HAVANA — Just outside the Virgin of Regla temple, here in Havana, a fortune-teller throws shells for passersby in exchange for money. Every day she gets the same questions: Will they find love? Will they be able to buy a home? Will they be able to travel in the near future? And above all, when will "this" end?
With a simple demonstrative pronoun, the fortune-teller's clients refer to what some call "the revolution," others, "the dictatorship," but what most simply refer to as "The System." It's a difficult question for the white-turbaned woman with her intensely red nails to answer with any specificity, partly because she can never be sure if the questioner is a State Security agent in civilian dress. So she looks at the position of each shell and says, in barely a whisper, "Soon. It will be soon."
It's increasingly obvious that the biological clock of the Cuban government -- a slow and agonizing journey of the hands that has lasted 54 years -- is closing in on midnight. Every minute that passes brings obsolescence a little nearer. The existence of a political system should not be so closely linked to the youth or decrepitude of its leaders, but in the case of our island, both ages have come to be the same thing.
Like a creature made in the image and likeness of a man -- who believes himself to be God -- Cuba's current political model will not outlive its creators. Every decision made over the past five decades, every step taken in one direction or another, has been marked by the personalities and decisions of a handful of human beings -- two of them in particular. One, Fidel Castro, 86, has been convalescing for six long years in a place few Cubans could find on a map.
Although in the last five years Fidel's brother Raúl, 81, has installed some younger faces in the administrative and governmental apparatus, the most important decisions remain concentrated in the hands of octogenarians. (Raúl's successor, Jose Ramon Machado, is 82.) Like a voracious Saturn devouring his children, the principal leaders of the revolution have not allowed any favored sons to overshadow them.
The last to be ousted due to the paranoia of the Castro brothers were Vice President Carlos Lage, a figure who enjoyed popular sympathy, and the foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque. Both might have made promising successors, but were accused by Fidel Castro himself as having been "addicted to the honey of power" and removed from their positions in 2009.
Their own selfishness has left Cuban leaders without a plan for succession and time has run out to develop it, at least one not sincerely committed to continuing along the path set by old men dressed in olive green.
For Raúl, the picture is worrisome, and he has declared that "time is short" to ready the generation that will replace him and his comrades. In 2013, he will be forced to accelerate this process, and his obvious desperation about the future is contributing to the ideological weakening and the loss of whatever popular support the Castro regime still enjoys.