In Box

Country for Old Men

A dissident reports from the ruins of the daddy state, where Papá Fidel is now just the patient-in-chief.

At the end of his July 31, 2006, broadcast, the visibly nervous anchor on Cuban Television News announced that there would be a proclamation from Fidel Castro. This was hardly uncommon, and many Cubans no doubt turned off their TVs in anticipation of yet another diatribe from the comandante en jefe accusing the United States of committing some fresh evil against the island. But those of us who stayed tuned that evening saw, instead, a red-faced Carlos Valenciaga, Fidel's personal secretary, appear before the cameras and read, voice trembling, from a document as remarkable as it was brief. In a few short sentences, the invincible guerrilla of old confessed that he was very ill and doled out government responsibilities to his nearest associates. Most notably, his brother Raúl was charged with assuming Fidel's duties as first secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee, commander in chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, and president of the Council of State. The dynastic succession had begun.

It was a miracle that the old telephone exchanges, with their 1930s-vintage equipment, didn't collapse that night as callers rushed to share the news, in a code that was secret to no one: "He kicked the bucket." "El Caballo" -- the Horse -- "is gone." "The One is terminal." I picked up the receiver and called my mother, who was born in 1957, on the eve of Castro's revolution; neither of us had known any other president. "He's not here anymore, Mom," I said, almost whispering. "He's not here anymore." On the other end of the line she began to cry.

It was the little things that changed at first. Rum sales increased. The streets of central Havana were oddly empty. In the absence of the prolific orator who was fond of cutting into TV shows to address his public, homemakers were surprised to see their Brazilian soap operas air at their scheduled times. Public events began to dwindle, among them the so-called "anti-imperialism" rallies held regularly throughout the country to rail against the northern enemy. But the fundamental change happened within people, within the three generations of Cubans who had known only a single prime minister, a single first secretary of the Communist Party, a single commander in chief. With the sudden prospect of abandonment by the papá estado -- "daddy state" -- that Fidel had built, Cubans faced a kind of orphanhood, though one that brought more hope than pain.

Five years later, we have entered a new phase in our relationship with our government, one that is less personal but still deeply worshipful of a man some people now call the "patient in chief." Fidel lives on, and Raúl -- whose power, as everyone knows, comes from his genes rather than his political gifts -- has ruled since his ultimate accession in February 2008 without even the formality of the ballot box, prompting a dark joke often told in the streets of Havana: This is not a bloody dictatorship, but a dictatorship by blood. Pepito, the mischievous boy who stars in our popular jokes, calls Raúl "Castro Version 1.5" because he is no longer No. 2, but still isn't allowed to be the One. When the comandante -- now barely a shadow of his former self -- appeared at the final session of the Communist Party's sixth congress this April, he grabbed his brother's arm and raised it, to a standing ovation. The gesture was intended to consecrate the transfer of power, but to many of us the two old men seemed to be joining hands in search of mutual support, not in celebration of victory.

Raúl's much-discussed reforms followed the supposed handover of power, but in reality, they have been less steps forward than attempts to redress the legal absurdities of the past. One of these was the lifting of the tourist apartheid that prevented Cubans from enjoying their own country's hotel facilities. For years, to connect to the Internet, I had to disguise myself as a foreigner and mumble a few brief sentences in English or German to buy a web-access card in the lobby of some hotel. The sale of computers was finally authorized in March 2008, though by that time many younger Cubans had assembled their own computers with pieces bought on the black market. The prohibition on Cubans having cell-phone contracts was also repealed, ending the sad spectacle of people begging foreigners to help them establish accounts for prepaid phones. Restrictions on agriculture were loosened, allowing farmers to lease government land on 10-year terms. The liberalization brought to light the sad fact that the state had allowed much of the country's land (70 percent of it was in state hands) to become overgrown with invasive weeds.

While officially still socialist, the government has also pushed for an expansion of so-called self-employment, masked with the euphemism of "nonstate forms of production." It is, in reality, a private sector emerging in fits and starts. In less than a year, the number of self-employed grew from 148,000 to 330,000, and there is now a flowering of textile production, food kiosks, and the sale of CDs and DVDs. But heavy taxes, the lack of a wholesale market, and the inability to import raw materials independent of the state act as a brake on the inventiveness of these entrepreneurs, as does memory: The late 1990s, when the return to centralization and nationalization swept away the private endeavors that had surged in the Cuban economy after the fall of the Berlin Wall, were not so long ago.

