I am already working on borrowed time in Cuba. Ah, in Cuba, where my heart and my soul live. It's all borrowed, of course. It isn't mine. It was never mine. I have called it a beautiful disaster. I've said that it was well past the point of crisis. And at the point of crisis, change comes, inevitably and irrevocably, change comes.
It's my experience that in the past couple of years, Cuba has already changed and change is always traumatic. Cuba lost its innocence. Cuba climbed the ramparts and saw over the wall, saw what they were missing, better viewed their global position, and stirred a more global consciousness. And after 55 years of an accidental nostalgia, after 55 years of patience, they demanded more. And so Raul Castro said, in 2010, that Cuba was unsustainable, that Cuba needed to change course, which is quite a big deal after 50 years of his brother saying, toe the line. And so came some reforms and little spots of capitalism; but a little capitalism is a funny thing, a little capitalism is a petulant child at a fine restaurant. And so came capitalist thinking. Compete. Get ahead. Make money. Make opportunity. And so my Cuban friends all point out that Cuba has become heart-wrenchingly dog-eat-dog. It wrenches my heart, because it's already not the Cuba I saw and knew and loved only a few years ago. And so now nearly every Cuban I know, has left already or is leaving. And for those that are still left behind, with just a few exceptions among my friends, there is resentment and envy and desperation.
But what was the Cuba that I knew? What was my beautiful disaster? Cuba is a mad paradox difficult to strip down and lay bare. First there is the illusion on either end: the postcard facade for a crucial tourism industry on one end, and, on the other end, the persistent indoctrination of the socialist martyrs and revolutionary dogma. Pretending is the first thing Cuban children learn, I've been told. To pretend to understand the socialist promise, to pretend to believe it too. And there's my illusion, too, in the middle, with alien eyes that want to understand, that want the romance and the seduction too. That first time, when I rose up out of the tunnel under the bay into the heart of Havana, into the crumbling architecture, I knew instantly I was in love. Havana is other-worldly: the architecture, the ruins, the feeling of far-stretching time, the presence of ghosts and history everywhere — it really ought to be impossible, but there it is. Like a castle in the clouds. I love the joy of life I see everywhere. In Cuba, there is theater everywhere. There are people everywhere. There is joy and beauty everywhere. And at least as far as I can see, they know how to live, they know how to love, they dance and drink and smoke and celebrate life.
Cuba is almost out of synch with the rest of the world. I don’t mean to say that it’s backwards or wrong. It is, or at least it has been, almost removed from a global consciousness. There is no other other place that I have experienced that is, or at least was, as otherwhere as Cuba. But my eyes will always be alien. There is a generation of Cubans, maybe even two generations, who wanted to believe in the promise of socialism and they waited and they hoped, though maybe a little less every day. There is a newer generation of Cubans now who only have the shadow of that dream and the emptiness of a broken promise who want more. That was my Cuba, a fierce otherwhere, a public raucous unapologetic theatre, aesthetically, a nearly Fauvist delight in vivid Technicolor of rhythm and virility. And let the Cubans reconcile the Fauvists with the Dadaists. Besides the Fauvist aesthetic, Cubans also have a sublime appreciation and a divine patience for the ridiculous and the arbitrary. My Cuban friends retort: "Why? Do not ask why. It is Cuba. There is no why." And this is how my Cuban friends trained the why out of me.
And so, just now, Obama and Raul have come to this: the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States. No one can argue that it is about time, or at least no one can argue well, I think, that it is about time. And no one can argue that it is the right thing to do. And no one can argue, either, that engagement is better than separation.
The embargo is an artifact of a tired old history, mainly punitive for the Cuban Missile Crisis and the shaming at the Bay of Pigs, and then, largely, the result of political apathy. But also quietly supported, quietly propped up by Cuba, or at least by Castro. The embargo served Cuba, or at least Fidel, who needed an antagonist.
Cuba is past the point of crisis and Cubans, my Cuban friends, are hungry and suffering and desperate. And this will be better. Mostly. And engagement is clearly better. And fairer. And smarter. But it will be different.
Cuba is a street-level open museum of nostalgia and artifact, through necessity and through accident. I don't mean just the ruined buildings with their brick-packed balcony doors or the rough streets or the old cars; but the people and the voices and the theatre of day to day life, too, the resilience and resolve and the quiet boil of dissidence salted with a divine and practiced patience. It comes to this: The tourism industry has been selling Cuba as authentic. Americans are clamoring to go where they have been largely forbidden to go for 55 years. But American money is also American power, also American entitlement. And American power and American entitlement will change Cuba. Irrevocably. And quickly too I think. Isn't it so authentic? But can't we tidy up a bit? I need better restaurants, better hotels, better food, better streets, better choices. And money can persuade better than dogma.
Obispo, a famous street in Old Havana, has been cleaned and designed and presented for the tourists with restaurants and shops. It is largely populated with sun-protected tourists and their cameras and their wallets. Cuban jinteros — street-hustlers — who understand well opportunity and supply and demand, know exactly what tourists expect to see and they put on the costume and the character, they put on the charade, and sit and demand money to be photographed — that old toothsome lady with the winning smile, another one with an oversized cigar, that pair of men who dress like Fidel and Che. And when the Americans come, so too will come the Obispo-ing of Cuba starting with Havana. Authenticity will be manufactured and sold.
And still I say, it's better and fairer. Better technology, better phones, and better Internet. And if the people, if my friends, see the money at first or not, they will, eventually, I have to hope. But how can American money and American entitlement and American power not threaten Cuban authenticity, Cuban culture, Cuban identity? Capitalist-style competition has already started to erode culture and identity. It’s already dog-eat-dog much more than it was four years ago. And here comes America throwing some meat.
But there’s no question Cuba can’t continue the way it has. There’s no question Cuba needs help. There’s no question that this policy, this intention of normalized relations, is fairer and smarter and long overdue. Although it's funny words. Cuba and the United States have not really ever had normal relations. Before Fidel, Cuba, or at least Havana, was something of the Las Vegas of the Caribbean with casinos, and brothels, and the mafia, and Ernest Hemmingway.
In any case, the end of the embargo remains good news because it is the right thing to do. It is good news because Cuba is long-past needing help. And the oil money of Venezuela, a formerly crucial trading partner, is practically gone. But Americans, American money, American product, American entitlement, American advertising, American celebrity-obsession will spoil Cuba, will confound Cuba, will dismantle Cuba too, even as America is helping Cubans to have better choices and better things and better chances.
And that's the scope of my conflict. Kennedy's embargo is punitive and not working and not helping and ancient too. My Cuban friends are desperate and hungry and deserve better choices. But once Havana is homogenized, once Havana is South Beached, once you dismantle and manufacture the fallacy of authenticity, what will Cuba have left over? What new Cuban spirit and identity will emerge and how much can they hang on to their turbulent and vibrant history?
I have been borrowing an otherwhere and borrowing time too and I'm so grateful I could see and experience and know, as much as I could know, Cuba before the Great Normalization, before Cineplex moves into the abandoned ruins of los Jardines de la Polar.
Cuba has a campaign right now, to give voices to the dissidents, to the Cubans: Yo Tambien Exijo
. I apologize that I have been able to speak more than my Cuban friends about something that is more precious to them, their home, their patria, than it ever could be to me. They deserve better choices. And of course they deserve the fundamental right, a right I have the luxury to take for granted, the right to speak and to be heard.
See previous photographs of Cuba by Kevin Slack here:
And learn more about Kevin's work and about Cuba here: