Eyewitness Cuba Crónica
“One trip is not enough to begin to understand life on the island.”
1. La Cenicienta
Last night in Havana I met a girl with a Cinderella tattoo. We were at a nightclub on the edge of Miramar. She was young, l egs thin and long like newly planted palms. She wore her hair in a tight bun, and a black spandex dress that barely covered her ass. She was with a pale European guy who looked to be in his mid-fifties, still wearing the laminated name tag from the conference he attended earlier that day. They sat in the next booth over, barely speaking, but the guy’s hand never left the girl’s bare thigh. Every now and then he’d grab her jaw and pull her face to his for a kiss. The strobe lights flashed on her bicep and I noticed Disney’s most famous servant-turned-princess. She caught me staring so I asked if I could have a closer look. Her Cinderella glowed in the white light of the nightclub beams—the blonde beauty in the blue dress the mice made for her to wear to the ball, crown on her head, jewels on her ears.
The girl told me her name was Ana and that Cinderella was her favorite story.
“Every girl is a Cenicienta,” she said.
It was after three in the morning on a Monday night. Ana told me she was eighteen and didn’t go to school anymore. When she and her date left the club a short while later, she waved and blew me a kiss goodbye.
Pablo’s daughter is happy because the government is painting her apartment building’s façade and it won’t cost her a single chavito. She lives off Quinta Avenida, along the route Obama’s motorcade will take on its way to the US ambassador’s house in El Laguito, where I hear they’re also redoing all the electricity in the neighborhood, erecting street lights where there have never been any, in preparation for the president’s security detail.
Prisoners on work release line Avenida Paseo, patching cracks in concrete walls, trimming grass, painting sidewalks, and filling potholes. The Estadio Latinoamericano, where Obama will take in a game of béisbol, glistening with fresh paint, has never been a brighter blue.
When the Pope came last September, Avenida Bolívar, which locals insist on calling by its former name, Reina, and the Malecón, previously in ruins for decades, were quickly made over with pastel lacquers and a paved road, but if you were to take a look beyond any of those doorways you would see that the disrepair, the broken stairwells, the buildings without power and water, remain.
“The government knows where to direct the eye,” I have been told time and again on my trips to Cuba these last few years. “The Pope, Obama, Maduro, whoever , will only see what the government wants them to see.”
3. ¿Quién eres? ¿De dónde vienes?
The first time I land in Cuba, in January of 2013, I am detained by officials at José Martí Airport for over an hour of questioning and bag-searching. For the next year and a half, all my subsequent arrivals follow the same routine; police agents wait for me to descend the stairs from the plane, or pull me aside while I wait at customs and ask me what I’m doing here. They will repeat the same line of questioning for an hour, sometimes two or three, searching my luggage and examining my travel documents and itinerary. I am not Cuban or Cuban-American, yet I speak fluent Spanish. The US government gives me permission to fly on direct flights from Miami—which, one young police agent informs me, makes me highly suspicious.
“Why does your government keep sending you here?”
I explain that I’m a writer here to do research for a novel, and that I’ve found that one trip—or even two or three or four—is not enough to begin to understand life on the island.
“But Americans write about Cuba all the time without setting foot on our soil.”
“I know,” I say. “That’s the point.”
He smiles, nodding. “I hope you’ll write the truth about what you see.”
4. Todo por la Revolución
I cross paths with few Americans in the hotels and streets of Havana. The crowds of tourists walking the plazas of Old Havana, buying Che Guevara T-shirts and painted maracas. The clusters that break away into the narrow alleys of Centro Habana or wide roads of Vedado—Italians, Spaniards, and Germans. The ones who occupy beach villas in Guanabo or fill the all-inclusive resorts of Varadero—Italian, Russian, or British. Sometimes I see Americans in safari shorts, overloaded with camera straps and paper maps standing in front of monuments, photographing street musicians singing “Chan Chan” on loop, or photographing the jarring visual oddities of Communist billboards and propaganda scrawled along city walls — ¡todo por la revolución!, ¡más socialismo! — and the crumbling paint-stripped buildings, peering through open doorways to see the ramshackle electrical wiring and water tanks within, all while fanning themselves in the heat. I see some of them offering candy from their pockets to children on the street, or smoking cigars on park benches before piling back onto enormous tour buses that wait for them along the avenue.
