By JEN GALLAGHER
Feb. 27, 2008
Tuesday, Feb. 19 began like any other day in Havana, with laundry being hung to dry, children walking to school and workers waiting for the guagua (local buses). However, when the newspapers were delivered around 10 a.m., the city started to buzz. Word spread that the Comandante en Jefe, Fidel Castro, had announced that he would not seek or accept the presidential or commander in chief nominations in the elections that would occur on Sunday, Feb. 24. Newspapers sold out quickly and people turned to illegal vendors on the streets to buy copies at inflated prices.
Residents of Havana, or Habaneros, were eager to read the details of the resignation, but the excitement quelled soon after the message was read. Few words were said on the street about the article, and those who were talking expressed certainty that Raúl Castro would be elected president and no major changes would occur. Some hoped the new government would update policies in accordance with the changing times, as suggested by a speech by Raúl this past July, but such policies would take time to implement.
By noon, Havana returned to the status quo, and people went back to their normal routines. The peso pizza stalls were crowded with workers during the lunch rush, children played during recess and baseball and soccer games picked up in the parks. But there was little attention paid to the historic events of that morning.
The Plaza de la Revolución was empty, the University of Havana’s quad was silent and the seaside Malecón was calm, with the exception of the waves that crashed onto its sidewalks. On any other day, these sites would have seen at least some discussion of politics, but none occurred on Feb. 19. Cubans seemed to have rapidly moved on from its first transition of power since the 1959 revolution, continuing with normal daily routines until residents received further news from the election on Sunday.
The Cuban media published stories regarding the processes of Sunday’s elections, as well as sections which thanked Fidel for his dedication to the revolution. These sections were accompanied by coverage of the Vatican secretary of state’s visit to Havana, world news, U.S. primaries and baseball results, normalizing the situation while helping the country prepare for the weekend.
On Sunday, the National Assembly convened at 10 a.m. in the Playa district of Havana to nominate and elect a new era of leaders. Security around the Convention Center was tight, with police and officers from the Ministry of the Interior guarding each road that led to the building. Excitement in the area subsided around 11 a.m., when the doors closed to everyone who was not a member of the select press corps or National Assembly. Sunday’s routines continued in Havana, as most Cubans were not expecting any nomination surprises or major policy shifts. During the wait, the 173 black flags that stand in protest in front of the U.S. Interests Section were changed to large Cuban flags, which are symbols of nationalism and celebration. Around 4 p.m., the National Assembly broadcasted on radio and television stations that Raúl Castro Ruz had been unanimously elected president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, with José Ramon Machado Ventura as his first vice president who received more than 98 percent of the votes. Five additional vice presidents were elected, as well as a secretary and other members of the two councils.
In Raúl’s first speech as president, he proposed several policy changes, such as his intention to restructure the government in the near future. This has sparked conversation within Cuban academic circles as well as on the streets, as to what changes will be made and when they will occur. The idea of change has brought hope into many facets of society that are in need of rejuvenation and reform; as well as an increased sense of nationalism that these adjustments will strengthen the nation for the future.
For now, Havana is back to normal, with everything operating as it has in the past. The buses are still busy, coffee continues to flow, and music fills the streets while Cubans continue with their daily routines. The revolution has entered a new era, with new reasons to be proud of its durability and new obstacles to overcome. This period of transition has great potential to positively impact Cuba’s future, and it will be exciting to follow its progress in the coming months.