Dispatches from a Gringo in Havana, Part I

(Editor's Note: With the official changing of the guard in Cuba, Lagan Sebert, contacted one of his American friends in Havana for a first person account of the political climate. One would assume a foreigner would feel comfortable expressing himself openly in this time of historic transition. His nervousness and need for anonymity speaks volumes about the continued repressive nature of the Cuban state. All those interviewed for this story also were kept anonymous for their safety. This is the first part of a three-part series.)

Edited by Lagan Sebert
Special to iVoryTowerz

After the Change...

After Fidel Castro announced his resignation as president of Cuba, Havana appears unchanged. The peanut sellers walk the streets of Old Havana announcing their wares while women sell shots of coffee from their street-side windows. The diesel engines of the maquinas (the crude term used for the many pre-1959 American cars) sound like tractors amongst the bicycle-taxi bells, music (a mix of Reggeaton and 90's pop), and shouts from the street to friends in their apartments. Judging by appearances, life in Havana is the same.

“Nothing will change as long as he [Fidel Castro] is alive. Everyone is too afraid to speak up,” a middle-aged hotel worker said. I had to explain to her what exactly Fidel had said. She hadn’t read Granma, the official paper, and although she overheard people talking about it, she hadn’t paid much attention. “Cubans survive because they are optimists,” she said with a shrug.

The hotel worker makes more money than most Cubans; she earns about twenty dollars a month working at the hotel on top of 700 dollars a month she makes by renting out an apartment to tourists. Much of the money she makes from her apartment she gives back to the government. She is amused when I tell her that Fidel’s pronouncement was front-page news in most of the world.

“This is all very well planned-out. This has been in the works for months. He is definitely not dead, I saw him myself a couple of weeks ago,” a thirty-year-old university professor assures me as we sit over a two dollar meal that he can’t afford. “I am still a militant, but the time is coming, everybody knows that,” he says without looking over his shoulder or caring who hears.

After we leave the restaurant, policemen constantly stop us on the street. They ask for his papers because they assume that any Cuban with a foreigner must be a hustler. Add to that the fact the professor is black, and getting stopped is a sure bet. It’s even worse to walk around with a woman. It’s best for them to walk in front or behind any foreigner.

Though the professor is a hard-line Communist, he has become far less dogmatic over the years. He still believes, somewhat nostalgically, in the potential of the Revolution, but admits he believes “less everyday.” He lives with his mother, father, and a few cousins in one of the massive apartment buildings erected in Havana to solve the problem of shantytowns that began springing up after the beginning of the Revolution.

Then there is the 43 year-old bartender, who I have only met once before this conversation. She has dyed blond hair and is a hit with men in the neighborhood. The bartender is unafraid to speak openly to me about politics. Perhaps it’s because the blaring music drowns out our voices inside the bar. “Raul [Castro],” she tells me with a flick of the hand, “he is just like Fidel, igualito.”

She recounts common rumors regarding the acting president, Raul Castro: he is a drunk, he is gay, he likes children too much, he is half Chinese and only Fidel’s half-brother.

Almost everyone I have spoken with sees little likelihood of immediate change. Perhaps this is due to people’s concentration on simply getting by each day — making just a bit more money to reach a bit more comfort. Most don’t see the utility of daydreaming for abstract possibilities.

(This is the first part of a three-part series. To read the next part, please go here.)

(Photo of Fidel Castro visiting Brazil in 2003 from Agência Brasil, the Brazilian news agency, which allows use of its photos through a Creative Commons License.)

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