Behind the lobby of the Hotel Florida on Calle Obispo, I find a dozen people hoping for a turn on one of three ancient computers running on dial-up modems at ten dollars an hour. While waiting to send an email on one of these relics, a pair of French university students strike up a conversation with me. They tell me they like to come to Cuba because here they feel like porcelain goddesses. In Europe, they say they’re seen as homely, plain, and not at all special. They both have Cuban boyfriends they met at a reggaeton concert at La Casa de la Música. One girl has postponed her return to France indefinitely.
“I feel free in Cuba,” she says, showing me a tattoo on her ankle she got just yesterday. Her Cuban boyfriend has the same one. A tiny black star.
“For Che,” she says. “For the Revolution.”
5. La otra orilla
I am careful about who I tell about my trips to Cuba. In South Florida, there are deep wounds. I understand this. I respect it and I empathize. The pain runs several generations deep, without justice and without end.
I live by the ocean and spend time nearly every day staring across the watery horizon. The beach is where I come to work out problems in both my life and in my work. There are times when that empty blue terrain gives way to rafters trying to reach our shores. The balseros tell their stories to the evening news. How many days they spent at sea, forsaking life in Cuba for a chance at touching land in Florida.
In Cuba, I sit on the Malecón and watch, from the other side of the Florida Straits, how the current always drags back to the sharp edges at the base at the sea wall. Rain and wind will bring the water over the concrete barrier, across the avenue, even into the ground floor dwellings of people living on its periphery.
I remember something a professor friend at ISA, Havana’s prestigious art school, once told me: “This island is a desert, but somehow I have always felt we are drowning.”
6. La ciudad de los muertos
I meet two people in two days who have recently had the remains of close family members robbed from the cemetery. I am with one, Sandra, when her husband returns home covered in dust from the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana’s famous necropolis, with a few small bones he managed to salvage from Sandra’s brother’s tomb, which the vandals—who he believes to be Paleros hoping to use the remains for rituals—did not take with them.
I ask how thieves can get over those high walls, through those heavy gates, past the guards, and manage to pull a concrete slab off a grave, open a sarcophagus, and strip it of its contents.
Sandra shrugs, her face sad but maybe too exhausted for tears.
“Bribes. Paying someone off. The usual.”
Later, my friend Jorge, who drives un almendrón, a shared taxi, takes me to the cemetery. It’s beautiful, with grand mausoleums, elaborate marble tombs, dripping in flowers and patrolled by tourists and guards alike. Jorge drives me through the cemetery’s winding passageways looking for the famous tomb of a woman who was buried with her dog, a statue of her canine companion erected at her feet. We ask a patrolling guard for directions.
“Take me in your car and I’ll show you myself,” he offers, hopping into the backseat of Jorge’s 1952 Chevy. He notices my accent is not Cuban. “So you’re a foreigner. I love foreigners. Let me see your entrance tickets.”
Jorge and I exchange glances while the guard watches us. I search my handbag and find the tickets.
The guard tells Jorge to stop the car; the tomb we’re looking for is just there. He gets out and leans on my window frame. I hand him our tickets and he slips them in his pocket.
“I’m still waiting to see your tickets.”
“I just gave them to you.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Come on, compañero, don’t embarrass our country like this,” says, Jorge. “Have some respect.”
The guard shakes his head. “Stealing from the state is a crime.”
I give the guard some money and he lets us go.
