“I think I know who can find you an apartment,” Lucía said. I was on her couch picking at its fraying white vinyl. My address book lay open on my knees. I’d moved to Cuba with two suitcases, a ten-month student visa, plans to take a weekly class on popular culture, and visions of a terrace, balustrades, maybe an apartment in Vedado, the downtown heart of Havana. But after two weeks, I’d found nowhere to live. A legal resident foreigner could rent only from an authorized casa particular or directly from the state—apartments that were usually bugged, priced for businesspeople and reporters on expat packages. I’d met a “real estate agent” with frosted pink lipstick who set foreigners up in long-term casas and took a cut, but she shook her head when I told her I hoped to pay less than $25 a night for a monthly rent. On a full apartment! She didn’t return my calls. Lucía, the most connected twenty-six-year-old I’d ever met in Havana or anywhere else, was my best hope to map out opportunities.
That weekend, the government tossed the city into a “national time of mourning” after Comandante Juan Almeida Bosque’s fatal heart attack a few days earlier. Concerts and parties in all state-owned venues were canceled for the forty-eight hours following his death. G Street, a downtown avenue where every weekend young people gathered to drink and gossip, would be buzzing nonetheless. There, Lucía said, she could introduce me to Carlos, a friend of hers whose mother rented out a small apartment.
That night the avenue’s broad, grassy median was so full with teenagers and young adults that people walked in the gutters, shuffling through discarded cigarette butts that the garbage collectors would sweep with thinning brooms around sunrise. Clouds of conversations bumped into one another, intertwined, getting lost among the mass. Discarded juice boxes of rum resembled leaves strewn along the road. One boisterous boy shoved another backward into one of the boxy topiary shrubs. It bounced him back to standing as if in slow motion, and he waved his arms in indignation, turned away, and disappeared into the crowd.
“We’re really sad tonight, can’t you tell?” Lucía shouted once I found her group on a bench. “You know, Almeida and all, generals dying, time of mourning. Vaya, vaya, vaya.”
“Dropping like flies,” said a tall guy with a pronounced pout as he angled his head toward us.
A cigarette dangled from Carlos’s long fingers. He reached back to flick the ash onto the sidewalk as he turned to look at me, leaning his cheek in for a greeting when Lucía introduced us. He was young, twenty-two. His eyes were thoughtful and calm, but the rest of him was brusque, agitated, exaggerated. The more he spoke, the faster his hands and his words flew. He and his friends, gay men who worked in theater and film, would linger on G Street until it was time to go to the weekly pop-up “Divino” LGBT party, the only activity that hadn’t been canceled in Almeida’s name. “The gays don’t respect anyone’s rules,” Lucía said, taking another swig of rum.
The apartment that his family rented was occupied, Carlos said, but his mother knew all about the apartments for rent in their neighborhood. If I called him in a day, two days, maybe three, he’d have a few names and numbers. He took my address book and wrote his phone number and name in wobbly capital letters, then pushed his black, deflated pompadour out of his face.
A few days later, at his home, after we’d walked through Vedado looking at apartments, Carlos opened the door onto a large living room decorated in jewel tones—magenta on the walls and lush emerald potted plants in one corner—with shiny marble floors and natural light ribboning in. His mother, Elaine, was neither rude nor discreet about looking me up and down as Carlos introduced us. She wore a green-and-yellow-plaid apron, which she removed and hung next to the stove before joining us in the living room. The dog trotted out behind her.
The entire family—Elaine, Carlos, his brother, Maykel, and his father, Nicolás—spoke with their bodies: eyebrows rising, mouths gaping with laughter, hands clapping together to demonstrate agreement or slapping the table to show dissent. There were fingers lifted to silence someone else, usually in vain, and hands shaking in the air alongside heads to emphasize a point.
Elaine had worked as a special-education teacher for the state until a few years ago. Nicolás had been an athlete—a sharpshooter with the national team. Close to fifty, he was thicker around the middle than he’d been before. He reclined into the couch while everyone talked, and though he spoke seldomly and quietly, everyone listened when he did uncross his legs, lean into the group, and open his mouth. Carlos liked talking about politics, but he spoke too loudly when he got excited, and Elaine clapped her hands and pointed at the open windows to shut him up.
