The hustle began with an innocuous question about baseball.
On my second day in Cuba, a man named Carlos struck up a conversation with my husband and me as we walked through Old Havana, a labyrinth of narrow streets crowded with tourists, stray cats and elegant colonial buildings in alarming states of decay.
With his wife, Ana, in tow, he was out celebrating their anniversary, he said. Commenting on my husband’s cap, he told us the Baltimore Orioles are his team; Michael Jackson his favorite musician.
He invited us to duck into a bar on the corner, where a member of the famous Buena Vista Social Club was playing. We did, buying Cuba Libres for this 20-something couple who have never known a free Cuba as we’d define it, and paying $24 for the round – roughly a month’s salary for the average Cuban.
Later, he insisted on showing us where we could buy cigars on the cheap, down an unlit hallway ending at a card table filled with bottles of rum and boxes of smokes in the shell of a house that looked like it had been bombed.
I declined the contraband but gave Carlos money anyway, because he’d given me something hard to come by in this communist country: an opinion. Ask most Cubans about Castro, politics and what it means to have America loosen its embargo and the answer will likely be nervous and noncommittal. Dissent can mean prison.
But Carlos talked, doing a full circle first to make sure no one was listening. President Barack Obama, he said, inspired young Cubans when he visited in March, the first U.S. president there since Calvin Coolidge. His story of a regular guy becoming the American leader resonated in a nation where the repression of personal dreams is promoted as virtue. All around the city are signs admonishing “unity and compromise” for the good of the homeland.
Even more, Obama’s promise of more U.S. business made Carlos hopeful. If it didn’t change policy, maybe with a bit of wile, it could improve his fortunes.
The next morning, I observed the May 1 parade for International Workers Day, an annual homage to the revolution. In the predawn darkness, people wandered into the streets surrounding the Plaza de la Revolution. A million were expected. It sounded like propaganda. But they kept coming, toting beer and drums, banners and kids.
In the grandstand where Raúl Castro presided, a delegation of union members from California held a sign for unity between trabajadores in the Golden State and this isle. The delegates said people wanted to take pictures and shake hands. Where I stood in the crowd, there were chants of “Cuba, sí. Yankees, no.”
The next day at an international conference, Ana Teresita González Fraga, deputy minister of foreign affairs, said, “Cuba will not renounce its ideals.”
But that same morning, the first U.S. cruise ship to visit in nearly 40 years docked. Earlier in the week, crews for “Fast and Furious 8” filmed on the Malécon, a road along the island’s sea wall, and days later, the Kardashians landed and Chanel held a fashion show.
Cuba is conflicted, but proud.
The U.S. embargo is still in place. Only an act of Congress can change that. But Obama has made every American visitor a piece of his foreign policy; their presence putting pressure on a system already past capacity to serve inhabitants, their money buying excess in a land of austerity.
Carlos wants us to come and smoke, dance and drink, he said. But he believes in the socialist Cuba that provides free education, college included, and health care.
Cuba, he said, is not for sale.
So bring your dollars, Americanos. But the change you receive might not be what you expect.
Anita Chabria is a regular freelance contributor who lives in Sacramento. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.