Cuba and America Do the Tango

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Cuba’s a funny island.

One day last August, it was a dark, stormy afternoon when my landlady burst through my door in central Havana, yelling in Spanish. As I prepared to complain about her not knocking first, I noticed there was at least a couple of inches of water on the floor, everywhere. And then it slowly hit me: I am living in the Caribbean, and hurricane season has just started — and it was probably time to move.

Despite the weather, there were times when I walked through Old Havana past a Cadillac convertible from the 1960s, or there was a random street party on my block or someone called out to me from the stoop of a stunning mansion with crumbling pink or blue paint that I wondered if I’d gone through some time warp.

As everyone murmurs about what possible change can come for Cuba through our new president, I wonder what may be lost once the island is opened to the joys of American capitalism, complete with a McDonald’s and Starbucks on every corner.

In much of Cuba, there doesn’t seem to be a striking difference between the “poor” and the “middle-class.” They say that’s the aim of Communism . . . but I don’t think everyone’s supposed to end up poor, no? But with its seaside location, wide avenues, narrow alleyways filled with hanging laundry and lit by intense sunlight and manors with little balconies in vivid colors, Havana is still the most beautiful and complicated city I’ve ever been in.

Cubans are admittedly intense people – it’s perfectly normal to stand outside of someone’s building and yell his/her name repeatedly until said person opens the window and responds. “Maria, Maria . . . MARIA!”

Everything seems to be a communal activity: if one person is watching TV, then so is everyone on the street because the television is at maximum decibel. But Cubans are also lovely, they seem to come in every color and size, and they face a lot of unfair anomalies: ordinary citizens can now buy cell phones, but sim cards cost over 150 U.S. dollars. You can buy a computer, but Internet at home is illegal . . .

Still, most had a sense of humor about the poverty: everyone agreed that the lion in Cuba’s zoo was probably the world’s only lion fed on rice and beans.

In Old Havana, hordes of European (and American) tourists would soak in the neighborhood’s elegance and dine at mediocre but overpriced restaurants as poor Cubans loitered outside. The question now is: will becoming a bona fide friend of the West make that contrast better or worse?

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