HAVANA -- It's a sprawling nation the size of Pennsylvania, yet Fidel Castro has often run Cuba like a little country estate, taking charge of every detail, picking out new tractors, even deciding which sugar mill gets a new truck.
Now, though, the power that Castro has wielded for four decades is quietly slipping through his hands.
It can be felt in the awakening that's turning a rigid socialist society into a land of individuals. It can be seen in the former Castro loyalists who are filling churches or embracing capitalism. And it can be heard in the defiant words spoken by teens no longer fearful of their communist leader.
Like a cool Caribbean breeze, change is sweeping Cuba.
It could lead to prosperity on the troubled island. Freedom. An end to hostilities with the United States. Reconciliation with more than 2 million Cuban exiles, an event that would rival the historic unification of Germany.
Or there could be bloodshed, fighting between Castro supporters and pro-democracy forces. A military coup. Government repression, deeper economic hardship, civil unrest.
No one knows for sure, but few deny these are momentous times for the nation of 11 million people.
"I wouldn't call change in Cuba a transition," said Max Lesnik, a longtime Castro friend and a key mediator between the Vatican and the Cuban government. "It's more of an evolution."
An evolution that some say is guided by the Maximum Leader himself.
"Fidel may have his defects," said Cuban author Marta Rojas, who has followed Castro since his days as a university student, "but he knows what he's doing."
Led by the Cuban president or not, it's a chaotic transformation.
Bewildered revolutionaries watch as the socialist government woos American investors, once seen as enemies. Catholic Church activists, inspired by Pope John Paul II's visit last January, cautiously push for democracy as a suspicious state resists greater freedoms. And small-time restaurant owners fight over shrimp, vegetables and a few fresh steaks to stock their family-owned operations. One cafe, aptly named Hope, is so popular that its owner turns people away to appease government inspectors, for whom "profit" is a dirty word.
As this new Cuba evolves, more and more Americans -- from acclaimed movie director Francis Ford Coppola to ex-President Jimmy Carter and former House Speaker Jim Wright -- say the United States ought to change, too. Economic sanctions against the Castro regime haven't worked and ought to be thrown out, they say.
Cuban officials couldn't agree more, blaming the American trade embargo for much of their troubles.
"It would be hard to imagine a situation more difficult than the one we have right now," said Carlos Fernandez de Cosio, a top official at Cuba's Foreign Relations Ministry. "If a Cuban official had predicted in 1978 that the embargo would still be in place 20 years later, you would have said, 'He's crazy.' But it's still there."
Politics has divided Cubans and Americans since the days of Thomas Jefferson. Americans not only have tried to buy Cuba, they've invaded it. But the island has also been a source of fascination. Writer Ernest Hemingway lived here for years, and Hollywood stars Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and Frank Sinatra flew in on weekends.
Like a forbidden fruit, the Cuban mystique still lures Americans. Recent visitors include John F. Kennedy Jr., actor Leonardo DiCaprio, supermodel Naomi Campbell and boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
"A paradise," proclaimed actor Jack Nicholson, clutching a fat Cuban cigar during a visit in June. He sat on a couch in the lobby of a Havana hotel. Security guards shooed away a Cuban law student who wanted an autograph.
"Can you believe it?" she said excitedly. "Jack Nicholson's in Cuba!"
She was with her mother and a foreigner who had invited them to dine at the hotel restaurant.
"I'm not impressed by that man, that Jack what's-his-name," the mother fumed. "Just take your eyes off him! Turn around! Your family is what matters, the people at this table. Not him and his millions of dollars."
"If Cuba is so great," the daughter snapped, "then why can't we eat at its restaurants unless a foreigner invites us?"
"Ay, por favor. Please," her mother said. "Just be quiet."
Keeping young people happy is one of Castro's many challenges in a changing Cuba. More and more, Western ways get their attention -- not just bluejeans and rock music, but democracy and human rights.
To try to hold society together, Castro has begun to unleash the twin forces of capitalism and religion. He wants to do what some people call impossible: let the Catholic Church grow and build a mixed economy without losing socialism.
As some analysts see it, Castro is trying to usher in a new era before his rule ends, as the late dictator Francisco Franco did in Spain in the early 1970s.
"There is no doubt in my mind Castro is trying to lay out a long-term foundation for Cuba's future, much like Franco did," said Wayne Smith, a scholar and former head of the U.S. Interests Section, as the American diplomatic post in Cuba is called. Some critics question that assessment.
"Castro may be the architect," said Mauricio Font, director of the Cuba Project at the University of New York City. "But he's not showing any real signs of vision. I don't think he or anyone else in the world has a solid idea of where Cuba is headed. That's part of the excitement and concern for Cuba."
