After Fidel, Cuba’s Problems Still Loom

Cuba is changing in a big way.

julia-cooke-coverJulia Cooke’s New Book Sheds Light on the New Cuba

by Dan Peltier

Over a period of five years, beginning when Fidel Castro stepped down from his presidency in 2008 after almost a half-century of reign, award-winning journalist Julia Cooke embedded herself in Cuba. She gained access to a dynamic Havana–one that she found populated with twenty-five-year-old Marxist philosophy students, baby-faced anarchists, children of the whiskey-drinking elite, Santeria trainees, pregnant prostitutues, and more.

Combining intimate storytelling with in-depth reportage, The Other Side of Paradise weaves together stories of the Cubans whom Cooke encountered, providing a vivid and unprecedented look into the daily lives and future prospects of young people in Cuba today.

Cooke is a recipient of fellowships from The Norman Mailer Center and Columbia University, where she earned her MFA. Her writing has appeard in Condé Nast, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Gawker, The Christian Science Monitor and many other publications. She currently lives in New York City and teaches at the New School. The Other Side of Paradise is her first book.

Excerpt: The Storm
Lucía was pretty pleased with herself. No real preparation, other than filling up a few two-liter plastic bottles with water now spiced with TuKola and lemon soda, and she’d slide through this ciclón just fine, she knew it. Well, she didn’t know it, but she sensed that she’d get through Hurricane Ike the way she got through everything: clinging to the edge by fingernails, a big grin slopped across her face.

Everyone else was scurrying and getting ready, hanging clothes, pegging boards to windows, waiting in line to clean out supermarkets that had held barely anything to begin with–what was the problem with not eating much for a few days? Her Brazilian medical student friends, twin sisters both named Ana, had gotten back into the country on one of the last flights from Mexico and would crash with her through the storm.

They’d brought tortillas and, inexplicably, cans of tuna fish–inexplicable because this was one of the few things that Lucía and everyone else knew was reliably stocked at Cuban supermarkets-and Lucía had saltines and guava paste and her water.

Now was when living on the very inside of Soviet-style concrete block with windows that opened onto interior air shafts and other people’s living rooms was an advantage, unlike every other moment she’d lived in this flat. Even if water licked inside the jalousie blinds that granted minimal privacy from the family in apartment 5D, even if her flat flooded, what would it damage, the fraying couch that wasn’t hers?

Her room had one tiny window and it was on the other side from where she kept her books. She moved her TV, pushed a few pieces of furniture away from the windows and closed up as tight as she could; otherwise, she sat and read a bit and talked to the Anas and waited.

Four tropical storms had pushed through the Caribbean in August alone. Now it was a September Monday in 2008 and Hurricane Ike blustered straight at Havana. Not straight at the city, to be fair, but it had touched down that morning on the northeast coast of Cuba as a muscular category 4 storm and no one was sure where it would head from there.

It was expected to tear up the east, continue southwest, and barely avoid Havana and the two million inhabitants in and around the city. Or it could swerve in and hit the city itself, an unpredicted tantrum but possible.

I’d arrived a few days before and though I’d met Lucía years earlier at University of Havana parties, I wouldn’t see her until just after the storm. From where I sat on the porch of the ground-floor Vedado apartment where I rented a room, the street shuddered from the crisp dry waves of heat. The clouds and humidity were gone, as if the storm had slurped up every drop of moisture.

Cubans scrambled in the streets; the small clusters of prattling neighbors or schoolmates that usually hovered on corners, benches, retaining walls, under boughs of bougainvillea, and on steps, enacting Havana’s characteristic languor, had never assembled that morning. People waved instead-curt arm gestures, a nod of a head-or hollered a shrill word or two as they passed.

Throughout Vedado, rangy shirtless men climbed ladders to hammer sheets of plywood against floor-to-ceiling panes of glass. Laundry lines sagged from upstairs windows. Worn T-shirts and heavy jeans flopped in the wind-housewives had done their washing and mopping in anticipation of the days to come, when they wouldn’t have water for cleaning or sun for drying.

