RICHARD MAHLER

wordsmith and human being

Cuba 2014: A Cautious Sense of Possibility

 

    I am sitting across from Juan at a rooftop Havana restaurant called, ironically, La Moneda Cubana (Cuban Money). The tourist guide's sad brown eyes are cast down at a steaming plate filled with food. His characteristic twinkle and grin are absent.

    "I was around 16 years old when the Special Period started," he says in accented English. "I wanted to be an engineer, like my father. My mother was a teacher, so she knew the importance of a good education. They both encouraged me to go as far as I could in school."

    Juan—not his real name—is exhausted after 13 days guiding foreigners across the island. It’s late January and since November the 37-year-old Cubano has wrangled one small group of turistas after another from Havana east to Baracoa and back again. He looks, sounds, and acts depleted.

Juan glances up at me warily, as if reassuring himself that this bearded Americano journalist is truly interested in the uncomfortable story he’s started to share. I lean forward, straining to hear my dining companion above the chatter of my fellow travelers—eight young Europeans—and the minor-key ballads of a singing guitarist on a lower level of the dining terrace.

   "There was only six or seven hours of electricity each day and I needed to take advantage of it. I’d get up at three or four o'clock in the morning to begin my studies before school." Juan stops, averts his eyes again, and lowers his voice to a whisper. "But, y’know, it is hard to study when you are hungry. Very hard. And everyone in Cuba was hungry during those years. There was never enough to eat."

   As if on cue, we dig forks into the white rice smothering our plates and chew in silence. I reflect on an earlier conversation, when Juan described Cubans raising chickens and pigs in big-city houses during the Special Period. The mental images are strange. Pigs were locked into bathrooms at night and tethered in gardens or parks during the day. Chickens roamed freely through the house. There was animal waste to clean up, but without these critters the families would have gone months without meat.

   "When it was available, we ate rice,” Juan continues. “We had it every way you can think of: steamed, fried, mixed into soup, with beans, stuffed inside pudding, sprinkled on fruit. But for weeks at a time there was no rice at all. Or beans. Or pasta. So my mother would cook up platanos (bananas) for me and dissolve sugar in water. If there was flour, she might make a small loaf of bread. This was our meal: sugar-water, fruit from a neighborhood tree, maybe some cabbage, and a crust of bread. It was like this for three years.”

   We make eye contact again. His experience is something to which I cannot relate. I’ve never been chronically hungry. Juan chews another bite and shakes his head.

  “Everywhere, Cubans were starving. I know that having lived through that, well, I am sure I can get through anything."

   Juan looks well fed now, even showing a little paunch around the middle of an otherwise slender, well-proportioned body. A handsome, dark-haired mulato of African-Spanish-Chinese descent, the hunger he feels now is for a better life, within an economic system that would place greater value on his impressive talents and wide spectrum of abilities.

   “Every nation has problems,” he has told me earlier in our time together. “But in a socialist country there is a tendency to ignore certain uncomfortable realities until they can no longer be avoided. I think it’s partly because people only want to tell our leaders what they think they want to hear. Everyone wants the socialist approach to succeed here, and that’s not always the case.”

   Juan has come perilously close to immigrating to Canada from Cuba, and I sense that some day he will acquire the $26,000 he estimates he needs in order to meet the requirements of both governments. And although Cuban officials are much more relaxed about letting its citizens leave, a request for the required tarjeta blanca (white card) can be rejected without explanation. The card is necessary for even a short-term departure. Juan has never left Cuba, although his eyes light up when I ask him what countries he would like to visit. Basically, he wants to go everywhere.

     “We Cubans work hard,” he insists, signaling an end to this line of conversation, “and we are very, very stubborn.” I am sure he has a plan for enjoying a better life, as Cuba’s best and brightest inevitably do, but it would be imprudent—and perhaps risky—for him to outline it to a norteamericano who will be flying to Cancún the following evening.

 

 The challenges of the Special Period—a catastrophic depression that only eased after Cuba frantically reversed gears and threw itself open to international tourism with a flurry of hotel and airport building—followed the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the withdrawal of Soviet bloc support for Cuba. An elderly Cuban tells me during an overnight in his home that the Russians packed up and left over a period of days, not months. They took back their cheap oil, deep pockets, and technical expertise. With communism unraveling back home under Gorbachev, there was no need to boost it in the Caribbean—or anywhere else.

   Juan—who advanced from cutting sugar cane to engineering to accounting to overseeing ATM data networks for banks—calls himself a member of The Lost Generation, those optimistic young people left to founder as the ship of the Cuban state struggled to stay afloat. Many of his friends escaped to the U.S., Canada, Italy, and other affluent countries. Juan was tempted, but loyalty to his parents and young son keeps him on the island. He concedes, however, that if he’d known 15 years earlier how limited his prospects would be today, even family ties would not hold him back. I hear variations on his Lost Generation lament throughout Cuba.

   “The skills I have now, as an engineer and as an expert in computer technology,” he declares, “would earn me lots of money in another country. Things are getting better here, but there is always the question, ‘Will they get better enough within my lifetime to really make a difference?’”

   No one knows the answer to this perennial query, yet a person looking for positive signs can find them if he or she looks. With the current government seemingly aware of the restlessness of its young people, these incremental changes may be enough to keep them from straying.

