The New Cuba

An eight-day series by Matthew Hansen and Ryan Soderlin

The view of central Havana from the offices of Vistar, the country’s first independent online magazine.

Our view of Cuba is warped by the Cold War, distorted by a half-century-long embargo, blurred by the difficulty of traveling to Cuba and meeting regular Cubans on their own terms. Starting Sunday, Feb. 7, The World-Herald aims to present a clear-eyed picture of Cuba in 2016: the country’s rapid change, its upside-down economy, its frustrated young adults, its newfound freedoms and the hope and fear of the future.

World-Herald photographer Ryan Soderlin, translator Talia Bustamante and World-Herald columnist Matthew Hansen in Havana in December.

Day 1: Sunday, Feb. 7

The new Cuba

The Hustler, a black-market bandit turned legit businessman, in the apartment next to his jewelry kiosk and connected to his print shop.

Cuba isn’t frozen at the edge of a cliff. Rub your eyes. Look again.

Taxi driver Yoel Díaz leans against his 1950s Chrysler in Old Havana.

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?

Read Day 1: The New Cuba


Wait, isn't the embargo over? A Q&A on changes in Cuba

A special thanks from Matthew Hansen

Day 1: Sunday, Feb. 7

Cuba, in pictures

Juan Gutiérrez eats a hunk of bread as he walks near the rural town of Recompensa, Cuba. Gutierrez was headed to a group of palm trees. He used his rope to climb the trees and he used his machete to harvest palmiche, a berry of the royal palm tree. The palmiche were then fed to his hogs.

Do not go to Cuba if you want life to be easy.

Rosa Maria León sells medicinal plants and oils at an open-air agricultural market in Havana.

Don’t go to Cuba if you want another vacation, another place to warm your bones in February.

Go to Cuba if you want something different. Something singular. Something so indescribably deep and beautiful that words, at least mine, cannot match it. Something that you can glimpse in the photos that surround these words. Something you need to see to understand.

See the gallery: Cuba, in photographs

Day 2: Monday, Feb. 8

The dreamers

Designer Leire Fernández, right, and shop employee Israel Buergo fold T-shirts on at Clandestina. After the government barred them from importing cotton, Clandestina's owners began to make bags and clothes by repurposing sugar sacks and old Cuban clothing. They named this new line of clothing Vintrashe.

“That’s not exactly illegal, but not legal, either. Kind of a gray area.”

Designer Idania del Rio shows one of the T-shirts made from repurposed clothes. del Rio and her business partner, Leire Fernádez, worked for years to make Clandestina, their design store, a reality.

You think it’s hard to start a small business? Try it in Havana. There, two young women have started the country’s first independent design store and gotten international attention. They have also felt the blunt force of the Cuban state.

Read Day 2: The dreamers

Day 3: Tuesday, Feb. 9

The package

Did you see that crazy episode of “Game of Thrones”? Yeah, I saw it on Paquete. How did you get that Candy Crush phone app? Paquete.

Internet service is a public utility in Cuba but connectivity is low. Cubans often get online by going to wi-fi hot spots found in public parks or outside tourist hotels, like the Hotel Presidente, seen here.

There’s an information revolution happening in Cuba. It’s a revolution sparked by a $2 illegal weekly service that delivers the world of news and entertainment to the flash drives of regular Cubans.

No one really knows why the Cuban government allows El Paquete’s continued existence, though that does seem to fit with President Raúl Castro’s gradual relaxation of many of his brother Fidel’s most hated policies.

And everyone acknowledges that El Paquete is of course illegal.

Read Day 3: The package

Day 4: Wednesday, Feb. 10

The migration

Octavio Sordo, right, with his wife, Niuris Mirabal, in front of their Omaha home. Niuris, who will soon get her teaching certificate, is pregnant with their first child. The couple plans to name her Leah and raise her in Omaha.

Will I even recognize him after six years? What am I doing here? What are we doing?

Cubans are fleeing their homeland and entering the United States at a record pace. Today, two 30-something Cubans would like to explain why. They would like to tell you a story that veers from rural Cuba to a Havana classroom to a Tampa movie theater to Omaha’s Eppley Airfield. Octavio and Niuris would like to tell you about what they lost by leaving, and what they found.

Read Day 4: The migration

Day 5: Thursday, Feb. 11

The underdog

“Well behaved women seldom make history,” the bumper sticker says.

Edmund Chester, left, and his wife Enna with two of their four children, Cythia Chester, right, and Carolyn Chester as a baby. The family split time in homes in south Florida and Havana, Cuba, until the Cuban revolution in 1959.

Thousands of Americans have never been repaid for the homes, land and property Fidel Castro seized in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution. Fifty-seven years later, they are still fighting to regain what they lost, and an Omaha woman has become one of the leaders of this fight.

“They saw us as an obstacle,” Carolyn says. “And so I recognized that and decided, ‘I’m going to be one.’”

Read Day 5: The underdog

Day 6: Friday, Feb. 12

The rock revolution

A singer performs the 35th anniversary of John Lennon's death at the Submarino Amarillo, Cuba's only rock-n-roll club that doubles as a tribute bar to the Beatles.

You have not lived until you have heard AC/DC performed by a Cuban man dressed in all white doing a credible Mick Jagger impersonation.

On the 35th anniversary of his death, a candle burns next to a statue of John Lennon in Lennon Park in the Vedado district of Havana.

For decades, rock music was banned in Cuba by Fidel Castro. But a Beatles’ tribute bar is reviving rock 'n' roll in Havana. Step inside Submarino Amarillo, the city's helter-skelter rock club.

Read Day 6: The rock revolution

Day 7: Saturday, Feb. 13

The agricultural divide

“We need to recognize at some point that Cuba is no longer a military power. It’s kind of hard to understand why the animosity still exists."

Yonder Alvarez sells sweet oranges in the Barrio de Colón of Havana. Fruit is often purchased on the street or at roadside stands in Cuba. Cubans receive chicken, milk and other staples in their monthly rations.

Former Gov. Dave Heineman made the most surprising of acquaintances — then Cuban dictator Fidel Castro — during a time when Nebraska was making millions of dollars’ worth of ag deals with Cuba. Today, that trade relationship is broken, and ag leaders say only ending the embargo will fix it.

Read Day 7: The agricultural divide

Day 8: Sunday, Feb. 14

The lure of Cuba

Rosa Guillén puts a candle in a holder at the Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Charity in Old Havana. Guillén cares for and cleans the area where patrons light prayer candles at the Catholic church. Catholicism is having a renaissance in Cuba after the government ended previous restrictions on organized religion and after Pope Francis visited in September. At top, a butcher feeds a cat a piece of meat in an open-air agricultural market in Havana. You can buy pork, chicken or fish in this market but not beef, which is seen as a luxury item and purchased mostly by hotels and restaurants that serve tourists.

Do not go to Cuba because it’s stuck in the past, because you miss 1963, because you think life there is somehow gauzy around the edges, like an old family Polaroid. Go to Cuba because it’s lurching into the future, a 2016 that’s unsteady and yet graceful, a life here that feels troubled and troubling and oh so worth the trouble.

Read Day 8: The lure of Cuba