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    Where Is Cuba Going?

    Where Is Cuba Going?
    By JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN
    Published: September 20, 2012 17 Comments

    On the plane, something odd but also vaguely magical-seeming happened:
    namely, nobody knew what time it was. Right before we landed, the flight
    attendant made an announcement, in English and Spanish, that although
    daylight saving time recently went into effect in the States, the island
    didn't observe that custom. As a result, we had caught up — our time had
    passed into sync with Cuban time. You will not need to change your
    watches. Then, moments later, she came on again and apologized. She had
    been wrong, she said. The time in Cuba was different. She didn't specify
    how many hours ahead. At that point, people around us looked at one
    another. How could the airline not know what time it is where we're
    going? Another flight attendant, hurrying down the aisle, said loudly,
    "I just talked to some actual Cubans, in the back, and they say it'll be
    the same time." That settled it: we would be landing in ignorance. We
    knew our phones weren't going to work because they were tied to a U.S.
    company that didn't operate on the island.

    The 6-year-old sat between us, looking back and forth at our faces. "Is
    something wrong?" she asked.

    "No," my wife, Mariana, said, "just funny." But to me she did the
    eyebrows up and down.

    "What?" I said.

    "Nothing," she said, "just — into the zone."

    Mi esposa travels to Cuba every so many years, to do movie-related
    research (she's a film-studies professor) and to visit her mother's
    family, a dwindling number of which, as death and emigration have
    surpassed the birthrate, still live in the same small inland town, a
    dusty, colonial-looking agricultural town, not a place anyone's heard
    of. To them, even after half a century, it's the querencia, an
    untranslatable Spanish word that means something like "the place where
    you are your most authentic self." They won't go on about Cuba around
    you in a magic-realist way. Nor do they dream of trying to reclaim their
    land when the Castros die. Destiny settled their branch of the family
    not in Florida, where, if you're Cuban-American, your nostalgia and
    anger (and sense of community) are continually stoked, but in Carolina
    del Norte, where nobody cares. They tend to be fairly laid back about
    politics. But their memories stitch helplessly back to and through that
    town over generations, back to the ur-ancestors who came from a small
    village in the Canary Islands.

    My wife's 91-year-old Cuban grandmother, who lives with us much of the
    time, once drew for me on top of a white cake box a map of their
    hometown. It started out like something you would make to give someone
    directions but ended up as detailed in places as a highway atlas. More
    so, really, because it was personally annotated. Here is the corner
    where my father have the bodega. Here is the alley where the old man
    used to walk his grandson, in a white suit, and we always say, 'Let's go
    to watch it,' because he have his pocket full of stones, and when the
    boy runs, the old man throw and hit him in the legs. She was remembering
    back through Castro and Batista, back through all of that, into the time
    of Machado, even back through him into her parents' time, the years of
    mustachioed Gómez in his black frock coat. The night I met her, 18 years
    ago, she cooked me Turkish-delight-level black beans with Spanish
    olives, and flan in a coffee can. She said: "Mira, Yon, at this time" —
    she meant the early '40s — "they make a census, all the teacher go to
    have a census in Cuba. We see places nobody know the name. I ride a
    small horse. One night there is a storm — we pass the storm under a
    palma. In one house is un enano. You know what is? A dwarf. He say, 'I
    count half!' " Her stories are like that. You actually want them to go
    longer. This is no small thing for me, as my life has evolved by
    unforeseen paths such that I see more of this abuelita than of any other
    human being. Neither of us ever leaves the house, and during the day
    it's the two of us. Those could be some paw-chewingly long hours in the
    kitchen, if she were talking to me about religion or something. Mostly
    she calls people in Miami and watches Univision at the same time,
    waiting for my wife and daughters to get home, after which she perks up.

    Because my wife and her family have living relatives in Cuba, they can
    get a humanitarian exception that lets you fly direct from Miami. The
    legal loopholes combining to make that possible must fill hard drives.
    But you can in fact go that way, if you obtain one of these exceptions
    or are immediate family with someone who does. I first tagged along 12
    years ago. It's hands down the strangest way to travel to Cuba, which
    you might not expect, because technically it's the simplest. But the
    airport bureaucracy in Miami was so heavy, at least back then, you had
    to show up the night before and stay in an airport hotel so you could
    wake up early and spend the day in a series of bewildering lines,
    getting things signed or stamped. That first time, the tedium was
    alleviated by a little cluster of Miami relatives who followed us to and
    through each line, standing slightly off to the side. I spoke hardly any
    Spanish then. My wife told me they were giving her all sorts of warnings
    about Havana and messages for various people in their town. Now and then
    one of them would rub my arm and smile warmly at me, gestures that I
    took to mean, "Words aren't necessary to express the mutual
    understanding of familial connection that we now possess," but that when
    I think about it now, would have been identical to those signaling,
    "You, simpleton."

    One line was for having your luggage wrapped in plastic. A couple of
    muscly Latin guys in shorts were waiting there. They lifted each
    suitcase or bag onto a little spinning platform, turned it blazingly
    fast to seal it in industrial-strength shrink-wrap from a roll that
    looked like it held a landfill's worth and charged you for it. Their
    spinning was so energetic, it doubled as a feat of strength. Everyone
    watched. The reasons behind the plastic were not laid out. Later in the
    waiting area, a woman told us it was to discourage quick-fingered Cuban
    bag handlers on the other side. They took not gold and money, which few
    people were foolish enough to pack, but toothpaste and shampoo,
    necessities. This year, however, the plastic wrap was optional.