   During my two weeks in Cuba, there is every indication that the severe fuel shortages, widespread hunger, and 16-hour blackouts will remain ordeals of the past. Light crude from Venezuela and heavier oil from Cuba’s own offshore wells supply everything from power plants to factories to cars. Eighty percent of the island’s food is still imported, but efficient, organic farming is getting a big push. And during my January visit, lights never flickered.

   As was the case during Juan’s youth, Cubans are kept healthy by a free conception-to-grave medical system that produces so many health-care professionals that the biggest single revenue source for the government is money paid by foreign contractors in places like South America and Africa. Governments contract for the “service mission” skills of tens of thousands of overseas Cubanos, sending foreign money to Havana while honing the skills of fresh medical school graduates. Every city in Cuba has one or more hospitals; every town and village a clinic. Mortality rates have dropped and disease minimized. (A similar “skilled worker” export program sends sports trainers, technicians, and other specialists to do contract work overseas. Despite incentives to do so, some never return to Cuba.)

      Education, too, continues to fulfill the socialist dream of free schooling for all, from pre-kindergarten through university. Walk around a Cuban city and you’ll inevitably pass the open doors of night schools that help Cubans upgrade or modify their job skills, or of art institutes that encourage those with the interest and ability to develop their talents in music, dance, visual art, song, literature, photography, and filmmaking. I saw evidence again and again that a child who wants to play an instrument or act in a play or make a film or take photographs or sing his or her heart out or spin a pottery wheel will get the training he or she desires. In fact, I was told, artists of all kinds in Cuba are now the best-paid Cubans outside the highest echelons of the military or government.

   Cubans, thousands of whom were relocated to cities when the government took ownership of private land and homes, are given the chance to buy land and build houses again, to lease their own organic farms and to plant urban “community” gardens. Self-employment (in 181 job categories) has become an option that essentially did not exist while Fidel was president. Cubans who fled to Miami are cautiously investing in small businesses like homestays and restaurants that relatives they left behind are creating. All this, and yet Cuban citizens still cannot own or board an oceangoing vessel without special permission—for fear they will flee without permission.

   Nowhere have I seen, in travels through some 40 countries, a place that celebrates its culture and patrimony as enthusiastically and as openly as Cuba. While there may be poverty in the kitchen and the pocketbook, the spirit of Cubanismo appears rich and alive.

   But in terms of political and press freedoms, it seems the needle in Cuba has barely moved since Raúl Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, assumed the presidency in 2010 and began edging the tightly controlled country to a more free-market economy. Yes, bank loans are increasingly available to the average citizen. Hand-written se vende (for sale) signs posted in windows now advertise homes, cars, furniture, clothes, food, and electronic goods.  Self-employed hawkers sell all manner of goods on the street or at weekend markets. Food stands and hair salons and unlicensed taxis bring extra income in a land where nearly all jobs previously were overseen by the state.

   In 2014, about 80 percent of Cubans worked for the government, directly or indirectly. This is not immediately apparent to a foreign visitor, since the government operates through hundreds of business names. For example, the state claims at least 51 percent ownership of all hotels, even those managed by foreigners. And although my tour was arranged through a private overseas company, our activities in Cuba were funneled through state-owned businesses and employees. We stayed in private homes 10 nights out of 14, but each of those homes is licensed and taxed by the government. We ate at paladares, the private restaurants that have been legal for years and given freedom to expand in 2011—as long as they pay a share of their profits to the state.

   The Cuban government still holds a firm grip on TV, radio, cable, newspapers, and the Internet. The country is taking baby-steps into the digital age. An estimated 250,000 personal computers exist among a population of 11 million. Internet access is difficult, even for visitors, and authorities block thousands of websites. Public access to Internet-linked computers is expensive and carefully controlled. I sometimes stood in line for 45 minutes and then paid $4.50 for 30 minutes of computer time. I saw no cybercafés, found no open WiFi routers, and even expensive hotels often had no computer access, despite their claims to the contrary.

   Cellphones? Illegal until a few years ago, they are fast becoming as ubiquitous in Cuba as they are in the rest of the world. Expensive and limited, yes, but embraced by young people throughout the island. Whether yours will work in Cuba is another story. If your carrier is U.S.-based, it won’t. Cellphone coverage using phones from other countries remains spotty and spendy. But the Europeans in our group were able to send and receive occasional texts and e-mail, upload photos and sometimes surf the Net.

 

   Free and open elections in Cuba seem a long way off. Only one political party—the Communist—is allowed to exist and to field candidates. Thousands of dissidents are said to remain in jail. Others have been blacklisted or strongly urged to leave, their activities monitored and ability to get jobs circumscribed. Yet there’s plenty of public grousing about the aging peces gordos (“fat fish”) who manipulate the levers of power. Human rights abuses are now openly discussed on a growing number of dissident Internet blogs posted inside Cuba. Information flows freely here, at least for those who can afford the computers and access, but one has a sense of wariness, as if things could change overnight if the government felt threatened.

“I don’t care who they are or what they believe,” one Cuban businessman declared, after he stopped me on the street to chat, “nobody should be allowed to stay in power for fifty years. You lose touch or get corrupted after so much time in office. It’s inevitable.”