As the daylight seeped away, Elaine asked Carlos if he’d shown me the apartment at the back of theirs. She and Nicolás had turned their apartment’s third bedroom and a service area into an independent flat: They’d added a terrace, a galley kitchen, and a separate entry in the eighties, and now it was a small one-bedroom apartment connected with theirs by way of two closed, locking doors. It had a slim living room, clean tile floors, and a wall of windows. The twenty-something Cuban girl who’d been there for two years was leaving for Milan soon, to visit the Italian boyfriend who paid her rent. She was just waiting for her passport to come through, Elaine said. No one knew if she’d return. They didn’t have a permit to rent to a foreigner, but they didn’t have a permit to rent to a Cuban, either. A German wintered in the flat upstairs, and a Chilean political-science student lived below without a problem. I was a yanqui, so the consequences of staying there could be more grave. But Elaine was willing to risk it if I was. Especially if I was staying for more than a few months. Renting was their family’s only source of income, and they needed to save if they ever wanted to move out of Cuba. Elaine could ask the girl to find someplace else to stay for her final months in the country, and I could pay what I would have spent on the small, dank apartment I’d seen earlier. Two days later, I moved in.
Elaine’s building was a dollhouse of prestige and poverty, history and gossip, left to encroaching decay but often found in architecture textbooks on tropical modernism. It had been designed by the Cuban firm Bosch and Romañach in 1950 on a commission from a man named Guillermo Alonso, who may or may not have been Guillermo Alonso Pujol, vice president of Cuba under Carlos Prío. The complex was still sometimes used in architecture classes to demonstrate effective cross-ventilation.
There were two apartments on each floor off a blue stairwell and an elevator papered in curling wood-printed plastic that worked maybe one week out of four. Each front door had a metal grate, crusted with rust or painted crisp white. Behind the grates, most doors stayed open throughout the day, and shards of arguments or television could be heard bouncing through the hallways.
Elaine was a black ponytail bobbing around the kitchen as she cleaned the floors or chopped vegetables at the counter, or she was statuesque, sitting at the table or on the wicker love seat in the front windows, smoking a cigarette, silent and still enough that the smoke rose around her face like a veil. When the heat from cooking dampened the hair around her temples, she leaned against the polished aluminum countertops in her kitchen, sipping from an espresso cup, feeling the wind blow around her face. “If there’s no air in my kitchen,” she often said, “there’s not so much as a breeze in Havana.”
Elaine and Nicolás were the sort of couple who wove a constant conversation around themselves. They were forever talking to each other, picking up a thread when he returned from running morning errands, when she finished cooking, in the afternoons when they sat in the front of the living room, in the mornings behind the closed door of their bedroom, their voices knitting near-visible intimacy. She curled her knees into her chest in the wicker garden chair in the front portico and tucked her feet beneath her. He slouched, the curve of his back fitting perfectly into the chair. Nicolás didn’t talk much to anyone but Elaine. He liked to be busy: fixing anything in the apartment or building that needed it, sanding, oiling, or repainting their old furniture.
Every morning, there was a hush around eleven when Nicolás left to run errands, while their two sons were still asleep. I liked to write in the mornings and usually took a break to bring back the empty cups of sweet espresso Elaine would leave for me, perched delicately atop the glass table in my room. We sat down to talk about her family, about my family, about Cuba, about anything.
In the late nineties, she told me, Nicolás gave up shooting for the national team, and his sister moved to Miami. Elaine quit psychology, they started renting out the flat, and their joint profession now was keeping their home in order, keeping the renter in their back apartment content. Elaine had told the neighbors over coffee and cigarettes that an acquaintance in the housing authority had helped her get a special permit for me to live with them as Carlos’s fiancée. Everyone in the apartment complex knew he was gay—he’d come out four years earlier—but sex or the promise of it made countless transgressions of the law at least defensible.
