The Cuban Evolution
By DAMIEN CAVEMARCH 1, 2014
HAVANA — MAYBE it was the Robin Thicke music video playing on a
half-dozen flat-screen TVs, or the black-and-white image of the Brooklyn
Bridge splashed above the V.I.P. area, or perhaps it was just the
nightclub’s name: Sangri-LA. All I knew, as I sipped my $4 rum, was that
this was not the Cuba of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.
Nor was it the Cuba I first visited in the late 1990s with my wife, who
is Cuban-American. That was a nation of grinding scarcity; nearly
everyone we met asked us for something they needed — soap, pens, money,
even the sneakers on our feet.
This Cuba, which I encountered on a recent weeklong visit, felt like a
country struggling with its wants and jumpy in its eagerness to catch up
with the world — as epitomized by this small but flashy nightclub,
privately run, in the basement of a mansion in the capital’s leafy
neighborhood of Miramar.
Sangri-LA was in some ways a step back to an even more distant time; the
bartender confirmed it had been a club in the ‘50s, too. But it also
looked like a strange step forward into Cuba’s more unequal future. The
stratification that emerged after the Soviet collapse, when Cubans with
tourism jobs or relatives abroad surpassed their peers, seemed to be
accelerating, and while the inequality was nowhere near what could be
found in pre-Castro Cuba or the United States, I wondered what Cubans
thought of the new have/have-not dynamic rising through the cracks of
Sangri-LA was no greenhouse of introspection. When I asked a guy beside
me — a young Cuban in a Polo shirt and hipster ‘80s sunglasses — for his
take on Cuba’s changes, he leaned in close to be heard over the music
and said, “I’m not saying a word.”
So I went elsewhere, into many of Havana’s neighborhoods, looking for
discussion — and indicators. Every country has them, the little details
that hint at a culture’s priorities and direction, but in secretive
Cuba, “the land of topsy-turvy,” as one American historian called it
back in 1910, little things like a phrase or a fad often carry special
Cuba’s love affair with American gangster movies in the 1930s presaged
the “pistolero” violence that became synonymous with Havana in the
1950s. After the triumph of Fidel Castro and his bearded guerrillas,
green fatigues became cool, just as the arrival of Russian support in
the ‘60s led to Russian status symbols — especially dark blue Lada
sedans with big antennas on the back. “That was the car of government,”
said Mario Coyula, Havana’s pre-eminent urban historian. “It was a sign
These days, with Fidel Castro on the sidelines as Raúl Castro gradually
tries to modernize the economy with a dash of private enterprise, the
tide of taste has turned. All across Havana, government symbols are out.
New desires are rushing in.
The teenagers on Rollerblades racing down Paseo del Prado, the wide
boulevard that divides touristy Old Havana from Central Havana, the
city’s urban core, paid no attention to the pasty foreigners walking by.
The scene suggested two things. One, the lag time between global and
Cuban trends is shrinking: While it took more than a decade for the
tight Lycra craze to reach Cuba — with crazy abandon — it seemed to take
half that time for in-line skating to go from out of style in Miami to
in style here.
Two, hustling seems to be in decline. A decade or so ago, I couldn’t
have walked more than a few feet without being accosted by young men
trying to sell me cigars, a prostitute or a meal at a private
restaurant. The jineteros (or jockeys), as the hustlers were called,
always struck me as a byproduct of economic desperation and the relative
newness of tourism. Most tourists back then were first-timers. And many
hustlers were proto-capitalists who had taught themselves English,
German or Italian just to earn a few dollars in tips.
But now, except for a lazy solicitation or two, no one seemed to bother.
The energy of the young was focused elsewhere. Maybe the police had
really cracked down, always a possibility in Cuba, but other factors
seemed to be in play. On the Malecón, Havana’s seaside esplanade,
cellphones had suddenly become common and magnetic.
Raúl Castro granted ordinary Cubans the right to have them in 2008, and
use has exploded. Sort of. When I ran across Jenifer García, 15, and
Ángel Luis, 21, lying on the sea wall, they were using a cellphone for
music. Mr. Luis said he had paid $80 for the old BlackBerry Torch with a
cracked screen, carried into Cuba by a friend who visited New York. He
mostly uses it to listen to Marc Anthony; Ms. García said she was
partial to Pink Floyd.
Farther down the Malecón, José Rivera, 29, and Pedro Frómeta, 24, were
using an iPhone 3S (cost: $120), to take selfies. “Before, we were in
this technological bubble,” Mr. Rivera said. “But it’s getting better.”
Indeed, the easing of travel laws by both Cuba and the United States in
recent years has created a heartier commercial exchange and a new
relationship to technology.
While Americans fret about the isolation our screens encourage, Cuban
families (those who can afford Internet fees of $4.50 an hour) often
gather around a single laptop at a hotel. DVDs and television
programming from Miami — news and entertainment, on thumb drives — have
become part of many families’ weekly routine.
But not everyone is connected. I didn’t see many cellphones in the
poorer sections of Central Havana. What I did see were men pulling
majestic colonial wooden doors out of an old building, and putting them
on the back of a truck. They were hauling off the neighborhood’s last
markers of past beauty and grace for a new restaurant in another area.
A short drive west in the nicer residential neighborhood of Vedado, at
the corner of a park named after John Lennon, lies one of Havana’s most
distinctive old homes. Reddish and run-down on the outside, with a glass
cupola that looks like a rocks glass turned upside down, it used to be
owned by a wealthy family with eccentric taste.
