The New Cuba


By Matthew Hansen / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Story by Matthew Hansen
Photography by Ryan Soderlin
The World-Herald

To find the heartbeat of the new Cuba, jump in a ’55 Chevy taxi painted electric orange and speed away from the tourist hotel.
Roar right past the government buildings and the weary bureaucrats ending another workday. Breeze past the old revolutionary slogans, billboards and murals that proclaim in Spanish “Socialism or Death!” — except notice the colors fading on these slogans, as if not even the paint truly believes.
To find the heartbeat of a new Cuba, hop out onto a crowded street near the University of Havana, where the air crackles like live wire, where the humidity sticks like fog, where horns bleat and salsa music thumps, where life feels like a paramedic slapping paddles on an American chest and yelling, “Clear!”
Duck into a doorway beside a kiosk selling cheap jewelry. Enter a dark, sweltering living room, where the ceilings are low and the air is choked with cigarette smoke.
The first sound in this living room is a driving guitar riff screaming from an old speaker. That electric guitar is oh-so-familiar: decadent, whiny, as 1980s American as McDonald’s apple pie.
Wait a second. Is that ...?
“You know where you are? You’re in the jungle baby!” screams Axl Rose.
The Hustler shakes my hand as the Guns N’ Roses blares. He is 42, lean and wiry, sporting a black polo that exposes tattoos snaking down his forearms. He smiles crookedly and, over my protests, pours me a warm glass of rum. His glassy eyes suggest he’s already had a few.
This is the main room of his family home, the center of his mini-empire, and a nice vantage point from which to understand the Cuba they don’t teach in textbooks or presidential speeches.
The Hustler is ready to explain, in rapid-fire Spanish and broken English, how he went from being a black-market bandit to a legit free-market businessman who runs this jewelry kiosk and a wildly successful print shop, the Cuban version of a Kinkos.
He’s ready to show what’s happening on the streets of Havana as the Cubans of a new generation, tired of their grandparents’ politics, tired of the old-guard government (and ours, too), and most of all tired of having no pesos, have grabbed a series of small yet important reforms and are running with them, hard, like someone being chased.
People are making a little money now in the new Cuba. They are making a little noise. They are hustling. You better believe they are hustling.
“Call it capitalism, call it socialism, call it whatever you want!” the Hustler yells over Slash’s wailing guitar.
“It doesn’t matter! Things are changing.”

The Hustler, a black-market bandit turned legit businessman, in the apartment next to his jewelry kiosk and connected to his print shop. The Hustler spent time in jail and tried to escape by raft before a series of small-but-important Cuban economic reforms allowed him to run his own company.

For decades,

American eyes have tended to see Cuba as a figure frozen at the edge of a cliff. We see the bearded leader who outlasted a missile crisis, a Cold War and 10 U.S. presidents. We see classic Chevys rumbling down the Malecón, their drivers puffing on giant cigars.
We see the free health care but also the ration cards, the education but also the political prisoners. We imagine the Hilton Garden Inns and Applebee’s restaurants sure to come in five years or 10, and we tell each other, “Better get to Havana soon, before the embargo ends and everything changes.”
That is all true enough. But what American eyes tend to miss is every bit as important.
We don’t see the green shoots of private industry already growing through cracks in the Havana sidewalks, the hope that it’s the beginning of a flower, the fear that the government will yank it like a weed.
We don’t notice the tourist stampede that has Havana hotel rooms booked solid through spring — a stampede that will grow even larger now that the United States has agreed to allow commercial flights here. We don’t recognize the upside-down economy this creates, an economy where doctors and engineers quit their jobs to take far more lucrative gigs as the world’s most educated cabdrivers and tour guides.
We don’t hear the increasingly loud, increasingly heated debate inside Cuba, where online media and something called The Package have rendered the old state-run media obsolete. We overlook the record numbers of fed-up Cubans voting with their feet, bidding adios to their loved ones and moving to Madrid, Miami … and Omaha, too.
We miss the question when we ask: When will Cuba change?
Cuba isn’t frozen at the edge of a cliff. Rub your eyes. Look again.
Cuba is already in motion, headed over that cliff, because a quarter-century of turmoil and the reality of 2016 give it no other choice but to squeeze its eyes shut and jump toward something different.
The real question isn’t when Cuba will leap. The real question is: How will Cuba land?
The real question: Is this country wearing a parachute or an anvil?