Inevitable, too, are the deaths of Fidel, born in 1926, and Raúl, five years younger. Their demise is the elephant in the room that Cubans tend to ignore during casual conversation with foreigners. (Older Cubanos are particularly cautious, inasmuch as the government before its current tourism push formally barred the average Cuban from speaking to foreign visitors, under threat of arrest and prosecution. Extranjeros apparently were considered a bad influence until our money was needed.)

“Officially,” volunteers the man on the street, “reigns like those of the Castro brothers cannot happen again. The Cuban constitution now specifies a maximum 10-year term for our presidents. So when the Castros die, there will be a national election and whomever is elected must be replaced by someone new after a decade.”

At the national cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, the city where young Fidel and Raúl launched the pivotal Moncada Barracks attack against the dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1953, construction is already underway on the final resting place for El Barbudo (“the bearded one”), as Fidel is often called. During a tour of the graveyard, where José Martí and many other heroes are interred, the government guide takes a member of our group aside and whispers: “You see where the eternal flame of liberty and justice is burning? Next to Martí’s mausoleum? The workers are preparing to receive El Barbudo. When that happens, this will be the most important cemetery in the world.”

For both the mortal remains and the historic legacy of Raúl—shorter, more pragmatic, and less charismatic than his hot-blooded brother—the future is less certain. His comparative flexibility in piloting the ship of state has drawn the ire of more hardline communists who fear a drift toward a China-style market-driven economy or, worse yet, a Miami-style free-for-all. “Not so fast,” the most committed Marxists seem to be saying. And with the 2013 death of “best friend” Hugo Chávez, the socialist president of strife-torn Venezuela, support for the status quo from outside the country dwindled, too.

Raúl has overseen the layoff or departure of over 150,000 government workers and even Fidel reportedly agrees that another 500,000 should probably be let go. The younger Castro has admitted that the federal government is too big and too vulnerable to overdependence and corruption among its workers. Several Cubans told me privately that theft from jobsites is a huge problem and that low salaries combined with low morale keep productivity embarrassingly low.

“They pretend to pay us,” one man joked to me, after we saw an eight-man construction crew sitting around basically doing nothing in mid-day, “while we pretend to work.”

 

Another problem that has caught Raúl Castro’s attention is the Dickensian double-currency system that circulates two types of money throughout Cuba simultaneously. Open a Cuban’s wallet: one set of bills on one side, a different set on the opposite. One set is worth 24 times the other. The president has hinted he will phase out one of these currencies within the next few years, to the relief of citizens and visitors who must separate their Cuban pesos and Cuban convertible pesos (known by the acronym CUC—pronounced “kook”) separate. The crazy-making system was instituted several years ago following the elimination the U.S. dollar as a circulating currency. Because of the U.S. embargo, it proved very difficult and expensive for Cuba to trade dollars for other currencies. Dollars still can be exchanged in Cuba, but only at an exorbitant premium.

The two-tier system is only one among several aspects of a typical tourist’s experience that may leave him or her with the uncomfortable feeling that he or she is little more than “money on legs.” With no discernible exceptions, prices for tourists are set in CUCs and must be paid with them. But because of the higher quality of goods and services priced in CUCs, many Cubans shop using those bills, too. Sure, you can buy coffee with “egalitarian” money, but if you want your coffee without pre-mixed filler, you’ll pay with turista currency. Unfortunately, if you’re Cuban, your salary (averaging $35 a month) will not be paid to you in CUCs. Raúl is allowing some bonuses and other incentives to be paid in convertibles, however, which only adds to the confusion.

 

For me, the most challenging aspect of the “money on legs” phenomenon surfaced when I asked Cuban women to dance. This surprised me, although in retrospect it should not have. As an unattached older male who does not look Cuban, putas apparently see CUCs and dollar signs when someone like me comes into view. Prostitution is a fact of life in Cuba, where any kind of off-the-books transaction can make a huge difference in living conditions. The unreported income can help feed a small child or invalid grandmother, buy new shoes or eyeglasses, pay for a cellphone or TV set. And, apparently, plenty of visiting men are willing to take the risk of paying for the flattering company and sexual favors of a compliant chica. I saw such curious pairings often: foreign men escorting Cuban ladies young enough to be their daughters—or even granddaughters.

The fact is, a big part of my decision to visit Cuba had to do with music and dance. I’ve been a passionate fan of Latin music since 1973, when I was hired as a programmer for a bilingual (Spanish-English) FM radio station serving Hispanic audiences in northern California. I soon acquired a Mexican-American girlfriend who taught me to dance cumbia, cha-cha, Tex-Mex polka, and ranchera two-step. A Uruguayan colleague introduced me to salsa and mambo. In the early 1980s, I traveled with a Cuban-American sweetie who turned me on to rumba, merengue, and son. I have been hooked ever since, dancing Latin-style whenever I get a chance. Since 2010, I’ve attended salsa-inflected Zumba classes twice each week.

Imagine trying to convince a Cubana prostitute that all I really wanted was to dance with her, not have paid-for sex. Fortunately, as the days wore on I found it easier to spot the working girls in advance and actually met several wonderful Cuban women who, like me, simply loved bailando. Also, some gracious Cuban men invited me to twirl their wives and novias on the dance floor. Mil gracias, amigos!

Musically, the island is an incredible place. The “average” musician there would be considered “top level” anywhere else. Every Cuban city of any size also has either a Casa de la Cultura or a Casa de la Trova (or both) that offers up free or low-cost traditional music for hours on end every day of the week. The musicians are expert, the styles are varied, the singing is splendid, the dancin’ is free, and the drinks are cheap. This was my version of heaven. And I could never get enough.

