Return visit to Communist Cuba finds new hope amid change
Return visit to Communist Cuba finds new hope amid change
BY ANITA SNOW ASSOCIATED PRESS
02/18/2015 12:11 AM 02/18/2015 12:12 AM
Rolling toward customs with a 60-pound suitcase filled with clothing and
electronics for friends, my stomach clenched when a female agent in a
light green uniform approached. As a former longtime Cuba correspondent
returning after nearly six years, I thought I knew what would come next:
a search of my luggage by stoned-faced military men, a scolding, maybe
even a fine.
Instead, I got a pass.
“Pasa, mi amor,” the agent said with a smile, directing me to the exit.
“Go right on through, my love.”
It was the first sign of the more relaxed and hopeful atmosphere I found
during a brief visit back to Havana this month, a feeling that didn’t
exist during my 1999-2009 tenure. The differences I saw and felt made me
realize how much my decade in Cuba had been characterized by anxiety and
isolation, and what a different country it is becoming under President
Raul Castro’s modest reforms. Everywhere I traveled around Havana, hopes
were high for more change after Cuba and the U.S. announcement on Dec.
17 they would move toward a more normal relationship. Cubans seem
especially keen for more visits by Americans.
When I lived here as an American journalist, rigid government control
and suspicion reigned, especially during my early years. A uniformed
agent once demanded to enter my apartment in Old Havana to ensure I
didn’t have a fax machine, considered a dangerous device. Although there
was little traffic or commerce in the streets, blue-uniformed members of
the National Revolutionary Police stood on almost every block, and they
certainly weren’t smiling.
As a foreigner with access to dollars, my circumstances were far better
than those of average Cubans. But no one could escape all the
difficulties still lingering after the “special period” of the 1990s — a
time of economic austerity following the loss of Soviet subsidies.
Blackouts lasted for hours, resulting in sleepless, sweltering summer
nights without air conditioning, making bathing impossible in buildings
where water ran with electricity, and causing refrigerated food to
spoil. There were shortages of basic goods, such as toilet paper and eggs.
Cubans’ economic desperation played out in their dealings with
foreigners. A middle-aged woman once trailed me for four blocks up Old
Havana’s Obispo Street, begging me for a bar of soap I did not have.
Driving one night down the Malecon coastal thoroughfare, then pitch
black without public lighting, I nearly struck a young woman in a
low-cut evening gown standing in the middle of the roadway, waving at
motorists to stop.
But going back to Havana, I didn’t see any of the obvious sex workers,
known as jineteras, who once trolled the Malecon and lurked in hotel
lobbies. Cubans didn’t trouble me on the street for money or anything
else, and I noticed few uniformed police officers standing on corners.
Buildings around the capital, some constructed more than two centuries
ago, remain in desperate need of a coat of paint, and in many cases
their facades are crumbling. Dangerous-looking tangles of electrical and
telephone wires still stretch across narrow streets pocked with
potholes. But tour buses now park along the Malecon’s eastern end, with
tourists spilling out to roam Old Havana’s colonial plazas. A string of
historic lampposts now illuminate the thoroughfare in the evening.
The majority of islanders still depend on government salaries that
average around $20 a month — about the same amount as when I left Cuba —
along with the universal subsidies for food, housing, utilities and
transportation. Many people continue to hustle to survive, working a
second job, or living “por la izquierda,” literally “off to the left,”
supplementing their meager income by selling goods stolen from
government workplaces, or hawking products from their monthly food ration.
I found several older friends who were doing poorly, lacking the
resources or energy to profit from the reforms. A former female neighbor
in her mid-70s wept as she described the challenges of subsisting on odd
jobs and a monthly pension worth little more than $5. Numerous other
acquaintances had left the island for better opportunities not only in
the United States, but in Venezuela and Spain.
Cubans with their own businesses said the reforms mean they are now
harassed less and it is OK to try to get ahead. Jean Barrionuebo, who
worked as an illegal taxi driver for six years before getting official
approval two years ago, told me, “The pressure of trying to avoid a fine
prevents you from being productive.”
“We Cubans are crazy to get ourselves out of this conflict with the
United States,” said Barrionuebo, who drives an old Russian-made
Moskvitch sedan he bought after selling an apartment inherited from his
parents. “This has been going on for 56 years and it is the Cubans who
have to pay the cost.”
