an important source of hard currency (the doctors earn a premium while abroad, but much of the surplus goes to the government).

With its doctors, Cuba creates a global public good: I’ve encountered Cuban physicians in impoverished countries around the world, and Cuba also trains many doctors from Haiti and other countries. Hundreds of Cuban physicians also risked their lives to travel to West Africa during the Ebola crisis.

Cuba has developed its own pharmaceutical industry, partly to get around the American embargo, and this also creates financial opportunities. A lung cancer medication from Cuba is now undergoing a clinical trial in the United States, and a similar U.S.-Cuba partnership is pursuing a Cuban treatment for diabetic foot ulcers. To me, those partnerships represent a path toward cooperation that both sides should build on.

While we should call on Cuba to grant people like Fernández meaningful political rights, we should likewise push for American babies born in low-income families to have the same opportunity for attentive health care as her daughter will have.

Nicholas Kristof has been a columnist for The Times since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur. You can sign up for his free, twice-weekly email newsletter and follow him on Instagram. @NickKristof • Facebook

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Sa a se yon lot ATIK ke yon EGZILE KIBEN ekri lan NEW YORK TIMES.

Gen yon JENERASYON pitit EGZILE KIBEN ki vle mande pou ETAZINI kite KIBA an repo,yon bagay ke AMERIKEN yo paka fe.
Yon KIBEN an mwayenn viv pi lontan ke yon AMERIKEN mwayen.
Pou ki sa?

Cuba’s Slow Rebirth

By Ruth Behar
Dec. 4, 2018

Turning Point: Raúl Castro resigns as Cuba’s president.

“It was yours,” my mother announced. She held out a girl’s blue school uniform.

She’s 82 now and still surprises me with mementos she took from Cuba and has kept packed away since the ‘60s.

A star was sewn onto the front and it had a thick hem to be let out as I grew.

“Don’t you remember?”

I shook my head.

“You wore it when you were 4 years old. You went to the same Jewish day school in Havana that I went to. Classes were in Spanish and Yiddish. Wasn’t that amazing? Then Castro came.”

I grew up, as did so many children of Cuban exiles, traumatized by what my parents had lost in the revolution of 1959 led by Fidel Castro. They had believed in the social reforms Castro envisioned — equal rights for women and Afro-Cubans, free day care, land for farmers, housing for the poor, health care for all and education for every child — and felt betrayed by his turn to authoritarianism and communism.

Like other exiles of their generation, my parents refuse to return to the island. They prefer to hold on to their memories of a vanished Cuba. For nearly 30 years I’ve been going back on my own, trying to understand what Cuba has become.

There are also the children who stayed, the generation raised by revolutionaries, who tried to build a just society through volunteer work and communal sacrifice. They struggled through periods of profound scarcity and now face the decline of Cuba’s national welfare system. A friend who supports her parents with her Airbnb business wondered who she might have been, what she might have attained, had they left.

“You’re lucky your parents took you away when you were little,” she told me.

But as Cuba approaches the 60th anniversary of its revolution, a new generation, both in and out of Cuba, the grandchild generation, is shedding the traumas of the past.

Young Cubans today are individualists who would have been labeled “ideological diversionists” by elders who cut sugarcane for the good of the nation. Although they’ve grown up hearing about the horrors of American imperialism and the ongoing trade embargo, they sport tattoos that declare, “All You Need is Love” or “Live Hard.”

And they adore brands. In May, 2016, Chanel came to Havana for a fashion show. The contrast in generations was starkly on display when Fidel Castro’s grandson Tony Castro (Antonio Castro Ulloa), an aspiring 19-year-old model who is the spitting image of his grandfather, made an appearance on the Paseo del Prado.

A self-made celebrity of this new generation is the 37-year-old Idania del Río. She returned to Havana from working abroad when private businesses became legal under Raúl Castro. Her graphic design shop, Clandestina, offers silkscreened T-shirts that caught President Obama’s attention on his historic visit to Cuba in March 2016, and are now sold on Amazon.

A surprising number of young Cubans can afford to spend $28 — close to the island’s average monthly salary — on a Clandestina T-shirt, but their ambitions can only go so far. They work in private restaurants, fix up rooms to rent to tourists, give an old Chevy a second life as a hot-pink taxi. They want Cuba to become an “ordinary” country. Meanwhile, almost all transactions are still in cash, no one has a credit card and money is kept under the bed.

Reopening the island to the capitalist world has also brought growing inequality. In the early 1990s, when I started returning to Cuba, I noticed dark curtains hiding the goods in tourist shops to prevent Cubans from desiring things they couldn’t afford. Now, everything is in plain view — including Chanel.

In the past, emigration was a way to escape. But countries around the world are closing their borders, and the United States no longer offers Cubans a fast route to citizenship.

Young Cubans now dream not of emigrating but of traveling.

The grandson of my Afro-Cuban childhood nanny wants to visit Guantánamo, where his father is from. Yet earning the equivalent of $12 a month, he finds even saving for a bus fare from Havana to Guantánamo, about 600 miles, to be prohibitively expensive.

His brother-in-law chimed in during our conversation, “My dream is to travel the world and then return to Cuba.” He laughed, yet there was no sense he yearned for political change. “Cuba doesn’t have gangs or guns. It’s a safe country.”

The economic difficulties that confront these two young Afro-Cuban men have to be weighed against their feeling of security. Racism has not ended in Cuba, and many feel it has increased with the rise of private enterprise, whose benefits tilt clearly toward white Cubans. But one of the revolution’s lasting achievements is to have instilled a strong national pride in Cuba’s African heritage, giving black Cubans a voice that continues to push for greater equality and the right to black self-expression — even the Black Lives Matter movement has supporters on the island.

But Cuba is on an uncertain threshold as it moves into a post-Castro future. While it can be proud of constitutional reforms that include proposing to legalize gay marriage, a primal demographic issue haunts the country.

Birthrates in Cuba have dropped alarmingly, and the population is the oldest in all of Latin America. A woman I know used to say, “I’d never bear a child for Fidel Castro.” Others say it is economic conditions, particularly a severe housing shortage, that has made the decision to have children especially complex.

Our former neighbors in Havana still live in the same modest two-bedroom apartment. Their granddaughter has slept all her life in the same bedroom with them, her now 90-year-old grandparents, who are walking advertisements for Cuba’s excellent health care, while her parents occupy the other bedroom. She’s 37 and her boyfriend of more than a decade has lived in his grandparents’ apartment his whole life.

“We can’t get married because we don’t have anywhere to live,” she told me. “I don’t think we’ll have children. I’m getting old. Anyway, we don’t earn enough to support a child.”

I imagined what her daughter might look like, wearing the school uniform and red kerchief of a young pioneer, and I remembered the uniform my mother kept, clinging to the memory of my interrupted childhood in Cuba.

Her grandmother was, in Cuban grandmotherly fashion, listening in. Years ago she sold her wedding ring to buy an electric fan, but she lives without regrets. Smiling at her granddaughter, she said, “You never know what might happen. Aquí vivimos de la esperanza.”
Ruth Behar

Ruth BeharCreditGabriel Frye-Behar
Here we live from hope.

I know her granddaughter no longer believes in utopian dreams of what might be. She is determined to live her life in the present, like other Cubans of the new generation.

But she kindly smiled back at her grandmother and said, “I know, abuela.”

Ruth Behar, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, is the author of “Lucky Broken Girl,” a novel for young readers, and “Everything I Kept,” a book of poems.

This is an article from Turning Points, a magazine that explores what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead. Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.

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