One afternoon in Trinidad, urged by a fellow traveler, Geraldine, a talented djembe drummer from Ireland, I took a two-hour one-on-one course in conga drumming from a Spanish-speaking drummer named Luis. I made little progress, but it was enormous fun. That night and virtually every other night of our trip, our group hopped from club to club until the small hours of the morning, dancing our hearts out with whomever asked us to dance. I went to bed every night (alone) with a smile on my face.

 

I also grew to love the paladares, the small, private restaurants that have grown in popularity and quality during the past three years. They often operate in people’s houses or courtyards. The menus are limited and service is sometimes slow due to kitchens that are small and staffers who are inexperienced, but the down-home food is usually excellent. Cuban food lacks the spiciness found in much of Latin America, but the ingredients are fresh, pesticide-free, and nutritious.

For learning about the culture of Cuba and practicing your Spanish, I recommend avoiding hotels and staying instead in casas particulares—referred to as homestays in English—that are inspected and licensed by the government in order to provide simple lodging and meals to visitors eager to meet Cubans. These casas are easily identified by blue plaques on their doorways—and many can now be booked in advance by telephone or via the Internet.

I also suggest getting into the countryside and experiencing Cuba’s wild side. A lack of industrialization, commitment to re-forestation, and avoidance of chemical fertilizers has preserved a natural environment that includes pristine coral reefs, empty beaches, rare animals, and the last old-growth rainforest in the Caribbean. We hiked one day into a lush national park that soothed us with swimming holes, waterfalls, and limestone caves. Along the way we observed the country’s national bird, the Cuban trogon, showing off its red, white, and blue colors and sweeping tail. On another day, we took rowboats up Cuba’s largest river to observe ibises, herons, egrets, and other water birds. Yes, pollution and other environmental problems exist, but improvements are being made and an Earth-friendly consciousness raised.

 

The exhaust-sputtering vintage Fifties-era American cars have, of course, become an international icon of Cuba, mobile reminders of an embargo that has persisted through the administrations of 10 U.S. presidents. My guess is that 10 or 15 percent of the vehicles operating on the island are at least a half-century old. But this being Cuba, appearances are deceptive.

Many older cars have been outfitted with newer engines and other essential parts. An American máquina, as an old U.S. car is called, is valued not simply because it attracts positive attention, but because it has always been among the few private possessions Cubans are allowed to buy and sell freely. And a roomy máquina makes a great off-the-books taxi and easily draws lucrative tips from foreigners who want to be photographed with one. Private sale of newer cars has only been permitted since Raúl assumed the presidency.

Plenty of aging Soviet cars, notably the Lada, are still around, but the Cubans I talked to dismissed them as “junk.” They don’t hold up well in the tropical heat, humidity, and salt air, it seems, and the newer Chinese imports aren’t faring much better.

Jorge, the bus driver for our tour, cast his face heavenward and rolled his eyes when I asked him about the quality of Chinese vehicles trickling into the Cuban market. “They look okay,” said the soft-spoken Matanzas native, whose short-cropped brown hair and full cheeks enforced a boyish demeanor. “But they develop mechanical problems very quickly. I don’t like them.”

But China likes trading with Cuba these days and a handful of delegations crossed my path during my travels. In one incident, I was standing in a breakfast line outside the restaurant of a Soviet-era hotel in Camagüey, immediately behind a 60-something Chinese man and his wife. The scene was bizarre. A free breakfast was part of the lodging package at this government-run hotel, yet the glass door to the dining room was locked, with a guard hovering just inside. The room was full of guests in various stages of eating the buffet breakfast, yet no one was being allowed in or out. Tensions mounted as the line of hungry, sleepy, and non-caffeinated guests grew. Suddenly, a man who appeared to be a hotel employee appeared, took the Chinese man and his wife by the elbow and escorted them through a side door. Seconds later I could see them behind the glass, picking up plates at the start of the buffet line. After standing in the queue for another 20 minutes, a half-dozen of us mere mortals were allowed in as six diners were let out. It went on like this all morning.

Days later, as I stood in a long departure line at the Havana airport’s Cubana Airlines counter, waiting patiently for my turn to obtain a boarding pass, a pair of clean-cut foreigners in business attire—neither of them Asian—jumped the queue and strode directly to the ticket agent. The startled English-speaking tourist who’d been shunted aside demanded an explanation. “Friends of the airline,” replied the agent in Spanish. “Very good friends.”

Beneath the surface of Cuban stoicism, I determined, one often hits a vein of dark cynicism as well as overt patronage. “Our tourism is better than ever,” a Cuban merchant with the build of a longshoreman and eyes of a hawk bragged over café-con-leche one morning. “We’re sending as many as 15,000 health-care workers each year to work on contracts in other countries. We’re exporting lots of rum, nickel ore, and cigars. But where is all the money going? The government tells us it is supporting all of our social services, but if that’s true then why aren’t those services improving? We still have the libreta each month.”

