The Thaw that Never Was (I)

Let’s say you are about 20 years old, you are studying Journalism at the University of Havana, you haven’t written anything noteworthy yet, and on Wednesday, December 17, 2014, as the semester is coming to an end, you’re going to visit your parents.

You’ve made plans with your best friend to go to their house later and study for the Grammar final exam, so the visit is brief. While you cook and chat, your parents keep the TV on. Glancing at the program, you instantly find it boring, like almost everything on those US Latino channels that half the neighborhood tunes into thanks to a hidden satellite dish on rooftops. Although this service is illegal, nobody hides the fact that they enjoy it. Car and hamburger advertisements, showbiz news about celebrities few in Cuba know about, softcore porn in the early mornings, evangelical pastors’ shows on weekends, narconovelas, and the most absurd soap operas can be heard from the street without paying much attention. You tell them you don’t understand why they pay every month for that junk. They reply that they are only interested in the news, but you don’t believe it. What do your parents care about a shooting in Miami or a traffic accident in Orlando, or that a brand of meat products finally withdraws its merchandise from supermarkets when it is suspected to be contaminated?

Suddenly, the program is interrupted. A voiceover announces that President Barack Obama is going to address the nation. “This is a historic moment,” the voice says solemnly. You sit in front of the television with your parents. The president stares into the camera. He speaks and gestures like a professor trying to be polite while explaining a very complex subject. Another voice, now a woman’s, translates into Spanish:

“We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.  It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.  We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state.  With our actions today, we are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities.  In that spirit, we should not allow US sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens we seek to help.”

Immediately afterwards, the channel plays Raul Castro’s speech. From his austere office, barely decorated with two old photos, the General-President confirms the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States.

“Boy, we always thought we wouldn’t live to see something like this,” your father says. They are pale, excited. You don’t understand, but it feels like being told that from now on, you’re going to live in another country. And that’s fine, but it’s hard to digest.

On your way to your friend’s house, you try to gauge the effects of the news on those around you. None of the sticky bodies squeezed together, sharing sweat and breath in the bus, say anything to you. There is only silence, a simulated and strange silence in which perhaps everyone is restrained by shared emotion or disappointment.

You finish the final exam. You and your friends decide to go to the second cheapest tavern among the ones you frequent, one without cockroaches or rowdy drunks, very close to the University. You buy some warm, bitter Tínima beers. And you toast. A toast to… what?

“To the thaw,” someone says.

Then they start discussing it. The conversation becomes a game in which each person describes fragments of that other country that Cuba soon will become. Well-stocked stores, modern buildings, travel opportunities, decent wages, Internet. Even if the upcoming changes are limited to this, this new country manages to seduce them. They already want to live there.

Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba. Yuri Cortez/AFP

Then you ponder your parents’ contrasting reaction, so different from the modest celebration with your friends. You wonder what sets them apart when both responses are rooted in the hope for better times. Four years later, you will find the answer as you reflect on this again. You will discover that the joy of your parents looked to the past, as if bidding it farewell, which always entails revisiting and reckoning with what one seeks to bury, the things that must not be repeated. Moreover, this inevitably involves some pain and shame. On the other hand, your friends choose to ignore the past. At 20, there isn’t much regret when you look back. For you, any day, any hour can mark the beginning of something new, so there’s no need to reinvent yourself. Your hobbies consist of merely casting hopeful omens into the air, and that’s all.

* * *

Not even your parents were born when the US Ambassador to Havana, Phillip W. Bonsal, made an unsuccessful attempt to establish positive relations between the United States and the new revolutionary government. His failure was the first of many. In the following decades, numerous individuals dedicated their lives to uncovering why so many failures occurred. Some will blame the U. S., others will blame Cuba, while some will try to be more rational, arguing that macro-politics, like history, is governed by unyielding laws in which chance, surprise, and individuals do not intervene. Yet, the first, second, and third groups will be mistaken because the blame is shared, and sometimes macro-politics does not solely respond to complex calculations of cost and benefit, but rather to the pride of individuals, to childish games that vie for supremacy.

