Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro is dead. Now what?

Throughout the weekend of Friday, Nov. 25, crowds gathered outside, Versailles — the iconic Cuban restaurant in Miami — to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro.  (photo: Nicolás Antonio Jiménez)

Throughout the weekend of Friday, Nov. 25, crowds gathered outside, Versailles — the iconic Cuban restaurant in Miami — to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro. (photo: Nicolás Antonio Jiménez)

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

Fidel Castro is dead.

That was the big news late Friday night. The longtime dictator, whose younger brother succeeded him 10 years ago — about the time Cigar Snob was hitting the scene — was no more. And just as soon as the news was out there, we began to see a wide range of reactions in the media, on the street, and, in some cases, in our homes.

Heads of state like Canada’s Justin Trudeau and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama drew criticism for their official statements in the wake of Castro’s death.

Kiko Alonso (himself the son of a Cuban father and Colombian mother) became, at least for the weekend, Cuban Miami’s new favorite athlete, as he ended the Dolphins’ win over the 49ers by tackling Colin Kaepernick — who had recently drawn the ire of Cuban exiles by engaging in the kind of Castro apologist talk about the despot’s history that Cubans have been hearing for decades. The significance of the play wasn't lost on Kiko; he later shared a photo of the hit, including the caption "Vamos Coño" (which translates loosely to "Let's go, damnit") and the hashtag #cubalibre (free Cuba).

 

Vamos Coño !!!! 🇨🇺🇨🇺 #finsup #miamidolphins #cubalibre

A photo posted by Kiko Alonso (@elbravo_47) on

 

The streets outside iconic Cuban restaurants in Miami, especially La Carreta and Versailles, were packed with jubilant crowds.

And in Cuban exile homes all over the country, champagne was uncorked as families toasted to the final assurance that this one monster in particular would never terrorize them, their families, or their countrymen again.

Carlos Eire, who won the National Book Award for his childhood memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana, ran through some of the reasons we should all be glad Fidel Castro is dead — and some of the things we should never forget about how he lived — in a Washington Post op-ed.

In sum, Fidel Castro was the spitting image of Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel “1984.” So, adiós, Big Brother, king of all Cuban nightmares. And may your successor, Little Brother, soon slide off the bloody throne bequeathed to him.
— Carlos Eire

This isn’t so much a celebration of a death as it is the manifestation of the catharsis that comes with knowing a man who did so much evil is finally out of the picture for good. It’s a loud sigh of relief (leave it to Cubans to sigh loudly and to the beat of congas accompanied by clanging pots and pans) at the kind of guarantee of safety that only biology and time can provide.

A few days have gone by. As the dust settles and everyone begins to litigate the significance of this event, many of us are left asking ourselves and everyone around us the same question we’ve asked every other time it’s felt like Cuba was on the verge of turning the page to a new chapter of its history.

Now what?

For those of us with lived or inherited experience with Castro’s evil, treating this as some kind of moment of victory or justice would be to lose sight of what's important. Fidel Castro lived a long, long time. He died on his own terms, in privacy, and for every last second that nature and science and the unlimited resources that come with being the owner of nearly 12 million slaves would grant him. His brother and his tyrannical government survive him while millions of those who actively opposed him did not.

Whatever catharsis there might be on the island of Cuba is felt in secret except by those who are willing to risk their lives or their livelihoods to express themselves. One person in Cuba described the mood on the street to a member of our staff as “tranquilo, pero extraño.” Calm, but weird.

If what matters is the lives of Cubans, nothing has changed. Cuba's constitution still makes it the most repressive regime in the hemisphere, and the system is such that new generations of government are deeply incentivized to keep it all in place.

Fidel Castro — to the extent that this is possible for any mortal — had the last laugh. That's nothing to celebrate. The silver lining is that all that energy people used to leave their homes at the drop of a hat at 2 in the morning to bang on pots and pans, and toast with cigars and rum (including some, ironically enough, purchased from Castro's monopoly, helping fund his life support) and all the time we've spent debating the potential impact of Castro's death... all that can also be used to make sure that his last laugh doesn't echo for very long.

For our part — and on this I think I can say that I speak for everyone else at Cigar Snob — we’ll continue to use our platform to speak some truth about Cuba in a media space that can sometimes seem eager to romanticize the island and ignore its dark side, perhaps because it’s hard to enjoy Cohibas and Havana Club when you’re reminded the brands' owners wear olive green fatigues and jail their competition.

Fidel is dead. But this fight isn’t. Some things are bigger than cigars.