At Plaza de la Revolución, "Revolution Square," the facade of the Ministry of Interior building features a steel memorial to a hero of the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara, with the quotation "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Until the Everlasting Victory, Always). Fidel Castro has addressed millions of Cubans at the square on many important occasions. Both Pope John Paul II in 1998 and Pope Francis in 2015 held large masses there during their papal visits to Cuba.

The Hustler and the Old Cuba didn’t get along.

Once, he opened an underground tattoo parlor, which took cojones since he lived in a country that had banned virtually all non-state-owned business since 1959.
A man came in asking for a tattoo of the male anatomy on his shoulder. The Hustler obliged — who is he to judge what a man wants inked on his shoulder? (Plus, the man paid in cash.)

The New Cuba

An eight-day series from The World-Herald
The photographs Photographer Ryan Soderlin takes you on a visual journey through Cuba.
A special thanks This trip was made possible through by a grant from the Andy Awards, a University of Nebraska at Omaha-sponsored program that seeks to promote international journalism.
Q&A: Changes in Cuba Clearing up common questions regarding Cuba travel.

The authorities did not agree. They found the tattoo parlor. They took his inking equipment. They shut the Hustler down.
For years the Hustler operated in a black market known well to Cubans, particularly after 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba’s $11 billion subsidy went to zero, and middle-class families found themselves scrounging for food.
Fidel Castro named this era “The Special Period.” It wasn’t.
Even today, if you want beef, you better have extra cash and know a guy who knows a guy.
Same goes for health care, one of the cherished triumphs of the revolution. Hard to argue with that success: The average Cuban lives to 78, better than almost all of Latin America and virtually tied with the United States (79) even though we spend 15 times as much per person on health care.
But do you want an appointment? Better bring the doctor a gift, or find yourself stuck at the back of the line.
The Hustler thrived in this black market and got burned by it, too, once spending months in jail.
In 1992 he did what so many desperate Cubans did. He climbed on a raft in search of something more. His raft pointed toward Panama, 1,000 miles away. A dozen people were aboard. They had no food, only sugar water to drink.
They floated for 96 hours in the Caribbean as the sun beat down and the waves swelled and crashed. The Hustler grew sure: This raft will sink. We will die.
A coast guard ship picked them up. Saved his life, the Hustler thinks, but of course ruined it, too. Soon he got locked in a Panamanian detention camp, surrounded by 10,000 other refugees. Eventually Panama sent the Cubans home. The Hustler avoided jail this time, but he couldn’t get a state job, and the police watched him more closely than ever. All of Havana was his jail cell.
“I had nothing,” he says. “There was nothing for me here.”

Classic American cars are still a favored mode of transportation, though they are gradually being replaced by newer Chinese, Korean and European cars.

The giant rectangular cardboard boxes

rolling by on Havana International Airport’s luggage carousel are my first signs that Cuba is changing. One, two, five, eight, 12 boxes lurching past.
The Cuba I know, from books and a previous visit in 2003, is a country with few luxury goods or desires. A Cuba set apart from the world, locked in place by a U.S. embargo and its own unwillingness to change.
Cuba is where they tell a dark joke: The three greatest successes of the revolution are health care, education and baseball. The three greatest failures? Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
And yet here are a dozen cardboard boxes on the baggage carousel, boxes stamped “Samsung.”
“Flat-screen TVs,” University of Nebraska at Omaha professor and Cuba expert Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado says as he grabs his bag. “Didn’t used to see that.”
Later on this December evening I stand near the ledge of a rooftop deck and look over Old Havana, a timeless scene bathed in golden light: Classic cars bumping over narrow streets, moms and dads perched in the doorways of apartment buildings that glow with faded beauty, a teen couple in love pressed close to a wall, giggling.
Timeless, until I turn back to a new friend, Carlos Amir Ramos, who runs a bed-and-breakfast, known here as a casa particular. He’s holding up his glowing smartphone, pointing to his booking list.
January: booked solid. February: booked. March: ditto.
He used to charge $40 a room. Now it’s $80, and still the tourists come, wallets open, begging to stay. He’s already getting emails about next winter. His family has more money now than at any point since Fidel took power in 1959.
“Havana!” Carlos says. “It’s in fashion!”

