Viva la evoluci

From Havana to Santiago, Cuba steps into the next millennium with hope for a new kind of revolution.


Rachel Louise Snyder
February 24, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Here is the truth: Before I came to Cuba I loved
Fidel Castro. And still do, a little, in the way
that you love an ex who once seemed so right for
you. It's not a romantic, yearning-in-the-loins
love, but an idealistic respect for someone with
the gall to think he could change an entire country
and the ability to succeed.

It wasn't falling in love with Castro or Cuba that
surprised me; I knew before I left Chicago that it
would be a place that would speak to me, a place
where passion wouldn't be a thing defined only in
bedrooms and whispers, but a place where I'd get my
color back, make my vision a little sharper. I need
that every now and then. Like Samson and his hair,
travel's where I get my strength. What did surprise
me was how separate Castro came to be when I spoke
of Cuba, like understanding that Vietnam is so much
more than the setting of America's biggest 20th
century blunder.

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The latest U.S.-Castro muscling over Elian
Gonzalez is a case in point, the best
example of what Fidel's done for Cubans. U.S. media
shows the 50,000-plus demonstrators in Havana to
bring Elian back home. Indeed, billboards
and posters with a confused looking Elian
punctuate the city declaring Devuelvan a
Elian a su Patria -- return Elian to
his native country. Thousands of similar T-shirts
are passed out. It is government-perpetuated,
declares the United States, which is meant to
somehow render it devoid of meaning.

Indeed, like many events in Cuba, the Elian
protests appear to be, in part, cause for
socializing as much as anything. At one of the
events I saw, groups of blue-clad security men sat
amid the protesters, chatting and eating peanuts
from funneled pieces of paper. The speakers evoked
rage at the situation, but wandering through the
masses felt a lot like a walk through a summer
festival -- not because conviction here was less
than total, but because this is Cuba.

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So begins the new Revolution. Each Cuban with
dollars is a budding entrepreneur, an independent
capitalist. Throughout our first week here, Ann and
I commented on those strange gas fumes emitted from
each car we rode in. Then we learned that the
employees of state-run gas stations skim off the
top and resell the gas on the black market for
U.S. dollars, which the car owners, or renters,
keep to siphon from small jugs in their trunks.
Same with cigars. And soap. And food. And shoes.
Anything for sale anywhere -- tools, stereos,
cassettes, refrigerators -- nearly all is available
on the street to those with dollars. And since
rations only cover the average Cuban for two weeks,
such grand-scale thievery is tolerated. Franqui,
our sputtering Subaru, initiated us into this
system.

This is not to suggest Cuba is a rich economy --
there isn't all that much to buy. I searched in
Havana for days for a banana and finally gave up.
Bottled water, very expensive in Cuba, is more
prevalent in remote areas of Tibet and Cambodia.
Public transportation is the worst I've seen
anywhere. Cars are few and buses fewer.

There is a free farmer's market now, following
Castro's reforms in 1994, but it is expensive even
for foreigners. Beef is saved for tourists and
pregnant women. Each Cuban gets roughly six eggs a
month, but omelets are plentiful in hotels. Toilet
paper is rare, even in hotels, and most households
use newspaper or magazines. Taxis have become the
domain of those wealthy enough to own cars. To get
a ride, one need only wave an arm and Juan Q.
Public will pull over and take you anywhere within
the city for a few dollars, offered inside the car
while the police look the other way. One man in
Cienfuegos even took us on his horse and buggy down
a labyrinth of side streets to avoid the police.
For $2.

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My Cuban friend Leonardo, who spent time in the
States, told me that he did not live in so
repressive a society as I might think. We were
driving to Havana from the new Josi Marti airport,
built last year. I did not answer, but sat smugly
in the back of his gasoline-smelling car and
thought he didn't really know oppression because
he'd never really known freedom. But slowly, over
the course of my weeks in Cuba, I began to see that
it was I who'd been wrong.

It began with Leonardo telling us about when he was
a ballot counter during the 1996 elections. (Since
1992, elections have been held every two years for
the General Assembly, which includes Castro.) When
he saw people write "Down with Fidel" on ballot
cards and suffer no consequences, he virtually
stopped living in fear -- overnight. There are four
daily papers in Cuba, he said, and it is up to
journalists to exercise freedom of
speech, though what sorts of pressures they may
feel he couldn't speculate. But freedom of speech
-- like station attendants selling gasoline, farmers owning land and
families who turn their living rooms into
restaurants and their bedrooms into guest housing
-- is the foundation of this new revolution. Tiny
steps toward capitalism.