The clacking sound of dominos hitting card tables had disappeared along with the hoots of the men who played everyday games on the strip of dirt and hardy grass between the sidewalk and street; they’d noted scores and would resume in a few days. One newscaster’s insistent monotone floated through open doors and windows. On TV, he shooed a gray triangle across a map of Cuba to demonstrate the likely
path of destruction. Ike would just skim Havana.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Life appeared to cease when it rained in Havana. Daylight dimmed to a dark gray and humidity sealed envelopes, softened soap until it resembled sun-melted chocolate, and puckered magazines as if they’d been paged through above a steamy bathtub.

Few structures were impermeable: roofs dripped, water blew in through windows that didn’t close properly, and uneven floors puddled. Bus shelters were small enough that all but a few people in any crowd would be soaked by the time a vehicle arrived. Streets flooded. Sometimes teenage boys gripped back fenders and surfed behind buses in sneakers, T-shirts plastered to their chests and baggy shorts extended behind them in stiff flapping flags, their knees ominously close to wheels and their faces blazing.Mornings felt like late afternoons, full with the sense of people in bedrooms, taking naps. Students came to class so rarely in rainstorms that instructors stopped showing up to sit before a gallery of chipped wooden chairs. Anyone caught anywhere but at home faced fresh coffee and conversation. Any event requiring elegant clothing or a prompt arrival was out of the quesiton, postponed or cancelled implicitly, because not enough people had cars. Julia CookeJulia Cooke

It was the cost, but also the government permits required to purchase one, that kept people from owning cars. Once purchased, color-coded license plates indicated in shorthand what kind of permit any given car had. For example, diplomats got black plates, the first three numbers of which specified what country the car’s owner was from, and blue indicated a vehicle that belonged to the government.

The rare coffee-colored plate was for a director of a Cuban company, pale green stood for the Ministry of the Interior, dark green was the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, the armed forces and so on. Anonymous drivers were not, in fact, anonymous at all.

The armed forces had been active that winter, which Elaine knew because she had become a news junkie. Fuzzy CNN en espanol was her daily companion as she prepared the family’s lunch. One morning, she charged through the door between our kitchens, calling, “Nina, venaca.” We stood in silence before her TV.

Soviet-era green planes and camouflaged bodies in formation looked ominous against the dusty earth of an undisclosed countryside location. Trenches had been dug and guns fired and Raul Castro directed a speech toward a group of rank-and-file FAR men, his metal epaulettes glinting in the sun.

These military exercises happened every few years, to stay at the ready for a U.S. invasion along the lines of 1961’s Bay of Pigs. It was the very end of 2009 and the four days of extensive maneuvers, strategy sessions, and military parades across the island came seven months after President Obama had lifted the restrictions on Cuban American travel, remittances, and U.S. telecommunications firms looking to do business in Cuba.

“Look at the military man in his uniform, showing everyone how in control he really is,” Elaine scoffed as she resumed cooking.

HavanaHavanaAnother general gave a speech. “The political-military situation, which characterizes the confrontation between our country and the empire, can go from a relatively normal situation to a much more urgent, confrontational, aggressive one in a month, a week, or even in a night,” said General Leonardo Andollo Valdez.

“Oh no, no, this isn’t for your benefit, hija,” Elaine said to the TV. She pointed her knife at the screen. “This is for us, just for us. To remind us exactly who’s in charge.”

Elaine had been barbed and bitter since Maykel had been called to complete his year of military service, compulsory for all Cuban men. He wouldn’t be allowed to apply for an exit visa without finishing it. He had a new girlfriend, a ballerina, and was making good money with the car and had hinted at staying.

The weather had been rainy and cool lately, odd for late autumn. And Carlos, she learned, was now too old to apply for a visa as a dependent. Elaine and Nicolas would leave their sons behinds and file for family reunification visas in the States. The Reyes family wouldn’t emigrate to Miami together, after all; if the four of them made it, it would be separately.


Dan Peltier is a freelance writer from Billerica, MA who first traveled internationally at the age of 17 to Australia and New Zealand and hasn’t stopped traveling since. He studied abroad in Rome, Italy during his junior year of college and fell in love with the Eternal City along the way. Follow him on Twitter @djpeltier and visit his blog to read more of his work.

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Daniel Peltier

Daniel Peltier

Daniel Peltier is a staff reporter for the travel news site Skift, in New York City. He began his travel writing after studying abroad, and then as an intern for Travel. He got his journalism degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Daniel Peltier

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