Cuba between the lines

Ten years ago, Cigar Snob was born as Cuba entered into a new era in its history.

by Nicolás Antonio Jiménez

Egberto Escobedo was born and raised in Camagüey, Cuba. It’s his official place of residence on government records. Yet, when he goes home to Camagüey, Egberto is deported — not from Cuba, but from Camagüey. See, he moved to Havana to be with his wife, but he still has family in Camagüey. Sometimes being deported has meant being taken back to Havana. Other times, it’s meant being put in a patrol car and dumped on the highway nearly 200 miles outside Camagüey.

So what did Egberto do to so thoroughly piss off the Cuban government? He’s on the coordinating committee of the Forum for Rights and Liberties, an independent Cuban organization whose name is pretty self-explanatory. The Cuban government doesn’t encourage groups like these. It certainly didn’t appreciate Egberto’s heading into Camagüey with copies of the speech Barack Obama had delivered in Havana during his historic March 2016 visit. He and other dissidents had plans to study the speech closely and figure out what their take would be.

“My wife and I — and activists like us — are the victims of beatings and other mistreatment in the streets and in police stations. In Camagüey, they’ve declared me persona non grata,” said Egberto. “A government official told me that he wouldn’t allow me to go into the province. I have a 22-year-old daughter there who I haven’t seen in three years and he told me I couldn’t see her. I told him, ‘We’ll see.’” At about 1 a.m. the morning of our phone interview, he had been spirited into his own hometown, where he’d hide out at a relative’s home until he was “deported” all over again.

A new chapter in Cuba

Cigar Snob debuted May 20, 2006 (Cuba’s Independence Day). In July of that year, Fidel Castro’s health took a sharp turn and his brother Raul — who had been Cuba’s minister of the armed forces since the regime took power in 1959 — assumed the role of acting president in Cuba. He officially became president in 2008.

Frequent readers of this magazine know we don’t rate or report on Cuban cigars. From the beginning, the magazine’s owners and employees have fielded questions about why that is; the answer is simple. For one thing, those cigars are generally not legally accessible to our overwhelmingly American readership. For another, all those cigars are made by companies owned by the Castros, and the Castros are assholes. Thanks to the fact that the timing of Cigar Snob’s birth coincided with Fidel’s permanent switch from olive green fatigues to Adidas track suits, our history has run in parallel to a new chapter in Cuban history.

... all those cigars are made by companies owned by the Castros, and the Castros are assholes.

Almost immediately, speculation began as to whether Raul would — even if only out of necessity — rule as a reformer.

“In the economic sphere, when Raul Castro took over from Fidel Castro nearly 10 years ago, he began introducing a series of small reforms in the economic domain,” said Dr. José Azel, a scholar at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies. “One of those reforms was to allow a certain amount of self-employment in precisely 171 activities. They have now been expanded to something like 206 activities, but they’re all domestic activities. None of them have anything to do with the external sector, and they are trades such as repairing cigarette lighters, selling fruit, repairing umbrellas, and things like that.”

Self-employed Cubans are referred to as cuentapropistas. The categories of independent work in which Cubans can legally engage are as narrow as the examples José listed. You can obtain a license to sell fruit on the street, but you’ll technically need another license if you’re going to also make your living peeling fruit, he said.

Lighter repair is one of the very narrow trade categories in which Cubans can legally operate independently. (Image:  Reuben Strayer )

Lighter repair is one of the very narrow trade categories in which Cubans can legally operate independently. (Image: Reuben Strayer)

“This is not a private sector as we understand that term in the United States — you know, sole proprietorships, corporations, partnerships and the like. These are individuals that have been granted a permit by the state. They don’t have the kind of legal standing that we associate in the West with the private sector,” said José.

They’re limited, but the changes have made a difference in some Cubans’ lives — albeit a small one compared to how they’d benefit from even freer markets. Egberto is skeptical.

“Over the 56 years this regime has been in place, it has on various occasions freed the market in order to lift the economy. They know free market measures develop the economy. And every time they do it, they later begin to undo the freedoms they had allowed because they are afraid of losing economic control over individuals,” said Egberto. “I don’t think they’ll change their politics; their system survives thanks to totalitarian control of the market. We’re in a time of crisis, and they’re allowing people to be self-employed because the government can’t provide jobs. As they begin to recover economically, they’ll scale back those freedoms.”

Another important change Cuba has undergone is the abolition of its “white card” system. Until 2013, Cubans with valid passports needed what amounted to a trip-specific exit visa in order to leave their own country, a clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Cuba is a mocking signatory.

