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essays | places | Cuba

Havana / On the Cusp between Eras

sung patriotism and whispered criticism: torn in a changing nation



   Slow change is hard to see. Transformation is a blurry wave, unlike the crisp ripple of a sudden revolutionary fist. Maybe this shifting tide had been simmering for decades, but I guess ever since Castro handed over business to the other 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 that was too tight and worn too long. Moving, shaking, breaking. No going back.

"...quintessential life lessons distilled from rum and rumor."

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. Night and day, the island capital seemed both culture cocktail and cocktail culture, blending an almost irresistible variety of tangy ingredients: songs soaked in local anecdotes, colorful dance dispelling drab despair, cars and architectures 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.

"Certainly, the meager sample size of my informal study over rum and laughter limited the significance of the results significantly, but somehow everyone I encountered appeared torn right along the same line between their heart valves..."