After Bonsal’s conciliatory failure, Ernesto Guevara, albeit timidly, attempted to bring the two nations closer. Later on, John F. Kennedy, or at least that’s what one reads in Back Channel to Cuba: The hidden history of negotiations between Washington and Havana, a volume published in 2014 by US researchers William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh.

It was President Kennedy who opened a secret channel of communication with Fidel Castro, using Ahmed Ben Bella as a messenger, the first among a list of renowned intermediaries that includes, among others, Mikhail Gorbachev and Gabriel García Márquez. At some point in the early 1960s, the Algerian leader conveyed Kennedy’s proposal to Castro: The United States was willing to accept a communist regime just 90 miles away from its shores, as long as it stayed away from the USSR’s sphere of influence. In other words, Kennedy was offering Cuba the opportunity to become a “Caribbean Yugoslavia.” Castro responded with a message: Cuba would not align with the Soviets in exchange for the immediate lifting of the embargo and the prompt return of the territory occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base.

Cuban official historiography often explains Kennedy’s refusal by asserting that the US president was more concerned with maintaining “the blockade” and the Guantanamo Naval Base than fostering good relations with Cuba. This explanation, however, is a simplistic interpretation that deliberately overlooks the fact that Kennedy was facing tremendous pressure at that time, which prevented him from meeting Castro’s expectations. After the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Democratic politician had to contend with the animosity of influential Cuban exiles in the United States and the hardships experienced by individuals affected by the nationalizations on the island. Additionally, he was constantly under attack from his political adversaries, who closely scrutinized his perceived toughness on Communism. Among them was Richard Nixon, whom Kennedy had mocked during his 1960 election campaign by humorously questioning, “If [Nixon] can’t stand up to Castro, how can he be expected to stand up to Khrushchev?”

Kennedy had expressed some level of sympathy towards Castro on multiple occasions. He even acknowledged that the United States bore some responsibility for the political crisis that unfolded in Cuba after Fulgencio Batista’s coup in 1952. However, he also recognized that it was too late to resolve the conflict between the two governments through goodwill alone. The possibilities of further reconciliation between the two leaders were cut short by Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. The circumstances surrounding his death remain shrouded in mystery, giving rise to various conspiracy theories that have persisted for decades. One of the most popular theories points to the involvement of the “mafia” and the Cuban exile community at the time, purportedly disgruntled by JFK’s lukewarm stance towards the Cuban regime.

The Mission

It is not uncommon for classes to be interrupted and a few students to be called out for assignments. These tasks can range from carrying boxes of books to smiling at a delegation of foreign students more interested in the mojitos at the Cuban Art Factory than in the educational system on the island. You have grown accustomed to these outings, sometimes even grateful for the opportunity to escape a dull professor and sneak off to a corner cafe to smoke a cigarette and chat with someone. However, today is different. They have specifically called out a group of students, including you, by name.

The reason behind this summons is a “meeting.” It takes place in a nearby classroom, and once about ten of you have gathered, the doors are closed. Standing in front of you is a tall man, somewhat stocky and overweight, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt. He does not identify himself or mention his workplace or the institution he represents. Everything about him is resolved with a suspicious “we” address the group.

He proceeds to clarify that the intention, or rather “our intention,” is to establish a special communications working group tasked with producing “strategic content” in light of the new Cuba-US relations. The young people present in the room have been specifically chosen to be part of this group. The strategic content, he explains, should promote bilateral normalization without being confrontational towards the United States. However, it is necessary to emphasize two key points: that the US government remains Cuba’s historical enemy and that a complete thaw in relations is only possible through the return of Guantánamo and the unconditional lifting of the blockade. In martial a manner reminiscent of an officer explaining the strategy for an upcoming battle, he emphasizes that you will learn to feign neutrality and to carefully craft your arguments. It is essential, he asserts, to find “points in common” between the two countries, even if they have to search for them in the 18th century when Cuban aristocrats raised funds to support George Washington’s army. “The important thing,” he concludes, “is to restore soft power to Obama.”