The libreta is the baseball card-size ration book issued to all Cuban households. In use for decades, it lists the state-subsidized basic foods allocated to each person or family each month. With it, such staples as rice, sugar, milk, flour, eggs, and cooking oil are purchased at low prices. But without exception, the Cubans I talked to insisted that the allotments did not provide enough to get a person or a family through the month. Even during the Special Period, I was told, the rations never provided enough food to survive. An allotment would rarely last more than 12 days.  This explains the livestock even city families began to raise in their cramped quarters—and the fact that my guide’s grandmother (along with thousands of other women) turned to prostitution for extra income. Even today, I was informed, extra money must be spent, often in the shadowy black market, for various foodstuffs like fresh fish, meat, or vegetables. For basic non-food items, such as toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, and toilet paper, purchases are likely made in scarce CUCs. In addition, things that are imported or electronic or in a fancy package are almost certain to be sold in CUCs.

There is talk of eliminating the libreta, as well as the CUC, but such rumors are as common in Cuba as the moros y cristianos (black beans and white rice) that reliably provide protein and carbohydrates through thick and thin. And even when hearsay turns out to be true, the inevitably skeptic Cuban knows that hardliners are pushing back against change and that reforms that are granted can always be taken away. An experiment with advertising, for instance, was tried some years ago and abruptly ended after criticism that it was making Cuba too much like the Yankee enemy 90 miles to the north.

“Socialism or death,” proclaimed one billboard slogan I encountered each day, adding: “The changes [under Raúl] mean more socialism.” It appears the government must constantly remind its citizens that the revolution was a good thing, a necessary revocation of an overthrown Cuban capitalist government that was riddled with corruption, manipulated by overseas corporations, finessed by the American Mafia, and overly dependent on sugar and other commodity crops.

Within days of arrival, I began to wonder why the Cuban government was so relentless in telling and retelling its story, as if it felt insecure and unjustified about its actions. Members of our group were marched through museum after museum, past monument after monument, and given mini-lectures on the revolution aboard the bus, during walking tours, in the Moncada Barracks, and even on our escorted visit to the Santiago cemetery.

It felt like going back to grade school. Facts, figures, and opinion were drummed into our heads: Fifties-style. Displays included none of the interactive elements so common in the digital age. Instead of touch-screens, we stood before black-and-white photographs and stark artifacts, usually accompanied by long blocks of explanatory text. Instead of moving images and things to touch, we were guided by English-speaking docents and kept our hands at our sides. Remember the days of schoolroom filmstrips and overhead projectors? Even these basic technologies never seemed to arrive in Cuba’s museums. Instead one is treated to displays of guns and knives, photos of martyred soldiers and grisly torture chambers. As a U.S. citizen, it was interesting to see pieces of American spy planes shot down over the island, the enshrined yacht Granma that revolutionaries sailed in from Mexico, and the tank personally manned by Fidel during the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion. But a little military memorabilia and patriotic boosterism goes a long way.

I found myself wondering, “Where are the museums and monuments that celebrate the accomplishments of Cuba since 1959? Where are the boasts about what socialism has done for the average Cuban? Where, for that matter, is the acknowledgment of the major contributions to social and political reform made by Cuban women?” The country seemed not only stuck in a time warp, it seemed to cling to a tale of male-dominated heroism that unfolded long before most Cubans were born.

I increasingly felt the government was naive in expecting that its uncritical near-worship of righteous, macho men like Ché, Fidel, and Raúl in such a ham-handed manner would impress savvy tourists flying in from the modern world of sophisticated marketing, high-tech gadgetry, scandal-plagued politics, and short attention spans. The Cuban authorities appeared almost childlike in their conviction that their antiquated hard-sell of their revolutionary victories to foreigners was really worth the trouble they put themselves—and us—through. Indeed, for many visitors the relentless propaganda may have had the opposite effect, a turn-off for those inclined to be sympathetic with the revolution and its after-effects. Enough with the breast-pounding already.

 

Perhaps I heard a more honest rendering of the Cuban point-of-view one evening as I sat in the bedroom of a family that was putting me up for a few nights in an eastern city. Interrupted from the journal entry I was writing, I overheard visitors enter the house and greet my hosts. A gathering was underway to celebrate the birthday of a six-year-old girl who lived in the home. Maria and the other children were sent to a bedroom to play while the adults slipped into a lively conversation that included the topic of political changes currently afoot. I knew that most Cubans are reluctant to discuss politically sensitive topics with foreigners, even those of us who speak Spanish, so I continued to eavesdrop.

“I feel so frustrated and angry,” Maria’s mother declared early on, her voice a clenched fist. “There is no future in this country for my daughter. She is smart and talented and eager to learn. But, honestly, I can’t see any future for her here; not one that makes the best of what Maria has to offer. I don’t wish for her the life I’ve had.”

After a tense pause, a man’s voice broke the silence.

“Our leaders are old,” he said, sounding resigned and weary. “Soon they will be gone. That’s when there could be some genuine change.”

“I don’t believe it,” came another male voice. “Those guys are going to make sure that their friends stay in power and that the system remains set up to serve them. We all know where the money is going.”

An unseen woman mentioned new, higher taxes being levied on homestays and other private businesses as well as the vague wording of a recent Communist Party policy document stating—menacingly—that the “concentration of property” by individual Cubans “will not be permitted.” The woman argued that the government would only allow private businesses and entrepreneurs to go so far. If they compete too successfully with the state, she predicted, there will be a crackdown. “No one,” she maintained, will be allowed to get too far ahead of anyone else.

