There is a particular shrug of the shoulders, a specific wry upturn of the lip that greets my questions about changes that have occurred since my last visit. Things are always “dificil”—that goes without saying, though the exact things that are hard and the ways that they are hard may change.
Food—always the number one topic of conversation, always in search of, always looking for the best prices, always occupying too much time and money. Today a neighbor came to the door early in the morning with a backpack full of vegetables—probably black market, I didn’t ask. Her random assortment consisted of radishes, malanga, and cucumbers and Maria del Carmen bought a small bag of each. She wasn’t going to buy the radishes, but I said I liked them in a salad so she did. In return, the neighbor received a small bag of salt and another of sugar. What we eat is “lo que hay” whatever there is. Always white rice, sometimes beans, sometimes eggs, occasionally some small piece of chicken or beef. Natalia is filming a novella in el campo and the other day she arrived with a beautiful piece of fish—I think it was red snapper—which was delicious. In Carlos’s house where they have two full salaries, one paid in Convertible Pesos, Jorge prepared chicken breast with olives hidden inside, a beautiful potage of beans and potatoes and the ubiquitous white rice. Hurricane Irma followed by Maria completely destroyed the banana crop so there are no bananas or platanos. It’s not time yet for mangos or avocados, but Jorge served us some delicious fruta bomba, cooked and sweetened with sugar and cinnamon.
Transporte—transportation. Challenge number two. Buses are running more frequently and are a little less crowded, but its still something that has to be figured out each day and figured into the schedule for the day. Las machinas—the old car taxis—are sort of on strike (informally) because someone in the department of transportation decided the prices should be lower. So there are far fewer on the routes and often they just pass you by, not yet full. This definitely puts a crimp in the average Cuban daily routine.
Materiales—in this house that has risen to number #1 topic because of the renovation. When will there be cement available for the walls? Can they find the silicone paste needed to fill in the cracks around the new windows? When it’s time to paint, will there be paint in the stores? It’s a waiting game and very frustrating, but Cubans have an over-abundance of patience—and a fair share of resigned acceptance because that’s just “como estan las cosas aqui”—how things are here. Aurora spends a good portion of her days now waiting for workers or materials to show up. Often they don’t.
Drogas—for the first time there is talk of young people using drugs, even it is reported in the schools. What drugs, I ask? Marijuana, cocaine, crack. How does it come in? Customs is very vigilant in the airports, maybe by boat. This is new. Last night there was a long talk show dealing with the topic. With increased openness come these challenges, for sure.
And so, you might ask, what about politics, what about the upcoming elections? They are happening soon, I know, but nobody seems to be able to tell me when. Granted, the friends I have visited so far in my stay here are not Party members, not even active in the local CDR (Committee in Defense of the Revolution), a kind of block association that debates policy and watches over the block. In the past, the CDR would have reported Natalia’s family for having a foreigner, an American no less, staying with them, which was not allowed. In the past, my friends closed the door, put on loud music and talked softly about the political situation. Now, no problem.
Carlos’s mother, a retired lab technician, has an interest in history and politics and a house full of dusty old books. She’s not sure when the elections are—April, she thinks. Raul will retire, he is 87 years old and not well, and for the first time since the revolution, Cuba may be without a Castro in the Presidency—though, she tells me, there are rumors of a grandson in waiting. But probably not—probably the man who is Vice-President now, younger, capable of carrying on all the changes that Raul has started. “Elena,” she tells me. “Here we don’t vote directly for the President so we don’t pay too much attention to that. We vote for the delegates and the deputies and they elect the President. And of course, there is only one Party.”
“What if it was Mariela?” I ask, and for the first time she gets excited. Mariela is the daughter of Raul Castro and Vilma Espin (deceased), a beloved revolutionary. She is the Director of the Center for Sexual Education and has championed same sex marriage and transgender rights (in Cuba the state health system pays for sex change operations). She is dynamic, simpatico and unafraid to challenge custom and stigma. “Ay si,” Mama says. “If it was Mariela, that would be something great!”
Aurora is more cynical—a mi no me importa nada de eso (none of that is important to me) she tells me. Nada va a cambiar. Nothing will change. And yet, though she has been twice to Mexico and twice to the U.S., she has no desire to leave Cuba like many of the young people she knows. Her mother, Natalia, believes that as long as Cuba can maintain its free health care system, though it is plagued with shortages exacerbated by the U.S. trade embargo, and its excellent and free education through graduate school, the island will maintain a certain equilibrium politically.
I will go on asking. My host in Matanzas, director of a wonderful community arts program for kids, is a local delegate and very involved in politics. I was supposed to go visit for a few days, leaving today, but alas, the transporte es complicado (the car is in the shop), so we’ll see.