“If the world’s six billion inhabitants could travel any time they wanted, the jam there would be in the skies of the planet would be enormous,” said Ricardo Alarcón with a completely straight face in a forum in 2008. At the time, he was president of Cuba’s National Assembly (the country’s legislative body). He’d been asked to explain the logic behind the white card absurdity.

When white cards were done away with, Cubans who had been denied permission to travel took full advantage. One of them, blogger Yoani Sánchez, who has been named one of TIME Magazine’s Most Influential People in the World, has been traveling persistently, whereas just a few years ago she’d been unable to leave despite countless invitations to accept awards, give lectures, and sit on panels about Cuba. She and others are rushing to get all this travel in before the Cuban regime changes its mind. There’s concern about the decision being reversed or — more realistically — passport renewals being denied to those who the Castros prefer not to see challenging the government’s narrative abroad.

The thaw

A little more than a year before Cigar Snob’s first issue, Barack Obama was sworn in as a U.S. Senator. He won the presidency in 2008 and has been as much of a game changer for Cuba as Raul. Under Obama, U.S.-Cuba relations have changed as much as could be expected without Congress lifting or altering the embargo. Diplomatic ties have been almost completely normalized, with each country’s interest section becoming a full-fledged embassy. Restrictions on American travel to Cuba have been loosened.

Barack Obama and Soledad O'Brien during a Q&A session on entrepreneurship in Havana  (Photo:  IIP Photo Archive )

Barack Obama and Soledad O'Brien during a Q&A session on entrepreneurship in Havana (Photo: IIP Photo Archive)

Though Cuba had begun to allow its citizens to own certain consumer tech, Cuba’s unchanged totalitarian core was revealed in 2009, when USAID contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba for delivering satellite and computer equipment to Jewish communities. Ricardo Alarcón (champion of air traffic control) accused him of working for American intelligence agencies and Alan ended up in prison for “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state” until a controversial 2014 prisoner swap.

The thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations continues to evolve, but it’s hard to see any moment eclipsing Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba in symbolic significance. It’s easy to find glowing reviews, though, so let’s go to Egberto for another take.

“His visit was a fiasco,” said Egberto. “The Cuban government is capitalizing on it abroad as a tool to undo limitations imposed on it. These people have more experience than Obama does and know how to neutralize his efforts. They’ve begun to make life harder for cuentapropistas with higher taxes. Eventually, you’ll only have a small number and they will be controlled by the regime. That’s not freeing the market.”

The scenario Egberto describes — in which the Cuban government closes doors shortly after opening them — has played out before. Today, travelers to Cuba enjoy paladares (private restaurants usually run out of homes) and stay in casas particulares (think sharing economy lodging, a la Airbnb, without the software). Those businesses only came out of the black market shadows in the mid-90s, during Cuba’s “Special Period.” At the time, Cuba’s extreme poverty couldn’t be helped by the Soviet Union (which had just collapsed) or Venezuelan oil money (Hugo Chávez wasn’t around yet). The U.S. embargo was in full effect — no exceptions for cash-up-front trans- actions, food or medicine. As conditions worsened on the island, the people’s protest for freedom grew louder, peaking in August 1994. In response, Cuba began to allow paladares, but then raised taxes on them in February 1996 and stopped issuing new licenses altogether that April. They even cracked down and shuttered independent restaurants that had become direct competition for government- owned establishments. Baruch College professor Ted Henken wrote that at least one paladar owner he interviewed in Havana saw her licensing fees go up from $23 to $775 in a six-year span. The average Cuban salary is about $20 a month. That’s pushed lots of people back into the black market. I know; I’ve eaten at a clandestine paladar. The shrimp was delicious. It’s also worth pointing out that licenses to for paladares and casas particulares allow their owners to cater either to Cubans or to foreigners, effectively creating an apartheid system against the country’s own citizens.

Cuba has made similar moves in agriculture, the arts, and other areas. So what should Obama have done differently to ensure the change that took place while he was in the White House was more durable?

“Obama should have met publicly and openly with Cuban opposition leaders. Not the way he did: in an embassy office, hidden from the press,” said Egberto. Obama wasn’t quite hidden, but it’s true that his meeting with some of Cuba’s most prominent dissident voices had a decidedly diminutive quality to it that contrasted with the visible nature of his speech at the Teatro Nacional, his attendance at a baseball game with Raul Castro, or his sightseeing jaunt through Havana. There were cameras at the meeting, but it seemed like a slapped-together affair and was, indeed, crammed into a tiny space at the very large U.S. embassy. Case in point: you probably didn’t know that meeting even happened.