In the following weeks, there is no mention of the previous meeting. No tasks are assigned, and there is no follow-up whatsoever. It is as if the meeting never took place. Just when you are beginning to forget about it, you are summoned again, but this time it’s only a small group, including yourself. The person addressing you is a young man, not much older than you, also dressed in jeans and a plain polo shirt. Their attire, along with the ridiculous seriousness with which they speak, makes it evident that “we” refers to the Ministry of Interior. The young man tries to present himself as youthful, and his appearance is even more casual than his predecessor’s. He mentions that Pope Francis will be holding a mass in Revolution Square, and he informs the group that this will be “our first mission.” Some of those present are given tablets with instructions to take photos and videos of the mass. After the event, they are to gather at a house where they will receive further instructions on what to do with the captured images. You feel embarrassed to admit to the young man that you are not familiar with operating a tablet, so you discreetly seek help from a friend who gives you a crash course on how to use the device.

Pope Francis officiates a Mass at the Plaza de la Revolucion

You are among the first to arrive at the Revolution Square on the day of the mass, when the sun has not even risen. The young man repeats step by step what you should do, and dictates the address of the house where you will meet once the Pope concludes his service. He tries to encourage everyone, as if he were the coach of a sports team. Punctuality allows you privileged places among the crowd that is growing by the minute. You stand very close to the metal fence that cordons off the public. You sweat, hundreds of bodies brush against you and push you slightly from one side to the other. You must hold your ground if you want to keep your place and not be dragged into the heart of the crowd shouting and waving little Cuban and Vatican flags. You barely hear the Pope’s words. The shouting of the people is deafening; the smell emanating from the crowded bodies nauseating. You just raise your arms with your tablet and press the shutter to take pictures or videos without having the slightest idea of what is in front of you. You’ve never been good with cameras, so you take hundreds of pictures. At least ten or so will come out decent, you think.

You know it’s all over when the people around you turn around and begin the slow march of retreat. You go straight to the house where the rest of the group is waiting for you, not far from the Square. There, the young man dictates to them the key to a Wi-Fi network and then the passwords to countless Twitter and Facebook profiles. He orders the best photos and videos to be posted on those profiles with half a dozen hashtags, but first, he says, he prefers to review the images captured by each one.

It’s not the first time you’ve witnessed an attempt at “tweet farms.” In fact, almost all of your university classmates have at some time had to play the role of bots to position in social networks some topic of interest of the Federation of University Students (FEU) or the Young Communist League (UJC). This practice, so common at the University of Havana, sometimes takes the name of “tuitazo”, although sometimes, who knows why, they call it “hornet’s nest”. They are usually carried out on the university campus, in computer labs set up for this purpose. You can’t remember all the hashtags you have shared countless times on fake profiles, but undoubtedly #FreeTheCubanFive and #NoAlBloqueo occupy the first places. In reality, you never really understood the need for those tweets, and you’re convinced that most of your peers didn’t either. You didn’t take them seriously either and, to be honest, rather than being a bot you used the Internet to check the latest news on the European soccer transfer market or to find out where the FC Barcelona team was in the table that week.

The leader of the mission observes each of the photos you took while you move your index finger over the touch screen. Suddenly, a video starts playing. It’s perhaps the best shot you’ve ever taken, the only one where your hand hasn’t trembled. The framing of the popemobile is almost perfect and you can even clearly see Francis waving a hand to greet the excited crowd that is waving and stretching out its arms, as if trying to reach the mediator between God and humanity who also acted as a teleoperator between Barack Obama and Raul Castro. The video shows the moment when a man crosses the fence and begins to chase the papal vehicle. Francis does not even notice this and continues doing what popes do best: smile and wave. Then another man and a woman cross, running back and forth, agile enough to escape the tuxedoed guards guarding the popemobile. They shout, but their voices are suppressed by the din of the ecstatic crowd, a crowd that does not notice the curious chase happening right in front of them. The two men and the woman, as they taunt their pursuers, raise their arms, and draw L letters with their index fingers and thumbs. More people appear in the frame. They are dressed in civilian clothes. They are more agile than the papal bodyguards, or at least they are better coordinated, as if they knew exactly how to move to catch the three elusive preys. In a matter of seconds they subdue them: a twisting of the wrists, the forearm pressing on their necks. That’s it. Only one of the pursued manages to escape, but he is quickly caught and disappears from the scene as he is dragged along the ground. The young man snatches the tablet from your hands. You watch as he deletes the video. He tells you that you can sit down, have a coffee or smoke a cigarette while he reviews the rest of the images.