Still, the potential consequences of renting to me without a casa particular license rippled.It might be problematic for my Communist fairy godfather, the official who’d vouched for me in the visa process, and crippling for my book, since I’d possibly be asked to leave the country; it could leave Elaine and Carlos and their family homeless, since illegal rental was grounds for confiscating the apartment. So I was instructed never to answer the doorbell—or the phone, due to my accented Spanish. I went further: I’d have taxis drop me off at the corner or a block away, since Cubans rarely took cabs and the woman who watched the street from her rocking chair was a permanent fixture on the building’s façade. El chivateo, the threat of being ratted out, lurked everywhere.
“Hola, divino,” began the man’s voice on the message machine that Carlos called every Saturday night. “Tonight’s party will be held at …” and then the theatrical voice gave an address. When it said, “I’ll see you there,” you followed the voice to the addresses of rooftops, basements, and back patios under eaves of aluminum siding. People called from living rooms in La Lisa or pay phones on Centro Habana streets, then boarded buses or jammed into máquinas—collective taxis—heading downtown.
They arrived at places large enough to accommodate Havana’s growing out and almost-out LGBT community: patios, rooftops, defunct concert halls or skating rinks. I once met Carlos at a party in an empty Habana Vieja lot where a building had collapsed. Men had long since ferreted away the bricks and beams to sell to renovators on the side. The speakers had been propped on piles of concrete rubble. When you danced, you had to be careful to lift your feet high.
Every few weeks, the party included a drag show in Parque Lenin, an enormous tract of rolling hills and lush foliage twenty minutes outside of town. On nights when someone big was headlining, well-organized swarms of young gay men and women gathered wherever a máquina could reliably be hailed and paid $12 for a ride out.
One Saturday, Carlos splashed on aftershave, layered the two shirts he always wore to appear not quite so skinny, then leaned in my doorway and told me to come along. We met his crew on G Street at ten thirty and from there found a car that shot along the avenues out of Havana as the streetlights diminished. We wound along the dark roads of Parque Lenin until the parking lot appeared around a sharp turn, an oasis of vintage cars with lanky drivers who leaned against hoods counting money. A dozen people lined up outside a door that poured red light into the dark park around the small amphitheater and showered the line with campy pop. Madonna de Cuba was headlining, and the crowd was eager.
The cabaret setup was here interpreted by a tinsel-loving set designer. Silvery stars and streamers hung from beams that held a small metal roof over the stage. A long, thin runway extended into the basin of the table-service area, where groups sat before bottles of Havana Club white rum and plates of cubed ham and cheese. Red-painted wood beams and cheap siding and the faint odor of stale urine near the bathrooms blended together to give the place a vaguely gamy, 4-H club feel, amplified by the preening clusters of people not dancing in the bright light on the dance floor. The room buzzed with the firefly dramas of people who knew one another well, who could swap tidbits and look around and point out the subject of their gossip. Preparation for the spectacle was half the spectacle: A dozen people fluttered in and out of the bathroom area, where bare-chested men in tights applied eye shadow, dresses on hangers behind them, in plain view of those who were simply waiting to use the toilet. Carlos and his friends, dressed in jeans and preppy tops and sleeveless tees, looked conservative here: All around us were boys wearing satin bras and fake eyelashes or sequined halter tops and dark lipliner, girls in cargo shorts or sequined halters and jeans, some people who’d gotten government-funded sex-change operations in the year and a half since they’d been legalized, some cross-dressers who hadn’t and never would. People didn’t look the same and that was the point. Ten years from now, this party’s equivalent promised to be more polished, more separated into cliques, though it wasn’t that long ago that Carlos and I might have been put in jail for being at a party like this. Forty years ago, his homosexuality would have landed him in a work camp.
