Never had a country appeared as old as Cuba did when it started to upgrade itself. The mad rush to develop serves only to confirm our comical, almost antediluvian backwardness. The New7Wonders Foundation, an organization that aims to preserve monuments worldwide, has just chosen Havana as a “wonder city.” In a strict sense it is, although the local residents struggle to believe it.
Hordes of inquisitive foreigners are eager to step back into historical eras that are mostly extinct in other parts of the world. There are now nonstop flights by six airlines based in the United States, and the number will only grow.
The theme park that is Cuba is an insular museum, stuck between the Iron Curtain and the industrial capitalism of the 1950s. The symbols include the already insufferable classic Chevrolets, the Singer sewing machines, the General Motors refrigerators, the Lada and Moskvitch cars, the Aurika washing machines, the matryoshka dolls, the military and party propaganda. It’s likely that not many Cubans, promised a chance to move somewhere better off, would pass up a chance to leave Cuba as it is, untouched, frozen in time, covered in soot and light, varnished with that curious and appealing patina of an era in which surviving, however, is so terribly difficult.
Those travelers who are booking tickets on state-approved nonstop flights to Cuba should be advised: “Fear not. Buy your tickets with all the calm and confidence in the world that nothing has changed.” The resources we Cubans have drawn upon to modernize ourselves, and all the good news that has transpired in the last few months since relations with the United States were renewed, have failed to alter the status quo. So there’s nothing to fear. Havana is not quite yet turning into Dubai.
For Cubans, this results in the annoying experience of being viewed as something like an exotic species. The national mood seems to contain and define us, and keeps us on a short leash.
Forget the misleading suggestions of progress: the gimmicky Chanel shows on Havana’s Paseo del Prado; the filming of the pyrotechnics for the film “Fast 8” on the city’s scorching streets (badly paved and practically unnavigable several days before); the Rolling Stones concert; or surprise visits by Usher, Katy Perry, Rihanna, the Kardashian clan. None of this is harmful in itself, but it is extremely uncomfortable when the political aristocracy’s flirting, if not downright prostitution, is set against the lack of civil liberties and the accelerated deterioration of public services.
That the cultural ambassadors of pop, rock and fashion are visiting us is an unqualified signal of our continuing to be what we are, what we have almost eternally been, not of our being something else, new and different. The first day that not a single celebrity visits us after this period of euphoria will be the first day of our new lives.
The only substantial flurry of activity in the country is in the parks and public areas where the government has created Wi-Fi hot spots so that ordinary Cubans, filled with wonder, can talk for the first time with loved ones abroad. In video chats, Cubans see the faces and recognize the features of a grandchild or sibling not seen for the longest time, before the image freezes up.
I sit in a sidewalk doorway while I log on to a park’s Wi-Fi to send this article to my editor. That park is a shameless buzz of voices that know nothing of privacy, of others’ space, of reserve, of embarrassment. There’s almost a party going on, a tiny, fun revolution. Some shout. All expose their intimate problems to anyone willing to listen — their dirty laundry, their most trivial of yearnings. The medley of shameful intimacies that families keep to themselves is available for public consumption.
On Sunday afternoons, the park again resembles — either because of the availability of Wi-Fi or in spite of it — a park at the turn of the 20th century, where townspeople would gather to talk, to court, to stretch their legs.
Last month, in his opening speech at the summit meeting of the Association of Caribbean States, held in Havana, President Raúl Castro boasted of his excellent mental and physical state at 85. Then, to eliminate any doubt of his intentions, he said that regardless of how his health was, he would hand over power on Feb. 24, 1918. That was no gaffe, as twisted minds might think. Mr. Castro did nothing but cleverly suggest the course he is charting for our country. If the historical tide prevails, and Cuba continues moving inexorably toward its past, another century of autocratic rule awaits us.
Carlos Manuel Álvarez is a Cuban journalist. This article was translated by Victoria Treviño from the Spanish.