Life on the Verge

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Havana, Cuba, December 2016; photograph by Ken Light


It was late afternoon on March 22, 2016, when the sun came out in Havana. This was back when it was hard not to feel, in Cuba as in the United States, that history was progressing in a hopeful direction. It was the last day of Barack Obama’s historic visit to Havana. He had come to further the remarkable thaw in US–Cuba relations that he and Raúl Castro had announced more than a year before. That morning, Obama proclaimed to his Cuban hosts that he was in Havana “to bury the last remnant of the cold war in the Americas.” And then the outgoing US president, reveling in this impressive foreign policy achievement, doffed his suit jacket to take in a few innings of baseball before continuing on to José Martí International Airport. Just as the gray weather lifted, he flew off into the sunset.

The soft light filling the city matched the hopeful feeling along the jangling street in central Havana down which I walked to San Cristóbal, the restaurant where the Obamas had dined their first night in town. It occupied what was once the family home of its proprietor, a cheerful, round-faced Afro-Cuban chef named Carlos Cristóbal Márquez. Cristóbal had first opened his place, he told me, as a paladar—one of the small private eateries that Fidel Castro allowed enterprising Cubans to open in the late 1990s to provide for themselves some of what his state could not after the Soviet bloc’s collapse.

In 2011, Fidel’s brother and successor legalized still more forms of private enterprise. Raúl Castro did away with the old rule that limited seating to twelve, allowing San Cristóbal to grow into a full-fledged restaurant, with a parrot squawking at customers from one corner and walls filled with Catholic bric-a-brac and old photos of boxers and singers. Though not the fanciest or most famous of Havana’s new nightspots, its homey vibe recommended it, Cristóbal said, and the Obamas’ friends Jay-Z and Beyoncé had hung out there during their visit to Havana.

Perhaps as important to Obama’s travel planners and the Cuban security services with whom they coordinated his moves was the fact that Cristóbal was known and liked by the state officials who came and told him, a few days beforehand, that he should be ready for a VIP. “It was only that night when the carload of Secret Service agents came,” he told me, “that I knew whom I was cooking for. A few minutes later, up pulled la bestia.” The arrival in Havana of the presidential limousine, nicknamed the “beast,” had prompted much excitement in this car-mad country. Cristóbal showed me a photo of his staff posing with the car, and one of himself with the Obamas. He insisted that I stay for dinner and eat with…

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