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On the road in Cuba, tales of woe and yearning

Posted on Tue, Apr. 10, 2012 12:38 PM

On the road in Cuba, tales of woe and yearning
Kevin G. Hall
McClatchy Newspapers

ON THE CARRETERA CENTRAL, Cuba — "Subanse," climb aboard, I said
repeatedly, pulling the right wheels of my eight-seat van off the
dangerous two-lane highway that snakes hundreds of miles across an
island considered off limits to most Americans.

Ostensibly, I was in Cuba to cover Pope Benedict XVI's visit. But over
the week and across the length of the Ohio-sized country, I gave more
than five dozen Cubans a "botella" — in Cuban slang, a ride.

My riders gave an unvarnished view of the country. They were farmers,
housewives and doctors. They were school kids, half a baseball team, an
economist and even a , who proclaimed herself to be a huge fan of
Jack Bauer in the American TV thriller series "24."

The van was a lark. Waiting for my small rental car at the Havana
airport for two hours — described to me as five Cuban minutes — the
overworked rental agent finally offered me the huge diesel-powered
vehicle if I'd get on my way.

If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I spent most of the following
week offering ordinary Cubans a ride in my gray Hyundai van — which
often carried more passengers than it was designed to.

I don't speak with a gringo accent. Some riders thought I was Argentine,
most were baffled and many were wide-eyed to discover their driver was
American and a reporter to boot.

"I have an aunt in Florida," said Angela, who got in before Camaguey, a
central Cuban city. Many others said the same, citing family members in
Miami, Orlando and Houston.

A few passengers were nervous — perhaps because of my driving — and sat
silently. Most were expressive but guarded, quieter when others were in
the car. As the number of riders thinned, the conversation generally
opened up.

To break the ice, I played Latin music on my iPod through the van's
speaker system. In an early, surreal moment, four Cuban women belted out
"Amame," a love song by Colombian rocker Juanes. It put to rest any
notion that Cubans in the interior lacked knowledge of the outside world.

I left Havana at 5 a.m. sharp on a Sunday, a good day to travel because
people are trying to hitch rides home after weekend visits. I was led
out of Havana by a cab driver I paid to get me to the Carretera
Nacional, the national highway that is the first stretch of the
Carretera Central, or Central Highway.

At the start, the drive looked promising enough, four lanes of
completely empty highway. About 20 minutes in, however, the four lanes
became two with no advance warning. The only indication of roadwork was
the metal barriers — not visible in darkness — that I nearly hit
skidding at 70 mph.

Minutes later, I drove over a hole so deep that my head hit the roof as
the seatbelt snapped tight. And soon after, there was fog so thick you
couldn't see three cars lengths ahead. It was a tough start.

About four hours in, I got on the narrow Carretera Central. Imagine a
two-lane back road in Anywhere USA. Now imagine it rutted with deep
potholes. This was my road, and my starting point for picking up riders.

Hitchhiking is about the only way to get around outside Cuban cities.
Gasoline costs about what it does in the United States. Most Cubans
don't have cars. Most earn a monthly government salary of less than $20.
Getting from Point A to Point B requires patience, lots of it. The
central highway is clogged with horse buggies, ox carts and tractors
pulling wagonloads of people.

Cuba differs from the rest of Latin America in that there aren't shops
and stalls along the roadside with people eking out a living in sundry
small businesses. This sort of self-employment has only just been
legalized in Cuba, which officially disdains the private sector, so it
isn't widespread yet.

Instead, the Cuban roadside is mostly bare, with occasional in-home
restaurants — known as "paladares" — and a whole bunch of revolutionary

One mocked the U.S. financial crisis with a downward plunging red line
on a financial chart. Others called for the release of five Cuban spies
jailed in the United States. And some were just plain odd.

"Socialism: Homework for the Free Man," read one confounding sign.
Another, near an abandoned workers dormitory, read, "Fidel, yes we did
it." My personal favorite was at an ecological reserve, declaring,
"Nature is Revolution." Huh?

Sometimes subtly, sometimes directly, I asked the same questions of all
my passengers. How do they feel about the newly announced economic
openings? Are they better or worse off than before? What do they think
of Raul Castro?

If they weren't too nervous, I asked what would come after the deaths of
Fidel, 85, and Raul, soon to be 81. They've ruled Cuba for 53 years, 50
of them under a U.S. trade embargo. Simple math says their end is near.
And I asked what'll happen if 's cancer-stricken president,
Hugo , dies? He's helped keep Cuba afloat with cheap oil.

What I was after was this: Is Cuba ripe for an Arab Spring, where people
can't stand it anymore and take to the streets? Has the government lost
its moral authority? Is it at risk of collapse from within?

Most riders expected continuity, post-Castro brothers. An exception was
Carlos, a paramedic picked up outside Havana late in the week on the way
east along the northwestern coastline.

"The day that they both die will be the day that the country reclaims
its real liberty," he said, adding, "Cubans want the same rights as the
people who live closest to us, in the United States."

Carlos, 52, said he was among legions of Cubans who tried to make it to
U.S. shores by raft. He was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard seven
miles off Florida and returned during the 1990s.

"We're living in a country of lies," he said, angry that tourists can
come to Cuba and enjoy a parallel currency, while ordinary Cubans cannot

Franklin, an eloquent economics-trained restaurant worker in his 30s,
spoke passionately about his hope for change.

"In every country there are distinct parties because not everyone has
the same thought, the same ideology. There are Republicans and Democrats
in your country," he said indignantly. "Here there's just one party,
there's no party that is in opposition. When we analyze it, it's as if
we are all of the same mindset — and of course it's not like that. But
what can we do?"