“No homosexual represents the Revolution, which is a matter of men, of fists and not feathers, of courage and not trembling, of certainty and not intrigue, of creative valor and not of sweet surprises,” the official newspaper El Mundo stated in 1965. Whereas the start of the revolution promised an egalitarian society, which in turn lured support from gay Cubans, the actual government enforced something far from it. The expulsion of Americans, the rehabilitation of prostitutes, the reclamation of property erected by a foreign force, and money poured into cultivating sportsmen who could do battle on the field: The revolution was a practical but also a symbolic action, defending a conquered Cuba from the penetration and dominance of the North. Machismo was as essential to the cause as homogeneity. The University of Havana expelled gay students, and the Union of Young Communists shunned men they considered feminine.
And yet, wrote gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, “I think that in Cuba there was never more fucking going on than in those years, the decade of the sixties, which was precisely when all the new laws against homosexuals came into being, when the persecutions started and concentration camps were opened, when the sexual act became taboo while the ‘new man’ was being proclaimed and masculinity exalted.”
Arenas endured a grueling two-year prison sentence in the early 1970s for his homosexual and counterrevolutionary proclivities. One label was often swapped for the other, and with the writing he had smuggled out of Cuba to publish in Europe and Latin America, he qualified as both. His work captures a sexually fluid Havana where any sex was understood to be better than no sex, regardless of gender pairing, but where pervasive homophobia and violence and prison stints layered dark experiences into the eroticism. Some members of his crowd were jailed; others were sent to Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), the Cuban version of a gulag. Gay men were rounded up off the streets or given a false summons to their obligatory military service and hauled off to work in fields or quarries sixty hours per week for seven pesos per month. They worked alongside practicing Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, long-haired hippies, and “counterrevolutionaries.” The UMAP program ended in 1968 but the camps remained open, paying involuntary internees slightly higher wages. Over the next thirty years, penal-code revisions decreased punishments for homosexuality.
Back then, “Neither teachers nor doctors could be gay. Today, no military person can be gay, either,” said Mariela Castro, gay-rights activist and daughter of president Raúl Castro. There is still no recognition of gay unions in Cuba. Same-sex couples do not hold hands in the streets, and gay parties and clubs are not advertised as such. But 2008, the first year of her father’s presidency, saw government-funded sex change operations for transsexuals, a measure for which she’d lobbied since 2005. She promised more change, and soon. In the years since, no progress has been made on an institutional level, though a transsexual woman did win an elected position in the municipal government of rural Caibarién in 2012.
At Parque Lenin, someone flicked up the music and a hoot rose from the burbling crowd, mostly men, all now clapping rhythmically. Onstage, a faux guerrilla fighter ripped off his army-green shirt and aviator sunglasses to show a chiseled face and rippling abs; a woman wore a modified nun’s habit and a garter belt; a goth girl, in fishnets, high boots, bra, and cape, whipped her long black hair like a flag as she spun around. Then they retreated, flushed and bouncing their way into a cluster, stage left. A tall transvestite in a shimmering dress emerged from behind the curtain and threw her arms out wide, lip-synching to “The Diva Dance,” the blue-alien aria from The Fifth Element. A purple-clad drag queen with inch-long talons on delicate hands pounded her chest à la Celine Dion as she faux-sang Cher. Someone did a rousing dance to a Gloria Trevi song. Carlos sang along quietly. Between acts, two men in boxer briefs pulled a red curtain open and closed. During performances, they stood statuesque on either side of the stage.
There was a pause. The stage cleared and the crowd stared at the curtain, where the two men stood with bunched handfuls of fabric in their hands, at the ready to sprint clumsily backward and reveal Madonna strung up on a silver cross papered with aluminum foil. A roar rolled through the room. She was tall with a chin cleft and bright-red lips. Long blonde hair hung over cleavage that spilled from a black pleather bustier. She began with “Like a Prayer,” mouthing the first verse, and when the beat line kicked in she leapt from the cross and roamed the stage.
The crowd around her wasn’t gossiping anymore. The collective craving for spectacle, for someone to part the curtain and emerge, confident and with a swagger and flourish and presence as different as humanly possible from everyone who walked down G Street at four in the afternoon—that craving had been recognized and met. This entire room was in varying stages of standing out; no one leaned into bathroom mirrors and applied eye shadow in order to fit into the dailiness of Cuba. And indeed, when more permits were issued in order to open private, in-home bars in 2011, a drag bar lined with synthetic velvet brought into the country in checked suitcases would open on the outskirts of town. On the two nights that I would go with Carlos, the performers would outnumber their audience but, with consummate professionalism, put on a show with verve and sequins just the same. At Parque Lenin, the crowd refused to let Madonna go, and she accepted their ovations with regal hand waves and broad smiles.