Obama should have met publicly and openly with Cuban opposition leaders. Not the way he did: in an embassy office, hidden from the press
— Egberto Escobedo, Cuban dissident

Among the 13 dissidents present at that meeting with Obama: José Daniel Ferrer, the head of Unión Patriótica de Cuba (UNPACU); Guillermo Fariñas, best known for activism for unrestricted Internet access; Berta Soler, the leader of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), who attend Mass every Sunday before silently marching through Havana demanding the release of political prisoners; and Antonio Rodiles, the founder of Estado de Sats, an independent Web series in which Cubans discuss everything from art to economics. Berta and Antonio were in the minority who actually told Obama that he should have stayed in Washington.

“For people to find out what was said in that meeting with some opposition leaders, those leaders practically had to call separate press conferences in other places to tell people about it,” said Egberto. “The Obama administration should have been more critical and less fearful. And he should have done more to ensure that the details of his trip were made known in Cuba, not just outside of Cuba.”

Crack in the dam

“Once this stuff really starts happening in Cuba, it’s going to go like light speed,” said Matt Brady, who has years of experience in democracy promotion and studying government transitions. “Once there’s a crack in the dam, the water is just going to gush. And there’s nobody — not the Cuban government, not the U.S. government — that is going to be able to stop the flood that is going to happen.”

Matt is well versed on the subject of Cuba. He has years of experience in democracy promotion work in that country with Freedom House and the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba. But the dam metaphor only relates to money flowing into and out of Cuba. Whether that dam’s bursting will have implications for political freedoms and human rights is a big question mark.

“Once you tell Americans they can go to Cuba, they’re going to go in hordes whether you want them to or not,” Matt said. “Once you allow companies to set up cell towers or airlines to establish roots, they’re going to expect to lose money for one to two or three years, hoping that they’ll end up with a pole position for a monopoly or something close to a monopoly. That’s the jockeying that’s happening with the hotels and the airlines.”

Once you tell Americans they can go to Cuba, they’re going to go in hordes whether you want them to or not.
— Matt Brady

While there’s disagreement on whether this was the ideal path for the relationship between the American and Cuban governments, just about everyone has come to terms with the idea that the travel and trade restrictions loosened by Obama won’t be tightened any time soon. So what does that mean for people on both sides of the Florida Straits? For one thing, at least some amount of American investment will continue in Cuba. Companies like Carnival, American Airlines, Airbnb, Netflix and Sprint will continue to pump money through the crack in the dam Matt described. Either until the dam will break, leaving them in a great position, or the cracks will be patched by Cuba’s communist government, leaving American businesses on one side and their money on the other.

“Companies know they’re going to lose money for a bit, but they essentially are going to set themselves up and there’s nothing that the government can do,” said Matt, “unless they start seizing assets again [in Cuba], which is possible. You could have that. You really could. That’s the X factor.”

Matt laughed at the idea. What else can you do? After all, this is the same regime that nationalized billions of dollars’ worth of American assets when it first assumed power. And it’s still the case that foreign ventures in Cuba must be owned in partnership with the Cuban government. That can be a dangerous proposition, especially since Cuba’s tourism industry and other sectors that interact with the outside are controlled by the military.

In the cigar world, we have a recent example of the hazards of investing on the island. Cigar Rings prints a large number of the cigar bands you see every time you walk into a cigar store. Its owner Albert Montserrat ended up in the Dominican Republic when he moved there from Havana about 10 years ago. He’d gone to Cuba from Spain thinking he’d find a stable opportunity printing labels for Cuban cigars. It wasn’t too long before he gave up on the Cuban government pulling its weight in the partnership. He was essentially forced to cut his losses and leave. In Cuba, there’s nobody to complain to or sue. You just lose.

“Let’s consider the seventh congress of the Communist Party that closed [in April],” said José Azel, referring to the meeting of Cuba’s Communist Party officials in which Raul Castro was elected to another five years as the head of the party. The first such congress was held in 1975. “Raul Castro and all the Cuban leadership and even Fidel Castro made an appearance to make absolutely certain — so there would be no misunderstanding — that there is not going to be a change in Cuba’s economic or political models.

“The purpose of economic activity [in Cuba] is not to enrich anyone, and in fact when people talk about the Chinese model, when Deng Xiaoping introduced economic reforms in China, which were far more extensive and profound than the economic reforms in Cuba, Deng Xiaoping made the statement that to get rich is glorious. He was trying to change the mindset,” said José, addressing the enormous communist country that so many people point to when drawing comparisons on everything from U.S. diplomacy to the prospect of gradual political and economic reforms. “Raul Castro has made the statement that the accumulation of wealth will not be allowed.”

