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Foreign Correspondent -

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Dance Like There's No Tomorrow

Broadcast: 05/04/2011

Dancers at Cuba's National Ballet School

In a weary old national building on groaning floorboards the gifted grandchildren of the revolution
dance like there's no tomorrow. There may not be - at least as they've come to know it.

The talented, driven, ambitious dancers of Cuba's national ballet school want to be the best
dancers they can but do they dare to dream of a wider audience on the world stage?

Sometime in the not-too-distant future the once ultimate authority in this island nation will pass
and many speculate that when Fidel Castro dies, so too will his communist creation. There'll be a
rapprochement with its nearest, very powerful neighbour the United States and it won't be long
before Cuba takes its place in the wider world and the global economy. Or so the speculation goes.

"I think Cuba will open at the end. But I have to say I'm not clear what will be the future. But I
hope that it will be good". JUAN CARLOS CREMATA Cuban Filmmaker

The once stunning capital Havana is crumbling, grand old edifices are turning to dust, the famous
yank-tank clunkers still burble around the ratty city streets. Unemployment benefits have been cut
and recently half-a-million state workers have been laid off because of the sclerosis besetting
Cuba's isolated and impeded economy.

There have been begrudging moves to enable boutique enterprises with the government issuing permits
for a grab-bag of businesses. But when street corner DVD sellers make multiples of the average wage
how long before pressure builds to make further capitalist concessions.

"I think the vast majority of Cubans believe that socialism doesn't have to be the old socialism
but a different kind of socialism. It can still be socialism but with a completely different

North America Correspondent Michael Brissenden takes us into seldom seen parts of this fascinating,
idiosyncratic and anachronistic place, gathering insights from young and old and those very close
to the top echelons of power.

"We cannot know the future, we know what we want but not what is going to happen. I don't think
it's right to give over the stage to the young people without them having participated in the
writing of the script". MARIELA CASTRO, President Raul Castro's daughter.


BRISSENDEN: The crumbling home of the prestigious national ballet can barely contain all this
intense youthful exuberance. This is Havana's Grand Theatre - far less grand than it once was - and
these are the grandchildren of the Cuban Revolution. They're passionate, extremely talented and
they want to be the very best dancers they can possibly be. But do they dare to dream beyond the
strict confines of their small island home?

HENRY: " A famous dancer? What would it mean to me? I'd like it if my art could be known to other
people in the world. Why not?"

KAYSA: "I personally have set myself a goal - to be a good dancer, not only in Cuba but in other
countries as well".

BRISSENDEN: Kaysa and Henry are the star dancers at Cuba's Spanish Ballet School. Kaysa is just
seventeen. She's studied classical ballet since she was four. She knows given the chance the world
could be her stage but like almost everyone in Cuba, she has to be patient, very patient.

KAYSA: "We have to think big - even though things may not be resolved in one day, they'll be
resolved slowly. We have to be optimistic because some day things will get better."

BRISSENDEN: But standing still doesn't come easy to those born to move.

HENRY: "I think I still have a lot to learn. I want to be a good dancer".

BRISSENDEN: Since before they were born, Cuba has been on the verge of a change that never seems to
come. The tyranny of a transition that's always just out of reach. Is it possible that change
really is in the wind and this will be the Cuban generation that finally steps into a wider world?

In the 21st century, Cuba is an increasingly strange anachronism - one of the last outposts of the
old cold war stand-off. There is obviously incredible potential here, but after half a century of
US embargo and socialist doctrine, the economy is in ruins. Young people are desperate for change
but the old revolutionaries cling to the political battles of the 20th century and the central
characters in all this remain Fidel Castro and his brother Raul.

Before Fidel Castro vacuum sealed Cuba, this was arguably more North American than any other
country outside the United States. But even now, all these years on, the most anti-American
neighbour can't shake the great American pastime. Baseball is a national obsession and just like
the dancers of the Spanish Ballet, the talent runs deep.

