Havana / On the Cusp between Eras
sung patriotism & whispered criticism: torn in a changing nation
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 up 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, strikingly ambiguous and undecided. That Cuba was many things, and many of the things that Cuba was intersected in Havana’s streets and its inhabitants' veins. Night and day, the island capital seemed both culture cocktail and cocktail culture, blending a rich 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 as the most wonderful country in the world. It felt like they meant it. Then, hiding their words in an equally passionate whisper, they pointed at 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 ambivalent opinions? Were these contradictory feelings towards the motherland equally valid and strong? Was the socialist utopia as enjoyable as it was insufferable? Certainly, the meager sample size of my informal study over rum and laughter limited the significance of any 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.
Just across the water, in Casablanca, the city noise died down.
Havana was full of stories; some shouted, some whispered.