As had become our routine, I left the party earlier than Carlos, who stayed until it ended around four. From my room, I could hear him shuffle in and sit in the kitchen to watch TV. Nicolás had stretched an antenna out of the kitchen window to catch a cable signal from the state-run hotel across the street. The TV got shadowy, staticky CNN Español, Showtime, and a few local South Florida channels. Carlos sat in a stiff wooden chair, eating bread with mayonnaise or leftover rice and beans in the bluish glow of Law & Order and reality-TV reruns until his eyes began to slip closed.
That I joined Carlos for spectacles at Parque Lenin and Divino parties downtown—and enjoyed them—seemed to offer Elaine some solace. Her son’s homosexuality didn’t bother her. It was his lack of goals that was so worrisome. Going to social gatherings was his only aspiration, and lately, he’d been going primarily to gay parties. Elaine was afraid that as Carlos sank his identity into this one community, this one aspect of who he was, he did so at the expense of the other aspects of his personality: his intellect, his drive to debate, his passion for art and cinema. Even his strong opinions, his outspoken nature, his curiosity. All things he could use to make a life for himself. He had never found any motivation, she said. So she had finally agreed to leave Cuba, for his sake. Nicolás had wanted to leave for years; Elaine acquiesced because she felt certain that her sons would become better men anywhere but here.
They had an appointment at the US Interests Section scheduled for the following year, in April 2011. Since Nicolás’s sister in Miami had agreed to sponsor them, fingers were crossed that they’d be given Family Reunification Visas. They hoped to convince interviewers that they were ideal Cuban Americans, industrious and family-oriented like so many of the families that had settled among the billboards and smooth asphalt and trim, watered lawns of South Florida.
This was why Elaine risked renting to me—as a yanqui, I paid more than a Cuban would, more even than a German, and she and Nicolás needed to save. Their family was sponsoring them, but Elaine and Nicolás had to foot the departure bill themselves: four passports, medical checkups, exit visas, entry visas, plane tickets, and at least some start-up capital. For now they were suspended in the terse in-between into which I had fallen. Until their interview, their lives were dominated by a tight-belted routine, their bubble of stasis defined at its edges by the specter of a life together that all were envisioning slightly differently but none could clearly see.
I took a different route every time I walked to the Plaza Vieja in Old Havana from the capitol building, where the máquinas dropped passengers. The plaza was in the restored section of Old Havana, where the buildings looked like pastries with white curlicued rosettes, a Disneyland of Spanish colonial architecture restored by the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana. The historian, Eusebio Leal, had worked out a deal: A portion of the profits made in the tourist corridor funded further neighborhood restorations. From a fiscal perspective, Old Havana was a tiny functioning town within the greater city proper, seen as an eventual model for the rest of the city, a socialist midpoint that incentivized profit while maintaining government oversight.
The border between the renovated area and what hadn’t yet been fixed was unmarked but unmistakable. The streets of the unrestored old town looked, at first glance, to be a mess of pocked façades and barbacoas—makeshift lofts that residents installed in rooms with colonial double-height ceilings. Entire swaths of the area just behind the Plaza Vieja, which had tourist restaurants and a new Cuervo y Sobrinos luxury watch shop, had no running water; instead, children in sagging school uniforms carried buckets through the streets. A chaos of power lines burst from each building, running electricity into rooms that hadn’t been rewired in more than half a century. Doorbells had long since given up, so that visitors stood in streets, cupped hands around mouths, and called. The only public parks were where buildings had surrendered, crumpled to the floor, and left holes now occupied by kids with big ears and knobby elbows and patched-up baseballs.