José thinks it’s more likely that Cuba, years down the road, could come to resemble what he called the “kleptocracy” of Putin’s Russia, in which the old guard of the military and KGB took roles as captains of industry.

“You’re going to have an oligarchy,” Matt said. He also sees Russia as being the best place to go for a look at what Cuba’s economic and political sphere might become, albeit way down the road. “Fidel and Raul in particular have developed these state-owned companies that control large sectors — tourism, foreign exchange, banking. The money from the outside is going to flow into these companies and people that are in charge of them are going to pillage the companies. That’s already started happening. How will the Cuban people react?”

The more things change

Ladies in White leader Berta Soler (pictured here at Prague's Václav Havel Airport) was detained by Cuban authorities and only released just before she was scheduled to meet with Barack Obama during his visit to Havana.  (photo:  People In Need Cuba )

Ladies in White leader Berta Soler (pictured here at Prague's Václav Havel Airport) was detained by Cuban authorities and only released just before she was scheduled to meet with Barack Obama during his visit to Havana. (photo: People In Need Cuba)

Plenty of people are more optimistic about Cuba’s future. Even Matt describes that Russian-style oligarchy as a step toward something more free, more fair. But it’s important to face the reality that having an embassy in Cuba and seeing an American president touch down in Havana are not sure signs that significant or lasting change is happening in Cuba. In fact, while Barack Obama was in the air on his way to Havana, dozens of members of the Ladies in White were arrested during their weekly march. There’s little indication that any of the economic openings translate into a Cuba where people have political freedoms, an independent press, or a government that can go more than a week without beating peaceful protesters in the street. Case in point: Cuba’s National Commission for Human Rights, an independent (and, therefore, illegal) organization that tracks human rights violations on the island, reported that the Cuban regime had made at least 1,380 arbitrary political arrests in the month of April alone, bringing the 2016 total to at least 5,351.

So these half-baked changes — which have had bigger implications for foreign investors, tourists and Cuban officials than for the average Cuban — leave us at Cigar Snob and you, the smoker, with things to think about. What should our relationship with Cuba look like, as a publication and as individuals, and what should be prompting us to change that relationship?

Here is just some of the video of the arrests that took place while Air Force One was on its way to Havana.

 
 

“I’d suggest that people who visit Cuba try to create their own agenda for the trip,” said Egberto of what he thought travelers should keep in mind while in Cuba. “They should try to carve their own path inside of Cuba, independently. If you’re taken by the hand to specific locations (chosen by the government), you’re not going to get to know the real Cuba. When you see what the government wants you to see, you might think, ‘They’re on the right path.’ It’s a lie. But Cuba is not only coffee, tobacco and rum. If our economy is freed, if private enterprise is allowed, Cubans are creative enough to create great things in a way that is sustainable.”

I know from experience that Cuba’s government manipulates travel experiences to preserve the facade. In 2009, I was turned away at José Martí International Airport. A security agent told me that I was not allowed into “any part of the country,” then escorted me back to the Mexicana Airlines plane that had taken me to Cuba and had me board. No boarding pass, no interrogation, no air marshal. Just an arbitrary, extrajudicial determination that I was too dangerous to let in. It probably had something to do with all the dissidents, underground journalists and artists I had met with during previous trips.

In fact, the U.S. embassy in Cuba recently said Cuba’s government has a practice of treating American citizens who were born in Cuba as Cuban citizens while they’re visiting the island. In other words, Cuba doesn’t recognize the rights and legal protections that Cuban natives would enjoy while returning to the country of their birth. This is clearly meant to intimidate the travelers most likely to spread subversive ideas.

Even non-Cubans can feel it. In December 2015, filmmaker and YouTuber Casey Neistat posted video commentary about his own trip to Cuba. “I was there as part of a technology delegation,” he said in one of his vlogs. “We were supposed to meet with our Cuban counterparts and discuss technology and what it could do. The Cuban government actually stepped in at the last minute and said no to a lot of the things we wanted to do and a lot of the things we wanted to discuss. And a lot of what we were there to do was compromised. They dictated the terms of what turned out to be a very boring panel that should have been interesting. This idea that a government can tell you what you can and cannot say is something that I know nothing about.”

 
 

Especially if you’re traveling to Cuba as part of a tour group, it’s unlikely that you’re getting an unfiltered view of what life is like there. Hamlet Paredes, who joined Rocky Patel to create his own cigar brand, Tabaquero, arrived in the U.S. a little more than a year ago from Cuba, where he was one of the cigar industry’s star cigar rollers and ambassadors (which is at least part of the reason he speaks such good English). He still has family in Cuba, and he’s more optimistic than Egberto is about the impact of Obama’s diplomatic efforts. That said, he has some similar takes on how travelers to Cuba should approach their visits.