Indeed, transforming the Western Hemisphere's last socialist regime is proving to be a difficult task. The nation that Christopher Columbus described as the most beautiful he had seen is gray and crumbling. Roads, sewers and electrical plants are in a shambles. Three-quarters of the country's factories sit idle. Colonial buildings in Old Havana routinely collapse. Public transportation is nightmarish.
Cuba's best minds aren't sure what to do about it. Some say merely "perfecting" the socialist system will bring prosperity. "The system is well rooted," a senior government official said. "I'd challenge any other Latin American country to go through what we've gone through and survive more than 30 days."
Others want a complete overhaul but are wary of what they call "savage capitalism." Dozens of countries -- from Argentina and Brazil to Mexico and Nicaragua -- have tried it and still have poverty. And it certainly hasn't been a savior in the former Soviet Union, where economic chaos reigns, the Cubans say. So they feel their way along cautiously, trying not to make mistakes.
They've seen that tinkering with the system can cause new problems.
Five years after the government made it legal for Cubans to possess dollars, black market capitalists are doing a booming business in cigars and rum, much of it stolen from the state. Cigar sellers can make $10 a day, the same as most government workers make in a month.
Others sell their bodies. Nightly, foreigners can be seen bartering for a few hours or minutes with a young jinetera, or prostitute. The price: $20 or $30, plus a tip for the family that will quietly rent out their bedroom. Prostitution is rampant, more widespread than in the days of the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship, Font said.
The eastern seaside town of Baracoa has seen some of its brightest women leave for Havana to become prostitutes. It's a painful ordeal for many of those left behind.
Resident Josefa Leyrat, 49, said she has lost all hope. Fixing whatever is wrong with Cuba is "up to the younger generation," she said tearfully. "There's nothing I can do."
The so-called "dollarization" of the economy has also boosted corruption, Cubans say. Some workers pay bribes of as much as $1,000 to land jobs in the lucrative tourism industry. Waiters can easily earn more in tips in a day than most government-employed workers make in weeks or months.
Castro loyalists resent it.
"So much patriotism, and what does the island have to show for it?" said Alejandro, a government cabdriver, as he guided his Mercedes through Havana's Plaza of the Revolution at midnight. "Fidel is still in power, and we're still dreaming of more."
These changing times confuse many true revolutionaries. One day, they see Castro lauding foreign investors, welcoming them with mojitos, a traditional drink laced with rum; plastering their names across the front pages of his official mouthpiece, the Granma newspaper, as if they're the new heroes. The next day, he scolds his countrymen for emulating capitalists.
"Absurd things happen in this country," a former Cuban intelligence official confessed. "Cuba is like a novel written by Kafka and illustrated by Dali."
Cuban government officials defend Castro, saying he wants only to protect socialist gains from emerging capitalist sharks. With that in mind, the government cracked down on artisans, restaurant owners and other business people two years ago, cutting the number of private enterprises from 206,000 to 143,000.
Many Cubans operate private businesses anyway, hoping they won't get caught.
In Santiago de Cuba, the country's second-largest city, Manuel and his wife, Mireya, quietly lure foreigners to their tiny kitchen every night. There they serve lobster with fried bananas on the side for $10 a plate. "Someday, this economic mess we live in will be legalized," he said.
A senior Cuban official said the government has no choice but to move slowly.
"Cuba's economic policy will adapt itself onto society at its own pace," he said. "In time, it will be more flexible and tolerant."
As the economy evolves in fits and starts, the political system changes very slowly.
Cuban officials say as long as their enemies in the United States keep up the anti-Castro fight, they can't afford to make rash moves. Hard-line Cuban exiles, they say, remain intent on toppling the government.
Rodolfo Frometa, an exile in Miami, is an example of that determination. He spent nearly a decade in a Cuban prison for sneaking onto the island to carry out an anti-Castro attack in 1971. After his release, he returned to the United States angrier than ever -- so angry that he arranged to buy a shipment of Stinger missiles, grenade launchers and plastic explosives for his next attack. But the seller was an undercover FBI agent, and Frometa went to jail again in 1984.
Now free, he vows to continue his fight.
"I'm not giving up until Cuba is free or I am dead," he said.
Back on the island, few Cubans show such brazen determination to bring about change. Many simply abandon the country, if given the chance.
"They're leaving me. ... I'm alone as the night," Cuban Carlos Varela sings in a hugely popular tune called "Muro," or "Wall." Called "the Cuban Bob Dylan" by some, he sings lyrics that describe a people too busy struggling to find food to worry about politics.
