Cuba’s Bay of Fat Cats
Cuba’s Bay of Fat Cats
BY ABIGAIL JONES / MARCH 12, 2015 11:54 AM EDT
Traveling from Miami to Havana is a haphazard, seemingly nonsensical
process that requires patience, guile, humor and a ruthless willingness
to cut lines. Thankfully, I’m traveling with Alberto Magnan, so we skip
the airport check-in line because he knows a guy. Magnan, who’s 53, was
born in Cuba, left at the age of 7 and, aside from a short stay in
Spain, has been living in New York City ever since. He and his wife,
Dara Metz, are behind the Magnan Metz art gallery in Chelsea, where they
focus on international artists, particularly Cubans. Ninety minutes
before our flight takes off, we breeze past the folks who started lining
up two hours ago, and head straight for the ticket counter, where he
greets a woman who is clearly in charge of something. She takes my
passport, then disappears. Magnan tells me not to worry.
While we wait, he introduces me to Mark Elias, president of Havana Air.
He says long lines have been “the norm” for years for charter flights
between Miami and Cuba. Most flights “require three or four different
check-in positions to finally get your boarding pass,” Elias says,
adding with a bit of pride, “but we check the flights differently. We
check a flight in an hour and a half.”
Thankfully, the woman who took my passport reappears about 20 minutes
later. She hands me a rectangular folder, and inside I find my boarding
pass, my return ticket, my passport and a brochure about Cuba. Tucked
all the way in the back is a pale blue piece of paper that looks like
trash. “Don’t lose it,” she says.
“What happens if I do?”
She and Magnan say, almost in unison, “Don’t.”
Less than an hour after we take off, we land in Havana. As soon as the
wheels touch down, the pilot comes on the intercom: “If you’re happy to
be in Havana, clap!” The plane sounds like my apartment did when the New
England Patriots won the Super Bowl in February (I’m from Boston).
By the time Magnan and I drop our bags at the hotel and eat dinner, it’s
evening. We’ve hired a driver, a thin, 50-year-old man named Raphael. He
is a trained physician, but he quit medicine after four years to start
his taxi business. He drops us off at the mouth of Plaza de San
Francisco de Asis in Old Havana, and before we walk 15 feet, half a
dozen taxistas converge on us. Need a ride? Americano? Where to? I shake
my head no and keep walking toward the vast cobblestone square, which is
lit up with floodlights and packed with people.
Day and night, tourists flock here for the historical sites and
architecture. Across the street is Havana’s seafront boulevard, the
Malecón, teeming with young people, day or night. In a country where
many earn in a month less than what it costs to eat at a paladar (a
privately owned restaurant, as compared with the dominant state-run
restaurants, where the government funds the eating establishment and
makes decisions about management and wages), the Malecón gives locals
something to do. We walk through the plaza, down a ways and into a
modest lobby. There’s a security guard at the door and, just inside, a
woman sitting behind a desk. Magnan speaks to her in Spanish. I have no
idea what he says (I speak high school French), but he’s clearly
persuasive, because eventually she nods. We’re in.
Magnan, a few of his friends and I pile into the tiny elevator. Someone
asks him a question about the event, but Magnan silently shakes his head
and points to the ceiling. His message is clear: They’re listening. We
all shut up and wait for the doors to open.
When they do, we are on the roof-deck of a two-story penthouse apartment
overlooking Old Havana. The scene looks as if it’s been airlifted from a
high-end Miami hotel: sleek white chairs and couches, delicate flower
arrangements, a full bar. Off to one side, a film is being projected
onto the facade of a nearby building.
Half an hour later, guests start disappearing inside, so I follow—down a
spiral staircase until I reach a living room so vast and opulent I feel
as if I’m on the set of a Leonardo DiCaprio period drama. A large
hammock of thick velvet hangs from the ceiling. The floors are covered
in ornate rugs. Oversized plants rise up against the walls studded with
sconces and artwork. Nearby, equally ornate rooms hold a pool table and
a robust dinner buffet. Down the hall is the most pristine bathroom I’ll
see during my week in Havana. Perched on a ledge near the shower is a
fat statue of…yes, those are penises.