NORBERTO GONZALEZ MIRANDA: "In Cuba we have a system that is very organised - in this case, the
Cuban Serie Nacional, Liga de Desarrollo. There are many opportunities for young people to play

BRISSENDEN: Scouts in the US look longingly at what they describe as perhaps the greatest pool of
entrapped sporting talent in the world. Here, Norberto Gonzalez Miranda is the most valuable player
of all. He's the best pitcher in the Cuban league. A superstar without the pay packet. He knows he
could make tens of millions in the US but dismisses it with an easy shrug.

NORBERTO GONZALEZ MIRANDA: "No, I'm not interested in that, because our country, our system
provides for almost everything".

BRISSENDEN: Here at the Cienfeugo Stadium they may all be baseball tragics, die-hard fans of
America's pastime, but they're by no means fans of the American dream. There's a reticence, a deep
suspicion of precisely what a more open Cuba may bring.

MARIELA CASTRO: "Well, what is going to happen I don't know. We cannot know the future. We know
what we want, but not what is going to happen".

BRISSENDEN: This is about as close as anyone - certainly most foreign journalists - get to the
Cuban inner circle. Mariela Castro is the daughter of President Raul. Her uncle has withdrawn from
public view, her father hasn't made a public appearance in months. So Mariela finds herself in the
limelight, the smiling youthful face of the regime - and she's more than happy to have us tag along
to one of her many public functions.

As a member of the ruling family, Mariela Castro has rare privileges and liberties and she's one of
the few Cubans prepared to engage openly in political discussions.

MARIELA CASTRO: "I also don't like how the Communist Party's been operating. It's now renewing
itself, thank goodness. It was time".

BRISSENDEN: The regime knows something has to give. This month the Communist Party will hold its
first party congress since 1997. The reclusive Fidel is unlikely to attend and it could well be the
last significant political pitch for his brother as well. There are broad expectations that Raul
Castro will at least embrace some reform but even those in the inner sanctum say they don't know
what the leader might have in mind - or they're not prepared to say.

"Has your father told you where he wants to take the country?"

MARIELA CASTRO: "No. He doesn't talk to me about his work. I think he is like everyone else,
"expectant" but he always says, "Many ideas will arise - the people will contribute - and many
things will be done that we never imagined. I think he is happy with what is happening. I think
he'll say goodbye in peace, knowing he's left the country in good condition to move forward".

BRISSENDEN: But from the balconies of old Havana, Cuba doesn't look like a country about to move
forward. Music, passion and sensuality are all part of the Cuban soul, and that spirit continues to
define and sustain the people. But the country itself is falling apart. Few if anyone, can recall a
major construction site. While many of Communisms old outposts are now smothered in cranes and
reverberating to the jackhammers, nothing has been built here for decades and little has been
maintained or repaired.

Not so the cars. Necessity demands they're patched up and while the eyes of a classic car
enthusiast might boggle, these old clunkers from a bygone era of carburettors and drum brakes, are
the most visible reminder of the political and economic stagnation in Cuba, held together with a
combination of ingenuity and improvisation.

Old Havana was once one of the most beautiful cities in the Caribbean. Now it's in a state of
almost melancholic decay.

MIRIAM LIEVA: "Old Havana was very beautiful, wonderful buildings, great architecture but 52 years
nothing has been constructed or rehabilitated. The architecture has been lost. If you look to the
right or the left you find that people are living in very bad shape and in very bad conditions and
that's usual because most of the buildings are crumbling and there is a great problem of housing".

BRISSENDEN: Few know more about just how intractable the Castro regime can be than Oscar Chepe and
Miriam Lieva. This Havana couple have been a part of Castro's Cuba from the first tremors of
revolution. Oscar came out of the jungles fighting alongside Fidel. In the years that followed,
Miriam was as close as anyone to the top. But for them, the revolution never ended and the personal
cost has been colossal.

MIRIAM LIEVA: "The consequences have been huge. Even if you're out in the street you're a prisoner
of this government. You know it's like a hostage, you're a hostage".

BRISSENDEN: Miriam and Oscar and a lifetime's possessions are squeezed into this two room apartment
in the Havana suburbs.