    There were other post-Bush differences in the direct-to-Cuba zone. The
    lines had grown fewer and shorter. Most noticeable, the Cubans on our
    flight — a mixture of Cuban-Americans and returning Cuban nationals who
    had been in Florida or D.C. on visas of their own (some people do move
    back and forth) — weren't carrying as much stuff. The crowd cast a
    fairly normal profile. Last time, people had multiple pairs of shoes
    tied around their necks by the laces. Thick gorgets of reading glasses.
    Men wearing 10 hats, several pairs of pants, everybody's pockets
    bulging. Everybody wearing fanny packs. The rule was, if you could get
    it onto your body, you could bring it aboard. At least five people
    carried giant stuffed animals and other large toys. That's one of the
    things in the Cuban-American community, in which going back is generally
    frowned upon — but if it's to meet your nieto for the first time. . . .

    None of that, though, is what makes the Miami-to-Havana flights strange.
    It's that this most obvious route, more than any of the much longer
    workarounds by which American citizens can get to the island, lets you
    feel most fully the truth of Cuba's sheer proximity. It's one of those
    flights in which, almost as soon as you reach your maximum altitude, you
    begin your descent, and within minutes you're looking down on a diorama
    of palm trees growing incongruously in green fields, and within seconds
    you hit the ground and everyone bursts into applause. The country you
    land in is too unlike your own to have been reached that quickly, all
    but instantaneously, and is after all, you recall, on hostile terms with
    your own. As if you've passed through a warp. ?"Why are they clapping?"
    the 6-year-old asked.

    I explained that it was special, coming here. Some of these people, when
    they left Cuba, might have thought they would never see it again. Some
    had been hearing about it all their lives and were seeing it for the
    first time.

    "Also, they like to clap and yell," my wife said.

    The 6-year-old did her philosopher face, gazing out the window. She gets
    a little dimple on her forehead when the big thoughts are brewing. "Now
    I'm here," she said.

    "Yes, you are."

    "And I'm Cuban," she said.

    "You are part Cuban, that's true."

    "You're not any Cuban," she said, not meanly, just sort of marveling.

    She looks like me, pale with blue eyes and light brown hair and
    freckles. Yet she has largely been raised day to day by intense,
    dark-eyed Cuban-American women, and their blood is in her, and the
    history of their family, with all of its drama and all of its issues,
    has exerted an incalculable influence on who and what she is. At some
    point in her life, she'll have to figure out what all of that means to
    her; the whole story and the way she looks will be part of its
    strangeness. For me it was all behind glass. I felt the sudden
    separation between us, between the relative depths of what this trip
    would mean to us, many years on. One of those moments of generational
    wooziness that come with having kids, like realizing there's a part of
    their lives you won't see.

    We landed under searingly vivid skies, something like what the blue
    tablet from a packet of Easter dye lets off. The land right around the
    airport is farmed; we saw a man plowing with oxen. The fertility of Cuba
    is the thing you can't put into words. I've never stood on a piece of
    ground as throbbingly, even pornographically, generative. Throw a used
    battery into a divot, and it will put out shoots — that's how it feels.
    You could smell it, in the smoky, slightly putrid smell of turned
    fields. More and more, as we drove, that odor mingled with the smell of
    the sea.

    This was the first time I was in post-Fidel Cuba. It was funny to think
    that not long ago, there were smart people who doubted that such a thing
    could exist, i.e., who believed that with the fall of Fidel would come
    the fall of Communism on the island. But Fidel didn't fall. He did fall,
    physically — on the tape that gets shown over and over in Miami, of him
    coming down the ramp after giving that speech in 2004 and tumbling and
    breaking his knee — but his leadership didn't. He executed one of the
    most brilliantly engineered successions in history, a succession that
    was at the same time a self-entrenchment. First, he faked his own death
    in a way: serious intestinal operation, he might not make it. Raúl is
    brought in as "acting president." A year and a half later, Castro mostly
    recovered. But Raúl is officially named president, with Castro's
    approval. It was almost as if, "Is Fidel still . . . ?" Amazing. So now
    they rule together, with Raúl out front, but everyone understanding that
    Fidel retains massive authority. Not to say that Raúl doesn't wield
    power — he has always had plenty — but it's a partnership of some kind.
    What comes after is as much of a mystery as ever.

    Our relationship with them seems just as uncertain. Barack Obama was
    going to open things up, and he did tinker with the rules regarding
    travel, but now they say that when you try to follow these rules, you
    get caught up in all kinds of forms and tape. He eased the restrictions
    on remittances, so more money is making it back to the island, and that
    may have made the biggest difference so far. Boats with medical and
    other relief supplies have recently left Miami, sailing straight to the
    island, which hasn't happened in decades. These humanitarian shipments
    can, according to The Miami Herald, include pretty much anything a
    Cuban-American family wants to send to its relatives: Barbie dolls,
    electronics, sugary cereal. In many cases, you have a situation in which
    the family is first wiring money over, then shipping the goods. The
    money is used on the other side to pay the various fees associated with
    getting the stuff. So it's as if you're reaching over and re-buying the
    merchandise for your relatives. The money, needless to say, goes to the
    government. Still, capitalism is making small inroads. And Raúl has
    taken baby steps toward us: Cubans can own their own cars, operate their
    own businesses, own property. That's all new. For obvious reasons it's
    not an immediate possibility for a vast majority of the people, and it
    could be taken away tomorrow morning by decree, but it matters.

    Otherwise, our attitude toward Cuba feels very wait and see, as what
    we're waiting to see grows less and less clear. We've learned to live
    with it, like when the doctor says, "What you have could kill you, but
    not before you die a natural death." Earlier this year Obama said to a
    Spanish newspaper: "No authoritarian regime will last forever. The day
    will come in which the Cuban people will be free." Not, notice, no
    dictator can live forever, but no "authoritarian regime." But how long
    can one last? Two hundred years?

    Perhaps a second term will be different. All presidents, if they want to
    mess with our Cuba relations at even the microscopic level, find
    themselves up against the Florida community, and those are large,
    powerful and arguably insane forces.

    My wife's people got out in the early 1960s, so they've been in the
    States for half a century. Lax regulations, strict regulations. It's all
    a oneness. They take, I suppose, a Cuban view, that matters on the
    island are perpetually and in some way inherently screwed up and have
    been forever.

