President Barack Obama’s plan to normalize relations with Cuba, announced late last year, sparked memories of a family trip I took to the island more than a decade ago. My sister and three nephews, wife and toddler daughter went to deliver pharmaceuticals to a synagogue, though mostly we were curious to experience this Cold War artifact.
We flew from Mexico on a worn-out plane that’d previously served the Soviet Union, with fully operational ashtrays, a busted toilet, and fasten seat belt signs printed in Cyrillic. The craft looked like its previous gig was entertaining children while parked in an old-fashion playground, kids scrambling over the cockpit and throwing rocks into the head, before it was gifted to Fidel Castro by Vladimir Putin, no doubt as part of an elaborate ceremony that involved marching militaries. Slicing over the Atlantic Ocean we gripped the cold metal armrests in fear, and joked that to enter the past that was Cuba the journey had to be made in a relic from a similar era.
Cuba was exactly what we imagined it’d be. Havana was dotted with decaying colonial buildings dressed in fading pastel colors; plazas were filled with “antique” and craft sellers, loiterers, and snuggling couples. Large American automobiles that were originally manufactured when Eisenhower or Kennedy was president plied the pot-holed avenues. Music was everywhere, spilling from stoops and alleyways.
Beneath the swirl of colors and sounds the country’s cultural and economic fabric could be glimpsed, like the stuffing poking out of threadbare, over-stuffed, upholstered chairs. Large billboards exhorted viewers to honor the revolution, while on the crumbling sidewalks below passersby strolled by dressed in cheap, sometimes patched, clothing. There was a sense of busy idleness, people drifting from one ill-paid task to the next with feigned determination. Nothing was shiny.
We delivered the drugs to the synagogue. While the rest of my family stayed for services two year old Sara and I wandered over to a nearby park. It was empty except for a sole, squat, figure, dressed in multiple layers despite the warm weather, sitting on a bench. The space featured a small set of play structures adjacent to a lush expanse of grass. Almost immediately after Sara happily flopped on the lawn, the person on the bench, who turned out to be a middle-aged, square-shaped woman, fast-walked over, and waggled her finger at us.
“Es Prohibido,” she hissed, and pointed towards a small sign nearby, which stated “Mantente fuera del pasto!”
I nodded at the woman, picked Sara up, and carried her to the play structure. The woman folded her arms, and steadily watched us. Being a toddler, Sara quickly ran back to the grass, only to be reprimanded more forcefully by the overseer, whose only job, it seemed, was to ensure that visitors to her domain did not touch the greenery. Sara, small for her age and smiley, usually charmed people, but the grass guardian’s mouth remained sternly downward as she carefully monitored how close we got to the forbidden zone. Her eyes burned with the righteous deployment of petty power, as if policing a pre-schooler critically advanced the revolution. And perhaps it did. Finally, I gave up, and ushered Sara back to the synagogue.
A few days later, on a sun streaked afternoon that brought out Havana’s pastel colors and ocean side perambulators, we decided to visit Coppelia, la cathedral del helado, where locals go for ice cream. As we neared the location we spotted a modest line, queued in front of what appeared to be separate stations featuring signs announcing two or three different flavors. They were all closed. The line snaked past them towards a spiral staircase that led into a concrete building shaped like a flying saucer.
A half-hour later, we spilled into the packed second floor of the concrete saucer-building. It looked like a 1960s prison cafeteria, with chipped Formica tables, metal chairs, linoleum floors, and unattractive geometric designs on the ceiling. All around us families were digging into mounds of yellow and pink globs dripping from plastic bowls. At the table next to ours a father filled empty liter soda bottles with the gooey remains of a dozen half-finished dishes, the Cuban version of a “to-go” cup.
A waitress who looked like she only delivered bad news eventually approached us. There was no menu, and, we quickly determined, minimal choice. The day’s flavors were vanilla and strawberry; a scoop cost in the neighborhood of a nickel. We sampled both options. They tasted the same, like flavored artificial ice, quickly melting into the pastel colors reminiscent of so many of Havana’s buildings.
It’s simplistic to say that these two incidents define Cuba. We also experienced the profound warmth and inner joy embodied in the culture, as well as the tight family ties and social connections. Still, the deep imprint of rules, impersonal service, and lack of options makes me wonder how Cuba will cope with our consumerist, service uber alles, choice-based society, if and when our cultural wave fully crashes on the small island. No doubt some Cubans will get very rich, while others will be left even without inexpensive ice cream to savor with their friends and relations; perhaps the same conditions that led to Castro’s revolution in the first place.
It’s been fifty year since the U.S. severed ties with Cuba. The original villain behind the rupture, the Soviet Union, doesn’t even exist anymore. The challenge now is how a meaningful relationship can be created that brings out the best in both countries. If we don’t rise to it, petty rules and poor service may be swept away by new economic forces, while the better parts of Cuba could be smothered under the soft pillow of unrelenting capitalism.