Fifty years after the Bay of Pigs, Cuba is a long way from its socialist
The government is preparing to transform the country's economy as Fidel
Castro says the Cuban model no longer works
Rory Carroll in the Bay of Pigs
guardian.co.uk, Friday 15 April 2011 15.54 BST
Bay of Pigs anniversary celebrations
A truck in Havana carries a photograph of Fidel Castro jumping from a
tank near the Bay Of Pigs in 1961. It was to feature in a parade
celebrating the 50th anniversary of the failed invasion. Photograph:
These days the battle is for shade as pink tourists hop across baking
sands seeking refuge from the sun, but half a century ago a more
momentous struggle unfolded in the Bay of Pigs.
Cuba's infant revolution routed a US-backed invasion force in what Fidel
Castro termed the first defeat for American imperialism in the western
hemisphere. Amid the drama, he declared for the first time that the
revolution was socialist.
A museum in the bay, with more guides than visitors, has frozen in time
the moment euphoric revolutionary forces took over farms and industries.
"The victory of socialism," says a banner.
Drive north to Havana, however, and the landscape tells of a bleak
sequel: idle fields abandoned to weeds and derelict tractors. The
capital too reeks of decay. Ancient cars putt-putt past crumbling
buildings. Obsolete machinery gathers dust in factories.
Evidence, as Castro himself said in a recent interview, that "the Cuban
model doesn't even work for us any more". Which is why on Saturday the
Communist party will inaugurate its first congress in 14 years to cement
radical changes to the economy and, intentional or not, to Cuban society.
"The narrative is really Thatcherite," said one senior western diplomat
in Havana. "It's all about cutting rights and welfare and putting
greater emphasis on personal responsibility and hard work."
Timing the four-day congress to coincide with the Bay of Pigs
anniversary has given authorities an excuse to fill TV screens with
stirring archive footage and to plan a big military parade: reminders of
glory and continued power.
"This congress is huge. It will put the seal on a series of reforms and
decide strategy for the next five to 10 years," said Stephen Wilkinson,
a Cuba expert at London Metropolitan University.
Can the government transform the economy, rewrite Cuba's social contract
and remain in power? Despite an average state salary of just $20 a month
there is little sign of Arab-style rebellion threatening the Castros'
tight control. An older population, curbs on social media and dependence
on the state for 80% of jobs have muffled dissent.
The question is what will happen as the state slashes subsidies and
sheds a million workers – a daunting target delayed by bureaucratic
resistance – and crosses its fingers that a liberated private sector
soaks them up, Vietnam-style.
In recent months budding entrepreneurs have taken out more than 171,000
licences for approved businesses such as restaurants, DVD stalls and
taxis – about two-thirds of this year's target of 250,000 licences.
"Is socialism renewable?" Estado Sats, a recently formed group of
thinkers and artists, asked at a seminar. The conclusion, said Antonio
González-Rodiles, a founder, was no. "At least not in the way they are
currently going about it." Taxes and red tape threatened to strangle new
ventures because central planners could not truly let go. "It's like
expecting torturers to become shepherds."
Some new businesses have swiftly folded – a phenomenon hardly unique to
Cuba – but others are doing well and injecting bustle into pockets of
Havana. Restaurants known as paladares, in some cases little more than
family living rooms, offer pizza and traditional Cuban fare.
Many of Havana's Del Boys – fast-talking street traders who dodge
authorities – are becoming legitimate.
Rodolfo Mera used to carry flowers in a zipped shoulder bag and sidle up
to people, hissing "flores", but now he has a licence pinned to his
chest and a corner on 25th street where his bicycle cart displays
bouquets in six buckets. A born salesman, he convinced one sceptical
middle-aged woman to part with 20 pesos (43p) for wilting tulips.
"They'll perk up when you get them home, love."
On San Lorenzo street Rubio, a former black-market watch seller, had
just opened a barber shop – a chair and table with brushes and scissors
– in an apartment block hallway. Tacked to the wall was his "special
touch" – photos of pouting near-naked models – to lure customers from
porn-free competitors. "It's good to offer something extra," he said.
Such entrepreneurs may be the antithesis to Che Guevara's 1960s vision
of a "new man" motivated by socialist values rather than personal gain
but they are hardly new, just more visible. Inequality remains an
official taboo but a sizeable minority – thanks to remittances and
shadier means – has designer clothes, iPods and cash to enjoy
restaurants with tourist prices.
The final draft of Raul's proposed economic changes has not been
published but there is little doubt the party congress will rubber-stamp
what will be, in effect, a transition to a new Cuba.
The government has released virtually all political prisoners but
stepped up harassment of dissidents and verbal attacks on foreign media.
A battening of the hatches, say some, in case of squalls to come.
While many Cubans relish the incremental, unfolding changes, many are
anxious they will lose subsidised food and goods and state jobs, however
In Marianao, a gritty Havana district, a living room TV showed grainy
stills from the Bay of Pigs invasion. Fidel was leaping from a tank – a
famous image – but the Acosta family paid no heed. Conversation had
turned to a recurring, all-consuming topic: what would Gabriela, 36, do
if laid off from her state film company job? "They say half of us will
go, but not which half."
Miami remembers the Bay of Pigs invasion
In the anti-Castro stronghold of Calle 8, the centre of Miami's Little
Havana, a small monument with an ever-lit flame remembers the "Martyrs
of Girón". Just before midnight on 16 April 1961, a group of about 1,350
Cuban exiles, backed by the CIA, launched an invasion of Cuba from the
sea in the Bay of Pigs – known in Cuba as Playa Girón – aimed at
overthrowing Fidel Castro and the revolution.
The invasion turned out to be a victory for Castro and a humiliating
defeat for President Kennedy.
"About 2,000 mortar rockets fell around us in just four hours. That was
something truly dreadful. I can still hear them falling", says
74-year-old José "Pepe" Hernández, who was involved in the fiasco.
For Hernández, who fled Havana to Miami when he was a university student
a few months after the triumph of Castro's revolution, their main
mistake was the faith they placed in "the support and experience we
thought our ally, the United States, had. That turned out to be a
terrible tactical failure" which helped cement Castro's rule.
"Looking back one asks oneself why Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution
are still in power," says Hernández, who now heads a powerful
Miami-based exiles group, the Cuban-American National Foundation.
"There are several reasons, one can say several errors, for that.
Certainly, one of the biggest ones was the invasion of Playa Girón. I
hope now us Cubans on both sides of the straits can find peaceful
solutions to our differences." Andres Schipani