Everyone here is dressed—older women in gowns, young models in tight
dresses, men in sharp suits and hats and shiny shoes. It’s as if age—and
Communism—doesn’t exist here; older guests mingle with the younger set,
and not a single person is looking at a smartphone. I am surrounded by
Cuba’s intellectual and cultural elite. I meet Cucu Diamantes, the
Grammy-nominated Cuban-American singer and actress, and her husband,
Andrés Levin, a Venezuelan-born and Juilliard-trained American record
producer and filmmaker who won a Grammy in 2009 for the In the Heights
cast album. He spearheaded the inaugural TEDxHabana last November.
Together, he and Diamantes founded the fusion band Yerba Buena, which
earned a Grammy nomination for its 2003 debut album. Levin points out
some famous Cuban actors and musicians. There are even a few members of
the Castro family. A cloud of cigarette and cigar smoke envelops us all.
The U.S. embargo, which began in the early 1960s, prohibited American
investment in Cuba. Art, books and music, however, were exempt, giving
artists the leeway to earn their money and travel outside the country,
albeit under the watchful eye of the government. In a country where
there are neither real estate tycoons nor hedge fund moguls, artists and
intellectuals are among the 1 percent!
This is not the Havana most tourists see; nor is it the Havana most
Cubans know. Even writing about it seems like something the Cuban
government wouldn’t approve of, because, well, viva la revolución, right?
For the rest of my time in Cuba, I see the Havana you probably see in
your mind: The vintage Chevy convertibles with rusted tail fins; the
propaganda posters that read “La Revolución es invencible” in faded red
letters across buildings; the dilapidated mansions and rickety bicycle
taxis; the cigar shops clogged with snowbird tour groups; and the kids
who follow you around, ask where you live and, when they find out it’s
New York City, shout, “New York Yankeeeeees!” (I didn’t have the heart
to tell them I grew up near Boston.)
At the same time, in a country where almost nothing has changed for
generations, I found cranes erected across the city in preparation for
renovations and construction. New paladares pop up almost weekly, as do
small pizza shops. Hotels are filled with tourists; at Meliá Cohiba,
where I stayed, I heard more American accents than I usually do walking
down a random New York City street.
Now that the country is opening up for the first time in over five
decades, hope, determination and money are in the air, and everything is
up for grabs: real estate, construction, telecommunications, tourism.
Small businesses, from bicycle and car repair to plumbing, restaurants
and taxis, are all poised for growth. Netflix has announced it is
coming, despite the fact that just 5 percent of Cubans have Internet
access, according to a 2012 Freedom House report. (Twenty-three percent
of Cubans can access the government-sanctioned “intranet.”) In February,
Conan O’Brien became the first late-night host to tape a show in Cuba
since 1962 (the episode aired March 4). Which colossal American brands
are next? Home Depot? Best Buy? McDonald’s? Royal Caribbean
International? Donald Trump?
Cuba is suddenly brimming with potential, restrained by a tentative
government and populated by hopeful, hardworking people. Who, exactly,
stands to benefit and who could be left behind? Is Cuba’s future a
newfangled Jamaica, thronged by spring breakers, bachelors and
bachelorettes wearing Che Guevara T-shirts and Castro-style Army caps?
And is that a best- or worst-case scenario?
The Art of Change
“I remember having my mom pick me up at school and say, ‘We have 24
hours to leave. Pack a suitcase. We’re going to be traveling outside of
Cuba,’” Magnan says. “It was scary.”
Forty-six years ago, Magnan’s mother, an art professor, and his father,
an accountant for a tobacco factory, left everything they owned in
Havana—car, furniture, jewelry, possessions. Even then, Magnan was a
collector: baseball cards, stamps, coins, stickers. “I loved to draw but
was never pushed into the art field. The Cuban mother wants you to be a
doctor or lawyer.” Instead, he became an art dealer.
