Cuba: The Big Change

President Obama with Cuban President Raúl Castro at a baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays, Havana, March 2016
Stephen Crowley/The New York Times/Redux
President Obama with Cuban President Raúl Castro at a baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays, Havana, March 2016

One could swear that nothing has changed. The chaotic lines we travelers form in front of Cuba’s stern immigration officers; their belligerent slowness; the noise and heat in the too-small room; the echoing shouts across the room from one olive-green-clad person to another (an argument or a conversation about the lunch menu, in Cuba one can never tell which); the parents who stand patiently in line with their children, waiting for them to go berserk.

Still to come is the long line to have our hand luggage inspected, and the longer wait for our checked bags, which, mysteriously, aren’t inspected at all, and the exit line that will take us from purgatory into Cuba at last, but not before we’ve done one final penance waiting for a driver who never arrives, and another ten minutes for a shot of coffee that likewise never arrives, and one last relatively brisk line to change dollars into the confounding Cuban currency-for-foreigners, and a short line for transportation that some three hours after landing is about to take us, finally, into Havana.

And throughout, the increasingly irritated question: Why does it have to be like this? Why, for the fifty-seven years since Fidel Castro rode into Havana at the head of a scruffy rebel army, has it always had to be like this? Really, one could swear that nothing has changed.

And then, BOOM! the new reality. The driver of my spiffy yellow checkered taxi blasts on the air conditioner and lowers the window to shout the week’s hit song into the tropical air. He has the manner of someone on a steady diet of coke or Coke, pays no attention to me, fiddles with the radio dial, shouts out another song, nearly sideswipes five ancient cars in quick succession, skids to a halt at my destination, a residencia particular where I have managed to find the last available room in the entire city, dumps out my luggage, and screeches away, on the prowl for more passengers, more guanikiki. You know: moolah, billete…money!

All around in the old, familiar rattletrap neighborhood of Vedado there are more surprises: the sidewalk in front of my building is being replaced; the house across the street is being repainted; the avenue we just turned off of is freshly asphalted; a construction crane is visible just behind a block of delicately collapsing Art Nouveau residences. Everything is changing, or about to change, or promising to change, because the biggest change of all is about to happen. Barack Obama, leader of the Marxist Cuban state’s archenemy, is…

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