The Cuban Evolution — NYTimes.com

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The Cuban Evolution

HAVANA — it was the Robin Thicke music playing on a half-dozen flat-screen or the black-and-white image of the Brooklyn splashed above the V.I.P. or perhaps it was just the nightclub’s Sangri-LA. All I knew, as I sipped my $4 was that this was not the Cuba of Castro’s 1959 revolution.

Nor was it the I first visited in the late with my wife, who is Cuban-American. was a nation of grinding scarcity; everyone we met asked us for something needed — soap, pens, even the sneakers on our feet.

Cuba, which I encountered on a weeklong visit, felt a country struggling with its and jumpy in its eagerness to catch up the world — as epitomized by this but flashy nightclub, privately in the basement of a mansion in the capital’s neighborhood of Miramar.

Sangri-LA was in ways a step back to an more distant time; the confirmed it had been a club in the too. But it also looked a strange step forward Cuba’s more unequal The stratification that emerged the Soviet collapse, when with tourism jobs or abroad surpassed their seemed to be accelerating, and while the was nowhere near what be found in pre-Castro Cuba or the States, I wondered what thought of the new have/have-not dynamic through the cracks of Communism.

was no greenhouse of introspection. When I a guy beside me — a young Cuban in a shirt and hipster ‘80s — for his take on Cuba’s changes, he in close to be heard over the and said, “I’m not saying a

So I went elsewhere, into of Havana’s neighborhoods, looking for — and indicators. Every country has the little details that at a culture’s priorities and direction, but in Cuba, “the land of as one American historian called it in 1910, little things a phrase or a fad often carry weight.

Cuba’s love affair American gangster movies in the presaged the “pistolero” violence became synonymous with in the 1950s. After the triumph of Castro and his bearded guerrillas, fatigues became cool, as the arrival of Russian support in the led to Russian status symbols — dark blue Lada with big antennas on the back. was the car of government,” said Mario Havana’s pre-eminent urban “It was a sign of power.”

These with Fidel Castro on the as Raúl Castro gradually to modernize the economy with a of private enterprise, the tide of has turned. All across Havana, symbols are out. New desires are in.

Central Havana

The teenagers on racing down Paseo del the wide boulevard that touristy Old Havana from Havana, the city’s urban paid no attention to the pasty walking by. The scene suggested two One, the lag time between and Cuban trends is shrinking: it took more than a for the tight Lycra craze to Cuba — with crazy — it seemed to take half time for in-line skating to go out of style in Miami to in style

Two, hustling seems to be in A decade or so ago, I couldn’t walked more than a few without being accosted by men trying to sell me cigars, a or a meal at a private restaurant. The (or jockeys), as the hustlers were always struck me as a byproduct of desperation and the relative newness of Most tourists back were first-timers. And many were proto-capitalists who had taught English, German or Italian to earn a few dollars in tips.

But except for a lazy solicitation or no one seemed to bother. The energy of the was focused elsewhere. Maybe the had really cracked down, a possibility in Cuba, but other seemed to be in play. On the Malecón, seaside esplanade, cellphones had become common and magnetic.

Photo

Teenagers looking at smartphones while hanging out the Malecón sea wall. The phones with a catch, however no data plans, only and calling. The use of Wi-Fi usually about $4.50 an hour at cafes, even more at hotels. Credit Todd New York Times

Raúl granted ordinary Cubans the to have them in 2008, and use has Sort of. When I ran across García, 15, and Ángel Luis, 21, on the sea wall, they were a cellphone for music. Mr. Luis he had paid $80 for the old BlackBerry Torch a cracked screen, carried Cuba by a friend who visited New He mostly uses it to listen to Anthony; Ms. García said she was to Pink Floyd.

Farther the Malecón, José Rivera, 29, and Frómeta, 24, were using an 3S (cost: $120), to take “Before, we were in this bubble,” Mr. Rivera said. it’s getting better.”

the easing of travel laws by Cuba and the United States in years has created a heartier exchange and a new relationship to technology.

Americans fret about the our screens encourage, Cuban (those who can afford Internet of $4.50 an hour) often around a single laptop at a DVDs and television programming Miami — news and entertainment, on drives — have become of many families’ weekly

But not everyone is connected. I didn’t see cellphones in the poorer sections of Havana. What I did see were men majestic colonial wooden out of an old building, and putting them on the of a truck. They were off the neighborhood’s last markers of beauty and grace for a new restaurant in area.

A short drive west in the residential neighborhood of Vedado, at the of a park named after Lennon, lies one of Havana’s distinctive old homes. Reddish and on the outside, with a glass that looks like a glass turned upside it used to be owned by a wealthy with eccentric taste.