“It depends on the objective of each traveler. When I visit a new country, I like to get to know its people and see its reality. Most tourists are in a fishbowl and they’re shown everything that paints the country in a positive light. Meanwhile, they’re walking right by the reality and don’t even see it,” said Hamlet, adding that eating at paladares is one way to get a closer look at the lives of ordinary Cubans.

Those opportunities to engage with Cuban cuentapropismo are more limited if you’re planning a cigar-centric trip. None of the limited categories in which Cubans can run licensed businesses involve making cigars or growing tobacco, for example. For the foreseeable future, Cuba’s cigar industry will be monopolized by Habanos, which markets every cigar manufactured there. Even if Cubans were allowed to open independent boutique factories tomorrow — which is highly unlikely since the Cuban government has no interest in creating competition for its cash cow — it would take a long time for Cubans to build the skill sets necessary to compete.

“There are things we’re not used to,” said Hamlet. “I’m still learning to do things like negotiate. Those are things I never had to do in my country because everything is so tightly directed by the state. That kind of thing will happen to those who go into business for themselves.”

In the meantime, we at Cigar Snob will be anxiously awaiting substantive change in Cuba. God willing, we’ll be reviewing independent brands produced in small, independent Cuban factories.


Editor's note: The story above appears as it did when it ran in the print edition of Cigar Snob Magazine. Shortly after that issue shipped, it was reported that Cuba would be "legalizing" small- and medium-sized businesses. What exactly that means and how it will impact Cubans — especially in the long term — is unclear, especially considering that the country is still ruled according to a constitution that (among other things) gives the state the ability to legally lay claim to any property it wants.

Midnight in Havana: a look at dictatorship and change in Cuba

 

This piece was published in the January/February 2015 issue of Cigar Snob.

Changes in U.S.-Cuba policy conjure up old Cold War images, but the island dictatorship’s authoritarian grip is tight as ever.

It’s midnight in Havana and I can’t find Jorge Luis García Pérez (or “Antúnez” as most people know him). I’m not exactly in great shape thanks to my American diet and general lack of discipline. And my skin doesn’t look like that of a young guy who’s spent a lifetime browning under the Cuban sun. I’ve never felt so conspicuous.

I’m also scared shitless. It’s my first time in Cuba. Being the yuma walking around a Cuban neighborhood in the middle of the night with a suitcase is one thing. It’s quite another when that suitcase is actually a care package for the man widely regarded as the communist island’s Mandela. He was only released from prison a couple of years before our meeting (after serving 17 years), which means visiting him is an easy way to brand myself an enemy of the revolution—even if I am only carrying clothes for his kid, along with medicine and a cell phone for him. All things that the Castro government has made it practically impossible for the peaceful activist to get his hands on without outside help.

A dark figure pops out onto the sidewalk. “¿Me estás buscando a mí?” Are you looking for me? Thank God.

For the next couple of hours, Antúnez gives me a rundown of life in Cuba from his vantage point (a unique one, to be sure). He lifts his shirt to expose a number of scars he says were left there by dogs that prison guards let loose on him for daring to oppose Castro’s government—especially after all that the revolution had done for blacks.

Nick Jiménez, Antúnez and Antúnez’ wife Iris Pérez Aguilera (who founded Cuba’s Rosa Parks Feminist Movement for Civil Rights) in Havana in 2008

Nick Jiménez, Antúnez and Antúnez’ wife Iris Pérez Aguilera (who founded Cuba’s Rosa Parks Feminist Movement for Civil Rights) in Havana in 2008

And when he’s asked about what he hopes Cuba might look like in the future, he launches into an entirely unplanned, Cubanized version of Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech. We’re in a small, poorly lit room in a dark corner of Havana. There’s no audience and no microphone. I get chills anyway. We’re just days from Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which makes it all the more surreal.

That was 2008, during my first trip to Cuba. After a few more trips, the Cuban government appeared to have put me on some kind of blacklist, as I was turned away at Havana’s airport upon arrival for what would be my final trip at the tail end of 2009. A little student activism, volunteer work, and meetings with journalists and opposition leaders were enough to land me (as well as some friends) on Cuban blacklists. I’ve even seen video of internal meetings in which regime officials refer to the youth empowerment organization I was part of as engaging in cyber terrorism.

Changes to U.S.-Cuba policy have a lot of people talking about Cuba in the past tense. Cold-War-this and 56-years-that. Images are conjured of missile crises and classic Chevys. But what’s Cuban life like now for the people who live there? And, what becomes of the people and projects that seek to change that reality for the better?

