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Saturday, 7 July, 2001, 13:20 GMT 14:20 UK
Paranoia in Cuba
Fidel Castro
President Castro is rarely mentioned by name
By Daniel Schweimler in Cuba

Cuba has been a one-party state for the past 42 years, ever since Fidel Castro's revolution overthrew the corrupt Batista regime.

The state is everywhere, or so it often seems. The government controls the media, the trade unions, the universities, the armed forces and commerce. There are no legal opposition parties.

The foreign press in Cuba is also tightly controlled, which can lead to a certain degree of paranoia.

I've changed the names of everyone in this report to protect their identities. It seems like the sensible thing to do in a country where no-one quite trusts anyone else. I'm also not sure that some of the people I'm about to mention are who they say they are anyway.

Role of journalists

Take the electrician. I'll call him Ramon. He's not much good as an electrician but never takes any money for his services. He said he wanted to be our friend, which at first seemed fair enough.

But we later discovered he went through our possessions while we were out and that he used to be, maybe still is, a staunch member of the youth wing of the governing Communist Party.

Havana street scene
Our correspondent chooses careful words in Havana
The main role of a Cuban journalist is to promote the ideals of the revolution, to work for the good of the state - certainly not to criticise the party machine or hunt out corruption and scandal in high places.

It therefore must follow, goes the thinking here, that all journalists are in the pay of their state and by their very nature are seeking to undermine Cuba. We are tolerated as a necessary evil but the authorities don't trust us and feel that all good Cuban citizens should report on our operations.

Maybe Ramon was just doing his job, but quite what he made of my son's Thunderbirds magazine which somehow made its way into my file on Fidel Castro's speeches I'll never know.

Police on every corner

I've recently been re-reading Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana in which the line between paranoia and reality is very fuzzy. The main character in the book, Mr Wormold, is told: "Just be careful of everyone."

The book was set at the end of the corrupt Batista regime just before it was overthrown by Fidel Castro. No-one was quite sure who they could trust and there was a policeman on every corner, very much like Cuba today.

On the rare occasions that Cubans do openly talk about politics they will automatically check no-one is listening outside and will lower their voice.

President Castro is rarely mentioned by name. A stroke of the chin is enough to indicate that you are talking about the bearded leader.

Unhappy Cubans will talk to foreigners, once they have gained our trust. Many have told me they don't quite know which Cubans are working for the state.

State machinery

When Fidel Castro fainted at the podium recently, Cubans saw for the first time that the only leader many of them have ever known is not invincible.

But immediately the state apparatus went into action. The mobile phones of some of the foreign media were cut. And extra police were reported to have been stationed outside the homes of known dissidents in case they should become focal points for protest.

Fidel recovered and was soon back in action. But the eyes of the state were watching to see how the population reacted. On every street, in every apartment block there is a Committee for the Defence of the Revolution. They are the eyes and ears of the state machine, trusted neighbours who pass the feelings of the people up to a higher body but who also report on potential dissidents, possible troublemakers.

My car is clearly marked as belonging to a member of the foreign press and policemen will quite openly jot down the plate and check the number.

Then there are the telephones. Shortly after I moved in they rang every hour on the hour, through the night.

Havana's gossip

That has stopped now but they still ring occasionally and I hear deep silences at the other end until someone hangs up. Maybe it's just an antiquated phone system. But as a precaution, many telephone conversations end with the words: "Let's not discuss this on the open line."

No-one seems to know the rules and when they do learn them they are changed. Government ministers can be replaced without any explanation, foreign journalists leave when it becomes plain they are no longer welcome.

Havana is a small city where everyone knows everyone else. All are forced, one way or the other, to bend the rules a little in order to survive, but that makes everyone vulnerable and adds to the sense of paranoia. With no proper media, gossip is rife and is very effective.

Add to that the fact that almost the only way to get on in Cuba is to progress through the state apparatus and it is plain that it either pays to snitch on potentially counter-revolutionary neighbours or to steer well clear of them.

I don't think I've got anything to hide, but I've got into the habit of not telling anyone more than I think they need to know. And I now certainly lower my voice if I suspect anyone might be lingering outside.

It has been reported that children have been known to tell on their parents for what they've been told is behaviour not in keeping with the ideals of the revolution. I'm not sure I believe that.

But just what was that Thunderbirds magazine doing in my filing cabinet?

See also:

06 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Cuba
05 Jun 01 | Media reports
Cuban radio defiant 40 years on
19 Oct 00 | Americas
Castro: The great survivor
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