Sunday, November 11, 2012

'Cuba's New Now' in National Geographic magazine

Men prepare pigs for roasting on a street in Havana.“I wake up thinking
about how I’m going to get food” is a line heard frequently
to describe the daily quest to put dinner on the table.
Photograph by Paolo Pellegrin
Click here for a slide show.

The November 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine features a cover story on Cuba.

Cuba’s New Now

After half a century under Fidel, Cubans feel a wary sense of possibility. But this time, don’t expect a revolution.

Eleven million people live in Cuba, less than the population of central Tokyo. It’s the biggest island in the Caribbean, and famously only 90 miles from United States territory, but Cuba still grips the international imagination mostly because the dueling narratives of its history are so exaggerated by myth. Either a ruthless revolutionary took power in 1959, seized American corporate property, forced out his country’s own professional classes, and silenced all opposition by creating a totalitarian police state (that’s the version audible to this day on Miami’s Radio Mambí, the broadcast voice of Florida’s most vehement anti-Castro community); or a brilliant revolutionary led the overthrow of a corrupt dictatorship, shook off the colonialism of foreign companies and the Mafia, brought literacy and health care and egalitarian values to a mobilized people, and created a university-educated bastion of socialism in spite of a half century of U.S. efforts to destroy it by prohibiting Americans from doing business with or spending tourist money in Cuba.

Both narratives contain substantial truth, both at the same time. This is why Cuba fascinates and makes people’s heads hurt. The placebis exhausting in its complexity and paradoxes—Cubans are the first to tell you that—and the questions modern Cuba sets off in a visitor are big, serious, unwieldy. What is the definition of freedom? What do human beings need? What do they owe to each other? What do they want, beyond what they need? “We’ve all been the subjects of an experiment,” a 58-year-old university-educated woman who works in the arts told me thoughtfully one evening, chopping sweet peppers in her kitchen for supper. She lives in an airy place, with a fenced front lawn and a backyard patio, in a leafy part of Havana; the home has belonged to her family since before the Triunfo, the Triumph of the Revolution, as Cubans generally refer to the events of 1959. Her lightbulbs are compact fluorescents, the woman pointed out—one legacy of an ambitious national project a few years back, directing all Cubans to switch to lower watt fixtures in the interests of energy independence and the environment.

“They’d come to check,” she said. “They would break your old bulbs, in front of you, to make sure you didn’t sneak any back into your lamps.” She smiled and looked over her glasses at me to make sure I was listening closely enough. She has one child, a son a decade younger than Eduardo—gone now, having bailed out on Cuba and obtained a therapy credential in Spain. “The idea was marvelous, to change all the lightbulbs,” she said. “The problem is how they did it.”

Click here to read the complete story at

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