Somehow I’ve ended up helping to cater a party in Havana, and a burly, jovial architect called Rafael is asking me whether I’ve heard of Radio Bemba.
Basically it’s the Cuban grapevine: “Bemba” is a slang word for big lips, and the expression has its origins in the way Fidel Castro communicated with his men in the 1950s when they were holed up in the Sierra Maestra building the revolution. Today, in a nation where the only official media are state-controlled, Radio Bemba has become shorthand for the word-of-mouth information network, which is by far the quickest (and often the most reliable) way to find out about anything from baseball chat to celebrity gossip to news of the latest defection to the United States.
The party food ran out a while ago, and someone has started DJ-ing from a laptop at one end of the apartment. Rafael adopts a suitably conspiratorial tone, even though the volume in the room is such that nobody could possibly hear us: “Listen,” he says, leaning in, “I’ll tell you something I bet you didn’t know...”
I came to Havana because the word on the international version of Radio Bemba has been that Cuba is changing, and that the process has been gathering pace since Fidel’s younger brother Raúl took over as president in 2008. I wanted to see if the change was palpable—and if so, whether it was happening quickly enough to satisfy the people, and slowly enough to remain under control.
One of the most powerful indications that you had landed in Havana used to be the roadside billboards that in most countries would be prime advertising space, but here shouted out propaganda. On my last visit in 2008 these still railed against George Bush and his plans to Take Away All We Have Achieved. I remembered environmental ones—Look What This Stupid Capitalism Has Done To Our Planet—and topical ones calling for the release of Cubans held on espionage charges in the United States. But for all their pugnacity there were some persuasive slogans too, particularly in the areas of education and health care: Ten Million Children Die Every Year From Preventable Diseases: Not One Of Them Is Cuban.
I had been looking forward to getting a reading on how the Castro regime was facing up to the world in 2011 from the posters on the way into town from the airport. But from the window of my rented Kia—not, I’m afraid, a Buick or a Chevrolet held together with rubber bands and Soviet parts—I noticed that something was different. Here were many things I remembered—a notable absence of cars; a concomitant prevalence of hitchhikers; fleets of full-to-bursting Yutong buses supplied by the Chinese—but there seemed to be a marked decline in the number of posters, and the ones I saw looked faded and old. The familiar slogans were still there (Socialismo O Muerte! Venceremos!), as were the images of Ernesto Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos—but they were getting considerably easier to ignore than the patina of history corroding them.
After I’d unpacked, I had a drink with Lázaro, which is not the real name of the guy I was unofficially renting my room from. He confirmed my suspicions.
“The posters get old and tatty, then they get taken down,” he said. “And they don’t get replaced.”
“Is that because people no longer accept them?” I wondered. “Times are hard, and the government doesn’t want to provoke?”
“Possibly,” he replied. “And they cost far too much money to replace.”
Talk to any Cuban under 35 and you’ll find someone less politicised than they are frustrated, especially if they’ve had a drink and feel they can trust you. Their reaction to talk of the revolution is most likely to be boredom or discomfort—not necessarily because they fear the authorities might overhear them, but simply because they want to get on, and this stuff is just so old. Cubans are long-suffering and they seem to be infinitely resourceful, but sometimes they feel it’s about time someone gave them a break.
These cracks of patience run parallel to a meandering official party line: as the rules start to change, so the people begin to glimpse what they have been deprived of. It’s as if they have been gripped so tightly for so long that they are only just beginning to notice that there might be a little room for manoeuvre.
I walked down Obispo, a busy shopping street in Old Havana. A water truck was being shouted at with rising urgency as it threatened to reverse into a cement mixer outside a building site. The truck was a familiar sight—water management is a round-the-clock concern since the mains supply reaches many houses only every other day—but the sight of workers saving one of those ubiquitous, rotting colonial façades felt refreshingly new. And that wasn’t all.