MIRIAM LIEVA: "We are not allowed to move from this place so we have to be here in this little
apartment and our apartment is very surveyed. There is a political police office upstairs and it's
been there for many years. Now nobody believes in Fidel Castro. They don't even listen or read his
reflections and Raul Castro has lost a lot or what he encouraged at the beginning of his term, it's
been lost".

BRISSENDEN: In the early years of Castro Communism, Oscar worked closely with Fidel and later he
became a specialist economist with the National Bank of Cuba. Eventually though he grew sceptical
of the Cuban economic model. He found his criticisms weren't welcome.

OSCAR CHEPE: "That is my struggle and I keep fighting, even though I'm aware that I'm in danger.
They've told me themselves that I could return to prison".

BRISSENDEN: AT 71 Oscar Chepe is in no shape for another stretch in prison. His last is still fresh
in his memory. In 2003 he was one of the so-called group of 75 rounded up and imprisoned again
during a crackdown against dissidents. It scarred him mentally and physically.

OSCAR CHEPE: "I was in Cuban Guantanamo, which is terrible. I was in Boniato prison... in Santiago de
Cuba and in General Headquarters of Political Police as well. I was in El Combinado del Este prison
- and they are all terrible penal centres".

MIRIAM LIEVA: "He really was in a very, very bad shape".

BRISSENDEN: "How was he when he came out?"

MIRIAM LIEVA: "Well imagine he has very serious liver problems and many other problems and he had
lost a lot of weight. You could see that he was you know... like, lost. He couldn't even get a whole
phrase together. You know he didn't have concentration at that time. In Cuba they apply torture
that you can't see, you know? They don't leave you any scars".

BRISSENDEN: But the scars on the country are all too apparent. Instead of persecuting and punishing
the old economist, it might have been more useful for the regime to heed some of the criticism of
Cuba's economic structure. Take a drive from the capital out into Cuba's rural heart and the
problems become obvious. What used to be this country's agricultural engine room is all but spent.
Sugarland has turned sour.

RAFAEL HERNANDEZ: "The reign of sugar is over after 200 years. This is over and sugar is not going
to return as the centre of the Cuban economy".

BRISSENDEN: Believe it or not, this place is called Central Australia. It was once one of the
biggest sugar mills in the country. These days the sugar train runs joy rides for the few curious
tourists who make it this far. What sugar cultivation remains is still run along the old Soviet
collectivist model, but it's a model that only ever worked here with Soviet patronage - and we all
know what happened to that.

Fifty years ago this sugar mill was also Fidel Castro's headquarters during the Bay of Pigs
invasion. The Bay of Pigs invasion came in 1961, two years after Castro and his band of
revolutionaries overthrew the US backed Dictator Batista. It was the first and only attempt to
retake the country by Cuban exiles trained by the US. The fight against Yankee Imperialism has
always been a defining theme of the revolution, but the collapse of the Soviet sponsor hit Cuba
harder than anything else.

RAFAEL HERNANDEZ: "We have been in crisis throughout the last twenty years, my friend. So this is a
crisis, yes. But is this worse, we are worse than five years ago and fifteen years ago? No. I don't
think we are worse".

BRISSENDEN: Rafael Hernandez is the editor of Temas, a serious mix of literary analysis, reportage
and critiques published every three months. But like all major publications here, it remains
supportive of the goals and aspirations of the regime.

RAFAEL HERNANDEZ: "I don't think that the government believes that this situation may last for
another 20 years. They know very well and if you read carefully or if you listen carefully to Raul
Castro's speeches, he is very clear in his mind and in his statements are very clear about that we
are running out of time. This is our last opportunity. This is what he says".

BRISSENDEN: "Does he give a time frame to that?

RAFAEL HERNANDEZ: "No. If you ask me for a time frame I say this year. Very important key changes
will be made this year".