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We had decided to avoid Franqui's flat tire until
the morning and though the lugnuts gave us quite a
challenge, the parking attendant's son and neighbor
replaced the old tire with the spare in no time. We
gave them a few dollars, thanked them profusely
and, at Ann's wise urging, drove back to the
Transtur mechanics to have our spare patched up.

Happily, it seemed they had little to do until our
arrival with Franqui. While they fixed the
spare, we explained about the gas gauge being
broken and they took to fixing that, too. Then they
fixed a missing part on the door panel. Then they
cleaned the windows. And when we asked if Franqui
could make it to Santiago they all smiled and said:
No problema. Several hours later we were on our way
again, this time absolutely confident that we had
treated Franqui well and would be duly rewarded
with faithful service hereafter.

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The loud POP came halfway between Trinidad and
Camaguey, amid soft fields of sugar cane with the
Escambray mountain range behind us and palm trees
punctuating the fields. My heart raced remembering
the difficult lug nuts of the morning. This was no
mere flat. A 4-inch slice through the tire exposed
the metal threads once holding it
together.

There wasn't a car in sight. I said a silent prayer,
jumped on the tire iron and miraculously the
lugnuts budged. We managed to change the tire -- me
thanking Ann for forcing us to get that spare fixed
-- and drove to a shop in Bayamo at the foot of the
Sierra Maestra mountain range to buy a spare. The
shop, of course, was a man with four tools and a
sign hanging outside his house. When it was
determined that no spare could be found in the
whole town, nor any surrounding towns, nor probably
the whole eastern portion of the island, the man
sewed the wrecked tire together with plastic
thread, ironing sheets of rubber over the inside
and eventually salvaging the unsalvageable. This,
as much as anything, symbolizes the unwavering
fortitude of four decades with Fidel and cast.

Cuba is no Utopia, certainly, and daily we were
reminded of the dichotomies inherent in the country. Money
does not hold the power that it does in the United
States since it cannot always purchase what you
need. One man told me he'd been offered U.S.
$40,000 for his house by a Dutch man, but he'd
turned it down. "What would I do with that money?"
he'd said. "Houses are harder to get than money."
He'd seen the wealth in the United States. He'd
seen all that money could buy, all that he lives
without. But then he'd seen the poverty in Haiti
and Jamaica. "They eat garbage," he said. "They
live like dogs."

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Tourism, of course, is Cuba's main economy. And for
the socially conscious traveler, Cuba is one place
where your dollars can go directly into the hands
of the people and not the government. This happens
when tourists avoid large hotels, that are
visible at night because they are in the part of
town with the most electricity. In fact, if you
stand in La Cabana, the old Spanish fortress across
the bay from Havana where Che Guevara set up shop
after the '59 triumph, you can chart the tourist
areas of town -- they are the sections with the
most light. The rest of Havana is dark and still.

But this new Revolution is slower in the
countryside. In the week we drove Franqui through
the island, it took us several days to realize that
the posters and billboards with Elian's
visage began to disappear, as did many of the Cuban
flags hanging from windows, and posters of Camilo
Cienfuegos began to replace those of Fidel. Occasionally the
old "Socialism or Death" slogans appeared on walls,
though they had been virtually erased from Havana,
and the hustlers that Havana police strive to keep
away from tourists seemed to multiply tenfold in
Trinidad and Camaguey.

Halfway through the drive to Santiago I discovered that
instead of being fixed, Franqui's gas gauge was now
stuck on full. I began counting kilometers.

The equation between what you think you know and
what you come to learn in Cuba never evens out.
There is always more to discover because the rules
are liquid; what you read rarely matches what you
see. Property, for example. Cubans are not allowed
to own their own houses -- on paper, at least. But
if they want to buy, say, the roof from a man in a
one-story house, they can build up from there,
someday having a roof of their own to sell. One
large three-bedroom apartment we visited in
Santiago had cost U.S. $7,500 to build with
materials all purchased one by one on the black
market. This week, a toilet. Next month, maybe a
sink. It's the ratio of available capital to
available material, and the laws of supply and
demand are not applicable in Cuba. Yet.