A tourist takes a picture with a stature in San Francisco Square in Old Havana. Tourists from Canada, Europe, Asia now the United States are flocking to Havana in record numbers.

Look again at the classic cars on the streets below. They are changing, too. Those old Chevys used to be a birthright passed from grandpa to mom to son, a rusting pre-embargo inheritance that got generations from Point A to Point B.
Now? Those cars are being repainted in flashy Caribbean colors, buffed until they gleam and put back on the street as private taxis — Americanos will pay top dollar to ride in one.
Look at the gorgeous buildings themselves. In the tourist areas of Old Havana they stand tall and proud, part of a decades-long, multimillion-dollar restoration majestic enough to make an architect weep with joy. On other blocks the buildings are, quite literally, falling down. On average, three apartment buildings topple every day in Havana, says Miguel Coyula, a Cuban architect and urban planner.
Their average age: 75 years old.
“If we don’t change them, they will collapse,” he says of the buildings, then pauses to consider the metaphor. “If we don’t change, we will collapse, too.”
And the people themselves are changing.
That becomes clear one night during a sit-down with a group of young Cubans. They belong to a nonprofit called Project Espiral, and they tell you about what Espiral does — amazing, socially conscious things like ridding neighborhoods of trash and replanting deforested areas.
But after an hour, talk veers to the young Cubans’ day jobs. Then the cracks begin to show.
A teacher complains that no young Cuban wants to be a teacher. The pay is too crummy, and society’s respect for the profession has disappeared. The teacher and an engineer compare salaries, and the teacher shakes her head in frustration: Because of recent pay hikes, the officially socialist state now pays the engineer twice as much as she makes.
I ask about the flat-screen TVs then, and the young people turn and look at me, their eyes flashing their disgust.
“How big is your TV?” they ask.
“What’s wrong with wanting a big TV?” they ask.
“Shouldn’t we be able to watch a big TV just like you?”

The Hustler's father is a retired engineer, he long ago lived on the East Coast, became a fan of Ted Williams' Boston Red Sox and traveled by train through Omaha.

The Hustler’s father

shuffles into the living room. He’s 80 years old and limps painfully — the diabetes has reached his feet. He declines the offer of a Cristal Beer. “I’m too old for that,” he says.
“You are from Omaha?” the Old Man says in English. I nod.
“I went there once,” he says.
When he was a young man he worked as an engineer on the East Coast. He fell in love with Ted Williams and the Red Sox. He also fell in love with the railroads connecting the great expanses between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific.
And so, he says, once he rode the train through Omaha.
He remembers seeing a lot of livestock there. Yes, the Omaha Stockyards, I say. He remembers a newspaper there. “Omaha Star?” he says tentatively. Yes, I say — that’s not my newspaper, but the city’s longtime black paper.
Our connection cemented, he begins to recite the success of the Cuban Revolution.
The health care. The education system. The lack of gun violence.
I got a free hip replacement, he says. You don’t see any kids without shoes here, he says. You can walk the streets at midnight and feel completely safe.
I nod. Much of this is undeniably true. For example, more than 99 percent of Cubans can read, a literacy rate far above our own.
I’m also not at all surprised to hear the Old Man’s list. When I first traveled to Cuba, people repeated these successes to me again and again, almost as if reading from cue cards.
But now the Old Man does something that was unthinkable in Cuba just a decade ago. He veers from the script.
Yes, there are successes, he says, but there are also failures. The Cuban government doesn’t understand business. Officials bungle tax collection. They can’t pay a man or woman an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.
“Are you saying that you would prefer capitalism, like the U.S.?” I say, a little taken aback.
The Old Man raises his eyebrows so far they practically come off his forehead and asks a question of his own.
“Would you prefer the former Soviet Union?”