Here were the usual jineteros out to hustle whatever they could from passing tourists, some pitching low with the promise of cheap cigars, others trying on more baroque tales in the hope of a bigger pay-off. Here were elegant ladies done up in the white finery of the Santería devotee, waiting to be asked to pose for photos. But there were also many locals peering down at and fiddling with their mobile phones.
I was in Cuba three years ago when the freshly appointed President Raúl Castro relaxed certain restrictions forbidding the ownership of electrical goods and prohibiting Cubans from entering the best hotels. Overnight, the coffin-shaped pool built by mob-boss Meyer Lansky at the Hotel Riviera turned from a quiet dunking place for broiled foreigners into a seething cacophony of local kids diving from the high board and devouring slices of pizza in the shallow end. And overnight, people started openly toting their phones.
So I wasn’t surprised to see that they were now everywhere—or even that all the latest handsets were on display, in spite of the fact that Cubans can’t access a data network (foreign SIM cards can, at a traumatic price). What amazed me was that anybody could afford to use them. In convertible pesos, calls cost around 40c per minute, so given that the average monthly salary is about $25, you could blow a month’s pay in about an hour. What was everybody up to?
The answer to that question, which came from a friend of Lázaro’s called Gloria, provided the most up-to-date example I had seen of how beautifully adaptable Cubans are to the parameters set by their capricious controllers. If a text message is a luxury you can’t afford, then a missed call is the next-best sign of affection. It’s understood that Gloria won’t answer the phone when her boyfriend calls. The idea is just to let her know she’s on his mind.
Someone told me that if I really wanted to understand how Cuba was changing I should visit Papito the hairdresser. I ended up in a quiet Old Havana street of shuttered houses in varying states of repair. Some were literally falling down, but there was building work in progress here, too: further evidence of the restoration programme that is bringing some of the near-mortally neglected buildings back to life.
I reached what I thought must be Papito’s door. Two chickens caged under an upturned crate clucked gently on the cobbles outside. Some kids who had been playing baseball in the street capered past me up some crumbling stone steps and into an adjacent doorway. At the end of the street I could make out the imposing shadow of a statue of General Máximo Gómez on his horse. Behind it, Atlantic spray shot up in the air over the cars that puttered up and down the Malecón.
The salon would be discreet (there is no sign) were it not for the plaque outside the front door that commemorates what Gilberto Valladares Reina, known to all as “Papito”, has done for this neighbourhood—which gives you a clue that he’s more than your average barber. Climb the creaking stairs to his first-floor premises and you begin to get the picture. This is not just a salon, but also a commissioning art gallery (the theme is hairdressing). It’s also a museum of social history, showcasing ancient cameras and typewriters (and hairdressing equipment) that might still be in service elsewhere in Havana, but have here been accumulated and displayed for their historical interest. And it’s also a hairdressing school.
“Hairdressing is what saved me,” says Papito, who is gym-built and charismatic, and sports a bewilderingly complicated utility-belt of hair-related tools. “I hated school. I ran away a lot. I got into trouble. And if someone hadn’t taught me this trade I think I would be in worse trouble right now. So I wanted others to benefit from the advantages I had.”
He currently has 11 pupils, all recruited from the deprived streets immediately surrounding the salon. He’s already opened a second salon across the street where his students can train, and, in a third building, a second art gallery that also doubles as a community gym. In a way he’s a kind of magnate, with two crucial distinctions: first, every one of his premises has at least two different uses; second, every one of his businesses benefits the community at large. Which might explain why, after initial suspicion, the state has so enthusiastically sanctioned his projects.
“If they see that this kind of social enterprise works, and that it’s good for the community, they’ll be better prepared for the next thing that comes along,” he says. “But they need to be shown the examples.”