So for now, the effects of the highly publicized reforms are barely noticeable on our plates or in our pockets. The country continues to import 80 percent of what we consume, at a cost of more than $1.5 billion. In the hard-currency stores, the cans of corn say "Made in the USA"; the sugar provided through the ration book travels from Brazil; and in the Varadero tourist hotels, a good part of the fruit comes from the Dominican Republic, while the flowers and coffee travel from Colombia. In 2010, 38,165 Cubans left the island for good. My impatient friends declare they are not going to stay "to turn off the light in El Morro" -- the lighthouse at the entrance to Havana Bay -- "after everyone else leaves."

The new president understands all too well that transformations that are too deep could cause him to lose control. Cubans jokingly compare their political system to one of the dilapidated houses in Old Havana: The hurricanes don't bring it down and the rains don't bring it down, but one day someone tries to change the lock on the front door and the whole edifice collapses. And so the government's most practiced ploy is the purchase of time with proclamations of supposed reforms that, once implemented, fail to achieve the promised effects.

But this can only continue for so long. Before the end of December, Raúl Castro will have to fulfill his promise to legalize home sales, which have been illegal since 1959, a move that will inevitably result in the redistribution of people in cities according to their purchasing power. One of the most enduring bastions of revolutionary imagery -- working-class Cubans living in the palatial homes of the bygone elite -- could collapse with the establishment of such marked economic differences between neighborhoods.

And yet the old Cuba persists in subtle, sinister forms. Raúl works more quietly than Fidel, and from the shadows. He has increased the number of political police and equipped them with advanced technology to monitor the lives of his critics, myself among them. I learned long ago that the best way to fool the "security" is to make public everything I think, to hide nothing, and in so doing perhaps I can reduce the national resources spent on undercover agents, the pricey gas for the cars in which they move, and the long shifts searching the Internet for our divergent opinions. Still, we hear of brief detentions that include heavy doses of physical and verbal violence while leaving no legal trail. Cuba's major cities are now filled with surveillance cameras that capture both those who smuggle cigars and those of us who carry only our rebellious thoughts.

But over the last five years the government has undeniably and irreversibly lost control of the dissemination of information. Hidden in water tanks and behind sheets hanging on clotheslines, illegal satellite dishes bring people the news that is banned or censored in the national media. The emergence of bloggers who are critical of the system, the maturation of independent journalism, and the rise of autonomous spaces for the arts have all eroded the state's monopoly on power.

Fidel, meanwhile, has faded away. He appears rarely and only in photos, always dressed in the tracksuit of an aging mafioso, and we begin to forget the fatigues-clad fighting man who intruded on nearly every minute of our existence for half a century. Just a year ago, my 8-year-old niece was watching television and, seeing the desiccated face of the old commander in chief, shouted to her father, "Daddy, who is this gentleman?"

DESMOND BOYLAN/REUTERS

In Box

War Games: A Short History

How ancient Greek amusements became an indispensable 21st-century military tool.

Ever since the first warrior picked up a wooden stick in imitation of a sword, the line between war and entertainment has been decidedly blurry. Military training in ancient Greece and chivalric Europe gave rise to the Olympics and medieval jousting tournaments; paintball guns and video games have become tools for honing the skills of today's soldiers. The realm of strategy, however, is where games have exerted the most remarkable impact on the conduct of war, serving as a tool for, as one U.S. Army general put it, "writing history in advance."

5th century B.C.
The ancient Greeks begin playing petteia, among the first board games modeled on war.

6th century A.D.
Chess is invented in Northern India, spreads to Persia and then Europe, and by the late 15th century evolves into its modern form. Its original name in Sanskrit, chaturanga, means "four parts," referring to divisions of the military of the Gupta Empire.

15th century
Firearms, invented centuries earlier in China, spread to armies throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The new weapons mean battles can no longer be accurately simulated without killing people, forcing strategists to look to more abstract means of preparing for war.

1650
Chess enthusiasts in what's now modern-day Germany begin developing increasingly elaborate battlefield strategy games based on the original. By the late 18th century, military leaders take notice.