Asked if the eventual deaths of the Castro brothers might lead people to
spontaneously take to the streets, Franklin wasn't optimistic.

"We are like zombies. We walk, but we don't know what our rights are,
our duties are, what we should think. What we're presented is how we
think," he said, not hopeful that the movement has much
influence. "If 1,000 or 2,000 people (out of 11 million) think like
this, it won't change anything."

Most of the riders expected things to stay the same, however. That's
because the structure of governance has been in place for five decades.
Local and regional party bosses and secret police have a vested interest
in continuity, they suggested.

In the eastern city of Holguin, I was talking with a former soldier,
Reynaldo Gonzalez, a jack of all trades, when he paused to take stock of
a middle-aged man he said was a secret police officer who'd scooted up a
park bench to eavesdrop on our conversation.

Gonzalez was pro-regime and referred to Miami Cubans as "gusanos," or
worms. He vowed that Cubans on the island can withstand any U.S.
invasion, but he acknowledged he's worried that if Chavez dies or is
defeated in October elections there'll be a repeat of the early 1990s
after Soviet funding disappeared, when life in Cuba was particularly hard.

"We will have to tighten our belts," he said somberly.

A woman named Milagros did fear the coming change. She spoke bluntly and
then, remembering she's in Cuba, asked me to turn off the recorder and
begged that I not mention her profession or her city because "everybody
knows I complain."

Milagros feared a harder line after the ailing Fidel passes. His brother
Raul has ruled since 2006, but Fidel looms large still.

"Raul is not passive like Fidel. Fidel, all he wanted was discussion of
ideas, like he says, a battle of ideas: no war, no arms. But Raul is
more aggressive," she said, adding, "It really scares me. It really
scares me that Fidel will die."

Not one passenger could name a person they expected to succeed the
Castro brothers. Until their ouster in 2009, two names were frequently
cited in and out of Cuba — Carlos Lage, who was de facto prime minister,
and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque. famously accused
them of falling under the spell of the "honey of power." (Cubans joke
that the pair belong to the Pajama Party, since they now cool their
heels at home.)

The police presence in Cuba remains quite visible. There are checkpoints
in every town along the highway. Having traveled extensively behind the
Iron Curtain before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it felt familiar. It
wasn't a menacing police presence, just a constant one.

Hard times dominated almost every conversation with passengers. They
complained about how tough it is with rising prices and shortages
of milk and other essentials. They complained about the government
cutting back subsidies and slashing government jobs.

Angela, a poor white woman from the interior, said her kids, ages 11, 9
and 2, don't know yet what ice cream tastes like. The government no
longer provides subsidies for milk for children older than 8, she said.
Angela gets a 30-peso-per-child subsidy, roughly about $1.50 a month.

"What do you think a mother can do to feed her kids with that money?
It's not even enough to pay for the milk the state sells!" she said
bitterly. Her husband divorced her, and Yaritza, a tall black woman who
hopped into the van at the same time, urged Angela to seek a husband
with a cow.

Cattle are the property of the state. A 2008 report by the U.S.
Department of said Cuba's cattle population is at least 20
percent less than it was at the time of the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
Killing a cow carries a sentence of four to 10 years, according
to the penal judge I picked up later in the week.

Yaritza complained that Cubans every day are forced to make unpleasant

"With what they pay us, we can't live. If you eat, you can't dress
yourself. And if you dress yourself, you can't eat," she said. "Food
prices are very high, and clothes, don't even mention it."

What about those economic reforms getting headlines outside Cuba?

"It's helped economically, but you need money to invest to start up
something you can do later," said Angela. "The self-employed must have
startup money. And for those of us who don't, what can we do?"

I ask about government plans to adapt microfinance — small loans, often
to poor women, which have proven successful in Bangladesh and other
developing nations. None of my passengers had caught wind of this idea yet.

All across the central plains of Cuba, the plains were, well, plain. I
was traveling in the dry season, a six-month period that generally ends
with May showers. Parts of Cuba are in a five-year drought, so some
cattle and horses in this region were clearly bordering on starvation.

Their rib cages protruded through their sagging skin as they foraged for
anything green. I sent a picture of one cow home to my 10-year-old
daughter when I reached Santiago to cover Pope Benedict.

"DAD call animal control it's neglected!!!!!!!" she wrote back with the
innocence of a grade-school student.

Elcio Cabrera, a poor farmer with red eyes and the stink alcohol wafting
from every pore, climbed aboard in Bayamo, an eastern city.

"You've got to work real hard to get food on the table for your family,"
he said of the current hardship, offering guava and other fruit before
stealing my spare shoes upon exit.

During the eventful week at the wheel, I sat in on a pickup baseball
game near Bayamo, with barefooted players as entertaining as any major
league game. I gave eight kids a ride in Biran, the birthplace of Fidel
and Raul. I happened upon a horrific car crash in Holguin that left me
in a "there but for the grace of God go I" mood. Cuba's
mortality rate was 14.5 per 100,000 citizens in 2009, unusually high
given how few vehicles there are in the country but almost half what is
was in the 1980s. In 2010, the comparable rate was 11.4 per 100,000 in
the United States — where nearly all households have a car.

Back in Havana, I reflected on how much was squeezed into a short trip,
trying to match so many names to so many conversations.

I was most struck by the warmth of the Cuban people. Three or four
strangers climbed in, and within 10 minutes they were talking to each
other as if they'd been lifelong friends.

There's a lot to be depressed about in Cuba, where much in life is
brought down to a shared level of misery, a lowest common denominator,
if you will. Yet Cubans have come to rely on each other for five long
decades in order to survive.

Passenger Milagros best expressed that optimism.

"We all know we are in a poor country, but within undeveloped countries,
Cuba is a privileged country," she said.

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