Cuba’s New Now


After half a century under Fidel, Cubans feel a wary sense of possibility. But this time, don’t expect a revolution, Cynthia Gorney writes in this article for National Geographic.

Here is an excerpt, but the full article and a wonderful gallery of photographs by Paolo Pellegrin can be accessed through the link below.

 “I want to show you where we’re hiding it,” Eduardo said.

Bad idea, I said. Someone will notice the foreigner and wreck the plan.

“No, I figured it out,” Eduardo said. “You won’t get out of the car. I’ll drive by, slowly, not so slow that we attract attention. I’ll tell you when to look. Be discreet.”

He had borrowed a friend’s máquina, which means “machine” but is also what Cubans call the old American cars that are ubiquitous in the Havana souvenir postcards. This one was a 1956 Plymouth of a lurid color that I teased him about, but I pulled the passenger door shut gently, the way Cubans always remind you to, out of respect for their máquinas’ advanced age. Now we were driving along the coast, some distance from Havana, into the coastal town where Eduardo and nine other men had paid a guy, in secret, to build a boat sturdy enough to motor them all out of Cuba at once.

“There,” Eduardo said, and slowed the Plymouth. Between two peeling-paint buildings, on the inland side of the street, a narrow alley ended in a windowless structure the size of a one-car garage. “We’ll have to carry it out and wheel it up the alley,” he said. “Then it’s a whole block along this main street, toward that gravel that leads into the water. We’ll wait until after midnight. But navy helicopters patrol offshore.”

He peered into his rearview mirror at the empty street behind him, concentrating, so I shut up. Eduardo is 35, a light-skinned Cuban with short brown hair and a wrestler’s build, and in the months since we first met last winter—he’s a former construction worker but that day was driving a borrowed Korean sedan and trying to earn money as an off-the-books cabdriver—we had taken to yelling good-naturedly and interrupting each other as we drove around La Habana Province, arguing about the New Changing Cuba. He said there was no such thing. I said people insisted there was. I invoked the many reports I was reading, with names like “Change in Post-Fidel Cuba” and “Cuba’s New Resolve.” Eduardo would gaze heavenward in exasperation. I invoked the much vaunted new rules opening up the controlled economy of socialist Cuba—the laws allowing people to buy and sell houses and cars openly, obtain bank loans, and work legally for themselves in a variety of small businesses rather than being obliged to work for the state.

But no. More eye rolling. “All that is for the benefit of these guys,” Eduardo said to me once, and tapped his own shoulder, the discreet Cuban signal for a person with military hardware and inner-circle political pull.

What about Fidel Castro having permanently left the presidency four years ago, formally yielding the office of commander in chief to his more flexible and pragmatic younger brother, Raúl?

“Viva Cuba Libre,” Eduardo muttered, mimicking a revolutionary exhortation we’d seen emblazoned high on an outdoor wall. Long live free Cuba. “Free from both of them,” he said. “That’s when there might be real change.”

If there is in fact a Cuba under serious transformation—and you can find Cubans all over the country engaging now in their own versions of this same debate—Eduardo is a crucial component of it, although not for the reasons you might think. “Dissident” is the right label for a subset of politically vocal Cubans, notably the bloggers whose critical online missives have gained big followings outside the country, but Eduardo is no sort of dissident. He’s not fleeing persecution by the state. He’s just young, energetic, and frustrated, a description that applies to a great many of his countrymen. Ever since he was a teenager in high school, Eduardo told me, it had been evident to him that adulthood in revolutionary Cuba offered exactly nothing by way of personal advancement and material comfort to anybody except the peces gordos. The big fish. (Well, literally translated, the fat fish—the tap-on-the-shoulder parties.) Nothing works here, Eduardo would cry, pounding the steering wheel of whatever car he’d hustled on loan for the day: The economic model is broken, state employees survive on their tiny salaries only by stealing from the jobsite, the national news outlets are an embarrassment of self-censored boosterism, the government makes people crazy by circulating two national currencies at once.

“I love my country,” Eduardo kept saying. “But there is no future for me here.”

. . .