Staff members of Vistar magazine

convene their story meeting, and within seconds they are yelling, loudly, all at once.
The 20-somethings sit in a semicircle and debate ideas, jabbing fingers in the air to make their points.
Which celebrity should they feature this month? Someone throws out the name of a Cuban TV news personality. Everyone groans. They can’t stand her.
Which musician? Someone mentions a reggae star. Everyone groans. Reggae? Reggae sucks!
They light up cigarette after cigarette inside this crumbling apartment building that serves as the magazine’s office. Someone turns on dance music, and the staff photographer hops to his feet and starts shimmying in a doorway, shaking it like a Cuban can.

Robin Pedraja, the founder and creative director of Vistar Magazine. Vistar is the first independent online magazine of its kind in Cuba's history.

It is loud in here. It is chaotic. It’s exactly like the story meeting of every American college newspaper, except with much better dance moves.
It is a scene familiar to an American journalist — until you realize that this type of magazine, and this type of debate, simply didn’t happen in Cuba a decade ago.
“Young Cubans have a need to say ‘Here is how we need to change,’?” says Robin Pedraja, the online magazine’s founder. “Vistar is a piece of that. We see ourselves as a voice of a new generation.”
Everywhere you go here, Cubans, particularly younger Cubans, are debating their country’s future, loudly, all at once.
A film student named Luis says his grandparents fought for Fidel’s revolution and then his parents endured it. He will not.
“Can you imagine that, being born and dying under the same president?” he asks. “In my case, I need to have a vote. I need to have freedom. A say in our future.”
Young Cubans say it again and again: The education system is getting worse. They barely make enough at their official state jobs to pay their bills. The Cuban state is a dinosaur.
This type of criticism is of course normal in the United States, where we enjoy ripping our politicians. It’s shocking in Cuba, where for decades people criticized the country’s leaders only in the safety of their own homes, if at all.
Experts say some of this grievance-airing was prompted by current Cuban leader Raúl Castro, who encouraged it when he took power. (Big brother Fidel had a habit of throwing critics in prison.)
Some say it’s because the economy has been too bad for too long — people accepted the struggles of the post-Soviet “Special Period” for five years, 10, then 20. Their children are fed up, says Cuban economist Rafael Betancourt.
“They want to be in a better financial situation. Period.”
And Cuba is becoming a citizen of the globe, whether its leaders like it or not. Watch it happen outside tourist hotels, where Cubans stand with their cellphones, pirating the hotels’ wireless Internet to check social networking sites. Inside their homes, they watch pirated American TV shows and read illegal digital copies of Latin American newspapers.
They also adore Vistar, the first independent online magazine of its kind to exist in Cuba.
Yes, it’s just a snappily designed celebrity magazine and, yes, the government could shut it down tomorrow.
But, for now, Vistar is part of an information revolution. It gives people news about Cuban-American musicians and actresses spread globally, defectors who were once persona non grata in Fidel’s Cuba. And it tweaks the Cuban state in nearly every issue.
“We stay out of politics,” Pedraja says when I ask about it.
I look at the magazine on his computer screen and point to a photo of a well-known Cuban skateboarder waving an American flag.
“But what about this photo?” I ask.
The slightest trace of a smile forms at the corners of Pedraja’s mouth.
“That’s a nice photo, isn’t it?” he says.

Rodrigo González, center, shows off his UNO T-shirt during a meeting of Espiral in Havana. González is the director of Project Espiral, a nonprofit that cleans neighborhoods, runs education programs for children and replants trees in deforested areas.