Those who do challenge the system often receive swift punishment.
After Celedonio Miguel Vargas, 46, a former sector chief with the Interior Ministry, denounced police corruption, his superiors beat him up, knocking out teeth and cracking ribs. Then they fired him -- "for refusing to lie," he said.
He's serving a one-year court sentence: He must sweep Havana's streets from 2 p.m. to 9:40 p.m., six days a week.
"They're trying to humiliate me," he said. "I've had it. If they were to put an aircraft carrier off the coast for those who want to leave, this island would be empty."
Some of those who can't leave kill themselves. The country's suicide rate of 26 per 100,000 is second only to Japan's, official figures show.
The daily quest to survive is "crazy," said a medical technician who moonlights as a cigar dealer. "Sometimes, instead of facing the day, I'd rather face an ocean and drown."
Having to accept socialism's failings is an ego-shattering experience for many. The Catholic Church and other religious organizations are trying to help people adjust.
Church activists also are organizing pro-democracy forums, and the government isn't stopping them -- a rare concession.
Some U.S. officials are privately pressing the Cuban government for greater reforms while Castro is alive, because no one else has the power or charisma to engineer a delicate political transition. These officials worry that his departure will leave a political vacuum that could force the Cuban military to take control.
Some Cuban exiles agree.
"The transition in Cuba is inevitable," said Elizaldo Sanchez, director of the Cuban Human Rights and Reconciliation Commission. "But Fidel should be the one leading it."
Without a smooth transition, the Americans fear there will be political chaos, instability and maybe another surge of Cubans fleeing the island, as 125,000 of them did during the 1980 Mariel boat lift.
To entice Castro, the United States has guaranteed as much as $6 billion a year in public and private aid over six years if the Cubans set up a transition government, said Michael Ranneberger, the State Department's top Cuba specialist. To make sure ordinary Cubans got the message, the American government's Radio Marti repeatedly broadcast the news, and officials quietly passed out 10,000 copies of the plan inside Cuba.
Clinton administration officials aren't sure the strategy will work. Ever defiant, Castro forced his military officers to sign loyalty oaths denouncing the U.S. offer, Ranneberger said.
"We have lived through many Latin American strongmen," one U.S. official said, "but this one takes the cake."
Many Cubans defend their leader's fighting spirit.
"If there's something I will forever be grateful to Fidel for, it's this: He has taught us about dignity," said Jose Hermidio Martinez Perez, 81, a barbershop owner in the central farming city of Camaguey. "Right or wrong, he has stood up to the world's biggest country and has never flinched or given an inch. Chico, that's called guts."
Valiant as they might be, most Cubans hesitate to challenge Castro. But that's changing. And if there's anything Cubans share, it's fierce determination.
It's a tenacity that can be seen in the darkened eyes of former Castro loyalist Augusto Madrigal, an ex-military doctor who was forced out of the government after the 1989 trial of Army Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez. The general, seen by some as a rival to Castro, was found guilty of corruption and quickly executed. Madrigal was sent to prison, where he spent five years and lost 35 pounds.
He had enough time to reflect on the Cuba he wanted to leave behind for his children, and he didn't like the prospects. So he's trying to bring about change through a doctors' organization, one of many independent groups that have sprung up for everyone from restaurateur to bicyclist.
Disorganized and with little money or direction, they represent hope, a rare commodity in Cuba these days, Madrigal says.
"Even as Castro lays down the framework for Cuba's future, we too must push as individuals," he said. "In that sense, Cuba is beginning to take the first tiny steps away from Fidel."
Whatever the future might hold, the Rev. Raul Suarez is convinced, Cuba will never lose its unique and special identity, its "cubanismo."
"I'm a Christian, and you could say I'm addicted to hope," said Suarez, head of the Martin Luther King Center, a Protestant organization in Havana. "Rest assured, we won't lose our soul. We love Cuba, its land, its sky. And we love the kind of freedom we have. We don't want to be told how to run our lives.
"You may have things in the United States that Cuba won't be able to give its people for many years. But we have things we're proud of, too -- things we're not sure we'd get in the United States. Respect, tolerance, love. We don't want to ever lose that."
Tracey Eaton and Alfredo Corchado are reporters for The Dallas Morning News, where this article first appeared.
About this article
Last week, President Clinton announced measures to improve ties with Cuba, such as making travel easier and allowing U.S. residents to send more food and money to the Caribbean nation. The State Department even cleared the way for exhibition play between the Orioles and the Cuban National team. This article provides a look at the new Cuba that is evolving four decades after Castro's revolution.