It’s not easy being freaky

On Dec. 17, 2014, Barack Obama announced changes to U.S. policy toward Cuba that would, among other things, allow travelers to Cuba to return with $100 worth of cigars. Naturally, American smoke shops were abuzz with rumors and speculation. When would we see Cuban cigars in our stores’ humidors? How do we get to Cuba to pick some up for ourselves? It seemed everyone was curious about just how far the limits had been pushed.

Cuban artist Tania Bruguera was, apparently, a little curious as well. On Dec. 31, just a couple of weeks after the announcement of the Cuban government’s “humanitarian” offer to release USAID contractor Alan Gross and 53 political prisoners, she began what has become perhaps her best-known performance. She announced that she’d be making her way to Havana’s Revolution Square (the iconic plaza that’s served as a venue for everything from the Castros’ marathon speeches to papal Masses to rock concerts) and setting up for a performance piece she calls “Tatlin’s Whisper #6.” The idea is pretty simple. There’s a podium and a microphone, and pretty much anybody can step up to express himself or herself for one minute. She’s done it once before, and there’s video online that shows some of Cuba’s best-known dissident bloggers taking their turns at the mic. It wasn’t about to happen a second time.

“They arrested her three times in three days,” said multimedia and event producer Diddier Santos. “The third time they had to jail her because every time she was released she would continue to insist on doing her work. Afterward, she kept demanding that people who were arrested for going to her performance be released. Those are the attitudes that will create a space and continue to push the boundaries.”

A crowd of Cuban EDM fans at Rotilla (photo courtesy of Diddier Santos)

A crowd of Cuban EDM fans at Rotilla (photo courtesy of Diddier Santos)

Diddier knows firsthand about the stifling effect that Cuba’s dictatorship has on creative types. As we sit across from each other at a Coral Gables bookstore café, he tells me about his work in the Cuban arts world. As a longtime member ofMatraka (an independent production group in Cuba) Diddier is one of the founding producers of Rotilla. Think of Rotilla as Cuba’s beachy, electronic equivalent of Burning Man or Lollapalooza.

“I started doing production work in 2005 in Cuba, organizing different music concerts,” said Diddier, taking a sip from his espresso. “We were doing that kind of work. In 2007, I met one of the members of Matraka, Adriel Monzón. He lived nearby, so we’d meet up and talk about art and film and do different projects at home. We started getting closer through that work.”

Diddier was soon working with Matraka on a project-to-project basis, starting with a documentary about Cuban prostitution. In 2008, Diddier was offered a role as the producer of Rotilla, which was starting to see significant growth.

“It was a good challenge for me. From then on, I also produced the Festival Puños Arriba, which is a rap festival in Cuba, along with about ten other events a year with Matraka.”

In Cuba, there are lots of independent production groups (calling them companies doesn’t fit since, technically, they don’t operate legally). But few achieve the success that Matraka did with Rotilla. The event was known all over the island, even garnering favorable coverage on state-run TV news.

As Diddier explains, “[The festival had] always been committed to promoting culture and creating spaces. It’s not for commercialization, but rather an umbrella for emerging art. The principal motive of Rotilla was to promote electronic music, which was censored at that time in Cuba because it came from Europe and was seen as an ideological diversion. We were pioneers in that space. We also did that with rap—creating spaces, supporting rappers on various projects.”

As Rotilla became more popular, it was increasingly seen as a threat by the Cuban government. Not only were they drawing huge crowds to see DJs at an event the government hadn’t created, but they were also offering a platform to acts like Los Aldeanos, a duo of (arguably) Cuba’s best and most outspoken rappers, Aldo and El Bi. Consider these lyrics from their song La Naranja Se Picó.

Yo sé que hay leyes, pero perdone.
No controlan la emigración
ustedes están alimentando tiburones.
Esto peor se pone y quieren obligarme a que concuerde
No pienso doblegarme a su Cosa Nostra verde
Es que no entienden lo que hacen.
Los cuerpos están aquí
pero las mentes a 90 millas continuan en trance.
Ahorita los cubanos empiezan a tatuarse
el mapa de Cuba en todo el cuerpo a ver si pueden escaparse.

I know there are laws, but excuse me.
You’re not controlling emigration,
you’re feeding sharks.
Things only get worse and they want to force me to agree.
I don’t plan to bend to your olive green Cosa Nostra.
The people don’t know what they’re doing.
Their bodies are here,
but their minds are in a trance 90 miles away.
Soon, Cubans will start tattooing
a map of Cuba all over their bodies to see if they can escape.

