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from the May 2016 issue

Obama in Havana

December 17, 2014

The night before Raúl was to address the Cuban nation to make an important announcement I was invited to a gay party in Playa, a middle-class district of Havana. The host, who worked for the state film institute, had invited several dozen friends—mostly professional men in their twenties and thirties—to celebrate San Lázaro, patron saint of difficult causes and an important figure in Cuban culture. Some of the guests worked in culture, others in tourism; some were employed by semiprivate companies, others by the state. What they all had in common was that they were members of a new urban middle class that has risen in Havana in the past six or seven years as the most visible result of Raúl Castro’s gradual liberalization of the economy since he took office in 2008. Most of the men I talked to that night considered themselves well-off, owned their apartments (a recent reform introduced private property into the island), had traveled abroad, and did not seem very different from the kind of guests I could imagine meeting at a gay party in Mexico City or Buenos Aires (except, perhaps, for the improvised altar to San Lázaro, full of burning candles). Two decades ago the only option for those who aspired to this kind of middle-class life was to leave the island and move to Miami, Spain, or Mexico City, depending on their family emigration history and connections.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, homosexuality was considered a form of bourgeois degeneracy and many gay men were sent to the countryside to be reeducated in special camps (“Military Units for Supporting Production,” the government called them; others referred to them simply as “concentration camps.”) Many gay writers were blacklisted and excluded from official publications and intellectual life. The tide began to change in the 1990s, when homosexuality was decriminalized, but it was after Raúl Castro took office that government policy took a radical turn. Mariela Castro, Raúl’s daughter, was appointed to head Cenesex, the Cuban Center for Sexual Education, and quickly emerged as a champion for gay and lesbian rights. In 2008 a law decreed that sex reassignment surgery would be covered by the state insurance, and in a 2010 interview, Fidel Castro expressed regrets for his homophobic policies: “It was a great injustice,” he conceded, “and I was the one responsible.” To make amends, the Cuban government has now adopted a gay-friendly policy: a recent issue of Casa de las Américas, the official literary journal, was devoted to “Homoeroticism and Revolution.” One gay writer who was censored in the 1970s has now been appointed to run a cultural center devoted to diversity.


In December 2014 I spent a week in Havana. I was there to organize a study abroad program for Princeton University (Harvard, NYU, and Sarah Lawrence have similar set-ups). One of my first appointments was in Centro Habana, a working-class district in the center of the city, where a trendy restaurant serving lobster and cheesecake shared a block with a state store where Cubans present ration cards to buy their monthly food allowance: a few pounds of rice and beans and a leg of chicken. When the government legalized private property some years ago, they limited property purchases to Cuban citizens, who can now buy a house in the city, a house in the country, and a house at the beach (but not two houses in any of these areas). The idea was to prevent the rise of landlords, but many tourists—and some returning Cubans—routinely rent apartments in the city’s best neighborhoods for $2,000 a month. Those with access to foreign currency, including novelists and painters with international careers, live in airy penthouses or houses with gardens, while doctors and teachers earn about six hundred Cuban pesos—the equivalent of twenty dollars—a month; since private ownership was legalized, there has been a boom in apartment sales, especially in the leafy neighborhoods of Vedado and Miramar, but building materials are nowhere to be found on the island, so buyers intent on renovating their new homes must travel to Mexico, Panama, or the Dominican Republic to buy tiles or kitchen fixtures and bring them back in their luggage (another option is to buy materials in the bolsa negra, the black market, where entrepreneurs on the make peddle bricks and sacks of mortar stolen from government construction sites); Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist party, announces a $600 million investment by Brazil destined to build an international shipping port—one of the largest in the Caribbean—near Havana and concludes the article by stating that international trade will prosper in Cuba and “help strengthen socialism” (the port will be located in Mariel, the same place from where 125,000 Cubans left the island for Florida in 1980, the largest exodus since the revolution). In the streets of Old Havana, schoolgirls wearing the pionero uniform—white shirt, red skirt and handkerchief—seem to have stepped out of a Socialist-Realist painting, except that they are busy eyeing the latest tennis shoes displayed in the window of an Adidas boutique. Billboards of Fidel and Che Guevara greet visitors on the road connecting the airport to Havana (“Commander-in-chief, at your orders!” reads one), while international consulting firms, including Ernst & Young, have now opened offices in the country.