Magnan is known for showing Cuban artists like Roberto Diago, who
explores race, religion and Afro-Cuban roots; Alexandre Arrechea, a
founding member of the collective Los Carpinteros; and Glenda León, who
represented Cuba in the 2013 Venice Biennale. His first time back to
Havana, in 1997, was during Cuba’s Special Period, the economic crisis
that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Cuba lost
billions of dollars in support and subsidies. There were shortages of
everything: transportation, food, electricity, cars, replacement parts,
toothpaste. Once-stunning homes started falling down, creating the kind
of dilapidated beauty that fuels ruin porn. “I fell in love with the
artists because what they were doing during the Special Period was very
different. They had no materials. They were working with paints that
were not paints. Canvases were metal or fabric or mops. They’d take
everything they could and make it into art. I said, ‘Oh my God, the U.S.
collectors have to see what’s going on here.’”
Today, Magnan is behind some of the most innovative and controversial
art events in Cuba, including Chelsea Visits Havana at the National
Museum of Fine Arts in 2009, the first art exhibit of American artists
in Cuba since the revolution. The event was part of the 10th Havana
Biennial, which, despite its name, has occurred every three years since
2000. “That was a key turning point in Cuba-U.S. relations, when I
realized art can make a difference,” Magnan says.
Over the past few decades, a handful of Cubans and Cuban-Americans have
been working quietly as cultural ambassadors, building bridges between
the two countries by focusing on the arts. Magnan is one of them.
“Havana is alive and well,” he says. “Artists are doing incredible
things. And they are choosing to remain in Cuba to pursue their
careers…. The changes that are happening through art and culture are
making the way for other changes.”
On our second day in Havana, we visit Cuban curator Juanito Delgado at
his apartment overlooking the Malecón. It’s early evening as we gather
in his living room, which is covered floor to ceiling with framed
paintings and photographs. He leans back into a deep wicker couch,
crosses one red velvet slipper over the other and says (through Magnan’s
translation), “When you make good art, it poses all of the political
questions. Don’t make politics art. Make art political. Then you have
In 2012, Delgado transformed the Malecón into an art exhibit for the
11th Havana Biennial. Arlés del Río’s Fly Away featured the silhouette
of an airplane cut into a large, rectangular chain-link fence placed at
the edge of the seawall. Rachel Valdés Camejo installed a large mirror
facing the water; she called it Happily Ever After No. 1.
“Art moves society, and art moves people,” Delgado says. “I hope Obama
will help the cultural scene here, give funding to make books, do shows
and help artists promote their work…. I want Havana to have its theaters
filled.” He pauses for a moment, then looks straight at me. “Bueno,” he
says. “Maybe you could find out where [the new money] is gonna go?”
One Less Brick in the Wall
Cuba is just 90 miles from the United States, but it has been
essentially frozen in time since 1959, when Fidel Castro overthrew the
dictator Fulgencio Batista with an army of guerrillas. Under Castro’s
Communist reign, education and health care were free but the economy
crumbled, poverty spread, and Cubans were rarely permitted to travel
abroad. Castro has a long history of punishing and repressing critics;
in 2013, there were over 6,000 arbitrary detentions of human rights
activists, according to the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba. Freedom
of speech does not exist here, the state owns all official media
outlets, and the government has intimidated bloggers and locked up
journalists, who face gruesome conditions in prison.
Since 1982, Cuba has been on the U.S. government’s list of countries
that sponsor terrorism because, according to a 2013 State Department
report, it has offered “safe haven” to members of the Basque Fatherland
and Liberty (ETA), in Spain, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, and it also harbored fugitives wanted by the U.S. That
designation prohibits Cubans from banking with America. While Barack
Obama has promised to review Cuba’s status, Republicans are protesting
the potential removal.