    There was a moment in the taxi, a little nothing exchange but so densely
    underlayered with meaning that if you could pass it through an
    extracting machine, you would understand a lot about how it is between
    Cubans and Cuban-Americans. The driver, a guy who said he grew up in
    Havana, told a tiny lie, or a half lie. The fact that you can't even say
    whether it was a lie or not is significant. My wife had asked him to
    explain for me the way it works with Cuba's two separate currencies,
    CUPs and CUCs, Cuban pesos and convertible pesos (also called "chavitos"
    or simply "dollars"). When I was last there, we didn't use either of
    these, though both existed. We paid for everything in actual, green U.S.
    dollars. That's what people wanted. There were stores in which you could
    pay in only dollars. But in 2004, Castro decided — partly as a gesture
    of contempt for the U.S. embargo — that he would abolish the use of U.S.
    dollars on the island and enforce the use of CUCs, pegged to the U.S.
    dollar but distinct from it. This coexisted alongside the original
    currency, which would remain pegged to the spirit of the revolution. For
    obvious reasons, the actual Cuban peso is worth much less than the
    other, dollar-equivalent Cuban peso, something on the order of 25 to 1.
    But the driver said simply, "No, they are equal."

    "Really?" my wife said. "No . . . that can't be."

    He insisted that there was no difference between the relative values of
    the currencies. They were the same.

    He knew that this was wrong. He probably could have told you the
    exchange rates from that morning. But he also knew that it had a
    rightness in it. For official accounting purposes, the two currencies
    are considered equivalent. Their respective values might fluctuate on a
    given day, of course, but it couldn't be said that the CUP was worth
    less than the CUC That's partly what he meant. He also meant that if
    you're going to fly to Cuba from Miami and rub it in my face that our
    money is worth one twenty-fifth of yours, I'm gonna feed you some
    hilarious communist math and see how you like it. Cubans call it la
    doble moral. Meaning, different situations call forth different ethical
    codes. He wasn't being deceptive. He was saying what my wife forced him
    to say. She had been a bit breezy, it seemed, in mentioning the
    unevenness between the currencies, which is the kind of absurdity her
    family would laugh at affectionately in the kitchen. But they don't have
    to suffer it anymore. And he was partly reminding her of that, fencing
    her off from a conversation in which Cubans would joke together about
    the notion that the CUP and the CUC had even the slightest connection to
    each other. That was for them, that laughter. So, a very complex
    statement, that not-quite-lie. After it, he was totally friendly and
    dropped us at one of the Cuban-owned tourist hotels on the edge of Havana.

    People walking by on the street didn't seem as skinny. That was the most
    instantly perceptible difference, if you were seeing Raúl's Cuba for the
    first time. They weren't sickly looking before, but under Fidel you
    noticed more the way men's shirts flapped about them and the knobbiness
    of women's knees. Now people were filling out their clothes. The
    island's overall dietary level had apparently gone up a tick. (One
    possible factor involved was an increase in the amount of food coming
    over from the United States. Unknown to most people, we do sell a lot of
    agricultural products to Cuba, second only in value to Brazil. Under a
    law that Bill Clinton squeaked through on his way out, Cuba purchases
    food and medicine from us on a cash basis, meaning, bizarrely, that a
    lot of the chicken in the arroz con pollo consumed on the island by
    Canadian tourists is raised in the Midwest — the embargo/blockade has
    always been messy when you lean in close).

    The idea was to spend some days traveling around, before going to see
    family. Once you see them, it gets emotional, and after that,
    sightseeing feels wrong somehow.

    The ladies wanted to visit the Havana aquarium before it closed for the
    day — my wife went there when she was younger — so they took off. The
    hostility of the hotel workers was to be experienced. I started making
    up reasons to approach them, just to provoke it and make sure I hadn't
    imagined it. My reflex during an odd social interaction is to assume
    fault, and this can create its own distortion, making it hard to see
    what the other person is doing, but no, these people were being
    fantastically unfriendly. It was one of the big, newly built Gaviota
    hotels — Gaviota is the quasi-official Cuban tourist organization
    (financed in part by transnational investment but controlled by a
    prominent Cuban general). Loosely speaking, these men and women worked
    for the government. It's not that they were incompetent or mean; they
    just had zero motivation to be nice to tourists or in a hurry to do
    anything for them, and for me, after years immersed in a
    may-I-pour-you-more-sweet-tea culture, the contrast held a fascination.
    In a way it was refreshing to see people so emphatically not kowtowing
    to rich white tourists, even if that was you, but of course this feeling
    was not to be trusted: you liked their unfriendliness because they
    seemed more authentically anti-capitalist that way. Especially wild was
    a woman about my age at the main reception desk, who evidently had to
    handle all the complaints about the wee-fee service in the lobby. She
    looked at you dead-level and half-smiling when you approached as if in
    her mind she were already pushing in the blade. At the desk, they sold
    little scratch cards, with passwords on them, that looked like lottery
    tickets and in hindsight had much else in common with lottery tickets.
    But there were no cards that day. "They are in the city," she said — and
    in my mind I saw them being unloaded from small boats at night — "but we
    don't have them here." I was advised to try the hotel next door, a few
    minutes' walk — another, equally massive, equally generically
    pan-Latin-style Gaviota hotel. Would a card I bought there work here? "I
    hope so," she said, still doing that smile. "But," I said, "we made
    reservations at this hotel specifically because you advertised the
    wee-fee service." A total lie. We didn't need it. I wanted to see if she
    would crack. She shook her head so slowly with exaggeratedly sincere
    sorrow, like a long-suffering teacher forced to tell her most obnoxious
    pupil he had failed. "I understand," she murmured, and went back to work.