To make Old Havana’s atmospheric, sagging buildings safe to live in was without question a positive undertaking. Yet as renovators swept through and some people were removed from their crumbling homes, sent to Soviet-style apartment blocks beyond La Lisa or back to the rural provinces they’d come from, something was lost both intellectually and aesthetically. Every building that sported new tiles, historically accurate colonnades, and trompe l’oeil moldings replaced a pocket of the city’s reality with ersatz Havana, a monument to nostalgia and denial, a transposed version of history brightened by more potent paints. I could think of nothing more American in essence, nothing more realistic and prosaic and capitalist than Old Havana as it swapped in a chocolate store where an apartment block had been, as it swathed buildings in cheery pinks and yellows. Backstreets, by contrast, felt anarchic and promising.
My visa was due to expire that summer, though I knew I could get an extension if I wanted one. The idea idea of staying in Havana was tempting. It would be cheaper to stay and write than to move back to Mexico City or New York or some unknown destination. Elaine nursed this fantasy on Saturday afternoons as we cooked golden malanga fritters and Carlos pulled out old family photos. “How can you leave? You’ll miss it too much,” she said. “It’ll break your heart. Ours, too. And we’ll be going in just another year. You should go back with us then.” Relationships had thickened around our routines into something that felt sturdy—sturdier, in some ways, than much of what I’d return to.
But staying in Havana meant being asked to leave at any moment—foreigners stay in Cuba at the pleasure of the system. Most long-term foreigners had considered what they would do if an agent from the Ministry of the Interior rapped at their door at eight in the morning and told them they’d be on the evening flight back to wherever they’d come from. Every expat in Havana knows at least one person to whom this has happened. A European businessman in his early forties, who lived with his family in a tasteful Playa home, hosted a dinner party I attended a month before my visa was due to expire. We were eating amid palms and candles, chattering about art and politics, when the question arose of what he would do if a MinInt agent arrived at his house. It would be impossible to dismantle their home quickly, he said, so he’d be forced to leave it all behind.
He clarified: He would take his family and as much of the artwork he’d bought in Cuba as possible. They had already stored family heirlooms and photo albums in a small apartment they kept in Europe. He knew which friend could help him pack without being incriminated by association, who had an SUV he could borrow to drive as many big suitcases to the airport as possible. He knew how much money to leave the maid to live on until she found work again.
When an expat moves away from Cuba under normal circumstances—a new diplomatic assignment, a move back to company headquarters—state agents inspect everything that will be shipped off the island. They ensure that there’s no Cuban patrimony, antiques, old paintings, or anything of historical value leaving the country, and that the list of objects being taken out matches the list of objects brought in. In decades past, gusanos who left Cuba hid wedding rings under shoe insoles, swallowed their savings in gold nuggets, were allowed to board flights with only the clothes they wore. Today, they can bring suitcases but no objects.
Knowing this, Elaine had been selling everything she’d acquired over the years—slowly, so as to avoid attention. This, too, was illegal. She had also begun labeling everything in their apartment—the blender, refrigerator, toaster, rice cooker, cabinet, and most pantry items, emblazoned with small pieces of pink paper with black English lettering. If I was really leaving, she wanted to be able to ask me pronunciation tips while I was still around.
“Sugar,” I said once.
“Sucer,” Elaine repeated.
I shook my head: “Shoo-ger.”
She waved a hand over her shoulder as she walked to the other end of the kitchen.
The year that Elaine and Nicolás left, nine months after I did in June 2010, the country saw the slow introduction of grinding change. Fifty-two dissidents had been released from jail that summer, and in September the Cuban congress passed a draft of 300 economic reforms that would, over the course of the next five years, move one-fifth of the state’s 5 million workers into private business, free up state businesses from party and government administration, authorize Cubans to buy and sell homes and cars, decentralize some decision-making, and decrease dependence on state rations and meals. The implementation of these changes had already begun and, officials promised, would continue to layer one shift atop another. Among the first was the legalization of 178 nonprofessional jobs, among them “handyman,” “button-upholsterer,” and “clown.” For the first time, any activity that the government hadn’t trained someone to do at a university, or which didn’t involve buying and reselling the same goods in Cuba, could be practiced legally. This meant that among the new careers possible for Cubans, there would be no permits for engineers, architects, lawyers, doctors—professionals who’d been trained by the free-education system. Anyone deemed important to the “human capital created by the Revolution,” the new law stated, could not practice independently. So perhaps not so very much had changed; what was essential to life in Cuba still occurred, technically, under the table.