At the Hemingway House—Cubans have long claimed Hemingway (they pronounce his name Eh-Ming-Wey) as a national treasure—I meet a local tour guide, fluent in Korean and Russian, who tells me he grew up in Pyongyang. I ask him if he would like to return to live in North Korea: “Yes,” he tells me after reflecting for a few seconds, “because it is the country of my childhood and my teenage years. I was twenty-one when I came back to Havana and I was more fluent in Korean than in Russian.” During my week in Havana I also met: an entrepreneur in his twenties who owned several bars and restaurants and traveled to Miami once a month; a university professor who traded his academic career for a job as a taxi driver (“I used to make twenty dollars a month teaching,” he tells me, as he collects my twenty-five-dollar fare); an elementary-school custodian in his early twenties who moonlights as a gay prostitute; an elegant young woman I mistook for a fashion model but turned out to be a member of the political class. (“That girl you just talked to,” a friend later told me, “is Castro’s granddaughter.”)

These days the Cuban economy is a patchwork of state-run enterprises and private ventures. A recently issued postage stamp celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Inpud, a state-owned appliance factory—it produces refrigerators and fans—founded by Che Guevara in the sixties. (Before leaving Cuba, he also ran the country’s Central Bank). El Cocinero, a rooftop restaurant that would not be out of place in Saint- Tropez, is frequented by members of the new bourgeoisie: on a recent weekend I shared a table with an athletic man in his thirties who introduced himself as a personal trainer. One of his clients, a diplomat’s wife, came into the restaurant and he greeted her with a kiss on the cheek.

There are still two currencies: Cuban pesos and convertible pesos (a currency that was originally restricted to foreigners but is now quickly becoming the main means of payment). Cubans employed by the state are paid in Cuban pesos—six hundred pesos is considered a very good salary—and can then exchange their money for convertible pesos (which are pegged to the US dollar) at a rate of twenty-four to one. A pound of tropical fruit can be bought on the street for five Cuban pesos (less than twenty US cents), while a used car—a 1950s Chevrolet with a new Hyundai engine—sells for about $20,000. Last year the government introduced a program to sell new cars imported from China, but the inflated prices—up to $75,000 for a compact car—discouraged any potential buyers and the project was quickly scrapped. Cubans can use their private cars as taxis, so owning a car is one of the easiest ways to earn convertible pesos. Many government drivers moonlight as clandestine taxi drivers using their official vehicles (I was once picked up by someone driving a car bearing the logo of the Cuban power company), and most Cubans now have two jobs, one working for the state and another to generate convertible pesos. Housecleaning is paid in convertible pesos, and many bureaucrats moonlight as maids.

This tangle of contradictions reminds me of Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. I lived in Prague for a year in 1992, and I remember well the chaos of a socialist country changing gears and trying to build a market economy: the wild swings in income and standard of living, the collapse of the socialist safety net, the voracious appetite for consumer products are all visible today in Havana just as they were in 1990s Prague or Budapest. In the next months and years Cuba will undergo a transition that is similar to the Eastern European experience twenty years ago. The main question is whether Cuba will follow the Russian or the Chinese model. Will the Cuban communist party remain in power and keep a tight control over the development of a market economy? Or will all government infrastructures collapse and give way to a Wild West capitalism controlled by mafias and oligarchs, as happened in Russia?


All of these questions were on my mind on Wednesday, December 17, 2014, as I left my hotel in the morning and headed to Centro Habana, the working-class district in the city center, where I was to meet a Cuban friend who had returned to the island after emigrating to Canada. That morning, Raúl Castro was to give a speech, and its possible content was the talk of the town. “Raúl va a hablar,” a taxi driver told me. “Raúl is going to speak at noon. This morning the news said he was going to make an announcement about relations with the US. From the size of her smile, it must be good news.”

The streets of Centro Habana were packed: near the Capitolio—a replica of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. built by the dictator Machado in the 1920s (“it is a few feet taller than the American one,” Cubans often point out)—one could see a typical downtown scene: ruined Beaux-Arts buildings, some of them propped up with wooden planks; bakeries and drugstores displaying empty shelves; noisy 1950s Chevrolets and Cadillacs filling the streets with clouds of black diesel smog. A sign above a decrepit store announced “Informática” (Computer Supplies), and inside one could see a handful of computer monitors from the 1980s. Outside, employees in yellow-brown uniforms were setting up two old color televisions, placed on high pedestals next to a pair of tall loudspeakers. Passersby stopped to watch: they were young and old, black and white, and most seemed like working-class employees from the stores and offices in the neighborhood (many of them were wearing mustard-colored uniforms).