The idea

came to the Hustler in a brilliant flash, a bit like Henry Ford and his assembly line or Levi Strauss and jeans.
At the time, he was making his money from taping, copying and selling movies and HBO shows using an illegal satellite dish. It was a decent if dishonest living. Then he had his idea.
Why don’t I open a print shop? Why don’t I go legit?
And why not? His father’s book-and-jewelry kiosk was a stone’s throw from the university, teeming with students who need material copied and printed. An unused room behind the kiosk was a suitable, rent-free office.
And, even better, the government had begun to offer a small number of private licenses to people wanting to open tech-related stores.
The Hustler applied for the permits, greased the right palms, bought the right equipment and opened a few years ago. Then he started doing things that could melt a smile onto Henry Ford’s icy mug.
He reinvested in better equipment. He hired a man he calls the “Computer Beast” to make the equipment sing. He trained employees to smile at customers and help quickly — notions not widespread in Cuba’s state-run businesses.
He preached printing and copying faster, with higher quality, than any other shop in Havana. Eventually the Hustler didn’t just run any old Cuban Kinko’s.
“We are the best,” he says. “Ask anyone.”
Customers file in on this Friday evening, college kids toting backpacks. They have reports due, and they don’t have computers and printers at home. Soon a line snakes out the door. The Computer Beast works double time to keep up.
The money is flowing, so much that the Hustler just bought his own apartment, a rarity in Cuba. He did so illegally, through a third party, proving that a hustler never really stops hustling.
He’s telling his story, and it seems so blindingly obvious that finally I just say it.
“This seems like a capitalism success story,” I say.
Maybe it’s the third rum. Maybe it’s the c-word. Whatever it is, the Hustler’s mood flips, just like that. His mood flips and it’s a reminder that this isn’t Miami or Port-au-Prince or San Juan. A reminder that the society Fidel built is still his, even as it slips from his grasp.
“I am not a capitalist!” he says in Spanish, the fury rising in his choked voice. Don’t you ever call me a capitalist!

Waitresses clean up after customers at the Hostal El CaÒonazo's restaurant in Havana as chickens peck the ground. As Havana's economy becomes more tourism driven, waitresses and cab drivers, for example, can make more money in a week than a doctor can make in a month.

Dr. Paneque

is the sort of man Fidel Castro used to count on. He’s the sort of Cuban who used to make Cuba work.
He graduated from medical school in the mid-1990s, got his degree even though he rarely had enough to eat and even though his only pair of shoes fell apart as he walked to the library again and again.
After he graduated, the new doctor agreed to move to a remote Venezuelan mountain village, part of a partnership that traded Venezuelan oil for Cuban doctors. If Cuba was a wheel, the young doctor was a cog.
“I loved to help people,” he says. “I loved it.”
Which makes it disconcerting to learn that Miguel Paneque is on an extended leave from his medical practice. Now he works for a nonprofit and moonlights as a tour guide. Why?
The reason is complicated, he says, but the cold, hard truth is this: Paneque can make more in two good days working with tourists than he can in an entire month caring for patients.
“The salaries,” he says. “They are nonsense.”

Dr. Miguel Paneque graduated from medical school in the mid 90s, but now helps run the nonprofit Espiral while also moonlighting as a tour guide. He can make more money in several days as a tour guide than he did working for a month as a doctor.

