Signs of a Changing Cuba
Signs of a Changing Cuba
The signs of the times speak loudly in Cuba, sometimes through their silence.
A 17-hour drive across the heart of the island in a battered burgundy and gray 1956 Ford Fairlane included long stretches in which there was surprisingly little ideology on display, few of the billboards that once trumpeted revolutionary slogans.
Those that remained had less of the nostalgic lilt of “socialism or death” and more of the eager pitch of self-help books or business management bibles.
“Florida advances through its own effort,” said a sign in the town of that name.
“Quality is respect for the people,” said another.
Another said simply, “Work hard!” — a notion stripped of the ideological imperative that used to complete the thought with phrases like “to defeat imperialism” or “to build socialism.”
Dispatched to Cuba in December after the surprise announcement by President Obama that he would renew full diplomatic relations, I set off on a road trip from Havana, near the west end of the island, to Guantánamo, at the east end.
The mileage chart on my map said the distance was 565 miles. It felt a lot longer sitting on the cream-colored, quilted vinyl seat of the Ford, which had lost a lot of its spring in the years since Fidel Castro swept into power.
The vintage Ford was not part of the original plan.
It was Christmastime, and flights across the island were sold out and the rental cars were all rented. So I started looking for a driver, preferably someone with a newish car. I didn’t want to get stuck on the roadside in some broken-down Soviet-era Lada or a rusting relic from the Eisenhower administration.
Juaquin Dominguez Capote relaxed with friends after a long week of work as a rancher in Holguín. Credit Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
When Julio César López showed up in his big Ford at my hotel, the Habana Libre, I almost dismissed him out of hand. But he said that he had recently replaced the motor, and that the car had made several trips across the island and back. He even promised to replace the bald front right tire and change the oil.
We had a deal.
Along the way, a slowly changing Cuba revealed itself, sometimes through what was there and sometimes through what was not.
More signs of the times:
“This house for sale.” That concept did not exist, legally, before 2011, when home sales were first allowed under changes designed to inject some capitalist life into the country’s creaky socialist economy. Now, “For Sale” signs are a common sight.
Even more common are signs for the hundreds of small private restaurants, called paladares, which operated largely in the shadows until 2010, when they greatly expanded after the government allowed some people to go into business for themselves.
There were also discouraging signs:
One was the lack of little bars on my phone, showing that there was no cellular coverage in the areas between cities, an indication of Cuba’s backward telecommunications network.
There was a near absence of trucks carrying merchandise or farm produce, a sign of an economy that barely ticks.
While there was little car and truck traffic, there was a lot of everything else. Sharing the highway with us were bicycles, oxcarts, tractors, motorcycles (some with sidecars) and horsecarts of every type (large and small two-wheeled farm carts, four-wheeled carts that carried up to 10 passengers, and light carriages that served as taxis).
And there were lots of breakdowns, which is to be expected when a high percentage of the cars on the road were manufactured before John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960.
An hour out of Havana, a man with no shirt leaned on a gray Lada with the hood up, not having bothered to move it off the road. Near a town called Torriente, a couple kissed passionately beside a broken-down red Chevy. Near Santiago de Cuba, a woman with an anxious face sat surrounded by a brood of children in the back seat of a stalled, burnt-orange Buick.
Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
I never saw a tow truck.
Cuba is a beautiful island, green and fertile, a poem of vibrant color and sensual light:
A scarlet sunset bleeds across the Caribbean sky, bruised purple at the edges.
In the heat of the day, a woman in a shocking pink shirt walks under a red parasol.
An old man in jonquil pants sits on a fence.
Pale green sugar cane grows in red dirt fields.
On Day Two, we had breakfast at the Ciego de Ávila Hotel, nearly smack in the center of the island, a decaying throwback to an age of Soviet-financed plans to build big resorts for vacationing workers.
Done up in peeling, garish green and gold, it was a jumble of window boxes sprouting miniature palm trees, concrete arches and balconies. The swimming pool sparkled blue and empty. Of 147 rooms, only about 15 were occupied; there seemed to be more workers than guests.
We drove with the windows down, swaying over the blacktop, the air beating around us. The big engine hummed. Mr. López, my driver, babied the car over the bumpy stretches, which got more frequent the farther we got from Havana. The Ford was full of rattles and bangs, and when we hit a bump it was like shaking a can loaded with nickels. There were small vent windows in the front, and no seatbelts.
The odometer was stuck at 26948.0. How many times had it turned over before freezing? Cuba, too, is frozen in the past. Younger Cubans, and many older ones too, are aching for the odometer to start turning again.
This car is beautiful and old and tired. Cuba is all those things.
For all that, a Cuban journalist remarked to me along the way how much the country has changed since an ailing Fidel Castro first stepped aside in 2006 and his brother Raúl became president two years later and started his gradual economic reforms.
Five years ago, he said, people talked about politics. What Fidel said. What Raúl was going to do. Now they talk about money and business.