It was 11:57 a.m. and a newscaster was discussing the recent Mercosur summit in Brazil. An official appeared on screen, thanking the Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner for her leadership in the talks. At 11:58 the Uruguayan President Mujica spoke. At 11:59 I began to think that in Cuba, noon probably did not mean 12:00 but 12:15 or 12:30. I was mistaken: at 12:00 sharp the Mercosur newscast was cut short and a voice announced: “El presidente del consejo, compañero Raúl Castro.” On the screen appeared the image that has since been printed in newspapers around the globe: Raúl, dressed in military uniform, sitting at his desk, under portraits of the three heroes of Cuban independence: Martí, Maceo, and Gómez. (Since the 1960s, most important announcements were made under portraits of Marx and Lenin, but these were nowhere to be seen).

Raúl read a prepared speech. Unlike his brother Fidel, he is not a good public speaker and lacks charisma: his dry tone contrasted sharply with the charged atmosphere around me. He could well have been reading a press release announcing the building of a new factory. Everyone standing near the television fell silent—a rare sight in Havana. He mentioned he had spoken on the phone with President Obama and I was struck by how respectful and measured his words were—it was the first time I heard a Cuban president say the words “el president Obama,” without the usual string of adjectives (“imperialist,” “colonialist,” “Yankee,” “enemy”) that had become de rigueur when speaking about the United States. The day before I had visited the Museum of the Revolution, where didactic panels refer to “Yankee imperialism” and “US colonialism.” Facing the US Interests Section, the former American Embassy, on the Malecón, a monument called Monte de las Banderas displays 138 Cuban flags and features a plaque explaining that each flag marks a year of struggle against American imperialism. “Patria o muerte: venceremos,” reads a slogan painted in red letters on a wall facing the former embassy. The monument was built in 2006, a particularly tense year in Cuban-American relations during the Bush administration, after the US Interest Sections hung a large LED screen on its façade and used it to display propaganda messages. The Cuban flags blocked the screen, and at one point they were replaced with black flags. After Obama took office in 2009, the screen came down and so did the flags. The flagstaffs have been empty for several years, making the monument look like a forest of thin metal posts.

Raúl spoke of the release of three Cubans imprisoned in the US, referring to them by their first names—“Gerardo, Ramón, and Antonio”—as one does in Cuba when speaking about those who participated in the revolution. “Today they arrived in Cuba,” a young man standing next to me said approvingly. For years, billboards bearing photographs of the “Five Heroes,” as the Cuban Five are known here, have greeted visitors at the Havana airport and on the main road to the city center. Earlier this year, Kcho, a respected artist with an international career (in 1996 he had a solo show at Barbara Gladstone, one of the most prestigious commercial galleries in New York), presented an installation at the Fine Arts Museum in Havana: it was a reconstruction of the solitary confinement cells where the Five were held in Miami adorned with canvasses painted in prison by one of them. Next to it, a screen displayed emotional interviews with the prisoner’s wives, mothers, and children (the American lawyer who defended one of the Five also appeared on screen pleading his client’s innocence). Two of the five—Fernando González and René González—had been freed earlier, and for years the Cuban government had been pressing Washington to release the remaining three on humanitarian grounds.

Next, Raúl announced that an American spy had been freed by Cuba, and once again I was struck by the measured tone and by the diplomatic choice of words: “A spy of Cuban origins has been released”—he used the verb excarcelar, to excarcerate, gingerly maneuvering around other words, like liberar, charged with political connotations—“and sent back to the United States, along with a citizen of the same country.” Once again, no mention of US imperialism or the long history of attempts to destabilize Cuba that had become staples of political speeches.

When Raúl announced that diplomatic relations between the two countries would be restored, everyone around me clapped, and part of his speech—I could only make out the words “opening,” “embassies,” “two countries”—was temporarily drowned out by the cheering. He warned that though the two leaders had agreed to work together to lift the embargo, this would not happen overnight, but added that President Obama “can modify [the laws related to the embargo] by using executive privilege.” His closing statement—“We must learn the art of living together, in a civilized manner, with our differences”—used the verb convivir to imagine the future relationship between the two countries: a down-to-earth, familiar term used to describe the type of intimacy shared by friends of family members.

