On Cuban Time

A broad promenade runs up the middle of the leafy boulevard, still known to locals by its Spanish colonial name, Prado, that divides Old Havana from Central Havana. On weekends when the weather’s fine, artists offer their work to tourists there: black and white photographs of street scenes, etchings on handmade paper of dancing stovetop coffeepots, luscious Cuban women, Charlie Chaplin, Che Guevara, and Marilyn Monroe, oil paintings of cityscapes that always feature a classic car or two. On a sunny morning in January of this year, one of the paintings for sale showed a street sign planted on the island of Cuba with arrows pointing in three directions: PAST, PRESENT, and FUTURE. Except FUTURE was crossed out. Trip Advisor gives visitors almost the same description, calling Havana “a city trapped in time.”

Directly across from that artist and his painting lay a vast construction site that wasn’t there six months before. The Spanish chain Iberostar is building a Hotel Packard on the same spot where a US company put up a hotel by that name in the 1920s. The logo for the new hotel is in the streamlined art nouveau style of the mid-century Packard cars that were trundling by along Prado that morning (within less than three months, a motorcade carrying President Obama on the first visit to Cuba by a US president since 1928 would also come down the boulevard). The new building will incorporate what remains of the older, neocolonial structure, with its street-level colonnades. But the architectural renderings that hang on the fence around the site also show a giant, hypermodern glass box that will float atop the restored facade as if a rectangular spaceship had touched down there.

Cuban time moves to its own complex rhythms. It most certainly does not stand still. But neither does it sweep forward like a Swiss watch—though a pricey shop in Old Havana will be happy to sell you a Cuervo y Sobrinos, designed by a family-owned company founded in Havana in 1882 and manufactured to the highest specifications in Switzerland today. As the stories in this issue of Words without Borders show, Cuban time moves in many directions simultaneously, leapfrogging and plodding, at once groundbreaking and nostalgic, the present moment eternally stretched almost to breaking in a cosmic tug-of-war between past and future.

Out-of-body experiences, as in Eduardo del Llano’s baseball tale and Mylene Fernández Pintado’s meditation on technology and tedium in daily life (both translated by Dick Cluster), are one way of challenging the space-time continuum. Both Ena Lucia Portela, in her sharp retelling of a fairy tale (translated by Pam Carmell), and Herson Tissert Pérez, in a Woody Allenesque cinema fantasy, escape into the immediacy of pop culture. And for Yoss, Anabel Enríquez Piñeiro, and Erick J. Mota, science fiction is a vast remove from which to contemplate Cuban realities as diverse as the island’s world-class biotech industry and fleeing balseros, and the way a beloved old song can dissolve the confines of both space and time.

You’ll also find two nonfiction pieces here: an interview with the extraordinary Mary Jo Porter, the English language translator for blogger and activist Yoani Sanchez, who also cofounded a website that crowdsources translators for dissident bloggers, and an essay about Havana on December 17, 2014, the day Obama announced normalization, by Rubén Gallo, a frequent visitor to the city.

A great deal has happened since we started working on this issue in the fall of 2015. President Obama visited Cuba and made an extraordinary, historic speech at the magnificently renovated Gran Teatro on Prado, first inaugurated in 1838 and newly reopened in January of this year. The Seventh Congress of the Cuban Communist Party was held in mid-April; just a few days later, the Cuban government—which in the past four years has begun letting Cubans own and sell their homes and run their own businesses (within tight parameters)—announced that it will allow Cuban-born tourists to disembark from the cruise ships that are now stopping in Cuba.

At the same time, Cuban immigration to the United States—via balsero or overland via Mexico, Panama, or Costa Rica—has surged. More than 16,000 Cubans arrived during the first quarter of 2016, double the figure for the same period in 2015 and triple the numbers for 2014. In 2015, 4,400 balseros were documented, a 20% increase over the previous year—a devastating figure because it’s estimated that less than half of those who leave Cuba on a raft survive. Those who are risking everything to go clearly believe that the more things change, the more they’ll stay the same. But on March 26, when Mick Jagger shouted “Los tiempos están cambiando!”—“The times they are a-changin’!”—to a crowd in Havana’s Ciudad Deportiva, all 400,000 of them erupted in a single vast cheer.

 

© 2016 by Esther Allen and Hillary Gulley. All rights reserved.