The space between
On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, one writer visits Cuba for personal, cultural and political understanding
“Do you eat grapes for the new year?”
It’s 11:30ish at night on New Year’s Eve. I’m in Havana, cruising down the Malecón in the back seat of a baby blue ’55 Chevy Bel Air, city lights on my left side, calm Gulf waters to my right.
An attendant at the hotel where I’m staying hails three of us a ride after I’d used my broken high school Spanish to let him know my friends and I wanted “bebidas, bailar, fiesta” to ring in 2017. Throngs of people are seated all along the sea wall as we pass, casting fishing lines, listening to music, hanging out under a starless Caribbean sky. I roll down my window and stare at them, with a sneaking feeling that as the cabbie’s fare, we’re collectively the only four people on the island concerned with having some sort of midnight destination.
We head to the Casa de la Música, one of the city’s big nightclubs. Closed for the holiday. We turn around, out of Centro Habana, back into the neighborhood of Vedado, just a handful of blocks north of where we began. Fifteen minutes to go.
My friends and family booked our trip in early 2016. With the eased restrictions on United States travel and the countless stories declaring “go now!”, a half-dozen of us had heeded the call, eager to join the first responders wanting to see Cuba before too much of America followed.
I’d read about a bunch of Latin American New Year’s traditions before arriving in Cuba, including eating a dozen grapes in the minute after 12:00, one for each month of the coming year. So I make more lousy Spanglish conversation about it on the drive.
“¿Comes uvas para el año nuevo?” I ask.
We don’t really have grapes, the driver says. We just kiss somebody and throw out the water.
Grapes aren’t easy to come by in Cuba, but the water thing is another tradition I’d learned. People mop the floors of their home, collecting all the dust and all the crap built up over the past year and ring the dirty water into a bucket. Then they dump it outside their front door. Bad vibes kicked to the curb. A literal cleaning of house.
The old man opens the door to let us out. He gives us hugs and a good price for the detour. “¡Feliz año nuevo!” I stammer. He’s taken us to a small bar near the university and student housing. We’re the only tourists in the place; my bluish-white pallor glows in the moonlight.
We order Cuba Libres and seat ourselves at a table out front. Within minutes, we are ushered back inside by smiling staff. Cava flows, sparklers fizzle, the countdown begins. “¡Diez! ¡Nueve! … ¡Tres! ¡Dos! ¡Uno!” Cheers mingle with a bunch of words I can’t decipher from behind the language barrier. We clink glasses and sip our suds.
Before the recognizable number shout, I’d forgotten for a moment what time it was. I was sitting, hanging out under a starless sky.
The morning after New Year’s Day, I’m sipping bad coffee in the hotel lobby, gazing sleepily at a TV screen above the bar. A parade is moving through Revolution Square, commemorating the revolution and—this year—its recently departed leader. Fifty-eight years ago, on January 1, Fidel Castro’s men had taken the capital from Fulgencio Batista’s troops. Castro would arrive a week later, on a victory tour from his win in Santiago, on the East Coast. The soldiers had surrendered in both cities without conflict; Batista had already fled. The writing was on the wall.
Walls all over the country still deliver the same message, with iconic images, bright colors and big letters. Castro’s revolution: a media campaign as much as military. “Patria o muerte,” the murals read. “Por siempre revolución.”
The army marches in the square without its weapons. The focus is on Fidel. Civilians carry large Cuban flags, banners and signs. The announcer on the news: We are Fidel. Fidel is the people. Cuba is new.
Later that week, we take an old Soviet truck up into the Escambray mountain range to Topes de Collantes, in the Sancti Spíritus province. In the ’60s, Castro had isolated counter-revolutionaries in the range and launched an assault against the dissenters. It’s known as “Limpia del Escambray”—the Cleansing of the Escambray. Today, it’s a nature reserve.
We go for a short hike around the forest, through an orchid grove, into a small cave, up to a lookout. A ranger shows us the flora—a fruit used for food coloring, a tree locals believe has hemostatic properties. We buy fresh coffee beans from a nearby vendor.
My mom stays behind at the ranch, chatting with our local guide, rocking together in their wooden chairs. The guide had visited the United States for her first time last year, she tells my mother, to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. She’d gained 5 pounds while there, and was a big fan of Subway. Retail shopping was a bit overwhelming to her. “How do you know what to buy?” she says. “There are so many choices.”
As part of our educational exchange, my tour group spends another afternoon in a workshop with a university professor, discussing Cuban history and culture.
Naturally, the Trump card gets played at some point. It’s inevitable.
“I hope I am not offending anyone,” the professor says. The group groans in unison. Some of us mumble our apologies. “But we don’t know what to expect from your new administration.”
Policy toward Cuba has seen massive, tangible change in recent years under President Barack Obama, with sights set on ending the U.S. embargo altogether. Commercial flights and direct mail have resumed operations. Restrictions on imports and exports have been reduced. Telecom infrastructure, sorely needed to connect Cubans to information and to the world, is in development. Cuba, too, has slowly loosened the restraints on its people. WiFi hotspots have emerged nationwide, and small business ownership has been legalized for aspiring young Cuban entrepreneurs.
For the first time in more than 50 years, the 90-mile gap between our two countries is starting to feel a little less like a world away.
Now, on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, Cuba seems to be holding its breath as to the space between us.
I can only hope we kiss and throw the water out.