* * *

Fidel Castro tried to reopen the secret channels of dialogue with Lyndon B. Johnson, and to that end he made an initial offer: Cuba would refrain from providing material and logistical support to insurgent movements in Latin America if the US stopped any attempt by Cuban exiles to foment terrorist acts and armed uprisings on the island. Johnson turned a deaf ear to this proposal and claimed not to trust Castro’s word.

Fidel Castro meets Richard Nixon on April 19, 1959

When Richard Nixon became President of the United States, Castro was careful not to show any signs of détente. The two already knew each other. It was even Nixon who, in 1959, when he was Vice President, convinced Eisenhower that the rebel leader, although he denied it, had intentions of establishing a communist regime in Cuba. The Republican leader, who would resign from the Oval Office a few years later after the Watergate scandal, was of the opinion that Castro would end up begging for negotiations when the Soviet Union withdrew its support. In his logic, the Kremlin would leave Cuba to its fate because it was so expensive to finance, costing the Socialist camp more than a million dollars a day.

During his term of office (1969-1974), Nixon made a rather radical shift in US foreign policy by improving relations with the USSR, China and Egypt. Cuba, for the time being, was out of his plans. However, Henry Kissinger, then National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, a sort of King Midas of US diplomacy, thought the President was making a mistake not trying to get closer to Castro. After all, he who can do much can do little.


Havana, at times, begins to seem like the capital of that country you were expecting. Bars, “paladares”, Airbnb, private front porches where ladies get manicures, gyms and pet residences sprout in the city like mushrooms from the ground. Suddenly a road to prosperity has opened up which, as everyone suspected, passes far from the State’s route. For the first time people feel responsible for their lives, for their own welfare. Everyone now wants to be self-employed.

Havana is a fashionable city. Havana smells of progress, and progress smells of the perfume of tourists’ clothes. Everywhere there are the usual fat and pink old men who come to fuck cheap whores or male escorts and needy young people, yes, of course, but there are also families and students from half the world who see who knows what wonders at the Cuban Art Factory, and sixty-somethings who have bought the merchandising of nostalgia and the country stranded in time, and who now ride around in brightly colored Chevrolet convertibles, taking pictures while they line the pockets of a Cuban dressed up in a guayabera and a Panama hat.

Fashion, very fashion. And overnight. Do you remember that German movie, Good bye, Lenin, do you remember the mother of the main character, the lady who wakes up in a totally different country, with Coca Cola and McDonald’s signs where there used to be communist propaganda? Maybe, you think, in three years a woman who is now in a coma in Cuba will wake up. Then we will have to trick her like the lady in that movie.

You go to The Rolling Stones concert. You have never liked rock music much, but you go anyway, out of curiosity, because they say it is “a historic event”. The people around you are neither rockers nor fluent in English, which you discover when you see that they are incapable of humming a single song, even if they enjoy themselves and dance wildly or gape in admiration at the light effects and the stage decoration. “We know that years ago it was very difficult to listen to our music here in Cuba, but here we are playing for you. Times are definitely changing,” says Mick Jagger, and the crowd goes wild. Not since an illness forced Fidel Castro to accept the passage of time and retire to fight for his life has anyone in Cuba reacted with such euphoria to the words of a man with a microphone in front of him. Yes, Jagger, you are right, times are changing.