Later, Jorge and I visit his mother at her home in Vedado and tell her the story. “That’s why I don’t go there anymore,” she says, even though her youngest son is buried in that cemetery. He died at thirteen, after some older kids convinced him to jump on the back of a truck and he fell off. He died at the children’s hospital, the one where people could leave babies anonymously in a small chute and nuns would take them in and raise them, giving them the last name Valdes. If you ask, many will say there are no more orphans in Cuba: Fidel is everyone’s father now.
People laugh about him now, give him nicknames like “The Mummy,” but I meet many who still lower their voices to utter his name, aware that there may be ears on the other side of every thin wall. More often than not, to evoke El Líder, they’ll simply touch their chin as if stroking an invisible beard.
Jorge’s mother says there was a time when they all believed , with passion, but now says the Cuban “doble moral” has taken over—patriots in public, dissidents in their hearts. As she describes this, the electricity goes out, turning her living room dark.
Yes, everyone can read, says my friend Juan. But who can afford to buy a book?
Yes, everyone can write, but few can buy paper or even pens, and we can’t write our own thoughts or opinions without getting threatened with prison.
Yes, there is a food for everyone, but the markets are always depleted.
Yes, healthcare is free. But there is no medicine. Not even vitamins.
Yes, education is for everyone, but they only teach you what they want you to know.
You want to say there is progress , because we no longer need an exit permit to leave the country, but now the burden falls on individual embassies to reject us rather than the State.
Yes, a person can now buy and sell property, but tell me, amiga, with what money?
8. Por el campo
I’m at a farm in Viñales, four hours from Havana, where we’ve stopped for lunch among the tobacco plantations. A young woman in her late twenties, who works in the kitchen, watches me pet one of the farm cats. She tells me she doesn’t like cats; she won’t even touch them. They carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans.
“What kind of diseases?” I ask.
“Well,” she begins, “I sat on the sofa where my grandparents’ cat slept and I got a very serious illness in my vagina called gonorrhea. I might not be able to have children now. Have you heard of it? You should look it up when you go back to your country. Gon-orr-hea .”
She sounds out the syllables slowly to make sure I understand.
“Are you sure you didn’t get it some other way?”
“You can only get gonorrhea from cats. The doctor told me so. It’s a very dangerous sickness. It can ruin a woman from the inside out.”
9. El puerto
We drive out to Mariel, to the bay of the great boatlift and exodus, now overloaded with cranes and cargo ships. The port is being expanded to compete with the Panama Canal. We take some side roads on the way back, through small barren towns where there are few hints of the revolution beyond the occasional reliable propaganda—a mural of Che, or one of Fidel’s slogans. Out here, children in school uniforms walk country roads, or catch rides on horse-drawn wagons, while the homes, modest clapboard shacks, give shade to elderly people sitting in the doorways, catching a breeze coming in from the campo.
An architect friend once told me this is Cuba—the very young and the very old, and a great chasm in between; a disappeared middle generation that’s gone to look for opportunity elsewhere, never to return.
“Cuba is at the end of something,” he also said. “The experiment is coming to its logical conclusion. Now we are at the beginning of something else.”
Faded billboards of the Cuban Five held in American prisons—“los heroes”—line highways and avenues leading back into the city.
Volverán , the billboards promise.
My friend Jorge has heard there may be a prisoner swap in the works.
“Remember, Raúl is still holding onto that old American,” he says. “They’re planning something.”
10. La pesca milagrosa
I’m back in Cuba a few weeks after the announcement made by President Obama and Raúl Castro on December 17th to restore relations between the United States and Cuba. For the first time in two years, instead of being detained at the airport, I’m welcomed at customs with a smile and a “Bienvenido a Cuba.” No bag search. No questions.
The Cuban Five have been released. Alan Gross has gone home to the United States. In the US, the feeling is that we are at the start of a new era, but one of the only changes my friends in Cuba have noticed so far is that on the feast day of San Lázaro, when Obama and Castro simultaneously came over the airwaves, fish arrived in the public markets for the first time in over a year, bland farmed fish imported from abroad, since the local catch and lobsters are generally only for tourists.