As the speech ended (it took less than fifteen minutes), Obama came on television. His address was dubbed, but it was clear that he was addressing the Cuban people. Hegel famously wrote that he saw History before him when Napoleon rode past his house. I have a similar feeling: History is unfolding before my eyes as the blurry image of Obama in Havana addresses the crowd in Centro Habana. I looked around me—pedestrians and passersby had gone back to talking and flirting, and many of them were ready to go on their way—and turned to hug Norbey, the Cuban friend who had come with me to watch the speech. As we embraced, a random man from the crowd joined us for a group hug. He did not seem particularly moved by the events, but was glad to join in the celebration. “I’m glad it was Raúl who spoke,” he said. “Fidel would have gone on for seven hours.”


That afternoon, as I walked to the Hotel Nacional for a meeting, the streets were abuzz with celebration: cars drove by, honking the same repetitive tune one hears throughout Latin America after the national team has won a soccer championship. Crowds of schoolchildren carried posters and cried “Viva!” as they walked by. Residents of tall apartment towers hung Cuban flags from their balconies and windows. The cause of the celebration, however, was not what one would first believe: everyone was cheering for the “Five Heroes” and for Gerardo, Ramón, and Antonio’s return to the island. Government-controlled television and newspapers presented the news as another Cuban victory in the decades-long struggle against the United States. Crowds on the streets carried posters of the Five and there was little talk about diplomatic relations or the opening of a US Embassy.

In private, Cuban friends were generally optimistic about the future. A forty-year-old theater actress told me she now planned to spend part of 2015 in Miami, where she has family and friends. A gay man who married a Canadian and moved to Ottawa spoke about returning to live in Havana and setting up a made-to-measure suit business; several friends expressed relief at the prospect of more options for moving money in and out of Cuba (in this cash-only economy, Cuban travelers and foreign visitors must often carry wads of banknotes when entering and exiting the country). “Qué bien se portó Obama,” I heard several friends say throughout the day. “Obama behaved so well.”

When I arrived at the Nacional, the few patrons seated in the garden terrace seemed aloof to the news. On a sofa, four middle-aged Midwesterners, their feet up on the coffee table, discussed their sightseeing plans for the next day. A French diplomat spoke on his cell phone, perhaps to a journalist, about the recent events. A waiter in a white jacket and bowtie came by to propose a mojito or a Cuba Libre. Little seemed to have changed since the pre-revolutionary days, when the Nacional was Havana’s most exclusive hotel frequented by wealthy Americans, except for the photos in the lobby showing Fidel receiving various dignitaries in the banquet rooms over the years (and a permanent exhibit, in a bunker under the hotel gardens, about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis): the cabaret is still there, offering nightly spectacles of Cuban dance and music; the American tourists are still there, though in smaller numbers; and the resortlike atmosphere persists. Despite its fraught past, the terrace at the Nacional remains one of the few quiet spots in Havana, a haven of silence where one can sit and have a serious conversation, away from the ubiquitous honking and roaring engines on the streets.

I am there to meet Wendy Guerra, a forty-four-year-old writer and the author of Todos se van [Everyone Leaves, 2006], one of the first novels about the periodo especial, the years of deep economic crisis and food shortage that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. She tells me she just finished an article for El Mundo, the Spanish newspaper, recounting the day’s events. “The title is Sin embargo,” she tells me coyly, a phrase that means both “without an embargo” and “nevertheless.” “I was born in Cuba in 1970 and I was born and grew up with the embargo. All my life was spent under the embargo and I have lived and continue to live in isolation. Will I die under the embargo? What would life be like without the embargo?” she asks. She tells me she feels a deep sense of gratitude toward President Obama. “This is the first Cuban winter that comes with a sense of hope.”

Before we part, Wendy reminds me that December 17 is the day of San Lázaro in Cuba, the second most venerated religious figure after the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, but one not officially recognized by the Catholic Church because of its syncretic origins. (In Afro-Cuban religion, San Lázaro is called Babalú Ayé). As we speak, she tells me there are thousands of Cubans making a pilgrimage to the San Lázaro sanctuary on the outskirts of Havana, many of them dressed in burlap sacks and whipping themselves as they walk. “Believers light a candle to San Lázaro, who is famous for performing miracles. All the good news that flooded the island today could well be a miracle granted by San Lázaro . . . except that I’m not a believer,” she tells me.