When I’m watchin’ my TV
And a man comes on and tells me
How white my shirts can be
But, he can’t be a man ‘cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me
I can’t get no, oh, no, no, no, hey, hey, hey
That’s what I say
I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no girl reaction
‘Cause I try, and I try, and I try, and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no…

They say that all of the foreign tourist magazines recommend coming to the “last redoubt of Communism in the West”, that everybody should do it now, that if you delay a little you will miss it and, by the time you arrive, you will only find the same Third World Capitalism of the Central American and Caribbean countries, and then you will be better off spending your vacations for the umpteenth time in Cancun or Punta Cana. The stars have taken that recommendation seriously, and didn’t want to lose the chance. Havana is now a city full of stars, or rather, it is once again a city full of stars. Being born and living here means knowing that Nat King Cole, Marlon Brando, Libertad Lamarque and Joséphine Baker once visited Tropicana, without ever having visited Tropicana yourself, and that Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Winston Churchill, John Wayne, María Félix, Cantinflas and the crème de la crème of the Italian-American mafia –the classic, glamorous one– stayed at the Hotel Nacional, without ever having stayed at the Hotel Nacional yourself… or at any other hotel for that matter.

The Rolling Stones concert in Havana took place on March 25, 2016. Milenio

People say that Havana is fashion and the city, as if to prove them right, hosts a Chanel fashion show. An exclusive parade, for which they close the Paseo del Prado, surrounded by police. Only a few artists in good standing with the regime, a few political officials and certain members of the Castro family are invited to see how the European fashion establishment assumes the ways of dressing in the Caribbean.

“Would you have liked to go?,” you ask a friend.

“Me? No way! What’s the point?”

“But don’t you think most people would have wanted to see it?”

“Yes, out of curiosity. But think about it, dude, what are a famished blonde like that or an androgynous guy doing here, where people are looking for huge boobs and asses or hard, muscular guys? Besides, what does that flowered, weirdly designed clothing look like in a country where people dress in cheap clothes from dodgy shops in Panama or Ecuador?”

But your friend, a university student like you, did enjoy the shooting of Fast and Furious 8. A buddy of his got him a job as an extra and “whatever else was needed” during the filming. When the film finally came out, they arranged to watch it at his house. After playing over and over again the few minutes shot in Havana and not finding himself on the screen, he drops defeated on the couch. But then he cheers up and says that it doesn’t matter, that with what he was paid he fixed his bathroom and built an extra room on the roof, that that and shaking hands with Dominic “Dom” Toretto himself is enough for him.

Another of your friends tells you that he saw Robert De Niro yesterday. He says it excitedly, as if he had found a suitcase with a million dollars in it. After class, he went to the floor polishers’ cooperative where he works, and he says he saw him close by while he was polishing the terrazzo floor of a hotel. You don’t believe him. You know that there are famous people in Havana –Madonna, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jay Z, Jodie Foster–, and also some people who make up stories about seeing famous people in Havana. As if pop stars, the most sought-after fashionistas and one of the highest-grossing film sagas were not enough, people on the streets swear that the guy with the dark glasses and long hair on his chin was Leonardo DiCaprio, incognito, in front of the Capitol, and that blond guy with veiny arms drinking a daiquiri at the Cuban Art Factory was Josh Klinghoffer, the guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. However, your friend has proof of their meeting: a photo of him next to Robert De Niro, like lifelong compadres.

Fashion is the most evident expression of the bilateral thaw, which makes it an experiential event, not only political… or historical. Fashion sometimes suggests that our problem was an aesthetic one, a problem of ugliness, of abandonment, of lack of style. You know it’s not like that, but that’s the impression it leaves: a little more “yumas” and that’s it: welcome to the 21st century. The thing is that fashion –that is, the signs of the thaw– has a very limited span: El Vedado, Miramar, and some areas of Central Havana and Old Havana. The bonanza has its borders there where tourists stop their steps, either out of tiredness or satiated curiosity. Meanwhile, in the poor neighborhoods no one takes notice of the effects of normalization; there, the entrepreneurs of today are the same as always: the president of the CDR who, from his window, makes a sticky dough pass for pizzas; a neighbor who resells coffee from the bodega; a bent old man who walks and wanders the streets with plastic bottles filled with liquid air freshener; another who resells Criollo cigarettes in his front porch and earns one peso per box. From 2014 to 2016 no one here was more prosperous or more miserable than before.

* To be continued.

Darío Alejandro Aleman. Cuban journalist based in Mexico.


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