“¡La pesca milagrosa!” the famous comic, Pánfilo, joked on his evening television show, likening the event to Jesus’ miraculous catch in the Sea of Galilee.
When I ask my Cuban friends if they think the new diplomatic relations will lead to improvements in their way of life on the island, I’m mostly met with skepticism.
“Nothing ever changes in Cuba. We are already half a century into this disaster. Things only go from bad, to worse, to less bad,” says my friend Camilo, who works in a paper factory. “Nobody has time for hope when we’re just trying to figure out what we’re going to eat each night.” He makes the equivalent of thirty dollars a month, and is nearing retirement age.
A parking attendant near Parque Central starts dancing at the mention of President Obama. “I’m eighty years old!” he laughs. “What do I care if anything changes?”
The truth is many Cubans are wary of an American brand of freedom, the vulnerability it brings, and the crime that the United States is so famous for. Here, there are no guns here and virtually no delinquency beyond petty theft. A single stabbing like one that took place near the Malecón a few months ago, over the love of a woman, resonates for months.
My friend Enrique, a waiter at one of the new restaurants on the newly restored Plaza Vieja in Old Havana where surveillance cameras dangle above street corners and stray dogs wear collars with photo IDs, is happy the changes in relations will bring more tourists to Havana and he’ll get to practice the English he taught himself from a dictionary and from his neighbor’s illegal internet connection.
“I’ve been on Wikipedia,” he whispers, as if we’re discussing something illicit.
He starts to recite all the American capitals. He knows them all .
Among the moneyed Cubans, foreigners, and expats dining and having cocktails in Havana’s posh paladares and bars, there are murmurs of how the cambios will create an increase in unfavorable tourism and financial investors. Nobody wants to see Cuba turn into Puerto Rico, Ho Chi Minh City, Panama City, or even Miami. There is the threat of Havana, with all its decrepit charm, being “ruined” by foreign rather than internal consumption.
Conversations like these walk a fine line. Nobody wants to admit what they love about Cuba is its relative isolation, with a price paid by its average citizens, not by those who live cushy lives in the mansions of Miramar or Siboney, who shop at diplomercados that sell imported food rather than bodegas or food dispensaries; who can spend money accumulated in foreign bank accounts, and who can buy a ticket out of this country any time they want.
During the Havana Biennal, a friend takes me to see a jazz concert in the lounge at the Riviera Hotel, at one time owned by the mobster Meyer Lansky. We sit in chairs arranged around the center of the room, where world class musicians play to an intimate group, and when the electricity goes out, leaving us all in blackness, the band continues to play. A few mobile phones light up, casting a faint light on the musicians. I want to take photos, to film it, to preserve this night, but instead I let the enchantment just be—the music, the darkness, art and beauty that can exist perhaps only in a space like this one.
On a warm September morning, long before dawn, Jorge and I walk up Avenida Paseo to la Plaza de la Revolución to catch the Pope’s mass. But police have blocked the usual route, so we have to take a two-hour detour along Zanja to Boyeros. We arrive at the Plaza at sunrise, our feet raw from the long walk, among hundreds of thousands of other spectators from all over the world, journalists, curious tourists, among Cubans, while the outlined portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos look on from the ministry buildings, and José Martí looks on from his memorial on the other side. Jorge says if there is one thing Cubans know how to do well, it’s how to assemble en masse, especially at the Plaza where Fidel gave his famous, seemingly endless speeches. In those days, attendance was mandatory, and one would be bussed here from the workplace. People in the crowd tell me they are here to give thanks. “The Pope started this whole thing. The Pope told Obama and Castro to get off their asses and make something happen.” “The reconciliation was his vision,” they say. “No one else’s.”
The former US Interests Section is now a functioning embassy. The American flag hangs high out front, steps from the monument to José Martí holding the child Elián González and the Anti-Imperialist Plaza. I’m with a friend at a toque de Santo in Centro Habana. Musicians pound batás, chant Yoruba songs of alabanza for the orishas. There is dancing, feverish joy, and smiles, even as a thin veil of rain falls over us. We take refuge in a small, crowded tavern and warm up with rum. A few tables away, a local man wears shorts patterned with the American flag. Beside us, another man from the neighborhood stands by the bar sipping a Bucanero, dressed in a T-shirt silkscreened with the face of President Obama.
