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Midnight approaches in Cuba

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HAVANA -- Just outside the Virgin of Regla temple, here in Havana, a fortune teller throws shells for passersby in exchange for money. Every day she gets the same questions: Will they find love? Will they be able to buy a home? Will they be able to travel in the near future? And above all, when will "this" end?

With a simple demonstrative pronoun, the fortune teller's clients refer to what some call "the revolution," others "the dictatorship," but what most simply refer to as "the system." It's a difficult question for the white-turbaned woman with her intensely red nails to answer with any specificity, partly because she can never be sure if the questioner is a State Security agent in civilian dress. So she looks at the position of each shell and says, in barely a whisper, "Soon. It will be soon."

It's increasingly obvious that the biological clock of the Cuban government -- a slow and agonizing journey of the hands that has lasted 54 years -- is closing in on midnight. Every minute that passes brings obsolescence a little nearer. The existence of a political system should not be so closely linked to the youth or decrepitude of its leaders, but in the case of our island, both ages have come to be the same thing.

Like a creature made in the image and likeness of a man -- who believes himself to be God -- Cuba's current political model will not outlive its creators. Every decision made over the past five decades, every step taken in one direction or another, has been marked by the personalities and decisions of a handful of human beings -- two of them in particular.

One, Fidel Castro, 86, has been convalescing for six long years in a place few Cubans could find on a map. Although in the last five years Fidel's brother Raúl, 81, has installed some younger faces in the administrative and governmental apparatus, the most important decisions remain concentrated in the hands of octogenarians. (Raúl's successor, Jose Ramon Machado, is 82.) Like a voracious Saturn devouring his children, the principal leaders of the revolution have not allowed any favoured sons to overshadow them.

The last to be ousted due to the paranoia of the Castro brothers were vice-president Carlos Lage, a figure who enjoyed popular sympathy, and the foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque. Both might have made promising successors, but were accused by Fidel Castro himself as having been "addicted to the honey of power" and removed from their positions in 2009.

Their own selfishness has left Cuban leaders without a plan for succession and time has run out to develop it, at least one not sincerely committed to continuing along the path set by old men dressed in olive green.

For Raúl, the picture is worrisome, and he has declared that "time is short" to ready the generation that will replace him and his comrades. In 2013, he will be forced to accelerate this process, and his obvious desperation about the future is contributing to the ideological weakening and the loss of whatever popular support the Castro regime still enjoys.

Meanwhile, Castro's tentative economic reforms are also contributing to the loss of control over the population. Together, the expansion of the private sector, the imposition of taxes, the distribution of land leases to farmers and the authorization of co-operatives in businesses other than agriculture, are gradually reducing the state's influence in the daily life of Cubans.

Raúl may see these as a desperation move to jump-start the Cuban economy, but one consequence will be the diminished ideological commitment of the people to a government that provides fewer and fewer subsidies and benefits. Every step the authorities take in the direction of greater flexibility is like pointing a loaded gun at their own temples.

A system based on keeping every tiny aspect of our national life under tight control cannot maintain itself when some of these bonds are loosened. Reform is the death of the status quo and manoeuvres to guarantee financial survival by opening the system to private capital are a death sentence written in advance.

The year 2013 will be a decisive one in Cuba's move from economic centralism to the fragmentation of production, from absolute verticality to its dismantling. Those who cease to receive their salaries from a state institution and come to support their families through self-employment will undoubtedly gain more political autonomy.

Despite the best efforts of the political police, the opposition today is more energized than it has been since the so-called Black Spring of 2003 -- when 75 regime opponents were rounded up, most sentenced to long prison terms. Although 2012 closed with the unfortunate loss of Oswaldo Paya, the leading figure of the Christian Liberation Movement, other faces are beginning to gain prominence. The number of activists is increasing and they are bringing fresh, modern ideas to the struggle.

An emerging community of alternative bloggers and performance artists is blending social criticism into its creations and increasingly bold musicians are using the lyrics of hip hop and reggae to narrate a reality far removed from the official discourse. Meanwhile, alternative information networks, including Twitter and other social networks via mobile phones, are helping to break the state's monopoly on opinion and to communicate the truth about what is happening on our island to the rest of the world.

The aging of the nomenklatura, the growing opposition and the expansion of the private sector are not the only influences that will weaken the system in 2013. The worsening health of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez is a catalyst for collapse. In the absence of his great patron -- and provider of subsidized petroleum -- in Caracas, Raúl will have to speed up economic reforms even more quickly to spur growth, further weakening the Communist Party's authority. The emergence of their Venezuelan acolyte was a godsend to the Castros, who lost their original benefactor with the collapse of Soviet communism. But there doesn't appear to be another country on the horizon willing to shoulder the burden of 42,000 square miles and its 11 million inhabitants.

U.S. President Barack Obama will also have a part to play. If the United States finally lifts -- or softens -- its decades-long embargo, it may give the government a temporary financial respite. But on the other hand, such a move would also take away the Castro regime's favourite political excuse for its economic failures. The country's sad state could no longer be blamed on our neighbour to the north. It would be a hard ideological blow.

Given all these factors, it's difficult to see how "the system" can survive the coming year, much less ensure its long-term viability. But it's worth noting that the regime in Havana has long demonstrated its skill in surviving even the most unfavourable predictions. After all, the Cuban economy has been in a state of crisis for the last 20 years. One could even say that our leaders find tension soothing and perform better under emergency conditions than under prosperity. Material needs can also serve to paralyze people who must spend hours waiting for a bus or standing in line to buy a couple of pounds of chicken instead of organizing.

Those expecting to see Tahrir Square break out in central Havana in 2013 will probably be disappointed. Cuba's social explosion may end up looking like an emigration explosion. Given a choice to take to the streets to overthrow the government or to throw themselves into the sea on a flimsy raft to get to Florida, millions of Cubans prefer the latter. Our frustration is more likely to be observed in the lines outside embassies waiting to get visas than in mass demonstrations.

Of course, "the system" often seems to be collapsing in on itself without any help from crowds in the street. Like a nauseating stench, corruption is permeating every aspect of today's Cuba. Government workers are increasingly helping themselves to the till in state-owned enterprises -- without doing so, the majority of Cuban families couldn't make it to the end of the month. Money is constantly leaking "out the back door" via adulterated accounts, falsified production figures and the illicit enrichment of administrative cadres.

After decades of denying corruption exists in our country, the government has come to recognize that it has reached unsustainable levels. Raúl has launched a crusade against all these practices, though obviously it doesn't include an audit of corruption at the highest levels.

Still, the campaign to eliminate corruption is starting to touch powerful "chiefs" -- people who have lived a life of luxury for too long. Thus, the general-president wins new enemies among his own ranks every step of the way, enemies that include those in military uniforms. Could Raúl's moves provoke a reaction?

Even numerology seems to be against the regime. One less-tangible factor you will rarely read about in the press, but which is very much on the minds of the fortune teller's clients outside the Virgin of Regla temple, is that cursed number 13 -- identified by many with key moments in Fidel's life, from the date of his birth, Aug. 13, 1926, to the same day in 1993 when he was forced to dollarize the Cuban economy. Given his delicate health, one can expect the coming years will bring Cubans the news of his "grand funeral" -- an event, at this point, with connotations more symbolic than political.

For now, we Cubans are clinging to our supernatural predictions, looking to what the oracles and fortune tellers can divine from their decks of cards and thrown shells. But the clients are starting to get impatient.

Yoani Sanchez is the Havana-based author of the blog Generation Y and the recently published book Havana Real. This article was translated by Mary Jo Porter.

-- Foreign Policy

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2013 J11

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