Carlos and his brother, alone in the Havana apartment, had their own Interests Section appointments in 2012, but Carlos hoped he wouldn’t need it. He had another solution. When I saw him that year—I’d returned to Havana for a visit—he’d just gotten home from the Brazilian embassy. He vibrated with excitement. He was applying for a scholarship to study in one of the country’s smaller cities, a grant that, the woman at the embassy said, the Cuban government had prohibited them from advertising widely. He’d heard about it through a friend of a friend. “All the better for my chances,” he said with a grin as he paced the apartment. The living room felt cavernous: The dining room table and chairs, two sofas, a coffee table, and the wicker set that Nicolás sanded each year and Elaine had painstakingly painted a fresh white all had been sold. We drank water out of cheap glasses, not Elaine’s fifties metallic polka-dotted ones—she’d managed to get rid of nearly everything.
In Brazil, Carlos would be given free tuition at a school where he could study, among other subjects, film, advertising, or design. Elaine’s sister lived in Brazil, in a small town on the northern coast. He could visit her on holidays. As long as he didn’t defect, the Havana apartment would stay in the family, and he could rent it (under the table) for money to support himself. His plans glimmered, hazy skyscraper fantasies cloaked in mist. The paperwork was underway.
Elaine was not happy. Calling from Miami, she told me that she was certain that Brazil was a bad idea—too far away, so isolating, and Carlos didn’t even speak Portuguese. Everything would depend on his being able to rent out the apartment for income. A care package she’d recently sent to him in Havana contained socks, toothbrushes (the ones for sale in Cuba were rough on the gums), and DVDs with photos meant to entice him north instead of south. Here were Elaine, Nicolás, and Carlos’s cousins at the mall; at a pool party; next to an open grill loaded with all kinds of meat; in front of an open car trunk, the handles of white plastic grocery bags fluttering in the breeze.
Elaine wanted him to keep his Interests Section appointment. As his paperwork was processed and airfares researched, she became increasingly agitated, convinced that hers would be yet another Cuban family split across the borders of so many countries. But Carlos didn’t want to move to the United States with so little English, with no degree or experience doing anything but getting by and having fun in Havana. Carlos would go to whichever country gave him a visa first.
By next fall, he’d landed in Brazil, sharing a drab apartment with three other Cubans, learning Portuguese by day and surfing the internet at night. Back home, Maykel waited for his appointment in hopes that the requirements for an exit visa would soon be lifted, meaning one less piece of paperwork that stood in the way. That didn’t happen until 2013, at which point he’d paid for his. He was already in Miami.
The requirement to procure a permit to leave the country had been put in place by a 1961 government that saw an exodus of its most valuable citizens. Fifty years later, it had been dismantled by a slightly different government, one that knew that those with the enterprise to seek exit visas could afford to leave without the requirement. Prices for passports and plane tickets and entry visas to other countries hadn’t changed; those who earned the average Cuban salary of $18 per month were still just as limited.
A symbolic change, but the fact remained that the closer anyone got to questioning the rhetoric that protected power, the invisible lines separating the owners from the players, the harsher the rejection. This may have applied everywhere, as much in my own country as in Cuba, but in Cuba young people have always known it. I grew up very American, optimistic and believing that I could do anything if I tried hard enough. In Cuba, young people had already changed the world. The word “revolution” had acquired its meaning, at least insofar as it applied to Cuba, close enough to the present day that there wasn’t room for another definition. And yet, for the first time, Cubans were being told that they should be able to make it on their own—wasn’t that what people had demanded for so long? Wasn’t that enough? Carlos and his family were skeptical, and like so many others weren’t interested in waiting to see.