As I leave the hotel, a convoy of honking cars enters the driveway. The passengers are waving posters of the “Five Heroes.” Amid the celebration, I hail a taxi to drive to the airport; my flight back to Paris leaves in a few hours. The sun is beginning to set as we steer away from the cheering crowds and drive past the Habana Libre, the former Hilton Hotel where Fidel set up the revolutionary headquarters after his 1959 entrance to Havana. As we leave the city under an orange sky, I remember a conversation I had a few days earlier about the 1950s with Antón Arrufat, an eighty-year-old playwright and poet. “Those were intense times,” he told me. “One had the sense that the world we knew was coming to an end and something new was about to begin, but no one knew exactly what it was. Everyone was energized, intellectually and erotically, and we lived every day to the fullest. But it didn’t last. Pretty soon things began to go downhill.”

Once airborne, I have one last look at Havana from above. I, too, get the sense that these are intense times to be in Cuba, and that everything that makes this place different from the rest of the world—the 1950s American cars, the cash economy, the lack of advertising, the ubiquitous revolutionary slogans—will soon be gone. What will come next is a great unknown, like the night sky enveloping the plane as it continues its ascent.


Postscript: April 2016

Last March President Obama became the first American president in almost one hundred years to visit Cuba. But even before his trip, Obama had already arrived in Havana.

US presidents tend to provoke strong emotional reactions in Cubans. Visitors to the Museum of the Revolution, for instance, are met by a “wall of cretins” near the entrance, featuring life-size caricatures of Batista and three US presidents: Reagan, Bush senior, and George W. Bush (who wears a Nazi cap), accompanied by a text in three languages thanking them for being “cretins who consolidated socialism . . . and the revolution.”

Obama, in contrast, was well-liked since his first presidential campaign. It was not only that his politics were more amenable to Cubans, or that his economic plan—including universal health care coverage—rhymed with some of the island’s socialist ideals. Cubans loved Obama mainly because, in their eyes, he looks Cuban. But he does not look like an ordinary Cuban: residents of the capital point out that he could be mistaken for a resident of Centro Habana, the largely working-class, Afro-Cuban neighborhood near the Old Town.

The perceived resemblance was so striking that the Pichy Boys, a group of Miami-based Cuban video bloggers, have made a cottage industry out of dubbing Obama into Cuban Spanish. After December 17, one of their videos showed the American president giving a speech before a White House lectern. He spoke in the working-class dialect of Centro Habana and explained his reasons for his interest in Cuba: “I called Raúl and said: ‘My mulatta wants a beach vacation at Varadero [a popular resort near Havana].’” Raúl Castro, also dubbed and speaking in an old man’s voice, responds with an offer to trade “the three spies you have locked up over there for the toothless old guy I have over here.” Cut to Obama, who objects that “that’s three-for-one,” to which Raúl responds: “It’s the end of the year, mi chino, it’s time for double credit” (the last line was a reference to the Cuban phone company’s monthly promotions for double their regular cell phone minutes).

Since then, Cubans have been routinely watching Obama speak Spanish and joking around in Havana slang. When the visit was announced, the Pichy Boys created another video teaching an Obama stand-in how to prepare for his Havana visit: get a Cuban haircut, groom yourself, and prepare for the onslaught of admiring Cuban women. A Photoshopped image by an anonymous author that was widely circulated on the Internet showed Michelle Obama wagging her finger while a speech bubble above her head read: “No, my negro, no way you’re going to Cuba by yourself,” thus presenting the first lady as a jealous Cuban wife.

With these dozens of videos and photos circulating widely in Cuba—those without access to the Internet could consult them in the Paquete Semanal, the Island’s file-sharing service—Cubans were primed for Obama’s visit. Even before Air Force One landed, most people felt they knew the President already. And since he looked and spoke like them, they were pleased to welcome him to their island.

Cubans were in for an even bigger surprise: during Obama’s visit, Cuban television showed Pánfilo, one of the country’s most famous comedians and the host of a show that could be described as the local version of Saturday Night Live, hosting the American president during one of the show’s episodes. Obama talked in English and Spanish with Pánfilo, learned to play dominoes, and joked about the dangers of driving The Beast to a baseball game (stray balls could crack the windshield). The video went viral on the Internet, and most Cubans assumed Pánfilo had hosted an Obama lookalike . . . or that the images had been rigged by the Pichy Boys or their like. But the visit was confirmed by the White House: the Web site confirmed that President Obama had indeed visited Pánfilo’s show (earlier he had spoken with the comedian by phone as part of another episode).

After this surprising cameo—the first of its kind in Latin America—President Obama confirmed the Cuban perception of him: he could easily be one of them, an ordinary resident of Centro Habana.


© Rubén Gallo. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.

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