Saturday, December 20, 2014

Carrie Gibson - In Havana’s quiet streets, the first signs of a new age for Cuba

On Wednesday evening, after the US announced its plans to normalise relations with Cuba, I went for a stroll along Havana’s famed coastal esplanade, the Malecón. Although it was dusk, it was still a bit early for the usual revellers who line the seafront to be out, but there was a lone trumpet player sitting along the mostly empty wall. A few motorcycles flew past, with the riders beeping their horns and waving Cuban flags.
The trumpeter, like everyone else in the island by this point, had heard the news and was happy about the plans for better relations with the US. He has family in Miami and was optimistic about Cuba’s future. There had been a spontaneous march by students nearby earlier in the day, but the streets were now dark and quiet. At first I was puzzled by the calm: shouldn’t people be out celebrating? But then I realised that Cubans had been talking and texting on their mobiles more than usual – both are expensive to do here – and others were indoors using landlines to speak to friends and relatives as the news coverage blared in the background. The party was at home.
There was a lot to discuss. It had been a momentous day, and one that started for me when I was at the country’s national archives. I had received a text alerting me to the speeches of Raúl Castro and Barack Obama just as people were scurrying out of the quiet sanctuary of the reading room. A TV had magically appeared in the lobby, and archivists in white smocks came up from the basement to watch the news with researchers and other staff and there was clapping and cheering throughout both speeches. History is a serious business in Cuba. Cubans know their history well. It was no surprise to hear a woman, during a television interview that evening, quote José Martí, a 19th-century revolutionary hero whose image is everywhere on the island.
The US announcement and the reaction are potent reminders that there has never simply been one Cuba: there are three. There is present-day Cuba, where people received the news with jubilation. There is 1960s Cuba, whose memory is perpetuated by the exile community in Miami, whose older members decried the new measures. And there is the Cuba for the rest of us, which lies somewhere in the middle.
The Cuba created by the exiles is not exactly a post-Cuban revolution phenomenon, but part of a longer process that reaches back almost two centuries. To understand Cuba, it’s important to understand the diaspora. Cubans are, like many other peoples in the Americas, a blend of European, African, Middle Eastern, and even Chinese descent, and this flow of immigration came in the aftermath of the initial arrival of Spanish travellers in the 16th century, and the deaths of the indigenous population of the island. In the 19th century this migration began to move in the other direction. Many Cubans wanted to be rid of Spanish colonial rule, and those who spoke loudly about it found they had to leave. They went to New York, Mexico and beyond. During the “10 years’ war” (1868-78), and during the war of independence (1895-98), Cubans abroad formed patriotic organisations, raised money and bought arms to further the cause of a free Cuba.
The cycle began again under Fulgencio Batista, and Cubans made their way to Miami and elsewhere. As the modern revolution progressed in the 1950s, there were differences among the exiles about the best course of action. Fidel Castro was able to unite their purpose to topple Batista – but this was followed by the dramatic fragmentation that has been long associated with the Miami Cubans in the aftermath of the events of 1959.
But time has passed in Miami, too. The wealthy who fled, and whose elegant Havana mansions were appropriated by the state, have children and grandchildren who have never been to the island, and may not even speak Spanish. Watching the reaction in Miami, it seems like a family rift that has yet to be resolved between those who left and those who stayed. In Havana, the negative comments made by Florida senator Marco Rubio were often repeated during the continual news coverage on Cuban TV... read more: