James Scudamore, a regular visitor, goes back to see how Havana is changing ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2011

Somehow I’ve ended up helping to cater a party in Havana, and a burly, jovial architect called Rafael is asking me whether I’ve heard of Radio Bemba.

Basically it’s the Cuban grapevine: “Bemba” is a slang word for big lips, and the expression has its origins in the way Fidel Castro communicated with his men in the 1950s when they were holed up in the Sierra Maestra building the revolution. Today, in a nation where the only official media are state-controlled, Radio Bemba has become shorthand for the word-of-mouth information network, which is by far the quickest (and often the most reliable) way to find out about anything from baseball chat to celebrity gossip to news of the latest defection to the United States.

The party food ran out a while ago, and someone has started DJ-ing from a laptop at one end of the apartment. Rafael adopts a suitably conspiratorial tone, even though the volume in the room is such that nobody could possibly hear us: “Listen,” he says, leaning in, “I’ll tell you something I bet you didn’t know...”

I came to Havana because the word on the international version of Radio Bemba has been that Cuba is changing, and that the process has been gathering pace since Fidel’s younger brother Raúl took over as president in 2008. I wanted to see if the change was palpable—and if so, whether it was happening quickly enough to satisfy the people, and slowly enough to remain under control.

One of the most powerful indications that you had landed in Havana used to be the roadside billboards that in most countries would be prime advertising space, but here shouted out propaganda. On my last visit in 2008 these still railed against George Bush and his plans to Take Away All We Have Achieved. I remembered environmental ones—Look What This Stupid Capitalism Has Done To Our Planet—and topical ones calling for the release of Cubans held on espionage charges in the United States. But for all their pugnacity there were some persuasive slogans too, particularly in the areas of education and health care: Ten Million Children Die Every Year From Preventable Diseases: Not One Of Them Is Cuban.

I had been looking forward to getting a reading on how the Castro regime was facing up to the world in 2011 from the posters on the way into town from the airport. But from the window of my rented Kia—not, I’m afraid, a Buick or a Chevrolet held together with rubber bands and Soviet parts—I noticed that something was different. Here were many things I remembered—a notable absence of cars; a concomitant prevalence of hitchhikers; fleets of full-to-bursting Yutong buses supplied by the Chinese—but there seemed to be a marked decline in the number of posters, and the ones I saw looked faded and old. The familiar slogans were still there (Socialismo O Muerte! Venceremos!), as were the images of Ernesto Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos—but they were getting considerably easier to ignore than the patina of history corroding them.

After I’d unpacked, I had a drink with Lázaro, which is not the real name of the guy I was unofficially renting my room from. He confirmed my suspicions. “The posters get old and tatty, then they get taken down,” he said. “And they don’t get replaced.” “Is that because people no longer accept them?” I wondered. “Times are hard, and the government doesn’t want to provoke?” “Possibly,” he replied. “And they cost far too much money to replace.”

Talk to any Cuban under 35 and you’ll find someone less politicised than they are frustrated, especially if they’ve had a drink and feel they can trust you. Their reaction to talk of the revolution is most likely to be boredom or discomfort—not necessarily because they fear the authorities might overhear them, but simply because they want to get on, and this stuff is just so old. Cubans are long-suffering and they seem to be infinitely resourceful, but sometimes they feel it’s about time someone gave them a break.

These cracks of patience run parallel to a meandering official party line: as the rules start to change, so the people begin to glimpse what they have been deprived of. It’s as if they have been gripped so tightly for so long that they are only just beginning to notice that there might be a little room for manoeuvre.

I walked down Obispo, a busy shopping street in Old Havana. A water truck was being shouted at with rising urgency as it threatened to reverse into a
cement mixer outside a building site. The truck was a familiar sight—water management is a round-the-clock concern since the mains supply reaches many houses only every other day—but the sight of workers saving one of those ubiquitous, rotting colonial façades felt refreshingly new. And that wasn’t all.

Here were the usual jineteros out to hustle whatever they could from passing tourists, some pitching low with the promise of cheap cigars, others trying on more baroque tales in the hope of a bigger pay-off. Here were elegant ladies done up in the white finery of the Santería devotee, waiting to be asked to pose for photos. But there were also many locals peering down at and fiddling with their mobile phones.

I was in Cuba three years ago when the freshly appointed President Raúl Castro relaxed certain restrictions forbidding the ownership of electrical goods and prohibiting Cubans from entering the best hotels. Overnight, the coffin-shaped pool built by mob-boss Meyer Lansky at the Hotel Riviera turned from a quiet dunking place for broiled foreigners into a seething cacophony of local kids diving from the high board and devouring slices of pizza in the shallow end. And overnight, people started openly toting their phones.

So I wasn’t surprised to see that they were now everywhere—or even that all the latest handsets were on display, in spite of the fact that Cubans can’t
access a data network (foreign SIM cards can, at a traumatic price). What amazed me was that anybody could afford to use them. In convertible pesos, calls cost around 40c per minute, so given that the average monthly salary is about $25, you could blow a month’s pay in about an hour. What was everybody up to?

The answer to that question, which came from a friend of Lázaro’s called Gloria, provided the most up-to-date example I had seen of how beautifully adaptable Cubans are to the parameters set by their capricious controllers. If a text message is a luxury you can’t afford, then a missed call is the next-best sign of affection. It’s understood that Gloria won’t answer the phone when her boyfriend calls. The idea is just to let her know she’s on his mind.