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The man who fixed our tire in Bayamo ordered us to
toss the thing immediately upon arriving in
Santiago. After three hours at the shop, we were on
our way with 74 miles to go. I drove gingerly
over potholes and train tracks, white-knuckling the
steering wheel and imagining how we'd get Franqui
through the mountains and into Santiago if another
tire blew.

When we finally drove into the city after sundown,
our hearts melted with relief and we fell
immediately in love with Santiago's winding streets
and hills, which reminded us of San Francisco. We
pulled up to a guest house that had been
recommended and were greeted enthusiastically in
English by a young woman who seemed to come
factory-made with a smile. We left the car out
front temporarily, with the hazards on. Relaxing
for a moment in the open courtyard of her house,
Ann and I grinned at each other. We all -- even
Franqui -- had made it, had reached a kind of
promised land.

"Better not leave Franqui out there," I told Ann,
"with the keys inside."

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Her face dropped. Turned white. "The keys?" she
said.

Indeed. I'd left them in the car. She'd locked it.
And there it stood, flashers going like
admonishments that we would never be free of
Franqui's spirit. The woman in the guest house
smiled nervously, telling us perhaps her husband
could help if he got home soon. We shook our heads
at our misfortune. How could the gods betray us so?

A man in a car happened by and greeted us;
our new hostess told him briefly of our plight,
asking if he could possibly help. He nodded at the
car, studied it for a moment, then plucked his own
car keys from his pocket, stuck one in Franqui's
single keyhole and voil`, the car was
unlocked. "SOY CUBA!" we shouted in unison, I am
Cuba! Franqui would not conquer us!

Most Cubans agree that changes are needed for
survival -- 1993 was an awful year, with people
starving in the streets after the fall of Russia.
But things are better now. More goods are being
bought and sold and everyone has a home. Indeed,
wandering the night streets of Havana, Cienfuegos,
Camaguey, Trinidad and Santiago, I came across only
one homeless person. Too many changes at once will
bring on a collapse like in Russia, many fear. And
though Fidel waves these as perpetual banners, free
health care and education are banners worth
waving.

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If there is one thing that unites Cubans, beyond
Elian fervor, it is a collective hatred of
Miami Cubans. Fidel may be bad, but the Cubans in
Miami are worse, everyone says. An infiltration of
those in Florida, many fear, would bring tides of
crime, drugs and poverty -- all the debauchery
Miami is infamous for. The Miami Mafioso, the Cuban
population there is called. And Cuba would return
to its pre-Castro days with the mob running
high-stakes gambling and overpriced sex shows.
Only this time things would be worse because those
in Miami have more money. Fidel, at least, is a
known commodity.

Though their fears are not unfounded, neither set
of Cubans bracketing the Florida straits is
offered a proper perspective. The stereotypes are
pervasive: Miami is gangs, drugs and murder whereas
Cuba is only prostitution and petty thievery.

As for the U.S. embargo, Cubans have at least one
reason to rejoice: It has probably saved the island
from the inevitable death-by-tourism plaguing Bali,
Cancun, Jamaica, Bermuda and countless other
"tropical paradises." There is a down-home warmth
to the place, like the house of a favorite cousin.
The police are numerous, but friendly, and greet
you as you pass. Talk to a Cuban for more than 10
minutes and you'll be invited home, provided you
convince the police that you're not being hustled.
It's a place where human noise, which is constant
and loud, offers a sense that life is happening all
around you. Not machinery, but the voices of
community.

Within our first 10 days in Havana we knew our
neighbors and the brother of our guest house's
owner, and his son's girlfriend, and the father's
doctor and the neighbor's friends. Three times I
ran into people I'd met, as if Havana was some
small town I'd grown up in and not just a place I
was visiting. It is the frenzied, frenetic rhythm
of a salsa song with pauses long enough to catch
your breath and dance again. It is the broken
instrument held together just barely, sounding
nearly as it always has, a little rough around the
edges and painted in pastels, but still playing.

Not unlike Franqui, the little devil that did, in
the end, bring us where we wanted to go. Franqui
hadn't brought us in the way we expected, and not
in the ways we know or could have imagined. But all
along the way people had aided his and our
survival, given their time, material and skill with
a patience that only comes from years of making do
with what you're given: eating, as it were, the
whole apple. Franqui, his skin bruised but core
intact, had made it nonetheless.


Rachel Louise Snyder

MORE FROM Rachel Louise Snyder


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