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Cuba, molded by Fidel Castro, wonders what’s next

People with images of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro gather in Havana on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, one day after his death. A rare poll of Cuban public opinion has found that most of the island’s citizens approve of normal relations with the United States. (Ramon Espinosa / Associated Press)
People with images of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro gather in Havana on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, one day after his death. A rare poll of Cuban public opinion has found that most of the island’s citizens approve of normal relations with the United States. (Ramon Espinosa / Associated Press)
By Nick Miroff Washington Post

HAVANA, Cuba – For the nearly five decades Fidel Castro ruled the country, he was a daily presence in Cubans’ lives. His speeches echoed on their televisions and his stern rules shaped almost every aspect of their existence.

They woke up Saturday and found out he was gone.

A numbness has set in since. Few Cubans seemed to believe the death of Castro at age 90 will bring immediate transformation of their country, the only one-party state in the Western Hemisphere. After all, poor health forced Castro aside in 2006, and the system he created has carried on without him.

But Castro’s death nonetheless represents a psychological break with Cuba’s past and the figure who has dominated it for three generations. There is enormous, built-up pressure, especially among younger generations, for a faster pace of change that would bring new freedoms and better living standards.

Now the Cuban government must manage those expectations at a moment of new uncertainty in the island’s all-important relationship with the United States. The communist government has tentatively embraced improved relations with President Barack Obama’s administration and a new surge of American visitors. Many in Cuba fear that President-elect Donald Trump will roll back the changes.

Among the Cubans who want change to come faster, and who are tired of the political divisions and tensions that Castro represented, there was a hushed sense of relief Saturday at the news of his death.

“People here are so tired. He destroyed this place,” said a university engineering student who was walking home Saturday morning from the market in Havana’s central Vedado neighborhood. He began trembling when a reporter told him that Castro had died, and that this time it wasn’t a mere rumor.

“I think you have to look at both the good and the bad, but there was more bad,” said the student, who declined to give his name, saying it would land him in trouble at school.

As reports of the Cuban leader’s death spread Saturday morning in the capital, there were no signs of unrest but, perhaps just as tellingly, not much spontaneous mourning either. Cubans went on with their lives in a world that is very much Castro’s creation: They went shopping at government stores, waited in government hospitals and tuned in to (or turned off) round-the-clock Castro tributes on government television.

“This isn’t like the death of Stalin, or Mao, when people threw themselves into the streets and thought the world was coming to an end,” said Aurelio Alonso, a sociologist and the deputy editor of the Cuban journal Casa de Las Americas. It was something they have been expecting. “People are mourning, sure,” Alonso said, “but he had a long life.”

For years, foreigners speculated about whether the death of Castro would bring dramatic change. But Castro’s succession plans were completed years ago, leaving his noticeably healthier brother, Raul, 85, fully in charge. Cuba’s military and security services remain firmly in control of the state and allow no organized opposition or public dissent.

Raul Castro plans to step down in 2018, and vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel, 56, a career Communist Party official who is not related to the Castros, is in line to succeed him.

Cuba has mostly recovered from the post-Soviet austerity period that left Cubans hungry and desperate in the early 1990s, when riots broke out in Havana and Fidel Castro showed up to quell the crowds.

Fidel opened Cuba up to tourism, and a record 3.5 million visitors arrived last year, far more than the number who came before his 1959 revolution shuttered the island’s casinos and led to the seizure of all the hotels. Those travelers include an increasing number of U.S. visitors, providing a cash infusion at a moment when economic growth is otherwise stalled. The first commercial flight from the United States to Havana in more than a half-century is scheduled to land Monday.

Still, there is growing discontent with the system Castro created and declared “irrevocable.”

The socialist system affords Cubans access to health care, education and food rations but has failed for decades to provide them with more than the essentials. And the country’s economic outlook appears to be going from bad to worse.

With the death of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in 2013, Fidel Castro lost his political protege and Cuba’s main economic benefactor. Chavez sent billions of dollars in petroleum shipments, helping the government in Havana keep the lights on and the air conditioners running, with enough left over for Cuba to re-export the oil at a profit.

But oil prices have crashed, Venezuela is mired in crisis, and no other easy income source is coming to the Cuban government’s rescue. Cuba’s economic growth is once more stalled, and emigration is at a 10-year high.

Modest steps toward economic liberalization undertaken by Raul Castro led to a boom in small businesses, especially restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts, but the opening has lost momentum. The government has kept American firms at arm’s length despite a surge of interest from U.S. businesses after Obama’s normalization moves.

Some have speculated that Raul Castro may pick up the pace of reforms now that his brother is gone.

In an April speech, the younger Castro quipped that Cuba was not actually a one-party state: “We have two parties here, just like in the United States,” he said. “Fidel’s and mine.”

Fidel’s is the Communist one, Raul added, “and you can call mine whatever you want.”

Critics found nothing to laugh at, but former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray said it wasn’t entirely a joke. Hard-liners within Cuba’s hermetic power circles identified more with Fidel than his younger brother.

Many of the liberalization moves introduced by Raul Castro represent an implicit rejection of his older brother’s rigid, state-dominated economic model. “Raul Castro will have a freer hand now,” Alzugaray said.

“It’s not that Fidel Castro would have opposed him,” he said. “But it’s like when you have a sick relative and don’t want to upset them. There are things Raul probably didn’t want to do while his brother was still around.”

But many Cubans worry about the possibility that Trump could tighten the Cuba trade embargo and toughen travel restrictions. During the presidential campaign, Trump said he would reverse Obama’s policy of expanding relations with Cuba unless the Castro government allowed more religious freedom and freed political prisoners.

Fidel Castro never wanted any statues of himself to be put up in Cuba. There are no streets or parks named for him. That will almost certainly change now.

The government has declared a nine-day period of mourning, heavy with revolutionary symbolism.

Castro’s death is “a huge loss for us,” said Jose Candia, 70, who woke up to the news and took his dachshund for a walk along Havana’s Malecon sea wall.

Candia and other older Cubans dedicated their lives to low-paying government jobs that demanded absolute loyalty and discipline. The news of his death seemed to hit them hardest.

“I think of his bravery. His honesty. I’ve been committed to him all my life,” said Yolanda Valdes, 75, a history teacher and Communist Party member. Tears began running down her face. She said she had been crying all morning.

“I adored him,” she said.

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