The whole city seemed to be shining, that morning with Eduardo, even though there’d been a derrumbe in the neighborhood where I was staying. That’s a building collapse, a thing that occurs with some regularity, especially in Havana. Buildings that were once beautiful and grand are rotting now in the tropical air, and the country has no money to repair them, so they cave in, partially or all at once, a giant rumbling roar followed by rubble and grief. This derrumbe killed four people, three of them teenage girls; the building had been designated unsafe, but Cubans are inventive about their living space in Havana, where parts of the city are so crowded that multiple families and generations wedge into residences that in more decadent eras served as single-family homes. Eduardo had the idea that the number of deaths in my neighborhood derrumbe was 21—he had heard this via radio bemba, the radio of lips, which is what Cubans call the word on the street, the only censor-free method for the dissemination of discouraging domestic news. But I had been reading Granma, the national Communist Party daily, which to the surprise of many people had actually run articles about this derrumbe rather than pretending it had never occurred and was steadfast about the death toll of four. Anyway, the city looked shiny. The tourists were charging all over by the busload, maps in hand, and from what I could see they appeared to be having a great time, sipping their rum-and-mint mojitos, following their multilingual Cuban guides, and applauding the happy cacophony of rumba and son that spilled out into the plazas from restaurants and street corners and bars.

Unmistakably, and provocatively, unusual things were transpiring in the streets. In some neighborhoods half the buildings’ doorways seemed to have been taken over by new self-employed vendors, the men and women sitting hopefully alongside makeshift displays of hair accessories or homemade pastries or DVDs of movies and television shows. “For Sale” signs, prohibited during the decades when it was legal to exchange residences but not to sell them, now appeared in house windows. In a few weeks Pope Benedict XVI was due to arrive, the first papal visit to Cuba in 14 years. Along the route the papal cortege would follow, state workers were cleaning and painting house facades so assiduously that I heard people joke that they wished the Holy Father would show up more often, just for the urban cleanup.

Hefty half-built structures stuck out here and there—the anti-derrumbes, as I came to think of them, into which the country’s sparse investment resources were being directed. High cranes and scaffolding delineated the rehabilitation of historic buildings, the gussying up of tourist destinations, the construction of new port facilities. From certain spots along the shoreline, you could make out the shape of the huge deepwater rig exploring the Cuban seabed, believed to contain billions of barrels’ worth of oil. If large-scale oil production is merited, the possibilities for the country’s economic future are profound.

Most of the Cubans I talked to seemed consumed, in fact, by this whole idea of possibility. Not permanent transformation, most would say, not yet; the Cuban government has a history of switching signals on its citizens, encouraging private enterprise and then pronouncing it counterrevolutionary and shutting it down again. But Raúl Castro is not his brother, and there’s a particularly Cuban combination of excitement, wariness, calculation, black humor, and anxiety that accompanies even the possibility of real change—the suggestion that after a half century under Fidel, something big may truly be happening to the way Cubans live day to day. “The rebuilding of the house of Cuba,” an ecclesiastical lawyer and editor named Roberto Veiga said gravely, pronouncing the Spanish words with the elegance of a pastor at the pulpit: La reconstrucción de la casa Cuba.

Careful, though: The rebuilding metaphor implies a blueprint. Those outside Cuba who imagine that this blueprint is agreed to by some clear Cuban consensus are deluding themselves. The unconstrained individualism of the United States, where neither health care nor a college education are free? The showy wealth and environmental havoc of modern China? The economic woes and internal tensions of Europe? The narco wars of Mexico? “This is our great challenge,” Veiga told me. He helps run a publication of the Archdiocese of Havana, Espacio Laical (literally, Secular Space), which, like the Cuban Roman Catholic Church itself, has become one of the few venues in which semicritical debate about the country’s future is aired in public. “What will it be like, this house of Cuba?” Veiga asked. “These are changes that should have begun two decades ago. But they didn’t. And now we are a nation trying to define itself.”

Eleven million people live in Cuba, less than the population of central Tokyo. It’s the biggest island in the Caribbean, and famously only 90 miles from United States territory, but Cuba still grips the international imagination mostly because the dueling narratives of its history are so exaggerated by myth. Either a ruthless revolutionary took power in 1959, seized American corporate property, forced out his country’s own professional classes, and silenced all opposition by creating a totalitarian police state (that’s the version audible to this day on Miami’s Radio Mambí, the broadcast voice of Florida’s most vehement anti-Castro community); or a brilliant revolutionary led the overthrow of a corrupt dictatorship, shook off the colonialism of foreign companies and the Mafia, brought literacy and health care and egalitarian values to a mobilized people, and created a university-educated bastion of socialism in spite of a half century of U.S. efforts to destroy it by prohibiting Americans from doing business with or spending tourist money in Cuba.