“The thing is,” Cristina interrupted. “We’ve been told all our lives that things are changing for the better. And in some ways they have. In many ways we are even wealthier than the Americans, with their high costs for health care and housing and schooling. But if my daughter has to wait 50 years for real change, the kind we all want, well, that’s just too long.”

During my two weeks moving from west to east across the island, I heard variations on this theme: Cuba is falling quickly behind the rest of the world, and the rate of change in the country is so slow that its best minds and hardest workers are increasingly eager to take their chances somewhere else, somewhere they feel more appreciated and better rewarded. Loyalty to country and family is being sorely tested, as it has been for more than 55 years.

“The thing I don’t understand about our people,” Juan confides during that last dinner in Havana, when talk turns to Cuba’s vaunted income equality, “is how many of us don’t seem to see a difference between being a doctor or an engineer or a pharmacist or a scientist and being a trucker or a factory worker or janitor. It takes years of study and work to become a top professional, but a lot of Cubans don’t seem to appreciate this. They’re perfectly fine with professionals being paid the same as plumbers or carpenters or tobacco farmers. But why should a doctor drive an illegal taxi during his off hours in order to make the extra money needed to raise his family? Why must people’s salaries be kept so low that they feel a need to steal items from the workplace in order to sell them on the black market? That doesn’t make sense.” Put another way, concluded Juan, “I love my country, but something is out of whack.”

The national debate underway in Cuba, which has been going on in one form or another since 1959, is whether it is better to stay and make the best of things (perhaps even to be part of making them better), or to leave and make of one’s life something very different. The door swings both ways, too, especially now that travel is less restricted. (Cuban Americans, since Obama became president, are now welcome to make extended and repeated visits to their families in Cuba and to bring almost unlimited gifts of money and consumer goods.)

I learned of Cubans who had moved to the U.S. or Europe or Mexico and returned, so discouraged were they by the high costs of health care and education, the rampant crime and hyper-materialism, the lack of music-laced street life and strong family bonds. Raising a child in Cuba, I was told, is less worrisome for a parent than doing so among the criminal and drug gangs that rule the streets and intimidate ordinary citizens throughout much of Latin America, not to mention the constant temptation to spoil that child with all that is targeted at him or her through media. Or the high levels of drug abuse and obesity.

Yet Cubans haven’t been able to wall themselves off from the market economies and private enterprises their government so loudly condemns. Remittances [said to surpass $2 billion annually] from overseas Cubans provide a huge flow of cash and consumer goods, circumventing the U.S. embargo. Tourists from throughout the capitalist world spend tens of millions of dollars each year on the island. China sends aid from profits it derives on selling to every capitalist country.

Can Cuba stand on its own? In this world, this century, contrary to what Ché, Fidel, and Raúl may have believed in the early 1950s, it obviously cannot. The reality is that it is unable even to feed or fuel itself without outside help. It’s slow climb out of the Special Period came not by fine-tuning its social revolution but by inviting foreigners from “imperialist” nations to enjoy Cuba’s climate, beaches, culture, cigars, rum, and impressive World Heritage sites.

 

As I moved along the narrow spine of Cuba, I felt engulfed in a kind of magical realism. Every frustration seemed balanced by a miracle. Every disappointment was moments away from a sweet serendipity. One night in Baracoa, the easternmost and oldest city in the nation, a drenching afternoon rain drove a group of us to seek shelter in an open-air bar. The kitchen had run out of food and all around us the patrons were drunk. Empty bottles of cheap rum and vodka littered the tables. As our group huddled together in a bid to stay warm and dry, the clientele became increasingly loud and obnoxious. Eager to impress the “money on legs,” they closed in around us. We were magnets for the boisterous borracheros.

I got fed up. Alcohol abuse—unlike drug usage—is widespread in Cuba and hustlers of both genders seem more aggressive toward foreigners when drinking. I left the bar and walked away in the rain, upset that these Cubans had no understanding of the privacy and respect tourists generally crave. Most of us, I believe, choose being left alone over being pestered.

I walked down a dark side street and noticed a crude, handwritten sign: El Museo de la Rusa (The Museum of the Russian Lady). My guidebook had a few sentences about this place and person, a Russian who in the 1940s had made her way to this port city and stayed, making art and running a small hotel and restaurant. Her guests were said to have included American movie star Errol Flynn as well as revolutionary-era Ché and Fidel.

I peered in the glowing window and saw a frail and wizened old man, at least in his 80s, bent over a table and carefully painting landscapes with exaggerated intensity. The room was littered with his folk art, simple and Day-Glo watercolors depicting the local landmarks: a flat-topped mountain, a narrow harbor, a colonial church, a Spanish fort. The anciano never looked up from his brush and I did not want to break his concentration. Stuffed on shelves around the room was inventory of the museo: a Russian mink stole, a diploma issued in Moscow, a woman’s handheld fan, and a portrait of Czar Nicholas.

I stepped away from the window and looked up at the sky, clouds drifting apart now to reveal the Milky Way. This, too, was Cuba. My heart swelled.

Or sank, depending on the day and circumstance. As in every country, there are things that drive me nuts. Take toilets, for example. Even in the best Cuban hotels I stayed in, something related to the toilet was always missing or nonfunctional. This is the sort of thing Cubans must accept as normal yet leaves a visitor scratching his or her head. To begin, there is the widespread Latin American reality that, thanks to a lack of modern sewage processing, only human waste gets flushed. Used toilet paper goes in the handy basket within arm’s reach.