In 2008, Fidel’s brother Raúl took over. In the past few years, he has
instituted a series of reforms that permit Cubans to travel abroad more
easily and for longer periods of time; buy and sell cars and homes;
legally start private businesses (with over 100 types); and stay at
Havana’s international hotels. (Historically, Cubans were shut out of
high-end hotels, partly because they accept only the tourist currency,
CUC (pronounced kook), and state workers earn their wages in the
essentially worthless Cuban peso (CUP), and partly because the
government didn’t want the hotels to become hotbeds of drugs and
prostitution.) While Raúl’s policies have been applauded, the economic
reality for most Cubans has not, since the majority can’t afford to do
any of these things.
“The reforms, even as reforms, are tepid, halting and partial,” says
Fulton Armstrong, who served as national intelligence officer for Latin
America from 2000 to 2004 and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center
for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University. “[When]
you don’t have the influx of new capital, new trade, new money coming
in, even if opportunities exist, the resources for using those
opportunities do not exist.”
The average Cuban makes less than $20 a month. Last year, some doctors
reportedly got a pay increase from $26 a month to $67. In an appliance
store I wandered into, a microwave was on sale for $72.60, and a
coffeemaker cost $30. Most meals I ate were around $30 a head. Now that
Americans can send Cubans $8,000 a year, up from $2,000 before Obama’s
December announcement, the gulf between blacks and whites is expected to
widen. According to The New York Times, white Cubans are 2.5 times more
likely than blacks to receive financial support from relatives abroad,
making it easier for them to start businesses. White Cubans living in
rural areas are also likely to struggle, Armstrong says.
There are 11 million people in Cuba, and many stand to benefit from the
thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations: tradesmen, farmers, all those who
receive remittances from relatives living abroad to enable them to open
up small businesses. “The informal economy of Cuba is massive, and it’s
been the training ground for large sectors of society to practice
entrepreneurialism,” says Armstrong. “Some, like artists, have been
doing it for decades, and they’re very good at it. People who’ve stayed
on the straight and narrow, either because of personality or closeness
to the party or institutional affiliation with tight oversight, haven’t
engaged as much in the black market. Those people will have a slightly
The losers, Armstrong says, are those who tend to lose everywhere, every
time: the poorly educated, the elderly and those with health problems.
“Always, change is good for a group of people and bad for another,” says
Meylin Bernal, 32, a tour guide with San Cristóbal, one of Cuba’s
state-run tour companies. “Everyone is excited about having the chance
to work and, according to their wages, be able to have a normal life.
Not to struggle, but to survive.”
‘The Sun Is Different Here’
“That’s a Muscovy. Russian! That black one is a Chevy, 1953. I used to
own some of them.”
Raphael has been shouting the names of cars we pass as we drive through
Havana. “That one over there, the green one, is a Chevy, ’52. That one
is a Mercury, 1951. That’s a Dutch ’58. That used to be a Shell gas
station before the revolution.”
We’re heading to Párraga, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts. It’s
about a 30-minute drive, so to pass the time, I ask him why he decided
to stop working as a doctor. “The wage was not enough!” he says. Raphael
says he earned between $12 and $15 a month. (Today, doctors earn four
times that, he points out.) As a taxi driver, he earns about $200 a
month, which helps him support his family. “At the beginning, I missed
my work as a doctor, but now it’s so many years working as a taxi driver—”
He trails off.
“Juan Carlos just graduated dentist university in July,” Raphael says of
his 24-year-old stepbrother. “He worked two days for me and made $30 a
day—more than he makes in a month. It’s awful. Juan Carlos would like to
go to the U.S. He’s studying English. I’ll send him some money to help
him. There’s no future for him here.”
We pull over on a quiet street and pick up Sandra Soca Lozano, a
28-year-old Cuban psychology professor at Havana University who has
agreed to spend the day with me. Lozano is short, with long brown hair,
big brown eyes and a friendly smile. She lives with her mother, a
psychologist, and father, who’s retired, and her grandfather. She’s
never left the island. “Because I love my country and I love my parents
and I’m an only child, I don’t want to leave them behind,” she says.
When Lozano is not teaching at the university, she volunteers with
children and teenagers who have cancer. But like other Cubans who opt to
keep their government jobs, she makes a measly income—just $30 a month.