This is trailblazing stuff. Cuba nationalised retail business in 1968, after which any form of private enterprise, from renting out a room in your house to selling bananas from a barrow, could be deemed “speculation”. Everybody broke the rules, because you couldn’t not if you wanted to survive, but if you were dobbed in by a “reliable source” you were in trouble. However, since late 2010, and facing public-sector redundancies, the government has been tentatively encouraging small-scale private enterprise. Things are moving slowly, partly because old bureaucratic habits die hard (the red tape is excruciating), but now you can apply for a licence to run a coffee shop or a snack bar that will be more than just a workers’ collective.
People call the protean language of the regime Granmática (Granma being the state newspaper that is named after the implausible little pleasure boat that brought Fidel, Che and 80 other revolutionaries over from Mexico to start the revolution). And the expression favoured by Granmática when the issue of reform comes up is “updating the revolution”. It is reform born of necessity: changes are made not because the regime wants to make them, but because it has to. That Cuban resourcefulness extends from those in high office stretching their definition of what revolution actually means, to people like Papito, who will benefit most from the new entrepreneurial spirit because they’re the ones most prepared to test its limits. As so often before, Cubans are evolving, and adapting, and making the best of the situation. They have, after all, known worse times than these.
Back to that party: it’s not large, just a Friday evening get-together that a friend of a friend organises at home for his college friends. (The apartment is also home to his mother, his grandmother, his sister and her boyfriend—leaving home is off the cards when there’s nowhere to move to.) Guests are both students and teachers, of every discipline from physics to music to literature. The reason I had a hand in setting up the party was that I offered to buy supplies when I was in town, knowing the possible difficulties.
Getting hold of food can be complicated, particularly if you want to buy something not listed on your ration card. As I had discovered when trying to buy light bulbs for Lázaro as a practical thank-you present, you have to develop a shopping strategy, trawling from one market to another, following rumours. And often the response is still the same as the one often seen on restaurant menus: No Hay.
I’d bagged a reasonable haul of crisps and crackers from a tourist shop, and some ham and cheese to put on them. When that runs out the rum is going strong, and our hostess, ever resourceful, has soon rustled up a delicious snack of chícharos, deep-fried split pea fritters. That’s when I get talking to Rafael the architect.
“Chícharos,” he says, almost wistfully. “You know, we virtually lived on these things during the Special Period. I won’t go so far as to say that anybody actually starved, but at times we weren’t far off.”
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba entered a period of austerity that Fidel referred to as “The Special Period In A Time Of Peace.” The economy caved in: Soviet Oil had provided 90% of the country’s energy, which was instantly withdrawn along with all its other supplies of raw materials, food and fertiliser. Even the wheat had been arriving on tankers from the USSR. Books were printed on whatever scrap paper was lying around. Sugar mills, whose product had been bought for years at comically inflated prices, were decommissioned (and are now rusting into full dereliction). Power cuts and severe food shortages ensued, which precipitated the regime’s decision to set out its stall to tourists, turn to subsistence farming and dollarise the economy.
Memories of this time die hard, and contribute (along with continued hardship, particularly when it comes to having enough to eat) to a constant low-level anxiety about food and a suspicion of neo-liberal globalisation. Letting in the dollar stratified society: because the possibility now existed for money to come in from the outside, it meant that for the first time since the revolution a person’s lifestyle was not indexed to his contribution. Rafael takes up the story.
“So,” he says. “Your brother in Miami sends you $100 a month, which is far more than you have ever been paid for working.” (Rafael makes around $300 a year.) “Not only do you not have to work—you also have a much higher standard of living than those who do. Lifestyles are changed overnight. The one who works is worse off than the one who doesn’t.”
This is how the system gets broken. Suddenly the car-parking attendant or the couch potato is making five times more money than the teacher or the surgeon. It’s why all the main sources of income if you want a decent standard of living in modern Cuba involve foreigners: either you rent out your body, or you rent out a room in your house, or you’re sent money from a relative in Miami. And because Miami Cubans tend to be white, their remittances never reach the black population, which reinforces a certain pre-existing level of racial inequality.