    Partly what had been clashing were our respective ideas about the role
    of an individual in solving a crisis. In the United States, we all go
    around so empowered-feeling all the time, and when you travel you feel
    it, a sense of hypertrophy, the thing that makes us look like giant
    babies to the Europeans. Bring us our soda refills or we'll get them
    ourselves! The sheer notion that I thought she herself could do anything
    about the wee-fee, about getting the cards here faster, was probably
    genuinely amusing to her. Did I not think she wanted the wee-fee fixed?
    Did I think she actually liked standing there answering the exact same
    question from a never-ending line of childishly outraged foreigners?

    At the neighboring hotel, they did have cards. But their wee-fee was
    down. "It's not working?" I asked the man. "It's working," he said, "but
    not right now." The whole island's Internet runs through three
    unpredictable satellites, although I had read that a cable of some kind
    was recently installed. If so, it did not get routed to these hotels.
    Which was lucky in the end — it accelerated the technological molting
    that had to happen and left you feeling more present. In the basement,
    near the business center (where a woman took delight in telling
    travelers from all lands that they could not do various simple-sounding
    things on the computer consoles), I noticed a small postcard that showed
    a picture of Fidel, and the caption read in Spanish, "In the history of
    U.S. intelligence, no greater amount of money and resources have been
    put toward bringing down a single man than have been spent to get
    Fidel." And below that, "El mérito es estar vivo." Roughly, "the victory
    lies in staying alive."

    I kept seeing small groups of Asian men get on and off the elevators.
    That was new. Ten years ago the only Asian faces you might have seen
    were in Chinatown — there is one in Havana, Barrio Chino, several square
    blocks of ostensibly Chinese restaurants and faded signs with lanterns
    and pagodas on them, a neighborhood left behind by thousands of Chinese
    agricultural workers who arrived in the 19th century, and where very
    occasionally you might still see Asian features. These guys — all men, I
    saw no women — seemed dressed as inconspicuously as possible,
    loosefitting light-blue jeans and generic polo shirts and sunglasses.
    The bartender told me that they were here to do business. China was
    doing "bastante de negocios" in Cuba these days, including in oil, he
    said. At that moment a Chinese-made exploratory rig sat about 30 miles
    off the northern coast. We would be able to see it, he said, driving
    along the main highway. Cuba has lately been partnering with foreign
    petroleum companies to explore prospective undersea oil fields. A major
    discovery would be a mainline to economic independence, that most
    long-elusive goal of the revolution. So far, though, the wells have come
    up dry or disappointing.

    Cuba's involvement with China has been intensifying for more than a
    decade, as Russian influence has receded. The Chinese have built an
    amusement park and sold fleets of buses. They have been granted use — if
    our intelligence can be trusted — of a large signals-intelligence base
    on the outskirts of Havana near the airport, a giant electronic ear-horn
    right off our shores, the price we pay for renouncing any involvement
    with a country so close. There is the sheer geopolitical weirdness of
    Guantánamo's being there, too: the Chinese and the Americans operating
    on the same island, off the coast of Florida. Guantánamo was supposed to
    be gone. It's holding on like the Castros.

    The empty midafternoon lobby was vast and square-tiled and full of the
    drone of floor waxing, and the 6-year-old spilled into it laughing, her
    mother racewalking behind her, trying to catch her. They saw me at the
    bar and ran over. "We have to show you this," the 6-year-old said. She
    was pulling on my wife's purse. Mariana pulled out her phone and pushed
    play on a movie, handing it to me. At the aquarium, a little boy had
    celebrated his birthday, and his parents had gone in for the dolphin
    special. You put the kid on a raft and pushed it out into the pool.
    Shortly thereafter, one of the aquarium's giant 500-pound dolphins
    started jumping over the kid and raft, in great looping leaps, one after
    the other. The splash was considerable. The kid looked terrified, he was
    face forward, clutching the raft at the edges. The repeating image of
    the dolphin — frozen massive and pendulous directly above him — got
    better every time. The audience laughed and clapped in the concrete
    bleachers, you could hear it on the video. My wife was laughing so hard
    she had tears in her eyes. "You wouldn't see that in the States," she
    said proudly.

    We scanned for the Chinese-built oil platform the next day, and thought
    we saw something once, though it may have been a ship. To ride along the
    coastal road with the windows down was sublime. The gaps between houses
    kept giving you glimpses of the sea behind. There weren't many other
    cars, but the few that passed left a heavy, organic smell of exhaust in
    the air. You could taste dinosaurs in it. It carried that
    precatalytic-converter nostalgia. We were driving down the spine of
    Cuba, into the vast green interior of the island. Hitchhikers were
    scattered along the highway, as were people selling various things —
    garlic, strings of fish. They ran at you as you passed, yelling and
    seeming to come too close to the car.

    I woke up the next day to the sounds of morning pool activity. Water
    splashing on concrete. Insistent, unfamiliar bird song. Sleepy murmurs
    of people rubbing lotion on themselves. Hotel carts rattled by outside
    the double glass doors. It was about 8 a.m. in Varadero on a warm spring
    day, which I'm pretty sure is literally Utopia, in some vague
    historico-linguistic way: the northern shore of Cuba, that supposedly
    moved Columbus to call this the most beautiful place human eyes had ever
    seen. My wife has a thing about going to Varadero when she goes to Cuba.
    I don't know if she even likes it. She does it for her family. To them
    it would seem insane to skip it — it was the place they most wanted to
    go when they lived there — not to go, on returning, would be like taking
    a trip to Keystone, S.D., and not going to see Mount Rushmore.