(“Every Cuban does the black market to make purchases and earn money,”
says Armstrong, “because obviously the $30 income is not her only
income. Don’t kid yourself.”)
Lozano longs to buy a car and go salsa dancing with her friends, but
both are luxuries beyond her means. The challenges of daily life are
compounded by watching her peers succeed abroad. “Lots of friends live
outside of Cuba, and after four months they have cars! And they have
houses! They can go on vacations wherever they want. My parents, who
work like hell, cannot do regular stuff. My mother can’t go to Egypt and
look at the pyramids.”
We continue driving, past abandoned gas stations, bus stops teeming with
people and an old port without boats. I ask Lozano what it is about
Cuba, aside from her family, that keeps her here. “It’s the people, the
places,” she says. “Structurally, the streets suck and the buildings—I
know that. But the smell from the sea! I’ve always lived near to the
sea. This is a particular smell that I love. The sun here is different.
You can always find someone who’ll help you, who’ll share with you.”
“Oldsmobile, 1955!” It’s Raphael again. He explains that we’re driving
through a neighborhood called Luyano. We pass people sitting on stoops
or standing on sidewalks waiting for a communal taxi. A large sign that
says, “Gracias Fidel” hangs from a bridge.
Eventually, the streets get rockier. After a few more turns, we end up
on a wide, pothole-ridden street devoid of cars and covered in trash.
People are hanging out in the streets, and dogs roam the sidewalks as if
they own them. Aluminum sheets serve as fences around tiny houses that
are nestled up to each other like sardines. This is Párraga. There is no
tourism here, and the water doesn’t run every day. A friend suggested we
spend some time here, and introduced me to someone who might offer a
window into what life is like on this side of the city.
Justina Cordero Mesa greets us on her porch, stretching her thin,
wrinkled hands out toward mine and kissing me on the cheek. She’s
wearing a white print dress, dark green socks and black flip-flops. Her
white hair is clipped in a messy twist on top of her head, and fluffy
white eyebrows hang over her eyelids. Her face is marked by deep
creases. She’s 90.
Mesa waves us into her home and points to the couch and a couple of
chairs covered in brightly colored pillows. Lozano, Magnan and I sit
down. It’s a tiny space, not more than six by eight feet. Cracks and
stains line the pale mustard walls and tiled floor. In one corner, a
tiny Christmas tree and a boombox sit on a small brown table. On another
table are a vase of fake flowers, a green piggy bank and a couple of
other miniatures. Hanging above the table is a framed photo of Fidel
Castro. Outside, dogs are barking.
In a raspy voice, Mesa tells us her television was recently stolen when
someone broke in through the window. When I ask if the culprit was ever
found, Mesa laughs.
Her home is small, dark and filled with flies. Behind the living room is
a small dining room with a wooden table and short refrigerator covered
in vegetable-shaped magnets. In the even-smaller kitchen, old buckets
and some cups and bowls sit on a makeshift countertop. There is a plate
of what looks like chicken bones near a hot plate, and four cooking
utensils hang from the pale blue wall. The ceiling is low, not just here
but in all of the rooms. A small door in the kitchen leads to a back
alley, where Mesa hangs her clothes and washes her dishes.
“My grandson wants to take his house and this house and trade them for
one bigger house, so that I can live with him. But I don’t know,” says
Mesa, who has lived here for more than 60 years. Her husband, who worked
for the police, died a few years ago. They have one son, who lives in
Cuba, and her sister and niece live in the U.S. “My sister wanted to
take me, but I didn’t want to leave. I have my family…. My history is
big. But what am I going to do with that?”