Both narratives contain substantial truth, both at the same time. This is why Cuba fascinates and makes people’s heads hurt. The placebis exhausting in its complexity and paradoxes—Cubans are the first to tell you that—and the questions modern Cuba sets off in a visitor are big, serious, unwieldy. What is the definition of freedom? What do human beings need? What do they owe to each other? What do they want, beyond what they need? “We’ve all been the subjects of an experiment,” a 58-year-old university-educated woman who works in the arts told me thoughtfully one evening, chopping sweet peppers in her kitchen for supper. She lives in an airy place, with a fenced front lawn and a backyard patio, in a leafy part of Havana; the home has belonged to her family since before the Triunfo, the Triumph of the Revolution, as Cubans generally refer to the events of 1959. Her lightbulbs are compact fluorescents, the woman pointed out—one legacy of an ambitious national project a few years back, directing all Cubans to switch to lower watt fixtures in the interests of energy independence and the environment.

“They’d come to check,” she said. “They would break your old bulbs, in front of you, to make sure you didn’t sneak any back into your lamps.” She smiled and looked over her glasses at me to make sure I was listening closely enough. She has one child, a son a decade younger than Eduardo—gone now, having bailed out on Cuba and obtained a therapy credential in Spain. “The idea was marvelous, to change all the lightbulbs,” she said. “The problem is how they did it.”

. . .

Eduardo told me the boat’s departure date was set, depending on what the men could learn about tide and weather predictions, for the days just after the pope’s visit ended. When I was away from Havana, in the island’s interior, text messages from his number showed up every so often on my temporary Cuban phone: “hi my friend am going soon on vacation.”

I was doing a lot of walking, or strapping on flimsy passenger helmets and climbing (imprudently) onto the backs of unlicensed motorcycle taxis. To my outsider’s eye, the New Changing Cuba looked both real and raggedy, as though an enormous flea market had been busted up and scattered the length of the country. Young men sat in stairwells, offering to repair cell phones or refill cigarette lighters. Families lined their front porches with display tables of used kitchen merchandise or thermoses of coffee and chipped plates of wrapped ham-and-cheese sandwiches.

Here were small corner businesses that used to be run by the state but now, experimentally, were not: barbershops and snack bars, for example, in which management was being transferred to the employees. Here was a former high school math teacher, a soft-spoken 42-year-old who had learned to speak Russian fluently back in the comfortable days of life support from the U.S.S.R. Now he was selling baby clothes for CUCs from one corner of a rented street-front foyer in the central city of Camagüey. “My wife does the sewing,” the former math teacher said. “She used to be a teacher too.”

And here, in the middle of one residential block back in Havana, was a chic new restaurant called Le Chansonnier. No signage marked the entrance; Le Chansonnier is a paladar, a privately run restaurant inside a home, and people with money—correction, people with CUCs—know where it is. Paladares have been legal for years in Cuba but used to be strictly contained, under the pretense that they were all tiny family operations siphoning no business from state restaurants. Since 2011, though, they’ve been allowed to expand and hire staff, and like the guest rooms Cubans may rent to foreigners inside their own homes and apartments, some of the popular paladares have basically turned into busy CUC cash registers for their owners. “I always dreamed of having my own business,” the co-owner, a 39-year-old named Héctor Higuera Martínez, told me the afternoon I stopped by. “I used to think I’d be an engineer. But I saw that there was a living in working with tourists.”

. . .

A week later I went home, and I waited for Eduardo to call me collect, as we’d both arranged, from somewhere in South Florida. Two weeks passed without a call. Then another week, and then another. I tried the Havana cell phone Eduardo had been using, but there was no answer, and finally I called his brother, who immigrated to Mexico a few years ago to marry a Mexican woman he had met in Cuba.

The phone connection was bad, and I wasn’t sure how much was safe to say. I was an American who had befriended Eduardo in Havana, I said, and I just wondered—how he was, that was all. I said he had spoken of an impending vacation. His brother became very excited. “He didn’t make it,” he said in Spanish. He was shouting into the phone. “There was a problem with the boat. El timón. They didn’t make it.”

I didn’t have my dictionary in reach, and I didn’t know what a timón was, and all I could think was that it was like tiburón, which means shark. “Tell me what that means,” I said urgently, and Eduardo’s brother said he didn’t know how to describe it exactly but that it was a boat part, a thing that had failed before they were too far out, and it was all right, they had used the oars, they were back in Cuba. No one was arrested. He was going to wait a while, Eduardo’s brother said, and stay in their mother’s apartment with his wife while he saved some more money.

After we hung up I got the dictionary. A timón is a rudder. I had a picture in my mind now, what had happened to Eduardo: Floating in the sea, the rudder broken, he and his companions had surely discussed it for a time, what would happen if they tried to motor on, toward a landfall they couldn’t see, with nothing beneath them to keep the direction true. Then they turned the boat around, back into the piece of the ocean they already knew, and rowed home.

For the original report go to

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