Letter From Cuba

Old Problems? Yes, but Wait.

By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2002

HAVANA--The metaphor is too tempting to resist. Cuba equals waiting.

Evidence is everywhere. Look at the scores of Cubans one sees gathered at major intersections, waiting for buses that will finally arrive an hour later, already packed to the roof. Look at the line of hopefuls standing on the median strip of any avenue, waving languidly at passing cars, patiently trying to hitch a ride. Look at the crowds in the entertainment districts, too poor to afford to go into any of the nightclubs or restaurants, lingering outside and waiting for something interesting to happen.

This is how it was 10 years ago. And 10 years before that.

Talk to Cubans and you get a feel for the waiting that's less visible. There's the divorced couple, for example, who are still living together while they wait for one of them to find another place. There's the elderly woman who's putting off a trip to the market, waiting for a check from relatives in Miami.

It all fits together so neatly, this metaphor. Cubans are waiting for this and that, and meanwhile all of Cuba is waiting -- waiting for change to begin, the change that everyone knows will come someday.

It's been a decade now since the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc collapsed, and with them the economic scaffolding that supported Fidel Castro's regime. Former brother-countries in socialism are lining up to join the European Union and NATO. Russia has embraced capitalism with the fervor of the converted (albeit with little regard for the rules of the game), and even China, stalwart China, is now a place where everyone wants to get rich and quite a few are succeeding.

And meanwhile Cuba waits. There's plenty of sugar, rum, education, trained doctors and free time; almost everything else seems in short supply. Try to find cold medicine in a pharmacy, or decent meat in a state-run store. Housing, for most people, is cramped and decrepit. Fidel Castro is 75 years old, still healthy, still more popular than many outside Cuba would like to admit, still resolute in his chosen path. Cuba waits.

A young cabdriver announces proudly that in the spring he will graduate from the University of Havana with a degree in mechanical engineering. "What will you do then?" his fare asks.

"Are you crazy? I'll keep driving this cab," he replies. "If I can get a job in engineering, I'll earn $15 a month. I'll earn that much in tips tonight. You'll tip me $2, right? So I'll just get my degree, and I'll wait."

With time in such surplus, Cubans have raised killing it to a minor art form. Television is limited to two channels, neither of which is exactly HBO, and neither of which is on for the whole day. There aren't many movie theaters, and Cuban kids have yet to become addicted to video games. For the most part, Cubans must do things the old-fashioned way and entertain one another.

Rene Peña, a noted fine-art photographer, was sitting with three friends one recent Thursday evening at Sofia, an open-air cafe at the corner of 23rd and O streets, one of the few spots in Havana where you can almost imagine you're in Barcelona or Madrid.

They all seemed to be drinking Coca-Cola, an anomaly that was clarified when one of Rene's friends, a professional salsa dancer, furtively withdrew a bottle of rum from his jacket and spiked the glasses of Coke. They had bought the rum off-premises for a few dollars less than they would have paid at the cafe and sneaked it in. The waitress pretended not to notice, and for this studied ignorance would receive a dollar tip when they left.

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