I ask Mesa if she thinks life in Párraga will get better now that change
is starting to come to Cuba. “It hasn’t changed. Every day it’s worse,
because everything is more expensive,” she says. “I can’t hear or see
well. I’m very old. I’m really old. Whatever I’m gonna see now I’ve
When I return to New York City, I email Lozano. She says it was “hard”
to see how Mesa lives. “On the other hand, she represents exactly what I
think it is to be a Cuban, because even living in those conditions she
would never leave her country. She loves it. She hopes for good things
for others and not for herself. She offers the few things she has, and
she is old but still…independent and she still cares of her family.… For
me that’s the essence of the Cubans—always take care and worry for
someone else, always resilient, always helping the other, even if you
don’t know him too much.”
‘Will They Beat Up People?’
Vedado, an urban center in Havana where Hugo Cancio has been slowly
growing his media empire, is a long way from Párraga. Cancio, who’s
Cuban, is the founder and CEO of Fuego Enterprises, which focuses on
business, media, telecommunications, real estate and travel
opportunities in Cuba and the U.S. A few years ago, he and his wife were
on a flight from Miami to Havana along with about 40 Americans. He
overheard some of them talking about what Cuba is all about—“other than
that famous last name that starts with a C,” he says.
“Is Cuba a militarized country?”
“Will we find people with machine guns in the street?”
“Will they beat up people who say bad things about Fidel?”
“My wife said, ‘Why don’t you get up and tell them what Cuba is all
about?’” Cancio recalls. “I was getting pretty upset, because as you can
see, this country is about more than Castro and the dissidents and the
opposition. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people. I approached
them and started talking to them about Cuba.”
Twenty minutes later, he returned to his seat. His wife had an idea:
print a brochure about Cuba, to be given to tourists on flights to
Havana. “Do something!” he remembers her saying.
Instead of a brochure, Cancio launched On Cuba, the first Cuba-focused
bilingual magazine, which is sold throughout the U.S. and Cuba. Its
website gets between 600,000 and 1.2 million visitors a month, and the
magazine and its sister publication, ART On Cuba, which Cancio launched
last June, are sold in all U.S. Barnes & Noble stores and all Hudson
News shops at Miami International Airport and Ronald Reagan National
Airport in Washington, D.C. This month, the magazine goes into 184
Publix supermarkets across Florida. And in a nod to his wife’s original
idea, On Cuba is the official in-flight magazine on most charter flights
between Miami and Havana.
Cancio, 50, was born in Havana. His mother, Monica Leticia, was a famous
Cuban singer, and his father, Miguel Cancio, co-founded the legendary
Cuban quartet Los Zafiros (the Sapphires), affectionately referred to as
the Beatles of 1960s Cuba. During the famed 1980 Mariel boatlift, when
Castro announced that anyone wanting to immigrate to the U.S. could
leave the country, 125,000 Cubans fled on 1,700 boats. Cancio, then 16,
left with his mother and 13-year-old sister. Not long before, he’d been
expelled from his prestigious high school for making a joke about
Castro. “My mother said, ‘You have no future here,’” Cancio recalls.
“‘We gotta go.’”
With no relatives in Miami and nowhere to go, they spent three weeks in
a shelter at the Orange Bowl stadium. Later, they moved to a tiny studio
in South Beach. “My mom slept on a sofa bed, and I slept on the floor on
a mattress for three years. She regretted her decision for many years.”
Back in Cuba, Cancio’s father had been working with the Ministry of
Culture’s Centro Contraciones, but he lost his position for permitting
his family to leave. He got a job as a street sweeper and later worked
in construction. “I’m the only construction worker who goes in a
three-piece suit to work,” Cancio recalls his father writing in letters.
A few years later, he, too, left the country.
Today, Cancio is a pioneering ambassador for Cuban music and art in the
U.S., especially in his hometown of Miami. He has produced nearly 140
concerts and 30 music tours, and his résumé reads like a primer of the
Cuban-American culture wars. In 1999, he planned a concert at the Miami
Arena for Los Van Van, one of the most successful Cuban musical groups.
“Right-wing Cubans were outside throwing eggs and cans, and their sons
and daughters were inside dancing,” he recalls.