    Sitting up in my twin bed, I looked over at the queen bed — they were
    already gone. The massive cafeteria operation swung into motion for only
    a couple of hours each morning. You had to be there for the stampede. We
    were moving through different micro-Cubas so quickly; too quickly,
    really. The day before we rode horses through the jungle to see the
    ruins of ancient coffee plantations and the stone huts where the slaves
    were kept. We passed cooperative villages of campesinos in the forest
    and heard political speeches coming from loudspeakers, something about
    the new agriculture laws. The previous night, coming in on the suddenly
    pitch-black Cuban highways, zooming up to unlighted "Road Closed" signs
    at 60 miles an hour, swerving to miss car-killing potholes and
    horse-drawn wagons . . . that was already dreamlike. And now we were
    navigating the omelet and cereal stations, in lines of mainly European
    tourists: Germans, Italians, Central Europeans and also Brazilians,
    Argentines and Canadians. (You know when you're meeting a Canadian,
    because they always ask, in the same shocked tone, "How did you get into
    the country?" It's an opportunity to remind you that you can't go
    legally, and they can. And by extension, that they come from a more
    enlightened land. "You need to grow up about that stuff," one guy that I
    met at a nature preserve said, to which I wanted to tell him to get a
    large and powerful population of Cuban exiles and move them into an
    election-determining province of Canada and call me in the morning.)

    The cook at the omelet station, when he asked where I was from and I
    told him, put up his fists like a boxer, as if we were about to have it
    out, then started laughing. He told me that he had family in the United
    States, in Florida. That's what everyone says. You can't understand the
    transnationally dysfunctional, mutually implicated relationship between
    Cuba and Miami, that defies all embargoes and policies of "definitive
    abandonment," until you realize that the line often cuts through
    families, almost always, in fact. People make all sorts of inner
    adjustments. I told the man I hated the embargo (the blockade, as they
    call it) and thought it was stupid, which was both true and what he
    wanted to hear. He gave me a manly clap-grasp. I didn't go on and say,
    of course, that I disliked the embargo most because it, more than
    anything, has kept the Castros in power for half a century, given them a
    ready-made Goliath for their David. Thanks to the embargo, when the
    Castros rail against us as an imperialist enemy, they aren't really
    lying. We have in effect declared ourselves the enemy of the Cuban
    people and done it under the banner of their freedom, hitting Cuba in a
    way that, after all, makes only the people suffer, and far from
    punishing those in power, rewards them and buttresses their story. As
    for the argument that to deal with tyrants would render our foreign
    policy incoherent, we deal with worse every day — we've armed worse —
    and in countries that don't have a deeply intimate history with ours,
    going back centuries. All this because a relatively small but highly
    mobilized exile community holds sway in a state that has the power to
    elect presidents. There was no way to gauge how much of this the man
    would agree with. We left it at mutually thinking the embargo sucked.

    Out by the pool, where my wife and daughter were swimming, I lay on a
    chaise in the shade, feeling paler and softer than I ever had in my life
    and unlocatably depressed in the way that resorts do so well. I read
    "Doctor Zhivago," a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa
    Volokhonsky (the husband-and-wife team who have been retranslating the
    Russian classics for more than 20 years). "Zhivago" isn't on the
    Tolstoy/Chekhov level, but there are wonderful passages, including one
    that I thought spoke to the gruffness you often encounter in Cubans, the
    excessive suspicion of introductory small talk they sometimes
    demonstrate. "The fear known as spymania," Pasternak wrote about Russia
    after the revolution, "had reduced all speech to a single formal,
    predictable pattern. The display of good intentions in discourse was not
    conducive to conversation."

    Every time I looked up from the book, there were more people in and by
    the pool, as if they were surfacing out of the water, out of the
    ripples. I had black sunglasses on, so after a while I propped myself at
    an angle at which I could seem to read the book but really be moving my
    eyeballs, staring at everybody. God, the human body! It was Speedos and
    bikinis, no matter the age or body type. You would never see a poolside
    scene in the United States with people showing this much skin, except at
    a pool where people were there precisely to show off the perfection of
    their bodies. The body not consciously sculptured through working out
    has become a secret shame and grotesquerie in America, but this
    upper-class Euro-Latin crowd had not received that news, to my
    distraction. I took in veins and cellulite, paunches and man-paps, the
    weird shinglelike sagging that starts to occur on the back of the
    thighs, cleavage that showed a spoiled-grape-like wrinkling, the
    ash-mottled skin of permanently sun-torched shoulders, all of it
    beautiful. All of it beautiful and tormenting. You watched an
    18-year-old Argentine girl in her reproductive springtime walk past an
    ancient Soviet-looking woman, her body a sculpture of blocks atop
    blocks, and both of them wearing black bikinis, the furtive looks they
    gave each other, full of emotions straight from the Pliocene, from the
    savanna. The old men scowled from behind mirrored shades. The young men
    tensed every muscle in order to seem not obsessed with how the girls saw
    them, a level of self-consciousness I found I could no longer really
    re-enter, as if it had been a drunken state. Everybody was stealing
    looks at one another, envying or disdaining or gazing, like me. We were
    all inside a matrix of lust and erotic sadness, all turning into
    versions of one another, or seeing our past selves.

    My wife's people come from a small town with a strange name, a rare
    Spanish word that almost doesn't look Spanish when you see it. When they
    lived there, the place was not considered all that far from things, from
    the cities, but the decay of infrastructure, the collapse of the trains,
    has left it stranded. There's simply no reason to have heard of it.

    The first time I went, before we were married, they made a big thing of
    me. Yankees almost never appear in this town, unless they are lost. I
    walked into a stuccoed, leafy house on a quiet street, a house full of
    loud talking, hands grabbing my arms. Everyone kissed and cried over my
    wife, whom they hadn't seen since she was a teenager. They nicknamed me
    "Wao," because everything they would tell me, I would say, "Wow." It
    seemed the appropriate response. Wei-Wei, the abuelita, had come with
    us, or rather we had gone with her — it ended up being probably the last
    time she would ever go back — and she sent money ahead of our visit, for
    them to buy food with. She's always sending money, but this time she
    sent more, and they laid in pork and all the spices they needed. There
    was a long table. All of the men were named some version of Rafael,
    Rafaelito, Rafaelín. The matriarch, a shy and tiny woman named Haydee
    (eye-day), presided with birdlike hands, making little apologies. You
    didn't even have to chew the pork, you could just sort of let it melt.
    They made chicharrones de viento, wind-crackers, the Cubans' witty name
    for a kind of poverty-inspired something, frisked up out of salt and
    flour and a little lard. There was a bottle of Havana Club on the table
    — the first time I ever saw or tasted it. Knowing only a little
    classroom Spanish, I struggled to follow their phrases, the swift and
    expressive but mud-mouthed Spanish spoken on the island.

