January 21, 2007
What Was Once Theirs
By ANTHONY DePALMA
FOREIGNERS almost never show up on the ragged streets of the old town across the bay from Havana. But there was a knock recently on the front door of the battered yellow house in Guanabacoa that is home to Marielena and Francisco, a working-class couple, and outside stood an American.
The stranger explained that his wife had lived in that four-room house as a child. In 1962, almost four years after Fidel Castro took power, she and her family fled to New York, and now she wanted pictures to show their children where she had twirled in the patio and sung old Spanish ballads as she grew up in another time, and another world.
Marielena welcomed the stranger, but Francisco (he was afraid to give his last name) stood with arms folded over his bare chest. “You came here all the way from America just to take pictures,” he said suspiciously. “Are you going to reclaim this house?”
The stranger in Guanabacoa (pronounced hwan-ah-bah-COE-ah) had no intention of reclaiming the shoebox house or anything else. I know, because I was the person who knocked on that door during a trip to Cuba last year. My wife, Miriam, lived in that house until she was 10. When she saw the photographs I carried back, she was overcome with bittersweet emotion. Though now faded and chipped, the pink paint on the walls and the green and red tiles on the floor were still there, 44 years later.
Nothing had changed and, of course, everything had changed in the years since the revolution triumphed. That’s the phrase Fidel Castro’s regime has always used — “the triumph of the revolution” — and it slips off the tongues of even those Cubans who have benefited little from his rule.
But now, as they await the demise of the only leader most of them have ever known, Cubans are forced to reconsider what the revolution has meant. Many on the island are caught between two fears — today’s and tomorrow’s. Where will they find the money, energy and enterprise to get themselves and their children through another day? And when Fidel dies, will the 1.5 million Cuban-Americans in Florida and New Jersey return to take back what once was theirs? Mr. Castro, who confiscated private property throughout the island nearly 50 years ago, has exploited such anxieties to bolster a sense of national identity, and those fears have only intensified during his long illness.
And not without reason. The United States maintains a list of some 5,911 compensation claims by American companies and United States citizens dating from the revolution. Including interest, they are now worth more than $6 billion. And lawyers in Florida and the New York area are girding for one heck of a fight.
To Cubans who stayed, those who left are “gusanos,” worms that crawled away from the homeland. The government turned over any house left behind to other Cubans long ago, and after so many years the current residents believe these houses belong to them, though they hold no title because technically everything in Castro’s socialist enclave belongs to the state.
Few exiles have papers either, and unlike the American citizens of a half-century ago whose claims were registered by Washington, Cubans who lost property had no mechanism in their own country for recording their losses.
But so much time has passed that many gusanos agree that they no longer have a legitimate claim to the houses and small properties they left behind. Miriam’s family never even owned the house in Guanabacoa, and no one claims it as theirs.
Several public opinion polls and surveys of Cuban-Americans conducted recently in South Florida and North Jersey show that a declining percentage of the diaspora still dreams of reclaiming houses. This is especially true among the younger generation, whose members never lived in Cuba.
Still, some exiles did sneak out deeds and have fished them out of strongboxes since Fidel became sick. While some undoubtedly will try to reclaim former residences, most want factories, mills and other commercial properties.
“Cubans are not going to fight over the last few crumbling homes,” said Nicolas J. Gutiérrez Jr., a 42-year-old Cuban-American lawyer in Miami who represents many business claimants and for himself seeks the return of two sugar mills, 15 cattle ranches, a food distribution center and more. “Out of the hundreds of people I represent and the thousands I talk to I’ve never met anyone who says he’s going to go back there and kick people out. On a base level, that would be immoral.”
Even so, the fear held by people like Marielena and Francisco matters, having been planted by the regime and nurtured by a controlled press that issues regular warnings about ignoble gusanos and what they might try in a moment of crisis.
This dense cloud of uncertainty has been hanging over Cuba since the summer, when Mr. Castro, who is 80, ceded power to his brother, Raúl, who is 75. For most Cubans, the fear of the future has little to do with who eventually replaces “El Commandante.” Rather, most are consumed by the contradiction between longing for change and fearing that change will come.
All but the most strident military families and pampered government officials hate the current economic system. They have had it with ration books and wartime restrictions — one tasteless roll a day, and every month eight eggs, a few pounds of chicken and a half-pound of something called “ground-up texturized soy” among other basics. But they also can’t imagine life without such subsidized guarantees.
They also resent a two-tier currency system that makes many consumer goods available to tourists, but out of reach for Cubans. And capitalism itself seems brutal and forbiddingly unequal, a system they can glimpse only when it rubs shoulders with shabby Castro-style Communism in hotels they cannot enter and restaurants that let them in only if they are on the arm of a foreigner.
So engulfed have they been in the daily struggle to survive that many Cubans told me they wanted just to forget about the transition now taking place. The regime seemed willing to assist them. Visiting relatives in La Lisa, a poverty-stricken area outside Havana with a forest of six-story Soviet-style housing blocks, I saw what looked like a water tanker in a public square one Saturday night. Crowds thronged, and I could tell that it wasn’t water that flowed from the tap. It was cheap beer. A bucket and a few centavos could make the weekend pass more quickly.
Still, there continues to be an undercurrent of pride in Fidel’s ability to stand up to so many American presidents for so long, and a deeply rooted resentment of the United States and its embargo. So whenever Fidel dies, there is likely to be a great show of grief in Cuba, and a funeral fit for a pharaoh.
But the next day will bring the longed-for, dreaded future — the specter of a new encounter with the outside world that will challenge the efforts of Cuba’s current leaders to make certain that Fidel Castro’s Revolution survives his death.
Already, the leaders are making him more myth than man. New billboards have sprouted along the main highways around Havana: “Fidel Es Un País” — Fidel is a country.
But Cuban-Americans in the United States don’t see it that way. And it isn’t likely that Marielena and Francisco and other ordinary Cubans do either.
When Fidel no longer looms over Cuba, it is much more likely that both sides will focus on what happens when there is another knock at the door, and another stranger asks to come in.