But how to explain the missing toilet seat, the absence of toilet paper, the infrequency of soap, the unreliability of a faucet, the lack of towels—and the probability that the toilet won’t flush, that a float valve is broken, and that there is no door on the bathroom? There is always some combination of these factors to be confronted at any given Cuban toilet, along with the likelihood that a patient and humble woman will be sitting outside, grateful to be paid a coin or two for the privilege of guarding the entry, keeping out the opposite gender, or, if you’re lucky, providing a scrap of toilet paper to clean yourself.

Crazymaking? Not what you’d expect after 20 years of international tourism? Yes, but you get used to it.

 

The magic? The unexpected delights? I would never get used to these. Going to sleep in Trinidad, adrift in its 1830s Spanish-colonial time capsule, with the sound of the bread-seller singing and whistling down the street, announcing his shoulder bag filled with “el pan caliente” (hot bread) or “huevos frescos” (fresh eggs). Awakening at dawn to the clip-clop of horses drawing carts full of fruit and vegetables from the countryside, or carriages full of workers from their homes to their jobs.

More magia: The warm, friendly strangers who mixed refreshing mint-flavored mojito rum cocktails and tolerated my bad Spanish as I tried to keep up with their dropped consonants and swallowed vowels, their rapid cadence and impenetrable slang. The Cubans who, again and again, agreed that the strain between their country and the U.S. was “muy difícil” (very difficult), but that they felt no anger or enmity toward American citizens. “Somos amigos,” they told me: “We are friends.”

The willingness of fellow visitors—many of them northern Europeans who arrive on daily flights from such cities as Amsterdam and Paris—to accommodate Cuba’s shortcomings also was a pleasant surprise. One German summed up her feelings this way: “Here are people who for over 500 years were beaten down—first by the Spanish, then by U.S. corporations and Marines and Mafioso as well as home-grown dictators—and all they really want is to have a little of what most of us take for granted. It’s amazing that Cubans still love people like us, and the Americans, the way they obviously do.”

 And for me there was always the magic of the music. A quartet of old men in baggy clothes lugging a double-bass, guitar, conga, and clave (percussion rhythm sticks) up the cobblestone street, then setting up against a 400-year-old adobe wall to earn enough money to share a warm meal together. At the Casa de la Trova in Santiago one evening, Cuban passersby lined up with me against a metal grating to peer inside and watch something extraordinary: a loose pick-up band that boasted a clarinet, sousaphone, trumpet, violin, guitar, clave, maracas, and conga—a rumpled seventeen-to-seventy-something-aged constellation of irrepressible talent and creative energy that spilled Cuban classics out the window into the calle and prompted uninhibited men and women to dance spontaneously on the curb. I was back in heaven.

 

 It is near the end of my trip, atop a hill in a city I choose not to name. I am perched on a wall and contentedly observing the streets and their people merge into purple twilight. A man’s voice comes from a bench twenty feet away and I am startled to realize that it is addressing me.

 “Suisse?” he asks. Switzerland?

 I shake my head, “No, señor.”

 “España?” Spain.

 “Inglaterra?” England.

 “Alemania?” Germany.

 Three more shakes of my head.

 “Entonces, que pais?” Well then, what country?

 I tell him, in Spanish, that I am from the U.S. and the inquiring middle-aged man, walking purposefully toward me now, switches into heavily accented and slangy English.

 “Are you crazy, man? What the hell are you doing here?”

 I tell him that I am simply admiring the view and that I came to observe for myself the system my country’s government dislikes so much.

 “But the system here is shitty,” he declares. “It is for shit.”

 I’m taken aback by his bluntness. The man sits down uninvited next to me. A car and a pedestrian have gone by, but otherwise this street has been deserted during the 10 minutes I’ve been sitting beside it.

 “Do you have five minutes?” He holds up and spreads the five fingers of his left hand. “Let me tell you my story. I can tell it to you in just five minutes.”

 I answer in Spanish, but he holds up a palm to shush me.

 “Speak English!”

 I start to wonder if he is the crazy one here. The stranger’s clothes—a navy-blue sports coat over a pin-striped dress shirt, pleated khaki slacks above black leather shoes—appear worn and shabby as I examine them more closely. There is a fierceness in his bloodshot eyes, a desperateness to his tone, and the faint smell of liquor on his breath.

 I agree to hear his story. He gestures for me to cross the street, where we sit on a low brick wall beside a manicured garden. The man looks furtively from side to side, then into my eyes. He wants to know where I am from in the U.S. and what I do for a living. He asks how long I am staying in this city and when I will return to America. His head swings around like an owl, making sure there is no one in earshot.

 “No wires?” he asks, studying my torso. “No recording? You’re not CIA are you?”

 I almost laugh, but can tell his paranoia is genuine.

 “No, sir, I am simply a tourist traveling through Cuba.”

 This seems to satisfy the man, who now launches into his story. He is fiftyish and lean, with a light complexion and blue eyes that suggest Spanish heritage. The fellow hasn’t shaved in a few days and I notice a distinct popping sound whenever he stops talking, as if he is clenching his teeth so tightly that his jawbone is crunching against his skull. Perhaps there are metal plates embedded that click together. He pauses twice as he speaks to pull an unlabeled bottle of rum from his pants pocket and take a swig.