Now 14 families live there, about 50 people crammed together in what
amounts to a tenement. Two doors down, behind a high black fence, is a
high-ceilinged, expansive colonial home with chandeliers inside, and
outside a kiss of fresh yellow paint. The owners, who inherited the
property, said they rented out its rooms to tourists.
Welcome to Cuba’s widening real estate divide.
I asked Aida Pupo, 45, squeezed into a back corner of the reddish
mansion, if her neighbors’ wealth bothered her. She said she lived with
three generations of her family. The ceiling of her kitchen forced
anyone over 6 feet tall to duck. But she didn’t care.
“There are people with a lot, and there are people with nothing,” she
said. “It’s just a sign of the times.”
She doubted that the wealth divide would ever get as bad as it was
before the revolution because the government would not allow it.
“They’re giving loans now for home improvement,” she said. “I would love
to make the facade of this building beautiful again.”
A little frustrated but mostly acquiescent, Ms. Pupo belongs to what the
journalist Marc Frank describes as Cuba’s “grey zone.” In his new book,
“Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana,” he argues that these
are the Cubans whom Raúl Castro has sought to win over with his efforts
to modernize the economy.
There are no public opinion polls to test whether it’s working. Members
of the revolutionary elite (high-level government officials, artists who
make money abroad) are clearly benefiting, with investments in
restaurants and homes. The nouveaux riches (running successful small
businesses) are also at least somewhat satisfied.
It is more surprising to discover that even those near the bottom, like
Ms. Pupo, seem to be focusing on the positives. Eyeing the success of
others, many seem relieved to know it’s possible. As one Cuba scholar
told me, “They have aspirations they never used to have.”
Those a little closer to the top, though, don’t like to talk about how
they got there. Ms. Pupo’s neighbor in the yellow house provided me with
coffee but refused to be formally interviewed, or named. “Es
complicado,” he said. (If there is a catchphrase in Havana these days,
that would be it.)
In another building up the block, a young activist who said he had been
kept at home by the police at times to prevent him from organizing
cultural events, said those with advantages were just trying to protect
what they had. “It’s a transition that we’re in, but not to democracy,”
the activist said, noting that the government has become just slightly
less restrictive. “It’s a transition from totalitarianism to
The indicator he longed to see: large music festivals separate from the
state. “Young people want to know what’s really happening in Cuba but
they’re not radicals,” he said. “They just want a different strategy
because, look, the strategy we’ve had up until now hasn’t worked.”
In Miramar, the wealthyish seaside suburb where most foreign embassies
can be found, I stopped at a used-car lot where the price list on a
bulletin board might as well have been shooting nails at customers: A
2010 Volkswagen Passat for $67,500? A 2006 Toyota Corolla for $39,724.80?
A new law allowing Cubans to buy cars from the government had gone into
effect just a few weeks earlier. Cubans were thrilled when it was
announced, only to be crestfallen when they saw the cost. The government
said the cars were heavily taxed to redistribute money from the rich.
Many Cubans, though, saw it as an insult, or a scheme. “It’s a trap,”
one taxi driver said. “If you buy a car, the next day the police show up
and ask where you got the money.”
Those Cubans working for reform from within insist that government
officials are still learning how to be responsive to the public instead
of just the party. But Cuba’s response to inequality is disjointed
partly because the country is struggling with what kind of equality it
“In the United States, we talk about equality of opportunity,” said
Richard Feinberg, an international affairs professor at the University
of California, San Diego. “The equality of opportunity is actually
expanding in Cuba today, but the Cubans, in the revolution, didn’t talk
about equality of opportunity. They talked about equality of outcomes,
that people should more or less have the same incomes and living
standards. That equality of outcomes is being eroded.”
And therein lies the challenge: are those young people with Rollerblades
and cellphones, or those with new cars, a sign of the equality Cuba
wants, or not?
The island’s leaders have not provided much clarity. No one seems to
know how much money is too much to have, or even how to talk about it.
Many older Cubans seem dismayed. A well-known 90-year-old artist in
Miramar (who asked that I not use her name) told me her entire block had
changed in the past year or two. One neighbor’s house was empty because
the family had moved abroad. Another was being renovated, while across
the street new people were moving in. “It’s all so” — she crinkled her
nose — “unstable.”
Her attitude reminded me of a line from Graham Greene’s 1958 novel “Our
Man in Havana”: “It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking
changes.” That seemed to capture how many Cubans feel these days. It
certainly helped explain why no one at Sangri-LA would talk to me.
And yet Cuba is still Cuba. At Sangri-LA, along with the signs of rising
demand for the shiny and new, there was as much shouting and hugging and
gossiping as I had seen at countless state-owned venues, and in
neighborhoods at every economic level.
The partyers were not trying to replace the Cuba they knew with
something else: The Brooklyn Bridge mural did not mean they wanted
Havana to become New York, and the Christina Aguilera videos were just a
distraction. It was only when the D.J. switched the music to modern
salsa — after 1 a.m. — that everyone started dancing. It’s a cliché of
course to see Cuba only through song, but it was more than that. As José
Martí, Cuba’s most famous writer, once put it: “I have two homelands:
Cuba and the night. Or are the two one?”
Damien Cave is a correspondent for The New York Times covering Latin
America and the Caribbean.
Source: The Cuban Evolution – NYTimes.com –