Paneque represents several generations of Cuban professionals who studied hard, graduated with degrees from good universities, accepted state jobs like their parents, accepted the old reality of the Cuban government and then watched, horrified, as the economy that was supposed to protect them instead crumbled at their feet.
He represents the flip side of this new Cuban economy. A casualty of change.
Here’s the math: A Cuban on a state salary makes $30 or $40 a month if lucky, enough to feed a family but nothing more. Work near tourists, and you can make that in a good afternoon.
This upside-down economy creates all sorts of strangeness. During a week in Cuba I meet a ship’s captain who makes more by driving my tourist butt around, an incredible linguist working as a waiter, and several Cubans with doctoral degrees now serving tourists’ drinks. It also creates the strangest two-tiered class system: The haves work with tourists or receive money from U.S. family members. The have-nots are everyone else, including doctors.
“We are wasting human resources that we have trained,” says Betancourt the economist.
And it gets worse for Cuba. Faced with choosing between being a low-paid doctor or a better-paid bartender, many Cuban professionals are picking Door C: the United States.
More than 43,000 Cubans found their way into the U.S. in the last fiscal year — a five-fold increase since 2010 — with thousands more settling or simply stuck elsewhere in Central or South America. Those leaving tend to be young, ambitious and highly educated. They tend to be exactly the sort of people a country doesn’t want to lose.
For those like Paneque, there is a near-constant internal tension, a feeling of being wedged between Cuba’s past and its future.
The doctor-turned-tour guide looks backward toward his father, a government economist who annually took time off to travel to the Cuban countryside and harvest sugar cane, a political act in support of the revolution.
He considers the present: Sometimes the pace of change seems too quick, scary even. Sometimes it feels agonizingly slow. “I can’t leave, though,” he says. “I love this place too much.”
Then he looks toward his daughter, Alejandra. She just turned 13. She is more beautiful than the beautiful buildings of Old Havana, he thinks. He loves her more than any country.
She lives in Ecuador now, with her mother, Paneque’s ex-wife. He thinks Alejandra has the talent to be a writer. Lately, she is saying she wants to be a psychologist.
“Do you want Alejandra to move back to Cuba?” I ask him. Do you want her to be a Cuban who makes the new Cuba work?
“Yes,” he says. “But only if she can make some money.”

An example of the renovation of Old Havana, a decades-long, multi-million-dollar project meant to return that part of the city to its former glory. In the background is the Port of Havana.

The Hustler

is still sore about the day they took away his printers.
It was a normal day until government agents showed up and demanded his paperwork. He had the permit to run the shop and the permit for the equipment, but not all the receipts.
So they unplugged the printers and carted them away. The Hustler found the proper receipts. Still, he didn’t get his printers back. The shop was closed for a week, then two, then three. The Hustler sent the Computer Beast home. He did the hardest thing a hustler can do. He waited.
“Twenty-four days,” he says, shaking his head at the memory. “I was closed for 24 days.”
It’s a story that illustrates two different truths of a changing Cuba.
If you focus on the 24 days that the Cuban government shut down the city’s best printing shop over a receipt, the truth may be that a changing Cuba will never work.
The reform is too choppy and slow. Reform-minded Cubans will keep bumping into sharp corners until they either leave or give up.
Or you could consider what happened next, and then the truth changes.
Here is what happened next: The government returned the printing equipment. The Hustler restarted his business. The customers came back and brought their friends.
Soon the store was busier than it had ever been. The Hustler extended the hours. He unleashed the Computer Beast on even newer, fancier equipment. He hired more employees — regular Cubans who are now making more money than they ever have before.
“I’m making money! I’m making money!” the Hustler yells. “Give me the opportunity to make money and I will gladly pay more taxes to you! I will pay everyone.”
The Hustler stops and notices I’m not drinking my rum. He’s been talking for an hour and my glass sits half full — or half empty, depending on the point of view.
It’s a fine metaphor for Cuba, I think, as Guns N’ Roses rattles the walls. Half full or half empty. Hopeful or hopeless. Struggling toward something better or just passing the time until the country collapses.
The Hustler has other ideas about that glass of rum.
He whispers to an employee, and she carries over a bottle of Havana Club and drains it wordlessly into my glass. And I start to smile, and the smile grows into a chuckle, and then I’m sitting in a smoke-filled living room inside the heartbeat of a new Cuba and tipping my head back and shaking with laughter.
The Hustler has changed the metaphor. He has taken an outsider’s neat-and-tidy explanation of Cuba and effortlessly smashed it to smithereens.
This glass is now filled to the brim. It’s entirely full because the Hustler made it so.
Cuba is changing. It is changing because the Hustler is changing it.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1064,,

Share your thoughts