 It takes a while for him to tell the tale, and because of the content I won’t relate the details. His is a story of arrest and imprisonment by the Cuban government, allegedly for speaking truth to power. A man once in an important profession and position exalted enough, so he claims, to have personal meetings with Fidel Castro. Sufficiently hefty was the man’s intellect that he was sent to study in Canada and Russia during the Seventies and Eighties.

 “I didn’t give El Barbudo the answers he wanted,” the stranger tells me. “But I cannot lie. And I will not lie. I told him what was true.”

 The result? A series of beatings and detention for over a year without trial, and indefinite blacklisting that prevents him from holding any sort of job.

 “I’m reduced to this,” he laughs. “Living day to day, asking people for money just to eat—and drink. Today, unfortunately, I also spent the last of my money on a girl.” As if on cue, a pretty woman walks by and he makes the loud kissing sound that many Cuban men make to express their unsolicited appreciation of an attractive female.

 But the man does not ask me for money. At least not yet. First he asks me to promise him that I will contact an old friend, “a mentor,” who holds a prominent position in a large U.S. city. He wants the man to know that he is still alive. Nothing more. I see no reason not to agree. The man disappears into a nearby building and writes something on the back of the passport photocopy I carry with me.

 “Why don’t you leave Cuba?” I ask. “It sounds like they’d be glad to be rid of you.”

 “Of course, they’d love for me to go.”

 “Then why stay? You’ve lived in Canada, the U.S., Russia. I have heard you speak three languages already.”

 “Because I have a son here. And, believe it or not, he’s in the same profession I was in. If I go away I know I’ll probably never see him again. I’m not ready for that.”

 More than five minutes have passed. Nearly thirty. It’s getting dark and the situation is making me nervous. The man is increasingly edgy and has begun to repeat himself: “What is your name?” he asks. “Where are you from?” he wants to know again. “Will you deliver this message?” And whenever I lapse into Spanish he sternly corrects me: “Speak English.” And then there are the long pulls on the bottle of rum.

 I explain that I must leave now in order to meet my companions for dinner. This is half true. We are meeting, but not another 90 minutes.

 “Can you spare something so that I can eat?”

 “Sure.” I dig into my pocket and hand him 5 CUCs. He sees that I have more money but tell him I must keep it to pay for my own next meal.

 I stand up and shake the man’s extended hand. It is calloused and dirty from living on the street. He tells me he spends most of his days seated on a nearby park bench. By now he has told me his full name. It’s written below that of his mentor, along with the latter’s U.S. affiliation. As we part company, the man urges me to make the contact he has requested. He wants to know when I will do that.

 “Next week,” I say. “When I am back home.”

 I get a kiss on both cheeks, Cuba-style, and a warm abrazo for good measure.

 “Buen viaje,” he shouts. Good journey.

 “Buena suerte con todo,” I yell over my shoulder. “Good luck with everything.”

 “Speak English!” he orders me one last time, flashing a mischievous smile.

 

 I turn over the sequence of events in my mind as I walk back to my homestay. The man’s story is believable and he seemed sincere, albeit mentally unstable. Yet the whole transaction could be a variation on the pervasive Cuban hustle. The place he confronted me is near a museum frequented by foreigners. Perhaps he tells this story several times each day, collecting a few CUCs each time. It could be a clever ruse by a down-and-out English-speaker.

 Six days later, having successfully re-entered the U.S. via Mexico, I look up the names of the Cuban and his overseas mentor on the Internet. They both check out. The mentor is for real, but whether he knows the fellow I met cannot be determined without direct contact. The Cuban’s story is harder to verify, but the bits of information that I glean in Spanish and English make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Maybe yes, maybe no. I find a Facebook page where another foreign tourist has summarized a similar meeting with the man in Cuba who wants to get a message to the same alleged mentor. When I hear from the person in New York, will he tell me that this is all a game, an elaborate moneymaking scheme, and that he is tired of being an unwitting participant? Or will everything I’ve been told turn out to be accurate? In either case, I almost don’t want to know.

 Upon my return to the U.S., via Facebook, I exchange a couple of messages with Juan, mentioning some of the observations I’ve made in this essay. Six months later, I send a birthday greeting on Juan’s Facebook page. It never gets posted. The only conclusion I can draw, since birthday wishes from our mutual friends in Europe are shown that day, is that the Cuban government has gotten wise to me—and decided to censor my correspondence with Juan.

 

 Cuba, I am convinced, is a land of light and dark, clarity and paradox, acceptance and fear, real and surreal. Everything and anything one can say about this evolving country is probably true.  I wonder, having returned to my well-ordered small American city and its disconcerting overabundance, is that the case everywhere? Is each country a mere variation on the disparate human themes that dwell within each person who lives there?

Perhaps, having waited this long, you want to know my best tip on Cuba. It is simply this. Go and see and judge it and its considerable challenges for yourself. I trust you’ll find the nation is neither Marxist utopia nor oppressive dictatorship. Instead it is full of all the grittiness and passions of everyday life, embroidered by emerald mountains and braided by sultry rivers, brimming with people of every color who sing and dance and tell amazing stories—and who, like the rest of us, present baffling contradictions at every turn.

 

 

© Content copyright 2015 by Richard Mahler. All rights reserved.

© Content copyright 2015 by Richard Mahler. All rights reserved.