Sunday 18 February 2018

Fidel's return cools air of optimism

Andrew Hamilton in Havana

It is Friday night in Havana, and the Don Cangrejo bar overlooking the Florida Straits is filled to capacity as a live band thrashes out rock music.

The partygoers are mainly young, well-connected Cubans. They swig locally-brewed Bucanero beer, or neat rum. The men wear designer jeans. Their girlfriends smoke menthol cigarettes, and mouth the English lyrics.

One man can be overheard telling a beautiful young woman that he is spending his days refurbishing his home. "It's a good investment," he says. "One day this country is going to change."

The man is a nephew of President Raul Castro. Since Raul took over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, the younger Castro has given those Cubans who hope for reform a reason for cautious optimism.

Petty restrictions have been removed. Cubans who can afford to can now stay in tourist hotels; they can buy their own mobile phones.

The president has begun to lease acres of state-owned land to private farmers, with the incentive that they can keep the profit from a proportion of any crops they grow.

And most recently he has moved to rid Cuba of what those close to him say is the most irritating inheritance his brother left him, by agreeing to release a third of the political prisoners.

But just when Cubans might have been fooled into believing this could be the start of something significant, an old ghost has reappeared.

Fidel Castro, who stood down from the presidency in 2006 after suffering a rupture in his intestine that almost killed him, suddenly seems to be everywhere in Cuba.

After four years as a near total recluse, with only a few photos or heavily edited videos to prove he was still alive, the 83-year-old, casually dressed and looking surprisingly fit, has made no less than five public appearances in the space of nine days. He has been seen chatting to Cuban scientists at a research centre. He visited the Havana aquarium. And twice he has appeared on national TV, lecturing bemused audiences about what he sees as the imminent threat of nuclear war in the Middle East.

"Please tell me when this is all going to end?" asked Yusi, 26, one of the guests at the Havana party.

Others seem amused, some even proud, that the man who has completely dominated life in Cuba for more than half a century is back again -- strangely immortal.

"They must be giving him a magic potion," said one young man. But one group is likely to be watching this strange political dance between the two Castro brothers with concern: those who are preparing to amass vast personal wealth from Cuba's eventual return to capitalism.

They include senior officials within the regime, according to the Havana-based and traditionally pro-government intellectual, Esteban Morales. Earlier this year, he wrote an essay comparing senior officials to wannabe Russian oligarchs; they were hovering "like vultures", he warned, waiting to snap up the country's national resources. It seems he touched a nerve. Mr Morales was promptly expelled from the Communist Party and faces possible prosecution.

Already this year there has been two high-level corruption probes that show that, beneath the surface, things are beginning to stir.

Yet those who hoped that, under Raul, a capitalist bonanza was about to begin have been disappointed by events over the last two weeks. Fidel's reappearance seems designed to send the clear message that he is back on the scene.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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