Six days after my arrival to Cuba, my amazing travel companions (Leta, Bert , Aisha and Renzo) and I learned President Obama announced the United States and Cuba were officially establishing diplomatic relations. A US embassy was weeks away from re-opening in Havana after over five decades of a Cold War bout between our country's leaders.
A trojan horse for the US to reclaim power in Cuba?
The US's acceptance of communism?
The end of Castro's regime?
Whatever the motivation and political foreplay behind the "normalization" of relations between the US a Cuba, the page has turned.
"I didn't think this would happen in my lifetime," said a kind-faced Viñales tour guide.
She shook her head in disbelief and looked across the room at her colleague, also in her mid-30s.
The second woman's lips perked dimples into her cheeks as she looked down to her arm. Pointing to a rumble of goose bumps, she fell speechless.
We had stopped by a tour center to inquire about hiking trails and the, who-knows-because-it's-Cuba, possible availability of rental hogs to scoot across the Viñales countryside. Still unclear of the hog situation, we ventured out for a hike to a cave, which, we were told may be hard to find because there, "aren't many signs in Cuba."
Before we strolled into the tour office, a breaking news alert informed us of Obama's upcoming announcement. In an internet center - run by the Cuban government, like most establishments in communism – where foreigners and locals (well, not really locals) can purchase internet for anywhere between CUC$2 and $8 an hour. The prices seem to change at random...because it's Cuba. A passport or Cuban ID is required to purchase internet. Whether the Cuban government has the technology and resources to monitor internet use is up for debate, but every site I visited theoretically could be tracked back to me.
Our iPhones worked the same as they do with a wifi connection in the states – minus streaming content – but the computers provided by the internet center appeared to block a lot of content through invasive and seemingly senseless cookie errors. Oh Cuba.
A cuc (or Cuban convertible peso), or 30 minutes of Cuban wifi, is worth about one American dollar and 25 cuban pesos. The cuc actually replaced the American dollar in Cuba late in 2004. Foreigners use the cuc, locals use the peso, which, though among the highest value for a peso, is worth very little. One cuc is 25 pesos. Fifty cucs buys you a thee hour cab ride, which is just 20 cucs shy of what Cuban doctors make in a month. Thus, everything foreigners could access like restaurants, wifi and bottled water are more or less inaccessible to the Cuban people. Even items like shampoo and basic drugs like Advil are tough to come by.
Disparity thrives in Cuba. Yet streams of colorful Cubans bustle through the streets – hawking bread, fixing cars or resting on their stoops with the backdrop of buildings in vibrant disappear, paining a beautiful tapestry. Kids play soccer or marbles in the streets at dusk as their parents smoke cigarettes on their stoop.
From my experience, Cuban people on the whole are incredibly kind and appear to be deeply connected to their families, neighbors, community and country. Eyes deepened by pride, frustration, love and cautious optimism glow through many Cuban's sun soaked skin.
Things have been slowly changing for Cubans in recent years. More liberties and freedoms drizzle the Cuban people. Opportunities have thus become increasingly available. Though, like the hog rentals, the consistency and clarity of opportunity is who-knows-because-it's-Cuba.
"Everything is illegal here!" said a Havana wheeler and dealer named Juan-Carlos.
"They arrested me yesterday for talking to you," he continued. "As soon as you left, they started accusing me of harassing you. Five hours I have sat in a tiny cell."
We had walked around with Juan-Carlos the day before. He's a savvy Cuban who had defected from his island to play professional baseball in Canada and the US before "blowing it" when he married a stripper and ended up back in his Communist-run country. Juan-Carlos most certainly hoped he was suave his way into something advantageous when he struck up a conversation with us the day before.
But he wasn't trying to hustle us. A big voice fueled by fluency in both slang-filled American English and rapid Cuban Spanish is his ride through interwoven dialogue between the locals, the cops and foreigners.
"The cops like to harass me for all kinds of shit. But they know my people know me and are behind me. I make noise and they let me go," he explained. According to Juan-Carlos, at one time, he had been locked up for seven months for saying bad things about Castro. He stripped down naked and hunger striked until they let him go, he claimed.
I appreciated his rebellious and tenacious spirit.
The American embassy reopening in Cuba is huge. But I don't think Cuba will change fast. The island is stuck in a 1950s time-warp with smoking classic American cars and grocery stores stocked worse than a college dorm room. Cubans know they want change. But change is a skill and mindset. It takes a certain mentality and know-how. The way my colleagues, neighbors and friends view change in Silicon Valley differs drastically from the understanding of change in Cuba. Words like disruption and innovation seemed nonexistent in Cuban prose.
Nonetheless, the Cuban people, who are generally well-educated, seem to have the will and desire to explore the world, if they were only allowed, and improve their country. Perhaps a Cuban grass-roots wave will swell or new government relations between our countries will push change into gear.
"The Cuban people need change now," Juan-Carlos said to me. "But, no."
"Twenty? Thirty years? Maybe. But we need our freedom now."
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