    After dinner, I made the mistake of saying something about a cigar. It
    wasn't as if I asked for one. I probably said something like, "I hear
    that your country is famous for its cigars." But they took this as an
    overpolite way of asking for one, so the hunt began. The shops were
    closed, but the Rafaels started working on the car. You've heard, no
    doubt, how in Cuba they still drive working American cars from the
    1950s, but this was something else, a Frankenstein made from the parts
    of about four different cars from the '50s and one Russian car
    apparently from the '70s. They got this creature going, and we started
    moving through the streets. No headlights — one of them held an electric
    lantern out the window. It was wired to the cigarette lighter. We needed
    it badly. Within a mile of leaving the town, we were in the face-close
    darkness of unlighted rural roads. They took me to a kind of kiosk, an
    open bar in the middle of a field. I don't know what it was, really. A
    kind of club. All of the men, about seven of them, were workers in the
    tobacco fields. They would smuggle out a cigar or two each week, maybe
    defective ones, for personal use or the chance to trade it away.
    Rafelito told me, "This is the puro puro."

    Back at the house, half the neighborhood gathered to watch me huff on
    this thing, many, I slowly realized, hoping to see me vomit. I stood
    outside on a back patio, amid chicken coops. The cigar went to my head
    like thunder. My knees became untrustworthy. But no throwing up.
    Rafaelito had too much to drink and danced like a crazy person. As a
    boy, he lost his only brother, drowned in the river. His father, Rafael,
    approached me with a wagging finger, asking me if I liked the country.
    Of course, I said, bonita, linda y la gente.

    "Si." He looked a little bit like a Cuban Groucho Marx. "Si, te gusta el
    pais," he said. "Pero, te gusta el sistema?" He pulled the syllables of
    el sistema out of his mouth like draws of taffy.

    Now they were all gone, all the Rafaels. The two older ones were dead
    from disease, and the youngest one had gone to Miami, I don't even know
    how. There is a kind of lottery, apparently. Perhaps he won it. He's
    working as a mechanic. The house was completely different. The ground
    floor was empty and quiet.

    Haydee, the old woman of the house, was still there, even more ancient
    but seemingly unchanged. I saw her do the same thing now to the
    6-year-old that she did to my wife those years ago, wrap her arms around
    the girl and sort of refuse to leave, the way a child would. "I'm
    keeping her here," she said. "You, go back."

    Her husband and son were gone, her grandson gone to Miami. Her other
    grandson, Erik, half-brother of the boy who left, was still around. In
    fact, he was thriving. He had started a little furniture business. He
    was living in the house with his wife and daughter, and all had been
    going well. But just months before, they lost a son, an infant, to a
    respiratory disease. So within a short span of years, he lost his
    father, grandfather and his brother (to emigration), and now his son. He
    was the only male in the house.

    Erik's daughter, a young girl with glasses and reddish-brown hair, was
    as shy as her grandmother. She stayed on the edges of whatever room we
    were in. My daughter was at my feet, peeking through my legs at her. I
    could feel their intense awareness of each other, but neither would
    approach.

    After lunch, while Erik was explaining different aspects of the
    furniture operation to me, my 6-year-old came up and started tugging on
    my shirt. She was mouthing something at me. I kept saying, "Please don't
    interrupt, sweetheart." She said, "Give me your phone!" I excused myself
    from Erik for a second to give her a little lecture. I knew she was
    bored, I said, but this was an important day, and she needed to use her
    manners, not play with the phone. "Give me the phone!" she said, and ran
    off in a huff when I refused.

    Barely 20 minutes later we went back upstairs and passed by the little
    girl's room. She and the 6-year-old were sitting on the bed, playing on
    a phone. It was my wife's. The 6-year-old had taught her cousin to play
    Angry Birds. They were smiling and leaning on each other. For the next
    two days they were completely inseparable and wanted to sleep in the
    same room. They communicated through my wife when they really needed to
    work something out. They will probably know each other for the rest of
    their lives now, because of that game.

    We went out walking the streets, making the rounds to see other family
    members — to the old church, with its brightly painted statue of St.
    Julian, where Wei-Wei was married and where they remembered her, "la
    maestra," past the school where she taught and the corner store her
    father owned, where first she and then her children, my mother-in-law
    and her brother, grew up playing, before it was taken away — and as we
    strolled, I had a diminished, doubtless much-flawed version of the old
    woman's cake-box map in my head. I was hearing her voice-over, all the
    stories she told me over almost 20 years now, some of them repetitive,
    but with details emerging and receding.

    Her memories of the revolution begin with the shortwave radio, kept in
    the back room by her husband. Wei-Wei and her husband would gather with
    friends to listen to the transmissions that the Castro brothers and Che
    and Camilo Cienfuegos (the best loved of the young comandantes, at least
    by my wife's family, worshiped as a pop star by my mother-in-law, then
    11) were broadcasting from the mountains, giving assurance that they
    were about to ride down and liberate the island. For years I assumed
    that the family had been listening to these speeches in fear — as a
    couple, they were about as solidly middle class as could be, a teacher
    and a tobacco salesman, and their later experience of the revolution
    involved only pain and regret — but the abuelita surprised me one night,
    at the table, by saying that, on the contrary, they heard those speeches
    with great excitement. No one liked Batista, no one who wasn't directly
    benefiting from his thuggery and favoritism. The powerful charisma of
    the freedom fighters had percolated down into even quiet, apolitical homes.

