Cuba’s slow rebirth
Ruth Behar, Turning Points, The New York Times
Turning Point: Raúl Castro resigns as Cuba’s president.
“It was yours,” my mother announced. She held out a girl’s blue school uniform.
She’s 82 now and still surprises me with mementos she took from Cuba and has kept packed away since the ‘60s.
A star was sewn onto the front and it had a thick hem to be let out as I grew.
“Don’t you remember?”
I shook my head.
“You wore it when you were 4 years old. You went to the same Jewish day school in Havana that I went to. Classes were in Spanish and Yiddish. Wasn’t that amazing? Then Castro came.”
I grew up, as did so many children of Cuban exiles, traumatized by what my parents had lost in the revolution of 1959 led by Fidel Castro. They had believed in the social reforms Castro envisioned — equal rights for women and Afro-Cubans, free day care, land for farmers, housing for the poor, health care for all and education for every child — and felt betrayed by his turn to authoritarianism and communism.
Like other exiles of their generation, my parents refuse to return to the island. They prefer to hold on to their memories of a vanished Cuba. For nearly 30 years I’ve been going back on my own, trying to understand what Cuba has become.
There are also the children who stayed, the generation raised by revolutionaries, who tried to build a just society through volunteer work and communal sacrifice. They struggled through periods of profound scarcity and now face the decline of Cuba’s national welfare system. A friend who supports her parents with her Airbnb business wondered who she might have been, what she might have attained, had they left.
“You’re lucky your parents took you away when you were little,” she told me.
But as Cuba approaches the 60th anniversary of its revolution, a new generation, both in and out of Cuba, the grandchild generation, is shedding the traumas of the past.
Young Cubans today are individualists who would have been labeled “ideological diversionists” by elders who cut sugarcane for the good of the nation. Although they’ve grown up hearing about the horrors of American imperialism and the ongoing trade embargo, they sport tattoos that declare, “All You Need is Love” or “Live Hard.”
And they adore brands. In May, 2016, Chanel came to Havana for a fashion show. The contrast in generations was starkly on display when Fidel Castro’s grandson Tony Castro (Antonio Castro Ulloa), an aspiring 19-year-old model who is the spitting image of his grandfather, made an appearance on the Paseo del Prado.
A self-made celebrity of this new generation is the 37-year-old Idania del Río. She returned to Havana from working abroad when private businesses became legal under Raúl Castro. Her graphic design shop, Clandestina, offers silkscreened T-shirts that caught President Obama’s attention on his historic visit to Cuba in March 2016, and are now sold on Amazon.
A surprising number of young Cubans can afford to spend $28 — close to the island’s average monthly salary — on a Clandestina T-shirt, but their ambitions can only go so far. They work in private restaurants, fix up rooms to rent to tourists, give an old Chevy a second life as a hot-pink taxi. They want Cuba to become an “ordinary” country. Meanwhile, almost all transactions are still in cash, no one has a credit card and money is kept under the bed.
Reopening the island to the capitalist world has also brought growing inequality. In the early 1990s, when I started returning to Cuba, I noticed dark curtains hiding the goods in tourist shops to prevent Cubans from desiring things they couldn’t afford. Now, everything is in plain view — including Chanel.
In the past, emigration was a way to escape. But countries around the world are closing their borders, and the United States no longer offers Cubans a fast route to citizenship.
Young Cubans now dream not of emigrating but of traveling.
The grandson of my Afro-Cuban childhood nanny wants to visit Guantánamo, where his father is from. Yet earning the equivalent of $12 a month, he finds even saving for a bus fare from Havana to Guantánamo, about 600 miles, to be prohibitively expensive.
His brother-in-law chimed in during our conversation, “My dream is to travel the world and then return to Cuba.” He laughed, yet there was no sense he yearned for political change. “Cuba doesn’t have gangs or guns. It’s a safe country.”
The economic difficulties that confront these two young Afro-Cuban men have to be weighed against their feeling of security. Racism has not ended in Cuba, and many feel it has increased with the rise of private enterprise, whose benefits tilt clearly toward white Cubans. But one of the revolution’s lasting achievements is to have instilled a strong national pride in Cuba’s African heritage, giving black Cubans a voice that continues to push for greater equality and the right to black self-expression — even the Black Lives Matter movement has supporters on the island.
But Cuba is on an uncertain threshold as it moves into a post-Castro future. While it can be proud of constitutional reforms that include proposing to legalize gay marriage, a primal demographic issue haunts the country.
Birthrates in Cuba have dropped alarmingly, and the population is the oldest in all of Latin America. A woman I know used to say, “I’d never bear a child for Fidel Castro.” Others say it is economic conditions, particularly a severe housing shortage, that has made the decision to have children especially complex.
Our former neighbors in Havana still live in the same modest two-bedroom apartment. Their granddaughter has slept all her life in the same bedroom with them, her now 90-year-old grandparents, who are walking advertisements for Cuba’s excellent health care, while her parents occupy the other bedroom. She’s 37 and her boyfriend of more than a decade has lived in his grandparents’ apartment his whole life.
“We can’t get married because we don’t have anywhere to live,” she told me. “I don’t think we’ll have children. I’m getting old. Anyway, we don’t earn enough to support a child.”
I imagined what her daughter might look like, wearing the school uniform and red kerchief of a young pioneer, and I remembered the uniform my mother kept, clinging to the memory of my interrupted childhood in Cuba.
Her grandmother was, in Cuban grandmotherly fashion, listening in. Years ago she sold her wedding ring to buy an electric fan, but she lives without regrets. Smiling at her granddaughter, she said, “You never know what might happen. Aquí vivimos de la esperanza.”
I know her granddaughter no longer believes in utopian dreams of what might be. She is determined to live her life in the present, like other Cubans of the new generation.
But she kindly smiled back at her grandmother and said, “I know, abuela.”
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