Slow change is hard to pinpoint. It’s subtle. Transformation is a blurry wave, unlike the crisp ripple of a sudden revolutionary fist. Maybe it had been simmering for decades, but I guess ever since Castro handed over business to Castro in 2008, Cuba’s opening felt somewhat tangible. Rumor had it that the iconic, isolated island regime would loosen the policy grip on its people and that sooner or later there would be an old and a new Cuba, the before and after. Perhaps December 2014, the dawn of the Cuban thaw, marked the tipping point – the first act of the last wriggle, the stretching of a cocoon too tight, worn too long. Moving, shaking, no going back.
"Transformation is a blurry wave, unlike the crisp ripple of a sudden revolutionary fist."
So where was Cuba two months earlier, in October 2014, when I visited? On the cusp, I’d say, remarkably ambiguous and undecided. That Cuba was many things, and many of the things that Cuba was intersected in Havana’s streets and the veins of its inhabitants. Night and day, the island capital seemed both culture cocktail and cocktail culture, blending a delicious variety of tangy ingredients: songs soaked in local anecdotes, colorful dance dispelling drab despair, cars and architecture from another time and place, quintessential life lessons distilled from rum and rumor. The Cubans shared their drinks and tales generously. With their voices drenched in patriotism, they raved about life in the socialist reign under Castro, declaring the biggest Caribbean island loudly and proudly the most wonderful country in the world. It felt like they meant it. Then, hiding their words in an equally passionate whisper, they detailed the pitfalls of communism and the shortcomings of their government, lamenting their lives. And it felt like they meant it.
"The noble communist ideal seemed to delight the islanders’ hearts as much as its strict regalements tormented their souls, creating a collectively equivocal feeling."
What was I to believe, navigating this cigar smoke of ambivalence? Were these contradictory feelings towards the motherland equally valid and strong? Was the socialist utopia as pleasant as it was insufferable? Certainly, the meager sample size of my informal study over rum and laughter limited the significance of the results, but somehow everyone I encountered appeared torn between the same poles, as though people were riddled by a societal manic depression. The noble communist ideal seemed to delight the islanders’ hearts as much as its strict regalements tormented their souls, creating a collectively equivocal feeling.
"Yet, no matter how hard you’d work, how invested or passionate of a teacher or doctor you’d be, your paycheck landed in the ballpark of $50 USD, knocking every consumerist desire and every necessity aside the state-provided ration far out of reach."
The controversy was evident and omnipresent: Cuba had the best education and health care in Latin America; kids didn’t suffer from malnutrition; the state provided; the sun shone. Yet, no matter how hard you’d work, how invested or passionate of a teacher or doctor you’d be, your paycheck landed in the ballpark of $50 USD, knocking every consumerist desire and every necessity aside the state-provided ration far out of reach. People in the streets would ask foreigners for clothes, a pen, or other everyday commodities that weren’t easily accessible to them. But, "el Cubano inventa," they said – the Cuban comes up with something, finds his way around the odds, reinvents himself in the light of deprivation.
During my days in Havana, I saw the intertwined political and economic implications of the Marxian ideal branch into many contradictory experiences for Cubans and visitors. There was the freedom of drinking, smoking, dancing and singing in the streets, coming in handy for buoyant Latin American good timers; but, freedom of speech was restricted and internet access was more limited than in China. There were first concessions to private entrepreneurship; but, guesthouses and hostels weren’t really a thing, so that I ended up staying at someone’s home informally. And then there were the two circulating currencies, making every purchase either very expensive or very cheap. A cab from the airport to the city center was around 50 CUC (the exact equivalent of $50 USD); but, the local bus got you there for a couple of cents in Moneda Nacional, which was an amount so little that it couldn’t be expressed in US dollar dominations. That money would also get you a huge pizza for less than a US dollar at back-alley restaurants in the old quarter La Habana, while bars and restaurants along the famous Calle Obispo boasted fancy names that came with fancy CUC prices.
"With all the vagueness surrounding Cuban life on the cusp, I didn’t arrive at any sound conclusions. And I didn’t have to."