    There was a night back home, after a long meal, when for the first time
    after knowing her for so long, I got a bit pushy with her — asked her
    follow-up questions instead of just mm-hmming — and she gave me a
    description of what it had actually been like to watch this optimism
    turn to fear, and something worse, what that had actually looked like.
    When the milicianos first came from the mountains, she said, "they come
    to say hello with this necklace made of pieces of wood and a gold
    cross." They mugged for the cameras with these crosses in their teeth. I
    asked why. "For you to look at. To pretend that they are Christian. That
    they believe in God."

    "Everybody cooperate with Fidel," she said. "Everybody was happy that we
    had the opportunity to have all the freedom that he promise." She taught
    adult literacy classes at night.

    Change came with the arrival of the comites, one house per block,
    appointed as the government representative for its households. The
    rapidity with which that degenerated into spying and becoming complicit
    in spying had been breathtaking to watch play out in stark
    anthropological terms. Within months, they were taking children aside at
    school and asking them about their parents. The parents started pulling
    the children out. The first nonpolitical families started to flee.
    People betrayed their neighbors to the comites. A woman who lived in the
    neighborhood, a woman named Solita, "somebody accuse her of having fried
    pork in her house. And they make — she was a teacher — they make a
    public, ¿come se llama?, juicio?" Trial. "Exactly. Accusing her of
    having pork."

    My wife's grandfather had let it be known that he was against the
    Castros — not because he had preferred Batista; in fact, the family had
    some obscure connection, that I've never been able to get anyone to be
    forthcoming about, to one of the other revolutionaries in the mountains,
    a rival who was executed not long after the uprising — in any case it
    was known that the family's sympathies did not lie with the communists.
    "I remember one time we going to the farm," she said, "and when we was
    coming back, we stop in Mario's grandmother's house, and we saw my
    brother passing on the road very fast. We get scared. We say, 'What
    happened?' He says, 'The police is going to ask for, getting into your
    house.' And at this time we was already saving some American money to
    come here. And you believe or not? The first thing that I do in the
    house was burning the dollars. To be sure that they don't find it out."

    The party came and took away the family business. They took the store.
    They took the car, covered in tobacco advertisements. They took "a house
    of birds." Not yours anymore. They took a little dog, named Mocha. They
    took pictures off the wall. They came in and counted the number of
    pictures, and took a certain percentage of them. Absurd things. They
    took away the family's tiny beach house in Playa del Rosario, "gave it
    to some fishman." But this succession of losses came to seem indistinct
    against what was happening outside. The picture had darkened. "So bad,
    so cruel all the things that they do it," she said. "The television was
    on all day long." She meant both that they were watching all day long,
    and that the revolutionaries were transmitting constantly. There was "a
    man that the name Blanco," she said. And his trial concerned "if he
    abuse the farmers, if he do all these things that accuse him to do it."
    They found him guilty. "Then the people go to the street, singing,
    'Paredon paredon paredon! Paredon means 'kill in front of the wall." And
    then they put this in television. And you see the brain of this man
    jumping out. It was getting gross and gross and gross." She resigned her
    job, and they essentially went into hiding.

    She got her two children out first, my mother-in-law and her brother, on
    waivers made possible by the C.I.A.-initiated, Catholic-sponsored
    airlift known as Pedro Pan. The story goes that the C.I.A. started
    spreading rumors on the island that the government was about to take
    away the children, raise them in camps. People panicked, and the planes
    were waiting to fly them away. The children wound up living with
    Catholic families all over the United States or, in this case, with an
    aunt in North Carolina. Eventually Wei-Wei and her husband got out,
    through Mexico, and joined the children. But Pedro Pan tore apart many
    families.

    We arrived at the house of some cousins, two twins, small men now in
    their 50s, one with a mustache and one without, who live with their
    mother, whom they tend to hover about protectively. Their father died
    after having walked himself to the hospital, after a heart attack.
    Nobody had a car, nobody's phone worked. The revolution is famous around
    the world for its health care, but for a Cuban, that care can be hard to
    access, especially if you live far from one of the major cities.

    The six-year-old and her cousin were sitting on the sofa, ignoring
    everyone. They were holding up dolls to each other in different poses,
    sort of: "What do you think of this? Do you approve of this?" We
    unloaded the presents we brought for the twins. They handed my wife a
    book of socialist Cuban film reviews from before the revolution,
    actually a rare and useful book — one of them is a from-home bookseller,
    and he had come across it somewhere.

    As we were standing around he said, "Did you know that my brother" — the
    one with no mustache — "was on a game show?"

    They brought forth a VHS tape and started reconfiguring the wires to
    make the VCR work. Soon a picture of the studio appeared, three
    contestants behind their buzzers. The tape had been recorded over many
    times. There was a constant flickering of white meteors across the
    image. Felipe to the far left, smiling, looking confident in a
    light-green short-sleeve shirt. The game had to do with rhyming. They
    would say, "Two words: one of them describes a fruit, one describes a
    family member." Answer: lima and prima. Felipe didn't win, but did well
    enough, as I understood it, to be invited back. He looked on screen like
    he was having a great time. The show had a carefree attitude, compared
    with something similar in the United States. The stakes were very low.
    You can't have games of chance or leisure games involving any amount of
    money, they said. It was outlawed by the revolution, as part of the
    purifying backlash against the mob-led casino power. So the prizes were
    things like a signed poster of a famous Spanish pop singer or a
    decorative mirror. Nobody was going to cry over losing. We congratulated
    Felipe on having held his own. He brought out the small metal
    lamp-sculpture he won.

    Before we left the country, we spent a last day and night in Havana.
    Heaven weather. We stepped into the grand cathedral, on one of the main
    squares in the old part of town, and listened to a women's choir that
    was practicing for the pope. I saw blue-and-red signs announcing his
    impending visit, "Viene el Papa!" The women and girls were dressed in
    their everyday clothes. They sang beautifully. I'm sure that they were
    the best that Cuba had.

