Cuba: a country on the brink of what exactly?

Team stories

Giles Goodhead

23 March 2016

Giles reflects on a fascinating week in Havana, where he’s been preparing for our Cuba Open Quest in November.

We let Yon and Ariel, two of the founders of Alamesa, choose the restaurant. The food is simple and tasty, with not a green vegetable in sight, and our mojitos are the best of the week. They ought to know: Alamesa is a mobile app that lists restaurants. Tech entrepreneurs in Cuba, a country with next to no internet? The times they are a changin’.

It’s been tricky for them. Their app has to work offline, and they can’t handle payments because PayPal blocks Cuba. But some executives from Google had been to check them out, and you sense that these young pioneers may be early, but they’re onto something.

Around town you’ll see young Habanēros clustered around a few hotspots. Getting online is awkward, clunky and expensive, but like youngsters the world over, connection is what they want. For visitors like us, being cut off from email is bliss… or torment.

Later we find a nearly dead Russian taxi with no door handles, no interior fittings and no shock absorbers. It’s coaxed along by a lawyer, which makes a change from the usual professor. Vintage American cars, used by locals as communal taxis, belch past us. We are heading to FAC, a factory reborn as a happening art-space and nightclub. Entrance is $2, just about within reach of Havana’s new upwardly mobile, the lucky ones with access to convertible currency, which often means money sent from family overseas.

FAC is a feel-good party for 1,500. Teasing photos in one room show old peeling Havana with imagined Coca Cola and McDonalds billboards crowning the rooftops. Coming soon or not so soon? Salvation or nightmare? Everyone has a different view… it’s a debate without end. The veteran foreign correspondent from Reuters just shrugs – who knows, really? We’ll have to wait and see. Cuba is certainly changing into a new animal, he says. Which species? He drags on his Lucky Strike cigarette and coughs… probably a porcupine.

Next morning we can’t find a café that opens before ten to get a cup of coffee. But we can find another professor who doubles as an eloquent guide. Behind us, musicians are playing the cha-cha. In a minute the singer is going to make us join in, so we ask the prof what is Cuba’s gift to the world? Three words, he says enthusiastically: “Independence and Social Justice.”

An island built on the promise of a dwelling for everyone, a ration of food, free healthcare and free education – it’s still something to be proud of. Others see it differently. An island floating on money from Miami? An island inventing a twenty-first century model of socialism in the greedy shadow of Uncle Sam? It’s a battle of words, of ideas. Yet most Cubans are pre-occupied with the day-to-day, with putting bread on the table and yes, maybe a little dancing.

The tough times for Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union are called the Special Period. To preserve the milk supply it was made illegal to kill a cow. It still is. To police the rules, the government created cow inspectors, who account for every head in every herd. And to combat corruption, they also created cow inspector inspectors.

Under Raul Castro a fledgling economy of private restaurants, taxi service co-operatives, hair salons, and even internet companies is sprouting, but the strategic heart of the State still dominates. Transformations are exciting, but messy, and that’s what Cuba feels like today – brittle, on the cusp, hesitant.

A cruise ship has docked and Old Havana is swarming with tourists in shorts. Two bored boys in a ’49 Ford are selling cheap cigars. A man tells us about his brother who trained as a doctor, got sent to a hospital where lunch was a plate of rice and an orange, and then quit in frustration and fled to Miami. Yet another professor confesses that the hardest thing about her research of gender bias and inequality in Cuba was that neither problem officially existed.

And now the power has failed in our block. Men are fiddling with the overhead cables as twilight deepens. Oddly our elevator is still working and we ask: how come? Because Che Guevara had it specially connected to the nearby hospital for power! We eat another plate of pork and croquettes and hear another angle on the locals. Living in a system like this makes Cubans the most resourceful, entrepreneurial, problem-solving, creative people in the world! Did we realize that the telephone wasn’t invented by Bell but by a Cuban?

We shake our heads in wonder. There’s salsa on a nearby rooftop and the night is warm and humid. After a week in Cuba, we are full up with contradictions but, thanks to the rum, it all makes sense in the moment. And the moment is really a feeling, less about understanding some big picture and more about a very Cuban sensibility: a vague but deep sense of struggle and solidarity. Viva Cuba!