BRISSENDEN: So, even in those pockets of the Cuban intelligentsia with a lifetime's commitment to
Castro's socialism, there's a recognition that change now is inevitable - but it's a matter of
degrees. And the future, whatever direction it takes, will be linked for better or worse to the US.
How they deal with the post Castro era will be a challenge to both countries but here in Cuba
nothing looms larger than the paradox of location. It drives politics, splits families and throws a
shadow over the lives of almost everyone.

JUAN CARLOS CREMATA: "The history of Cuba it's completely connected with the history of the United
States. You cannot speak about Cuba, about the history of Cuba without speaking about the United
States. But it's the same. You cannot speak about the United States without the history of Cuba".

BRISSENDEN: Juan Carolos Cremata is one of Cuba's better known filmmakers. He is also one of those
most publicly identified with the strained and conflicted relationship Cubans have with the US and
with their own exiled community.

JUAN CARLOS CREMATA: "You know I was thirteen when my father died in the middle of the sea,
Caribbean Sea with two bombs in the plane".

BRISSENDEN: Cubana Airlines Flight 455 was brought down by two bombs planted by anti- Castro Cuban
exiles in 1976. All 73 people on board died. They included the members of the Cuban National
Fencing team and their coach Juan Carlos's father. Cuba accused the CIA of involvement and the
attack became a symbol of the Cold War struggle. 35 years later, it's still a key part of the
country's revolutionary story. And like many Cubans, Juan Carlos is wary of what might happen once
Cuba does open the doors.

JUAN CARLOS CREMATA: "This America, North American society, North American society is good? No, I
don't think so. Mmm... I don't think so. And I know that United States is not the solution of the

RAFAEL HERNANDEZ: "I think that the vast majority of Cubans believe that socialism doesn't have to
be the old socialism but a different kind of socialism. It can still be socialism but with a
completely different model".

BRISSENDEN: And once again in Cuba, like the cars that chug and splutter around the city streets,
that different model is likely to be a patched up, make do version of the old. As the regime
tinkers with its broken down economy, those who can least afford it have been hardest hit. Recently
unemployment benefits have been cut and half a million state workers are being laid off. They're
now expected to find ways to fend for themselves.

JOSE REY: "My name is Jose Rey, and I am 22 years old. I was working but with the problems of staff
reductions my contract was terminated and I had to turn to the streets. They told me they were very
sorry, but you have to go".

BRISSENDEN: The government has published a list of 178 small private enterprises it says are now
permissible. Get yourself a permit like Jose Rey has and you can get by, selling DVDs on street
corners. He's not about to become a one man Block Buster video, but he at least is happy with his
tentative steps out of the planned economy.

JOSE REY: "If I sell five DVD's in one day I earn ten CUC. I've already made in one day what I
would have earned in one month".

BRISSENDEN: Florists, food traders, tutors, carpenters and hairdressers are some of the other
business ventures on the government list. It's hardly Chinese reforms or the dramatic changes in
the old Soviet Union, but here it's the biggest economic change in 52 years and capitalism can be

JUAN CARLOS: "I think that even though there are ones who don't want to open Cuba will open in the
end. But I have to say I'm not clear why it will be the future. I hope that it will be good but...".

BRISSENDEN: "Is it happening too slowly?"

RAFAEL HERNANDEZ: "It depends what Cubans you are talking to. If you are talking to Cubans that are
twenty five years old, they may be thinking or feeling that it is slow. If you are talking to
people that are over 65 years old, you may get a very different response. So I think that yes we
want this to happen but yes we need to have this step by step".

BRISSENDEN: But are the steps big enough, bold enough for a generation who know better than
previous generations what lurks outside and hoping maybe even yearning to connect with that world.

MARIELA CASTRO: "Young people always want rapid change - they always expect things immediately.
What I like is that the process of generational handing over is being carried out, in a strong,
responsible and careful manner because I don't think it's right to give over the stage to the young
people without them having participated in the writing of the script.

KAYSA: "Well like all dancers, one would like to be known all around the world. To be famous in
your own country and then you go to another country where they recognise you, and say, 'Look at
this Cuban - how good she is! An excellent dancer - one of the best in the world!'."