13. El Wiffy
Wi-Fi hotspots have popped up all over Havana, in public parks, along street corners from La Rampa up to the Monaco theatre in La Víbora. You can identify them by hordes who gather to lean over their devices, hoping for a connection, even deep into the night. They pay two to four dollars and hour for the connection; much less than the ten dollars it cost just a year ago, but still a luxury for someone who earns 300 pesos (twelve dollars) a month, like an economist I know, who gave up her career at a bank to drive a taxi where she can earn up that much or more in a single day.
Cuba is catering to tourism now more than ever. Many of my Cuban friends tell me that the price of food in the markets has increased, partly due to demands from all the restaurants that feed foreigners. Nutrition has become even less affordable even for those with income to pay beyond the libreta de abastecimiento: a dollar for a small head of broccoli, for three bruised tomatoes, or for a single carrot. A crate of mangos sold by a guajiro for 100 pesos in the campo is later sold by intermediaries in the city for 700.
“Food still runs out at the start of the month. They plan it that way,” says Jorge’s mom. “And when Obama comes, he won’t see any long lines outside the markets or dispensaries because the food is already gone.”
In the three years I’ve been traveling to Cuba, potatoes have only been available for tourists. The libreta food rationing still allows for only five eggs a month per person, no milk for anyone over age seven, and the few ounces of chicken each person is entitled to a month are bone-heavy thighs.
14. La Habana Vieja, La Habana Nueva
I watch one of Jorge’s friends, a cardiologist, light a candle to La Virgen de la Caridad, Cuba’s patron saint, in her namesake church in Barrio Chino, so that he’ll be sent on a medical mission to Angola and he can finally defect. In the meantime, he’s driving a shared taxi, like so many others, because it pays more than medicine.
I overhear a group of Americans nearby in a hotel lobby where I’ve logged onto the Wi-Fi plan their bar crawl for the day, touring Havana by way of mojitos. They leave the hotel in a Gran-Car, one of the shined-up convertible 1950s American Chryslers and Fords you see in postcards and photos. For them, Havana is a paradise of nostalgia. They want a piece of it before it changes, not realizing that their very presence here is precisely the change they are trying to avoid.
At the harbor, just below El Morro and La Cabaña, cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers are now docked. There are more private restaurants and small businesses like nail salons and specialty gift shops popping up around the city, but there is talk that such operating permits are given to those with government connections, and that if one is lucky enough to become a business owner, there has to be a catch.
A few days ahead of President Obama’s visit to Havana, a bishop takes time out of the Mass in the cathedral to pray for the American president.
Across the bay, in Regla, a Santera offering blessings to passersby pauses to invoke light from the orishas for “nuestro amigo, Obama.”
“Where is Fidel in all this?” Jorge says with a grin. “If he’s not already dead, he probably wishes he was.”
Cuban exiles I know back in the United States are making plans to travel to the island for the first time in decades and some are even repatriating, reclaiming their Cuban citizenship, so they can buy property here for themselves or for their relatives. There are fashion models and celebrities posing for magazine shoots along the tight roads of Old Havana. The casts and crews of American TV shows and film productions hole up in the Meliá Cohiba. The Rolling Stones are on their way, and the next Chanel fashion show will take place in Havana in May, with a rumored fifteen million dollar budget for a six-minute production.
Despite the changes, and the visit from the American president, the massive billboard still hangs outside José Martí Airport, one of the first things Americans see upon arrival in Havana.
In enormous letters, BLOQUEO —the Cuban word for embargo.
Below, in smaller print: The longest genocide in history.
The final O in BLOQUEO in the shape of a noose. Inside the noose, the island of Cuba.