    In the evening, we stood on the Morro, the Spanish castillo across the
    bay from the Malecón, and looked at the city. There is a Havana — this
    was the second time I saw it, a confirmation — that cannot be captured
    on photographs, because it involves a totality of light from symphonic
    Caribbean clouds and the way they play on the whole city, and that
    appears often enough to represent one of the characteristic faces of the
    city. The diffused light turns all the buildings a range of pastels.
    Then as the sun reddens, it becomes rose-colored.

    It was 9:30 by the time we got back to our hotel. Normally that would
    have been past the 6-year-old's bedtime, but my wife had a telephone
    interview — meant to happen during the day, it got bumped — so she
    needed us out of the room for an hour.

    Downstairs we sat and listened to the band do the inescapable (in
    Havana) "Hasta Siempre, Comandante," with its strange lyrics, "Here lies
    the clear/the precious transparency/of your dear presence/Comandante Che
    Guevara." Cats were slinking around. The people going by were of every
    shade, and many with striking faces. In the most Spanish faces you could
    see flashes of the Old World stock that supplied the island with
    settlers: the equine noses, the long mouths, at times a Middle Eastern
    cast, features I knew from my wife's family pictures.

    On the sidewalk a young bicycle-taxi driver named Manuel approached us,
    a well-built kid in jean shorts and a tank-top, about 19. He said he
    knew an ice cream place that was still open. We set out through the
    night. Many of the streets were dark. It was chilly already, and the
    6-year-old huddled against my side. It was one of those moments when you
    know that you are where you're supposed to be. If your destiny wavered,
    it has at least momentarily recovered its track. We ate our chocolate
    ice cream at an outdoor bar, under a half moon.

    On the way back to the hotel, Manuel asked what I did. When I told him I
    was a reporter, he said: "You'd hate it here. There is no freedom of
    expression here."

    He launched into a tirade against the regime. "It is basically a
    prison," he said. "Everyone is afraid."

    The things he said, which I had heard many times before — that you can
    go to prison for nothing, that there's no opportunity, that people are
    terrified to speak out — are the reason I can never quite get with my
    leftie-most friends on Cuba, when they want to make excuses for the
    regime. It's simply a fact that nearly every Cuban I've ever come to
    know beyond a passing acquaintance, everyone not involved with the
    party, will turn to you at some point and say something along the lines
    of, "It is a prison here." I just heard it from one of the men who
    worked for Erik, back in the hometown. I remarked to him that
    storefronts on the streets looked a little bit better, more freshly
    painted. It was a shallow, small-talky observation.

    "No," he said, turning his head and exhaling smoke.

    "You mean things haven't improved?" I said.

    "There is no future," he said. "We are lost."

    The 6-year-old kept asking me what Manuel was saying. I was doing my
    best to describe el sistema. Interesting trying to explain to a child
    educated in a Quaker Montessori school what could possibly be wrong with
    everyone sharing.

    We passed the museum with the Granma, the leisure boat that in 1956
    carried Fidel and Raúl and Che and Camilo Cienfuegos and 78 other Cuban
    revolutionaries from Mexico to a beach on the island's southeast coast.
    The cruiser was all lighted up with aquamarine lights, in a building
    made of glass. It looked underwater. Manuel stopped the bicycle-taxi and
    gazed on it with obvious pride.

    "There's always an armed guard in front of it," he said, nodding his
    head toward a young man in a green uniform, who was standing with a
    machine gun over his shoulder.

    "They're worried that someone will try to blow it up or something?" I said.

    "They're worried that someone will steal it and go to Miami," he said.

    There was a time Mariana took me to Cuba, and we went to a town called
    Remedios, in the central part of the island. It is one of the most
    ancient Cuban cities. The church on the main square dates from the
    Renaissance. When it was restored in the 1950s, the workers discovered
    that under the white paint on the high ceiling was a layer of pure gold.
    The townspeople had safeguarded it from the pirates in that manner. We
    stayed in the home of a man named Piloto. A friendly bicycle-taxi
    driver, who introduced himself as Max, told us that Piloto worked for
    the government and rented out his spare room only in order to spy on
    tourists, and that we should be careful what we said there. But all we
    ever got from Piloto and his wife was a nearly silent politeness and one
    night a superb lobster dinner. My most vivid memory of Remedios is of
    being taken to the house of an artist who lived there, a woodcarver. The
    bicycle-taxi driver told us that anyone who had "a great interest in
    culture" needed to visit the home of this particular artist. The next
    day he took us there, in the afternoon. We rode behind a row of houses
    that had strange paintings and animal figures hanging in their
    breezeways. After what seemed a long time for a bicycle-taxi ride, we
    arrived at the woman's place. Taking out a cigarette, Max told us to
    walk ahead, he would wait. At the door of a small, salmon-colored house,
    an old woman met us. Not the artist, it emerged. This was the artist's
    mother. We sat with her in a kind of narrow front parlor, where she made
    sweetly formal small talk for maybe 20 minutes, telling us every so
    often that the artist would be out soon.

    At a certain moment, a woman appeared in the passageway that led from
    the front room into the main part of the house, a woman with rolls of
    fat on her limbs, like a baby, and skin covered in moles. She walked on
    crutches with braces on her knees. She had a beautiful natural Afro with
    a scarf tied around it. She was simply a visually magnificent human
    being. She told us the prices of her works, and we bought a little
    chicken carving. She said almost nothing otherwise — she had difficulty
    speaking — but when we stood up to leave, she lifted a hand and spoke,
    or rather delivered, this sentence. It was evidently the message among
    all others that she deemed most essential for U.S. visitors. "I know
    that at present there are great differences between our peoples," she
    said, "but in the future all will be well, because we are all the sons
    and daughters of Abraham Lincoln."

    John Jeremiah Sullivan is a contributing writer for the magazine and the
    author of "Pulphead." He last wrote about Venus and Serena Williams.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/23/magazine/where-is-cuba-going.html?_r=0&pagewanted=all