“There never used to be street gangs here, because people didn’t feel socially excluded,” says Rafael. “But now they do. Here I am: your neighbour. I see you going into the dollar shop. I see your children eating chocolate. Our children go to the same school and they eat the same miserable lunch every day. So we take them a snack. I can only afford a roll of bread. But your children have fizzy drinks and sandwiches. That’s what has happened to Cuban society. It is fractured into two levels. And now there is discontent.”
Listening to Rafael reminds me of all the countless stories I’ve heard of what that discontent has made people do over the years. It’s become a truism to say that the pain of the Cuban situation is closer to that of a blood feud than a political struggle. Most families have been divided in some way by the constant exodus, and whether those who make the jump find a way to do it safely, or resort to the perilous journey of the balseros who flee every year in their thousands on makeshift rafts and boats, once they have made it across they have picked a side simply by virtue of geography. Uniquely, thanks to the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, if a Cuban national sets foot on American soil he or she is instantly entitled to a passport.
Historically, the position of the Miami Cubans has tended to be defined by a vocal and politically powerful group violently opposed to any dismantling of the American embargo, afraid that it might bring the kind of embourgeoisement that would make the Castros stronger. But as I listen to Rafael I’m also reminded of something Lázaro told me earlier in the week, which makes me think that there could be one possible advantage to this being a family feud: the kids the next generation down might one day run into their cousins and wonder what all the fuss was about.
Under relaxed restrictions since the start of the Obama administration, the number of Cuban-Americans making the trip from Miami has increased since 2008 to over 1,000 per day. Lázaro tells me that when his relatives come over, any disputes between the groups are more likely to be based on envy than enmity: “The exiles envy the locals because we all seem to sit around all day doing nothing. Meanwhile we see them breezing in here, trying to sell us a pair of trainers that we know is last year’s model, and we think, What have you got to complain about? You’re free.”
Not quite the level of venom that has traditionally characterised the discourse across the Florida Straits. These two sides aren’t so much trading political views as ripped off PlayStation games and pirated episodes of South Park. And they are talking to each other.
Which brings us back to Radio Bemba. Rafael and I are talking about how word gets around, and when the conversation turns to the internet, I speculate how difficult it must be with so few opportunities to get online, and the crippling expense when you do. “Next you’re going to tell me you haven’t heard of the Cuban internet,” says my new friend. I shake my head. And that’s when he starts talking about Radio Bemba. People chip in with examples: According to Radio Bemba, there’s pork at the market on 23 and 12. Radio Bemba says that an official in the Ministry of Education has been fired. Fidel is in hospital, if you believe Radio Bemba. “And so, what do you suppose is the most useful object in a Cuban’s life right now?” says Rafael. “I’ll tell you: it’s his USB stick.”
That’s right: Radio Bemba has gone digital. Only about 2% of Cubans can get online (although that could change thanks to the recent arrival of a fibre-optic cable from compañero Chávez in Venezuela), but it doesn’t matter. You don’t need the internet to get Radio Bemba. The news may be a little stale by the time you read it, but it gets around. Whole stacks of HTML files from news websites are dumped onto USB drives, brought into the country, and disseminated from person to person. The thumb drive and the data DVD have become the media of choice here for the same reason that the tape deck lived on in Cuba long after its obsolescence elsewhere. They’re how that DJ on the laptop at the end of the room got hold of all his music, just as they’re how Rafael gets hold of his news.
“In January 2010,” he says, “26 mental patients died in the Havana Psychiatric Hospital on a very cold night. But the story didn’t initially get any play at all in the state media, because health care is such a proud pillar of the revolution. How did we know?”
“Radio Bemba,” I say, as others join the chorus. Rafael looks around with pleasure at his gathering audience, and suddenly his tone is not so conspiratorial.
“It could be anything,” he says. “Something fascist. Something destabilising. Or it could just be a recipe, a piece of music or a film.” He smiles, and pops another chícharo fritter in his mouth. “The point is that all it takes is one person.”