The push to improve Cuba-U.S. relations has put the issue of human
rights in the spotlight for American officials and rights activists, but
most Cubans I talked to seemed far less interested in that than in
making more money to provide for their families. And most former friends
and acquaintances I saw seemed better off — or at least no worse off —
“A-NI-ta! Mu-CHA-cha!” a cleaning woman cried out as I entered the
renovated historic building where The Associated Press has its offices.
Several other cleaners, security guards and maintenance workers greeted
me with Caribbean enthusiasm, making me feel like I’d returned after
only six days, not six years. They sadly reported the death of Lazaro,
the elderly street vendor with a goatee who once sold gladiolas on the
cobblestone plaza. They told me Ernesto the electrician, who called on
me as a witness for his second wedding at a government “Matrimony
Palace,” had moved to Miami, now on his sixth wife.
The economic changes I saw came from reforms that Raul Castro initiated
after taking over from ailing brother Fidel in early 2008. The first
thing he did was eliminate the “tourism apartheid” that prevented Cubans
from staying in hotels reserved for foreigners. Later, prohibitions on
the sale of private homes and cars were lifted, and permission was
granted for private taxis. The government lifted the despised “white
card” required for decades of Cubans who wished to leave their own
country, even on vacation.
Signs of the latest reform on its way — the merging of Cuba’s two
currencies — are now in the government stores. Prices are listed in the
ordinary pesos worth about 4 cents each as well as the convertible pesos
tied to the U.S. dollar.
Furniture dealer Elia Rodriguez talked about how Cubans newly flush from
their private businesses buy more of the mahogany treasures I once
bought from her business of more than a decade. “Everyone wants their
house to look nice,” Rodriguez said before excusing herself to greet a
group of customers.
Standing amid low-slung Cuban rocking chairs called “comadritas” and
antique armoires with brass pulls, Rodriguez told me that the inspectors
who used to come at least once a month, using up valuable time while
they reviewed her premises and records, haven’t visited in more than
three years. Originally running the furniture renovation business with
just her husband, daughter and son-in-law, Rodriguez said she can now
hire non-relatives to refinish and sell the pieces faster.
The first private businesses the government allowed in the 1990s
included family restaurants called paladars. Tucked inside people’s
homes like dirty secrets, they were restricted to just 12 chairs. Sales
of hard liquor, and “luxury” foods like shrimp, lobster and beef were
prohibited. At one of the dozen or so paladars operating back then in
the capital, my friends and I regularly asked a waiter for jibaro — wild
boar — a code to order an illegal steak.
Today, hundreds of private restaurants operate in Havana and can serve
whatever food or drink they want, as long as they can prove it was
purchased legally. They can also serve as many patrons as they want, and
can advertise. On a recent evening, a lively group of several dozen
Americans visiting the island on a licensed trip crowded the main dining
room at the hugely popular El Atelier. At La California restaurant,
daily specials were promoted on a blackboard outside the front door, in
Farmers markets where vendors set their own prices were also first
allowed back in the 1990s, initially to ensure people got enough to eat
amid economic crisis.
Revisiting the 19th Street farmers market I once frequented, I found
fewer vendors, but more variety of produce. Broccoli and cauliflower
were on offer alongside Cuban sweet potatoes, taro roots, huge cabbages,
eggplants and assorted dried beans. While the products are cheap for
foreigners, they’re still expensive for most Cubans, who carefully
select only a few items to buy each month: a few onions, a bottle of
homemade tomato paste.
During my time away, new private businesses had sprung up across the
street: a juice stand, a small pizza joint, a shop selling leather
purses and rustic metal coffee pots. Also new was the watch repair
stand, a plumber and a locksmith.
Inside the covered market, 51-year-old Leonardo Santos sold shredded
coconut for 35 cents a pound under a blue placard that announced “My
Name is Santos” in English for American groups that sometimes pass through.
Radames Betancourt, an 81-year-old who works for tips carrying shoppers’
bags, smiled when he recognized me from my earlier time in Havana, his
eyes scrunching up into half-moons. Betancourt told me he’s thrilled
about the prospect of improved U.S.-Cuba relations, and more visits by
“Let them come, let them come,” he said excitedly. “We’ve been waiting
for them for a long time.”