Cancio was also behind the first Cuban-American feature film produced in
Cuba since before the revolution, Zafiros, Locura Azul (Blue Madness),
about the rise of Los Zafiros. The film premiered in 1997 at the Havana
Film Festival, where it won the people’s choice award and then ran in
theaters for six months. When he brought it to Miami, thousands of
protesters rallied outside the theater. “My mom had brought me to this
country to be a free man and to have a better future,” he says. “How can
you prevent me from doing something I have every right to do in a
democratic country your parents brought you to because in Cuba you
couldn’t do anything?”
With U.S.-Cuban relations changing, Cancio is expanding the On Cuba
footprint. In March, On Cuba Real Estate will arrive, focusing on
architecture and local neighborhoods. This spring he’s launching On Cuba
Travel, a Travelocity-type website focused on Cuba, and, later, On Cuba
Money Express, a money remittance business. He’s also partnering with
two large telecommunications companies in the U.S. (Blackstone Online is
one; he declines to name the other) in an effort to bring the Internet
and cellphones to the Cuban people.
“I have been fighting for this for many, many years—not defending the
government but defending my right as a Cuban to change U.S. policy
towards Cuba, which was inhumane and didn’t work, as President Obama
said,” Cancio says. “All of that combined has given me some credibility
Who, exactly, stands to benefit from all of the work he’s doing? I tell
him about Lozano, the psychology professor, and Mesa, and ask him what
he thinks their futures will look like.
“I’m concerned the first people that will benefit will be the well
connected,” he says. “It will be a lengthy process, but we are breathing
a different air. I see it in my people who work for our publication.
I’ve seen the transformation from when they started working with us to
how they are today. They’re happier. Their houses are being rebuilt.
They’re thinking of putting a little money aside to take a trip to
Mexico or Honduras.”
The On Cuba office is empty when I visit on a Saturday, save for the
editorial director, Tahimi Arboleya. She’s sitting at a desk in one of
the offices, surrounded by a few computers. On her desktop: Gmail and
Facebook. It’s the first time I’ve seen those websites during my entire
trip. It’s also one of the few times I’ve seen working computers.
“I think that we can do something. A little, you know?” says Arboleya of
her work at On Cuba. “It’s very, very important to us to inform Cubans
and Americans [about] what happens in Cuba, what is the reality of the
Cuban people. The information about Cuba in the United States is very—I
don’t know how to say in English—polarizing?”
My last night in Havana, I invite Lozano to join Magnan, me and a few
others for dinner. At first, she isn’t interested. She’s supposed to
meet up with some friends to go salsa dancing, which she hasn’t done in
weeks, but after making a quick stop at the salsa club and finding out
it’s full, she decides to join us. Raphael drops us off near the water
in the Miramar section of Havana. A bouncer stands at the foot of a
walkway leading up to an imposing white house. He and Magnan talk—it
looks as if they know each other—and then we head into Rio Mar, a
seafood paladar overlooking the Almendares River.
We sit at a long table on the terrace, beneath a navy blue awning. All
around us are tables of tourists: Americans, French, people speaking
Spanish and more Americans. White Christmas lights hang from the
balcony, lighting up the clear glasses and bottles of Acqua Panna.
Lozano keeps commenting on how clean the water tastes. She’d never had
blue cheese before, so she orders chicken breast in blue cheese sauce.
Before dessert arrives, she disappears inside and takes photos in the
restaurant’s lobby, posing on a couch with one of the waiters.
“That place, it’s kind of magic. I felt like I was move to another
country or time,” she says later in an email written in nearly perfect
English. “[It] makes me nostalgic of my future, of my parents, of my
family to be, of my country…. But I know that in the current situation
of my country’s economy, and the struggles of my government to keep
public systems like health and education with quality, working in my
field (education) will never allow me to go by myself to places like
that. I will always have to wait to be invited by someone else.”
In Cuba, she says, “there are lights and shadows everywhere and you can
choose what to show, but most important for me how to show them both.”
This story has been updated to reflect that the United States’ embargo
against Cuba has not been officially lifted.
Source: Cuba’s Bay of Fat Cats –
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