1811
Prussian army advisor Leopold von Reisswitz and his son Georg, an army lieutenant, publish an elaborate manual, Instructions for the Representation of Tactical Maneuvers under the Guise of a Wargame. Thirteen years later, Georg presents King Friedrich Wilhelm III with a refined version of their game, in which two teams face off across a scale map using dice to simulate the vagaries of war. The king is enthralled, and kriegsspiel, the grandfather of all modern military war games, is born.

1870
Prussia's decisive victories in the Franco-Prussian War bring international renown to the king's army and its training techniques, including the now widely imitated kriegsspiel. Militaries begin using war games to predict how future conflicts might unfold.

1887
The first American war games, modeled on kriegsspiel, are held at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. Theodore Roosevelt, as assistant secretary of the Navy, later becomes an avid spectator.

1918-1941
Governmental interest in war games peaks, notably in Germany (where actual military exercises are restricted by the Treaty of Versailles), the United States (whose Navy conducts several hundred games, most of them focused on the Pacific, between the wars), and Japan.

1927
Fourteen years before Japanese planes descend upon the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, officers in the Imperial Navy under the leadership of Lt. Comm. Sokichi Takagi play out the scenario in a war game -- and find it ending badly, with the base barely damaged and U.S. forces quickly retaliating against Tokyo. Officers redo the exercise repeatedly until they arrive at the battle plan used in 1941.

1940
Three months after the invasion of Poland, Hitler's Chief of Army General Staff Franz Halder oversees four months of war games to plan Nazi Germany's May 1940 conquest of Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. The game correctly anticipates the Allies' first response: pre-emptively invading Belgium.

1950s
American strategic intellectuals like Herbert Goldhamer, Andrew Marshall, and Herman Kahn explore the implications of a nuclear apocalypse in elaborate games simulating not just military conflict but the geopolitics of the Cold War.

1958
The future of war gaming blinks to life with the Navy Electronic Warfare Simulator, a $7 million computer system that takes up three floors of a building on the Naval War College campus.

1962
Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology create Spacewar!, the first shooting-oriented video game.

1964
With U.S. military advisors on the ground in Vietnam, top Lyndon B. Johnson administration officials including McGeorge Bundy and Cyrus Vance play two political-military war games called Sigma II testing U.S. involvement. The games end in not just a military quagmire but also serious fallout in U.S. domestic politics.

1981
The U.S. Army opens the National Training Center, a 1,000-square-mile state-of-the-art combat-simulation facility in the Mojave Desert. It is nicknamed "Fort Atari" on account of its embrace of a new technology that first appeared as a Star Trek-themed toy: laser tag.

1983
The film WarGames, starring Matthew Broderick as a teenage hacker, brings the nuclear war gaming of Kahn, Marshall, and others to the big screen. Marshall later hires one of the movie's writers, Peter Schwartz, to do the real thing.

1995
U.S. Marines at Quantico hack the popular video game Doom II to create Marine Doom, an urban combat simulator.

2002
The summer before the Iraq invasion, a $250 million, three-week game is used to test the U.S. military's readiness for a confrontation with a major Middle Eastern country. Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, playing a wily Saddam-like dictator, quickly brings the U.S. military to its knees with tactics that presage the Iraq insurgency. Mortified Pentagon leaders suspend the game; Van Riper quits in protest.

March 2003
"The enemy we're fighting against is different from the one we war-gamed against," Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, U.S. Army corps commander in Iraq, remarks as the unseating of Saddam Hussein takes longer than anticipated.

2008
The Pentagon begins developing a $130 million "scale model" of the Internet to conduct the first full-fledged cyberwar games to prepare for the next frontier of conflict. Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticizes the Pentagon's "tendency toward what might be called next-war-itis," calling on military leaders to spend less time predicting the wars of the future and more on the wars at hand. Two years later, the Army decides to scale back its big spring war game for the first time in 15 years.

March 2009
In the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, the Pentagon convenes a group of hedge-fund managers, bank executives, and academics for a first-of-its-kind economic war game, designed to test the ability of other countries to wield the global economy as a weapon. The big winner? Unsurprisingly, China.

October 2010
Electronic Arts' Medal of Honor, a hyperrealistic first-person shooter video game set in the Afghanistan war, debuts to much fanfare. "We are probably in some ways back to the period before 1500, when war games were extremely popular," says military historian Martin van Creveld.

Thanks to U.S. Army Col. John F. Antal (ret.), military historian Martin van Creveld, and U.S. Army Col. Richard Sinnreich (ret.).