Now 14 live there, about 50 crammed together in what to a tenement. Two doors down, a high black fence, is a expansive colonial home chandeliers inside, and outside a of fresh yellow paint. The who inherited the property, said rented out its rooms to tourists.

to Cuba’s widening real divide.

I asked Aida 45, squeezed into a back of the reddish mansion, if her neighbors’ bothered her. She said she with three generations of her The ceiling of her kitchen forced over 6 feet tall to But she didn’t care.

“There are with a lot, and there are with nothing,” she said. just a sign of the times.”

She that the wealth divide ever get as bad as it was before the revolution the government would not allow it. giving loans now for home she said. “I would love to the facade of this building again.”

A little frustrated but acquiescent, Ms. Pupo belongs to the journalist Marc Frank as Cuba’s “grey zone.” In his new “Cuban Revelations: Behind the in Havana,” he argues that are the Cubans whom Raúl has sought to win over with his to modernize the economy.

There are no opinion polls to test it’s working. Members of the elite (high-level government artists who make money are clearly benefiting, with in restaurants and homes. The nouveaux (running successful small are also at least somewhat

It is more surprising to discover even those near the like Ms. Pupo, seem to be on the positives. Eyeing the success of many seem relieved to it’s possible. As one Cuba told me, “They have they never used to

Those a little closer to the though, don’t like to about how they got there. Ms. neighbor in the yellow house me with coffee but refused to be interviewed, or named. “Es complicado,” he (If there is a catchphrase in Havana days, that would be

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In another building up the block, a activist who said he had been at home by the police at times to him from organizing cultural said those with were just trying to what they had. a transition that we’re in, but not to the activist said, noting the government has become just less restrictive. “It’s a from totalitarianism to authoritarianism.”

The he longed to see: large festivals separate from the “Young people want to what’s really happening in but they’re not radicals,” he said. just want a different because, look, the strategy had up until now hasn’t worked.”

In the wealthyish seaside suburb most foreign embassies can be I stopped at a used-car lot where the list on a bulletin board as well have been nails at customers: A 2010 Passat for $67,500? A 2006 Corolla for $39,724.80?

A new law allowing to buy cars from the government had into effect just a few earlier. Cubans were when it was announced, only to be when they saw the cost. The said the cars were taxed to redistribute money the rich. Many Cubans, saw it as an insult, or a scheme. “It’s a one taxi driver said. “If you buy a the next day the police show up and ask you got the money.”

Photo

A new Kia drives down a in Old Havana. Slow changes taken place in recent Cubans can now buy and sell cars and though most can’t such luxuries. Credit Heisler/The New York Times

Cubans working for reform within insist that officials are still learning how to be to the public instead of just the But Cuba’s response to inequality is partly because the country is with what kind of it really wants.

“In the United we talk about equality of said Richard Feinberg, an affairs professor at the University of San Diego. “The equality of is actually expanding in Cuba but the Cubans, in the revolution, didn’t about equality of opportunity. talked about equality of that people should or less have the same and living standards. That of outcomes is being eroded.”

And lies the challenge: are those people with Rollerblades and or those with new cars, a of the equality Cuba wants, or

The island’s leaders have not much clarity. No one seems to how much money is too much to or even how to talk about it. older Cubans seem A well-known 90-year-old artist in (who asked that I not use her told me her entire block had in the past year or two. One house was empty because the had moved abroad. Another was renovated, while across the new people were moving in. all so” — she crinkled her nose — “unstable.”

Her attitude reminded me of a line Graham Greene’s 1958 “Our Man in Havana”: “It is a great for everyone when what is changes. That seemed to how many Cubans feel days. It certainly helped why no one at Sangri-LA would talk to me.

And yet Cuba is still Cuba. At along with the signs of demand for the shiny and new, was as much shouting and hugging and as I had seen at countless state-owned and in neighborhoods at every economic

The partyers were not trying to the Cuba they knew something else: The Brooklyn mural did not mean they Havana to become New York, and the Aguilera videos were a distraction. It was only when the switched the music to modern — after 1 a.m. — that started dancing. It’s a of course to see Cuba only song, but it was more than As José Martí, Cuba’s famous writer, once put it: “I two homelands: Cuba and the night. Or are the two

Correction: March 9, 2014


An version of the slideshow that this article misidentified the to which a statue of the writer Martí points in Havana. It is the States Interests Section of the Embassy, which handles diplomatic and consular services in not the United States Embassy. embassy closed in 1961 the United States withdrew recognition of the Cuban government.)

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