Not exactly the kind of thing anyone expects the most durable dictatorship in the hemisphere to put up with.

“Literally, they stole [the festival] rather than censor it,” said Diddier. When Matraka refused to abide by the regime’s conditions for the event (namely government control of the set list), “they kept doing the event with the same structure. At first, they were even using our name, but we took some legal action and they at least backed down on that, renaming it Verano en Jibacoa(Summer in Jibacoa).

Partly out of a desire to broaden the scope of their work, and partly (maybe mostly) out of necessity in the face of government censorship of their events, Matraka went about creating documentaries. One of those, titled Ni Rojo, Ni Verde, ¡Azul! (Not Red, Not Green, But Blue!), tells the story of the Cuban government’s Rotilla takeover.

You can watch Ni Rojo, Ni Verde, ¡AZUL! here. Turn on the closed captions if you don’t speak Spanish.

 

“Until [2011], the press praised us as one of the biggest independently run events. For our security, our logistics,” said Michel Matos in an interview for the documentary. “We have plenty of examples we can show of this. Today, the press goes silent when faced with the scandal of our claims. Second, it goes toVerano en Jibacoa and doesn’t bother to mention its predecessor. It’s as if it had been a novel idea [the government] came up with all of a sudden.”

For many young Cubans, the government takeover of Rotilla was a major encroachment. “They’ve taken away one more thing. Us freaky people don’t have rights in this country,” said one festival fan in Diddier’s documentary. Freaky is a commonly used term in Cuba referring to youth subculture. “This was one of the only spaces where people could come to be themselves without any concerns, and it doesn’t exist anymore.”

Donald Duck as ideological diversion

It’s noon on a Saturday in 2015 and I’m looking for Antúnez again, this time in broad daylight. I’m walking up and down the hallways of one of the most Cuban apartment buildings I’ve ever been to. Cuban music, Spanish-language news and telenovelas blare from inside each unit. I was told he’d be in there somewhere, but he’s not answering his phone.

A burly black dude doing his laundry in the communal, outdoor washer bro-hugs his very old, white, shirtless neighbor. It’s like Dr. King’s dream, but Cuban. And more sweaty.

Oh. And this is Miami.

I’m told to wait in a ground-level apartment right near where the bro-huggers are hanging out. A man even older-looking than the shirtless one outside sits at a dining table fiddling with the knobs of his radio. He doesn’t look like he’s listening for anything in particular. It just seems like he doesn’t have much else to do today.

“You know,” he tells me after introducing himself as Blaz, “I’ve been Antúnez’s right hand for years now.”

And that’s when it hits me. I know this man’s face. I’m flashing back to 2008, when I met Antúnez … and a much smaller, frail-looking old man to whom Antúnez had introduced me. I’d been struck by the juxtaposition. One big, one small, one young, one old, one black, one white. An odd couple brought together by a shared struggle.

Here Blaz and I were all these years later. Sharing coffee and gearing up for another interview. Some things really don’t change.

“In some ways, we have to contend with the way life is lived in the United States,” says Antúnez as we ride in my car to our interview. “Here, there’s a routine of working until 4 or 5 in the afternoon, then heading home. On Saturdays and Sundays, you rest. In Cuba, it’s not like that. We’re struggling 24 hours a day. And we need 24-hour support from people in the United States, because repression doesn’t take breaks.”

Antúnez refers to his 17 years as a political prisoner in Cuba as his “political university.”

Antúnez refers to his 17 years as a political prisoner in Cuba as his “political university.”

I’m trying to get as much out of Antúnez as I can. Luckily, I’m his ride home from this Little Havana cigar shop. When I first met him, we were in a run-down house and he was lifting his ratty t-shirt to show me the scars he has all over his body — mementos from 17 years of run-ins with dogs and guards in the Cuban gulag. Today, it’s a different story. He’s visiting Miami from Cuba and has about a month left in his trip. The leather cigar shop chair and the charcoal gray suit jacket he’s in are a radically different image, but the way he gets fired up about the evils of Cuba’s regime and his hope for the future tell me I’m talking to the very same guy.

“Cuban youth, unlike my generation, is harder to manipulate,” he says, pointing out that young people like Diddier and the kids who flocked to his festival lived a different Cuban youth. When he was a kid, Antúnez said, he couldn’t watchDonald Duck cartoons because the regime saw them as an ideological diversion. He didn’t see Superman until he got out of prison in 2007. And he read the classics, like the work of 19th century French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, in prison. Cuban libraries on the outside were packed with Marxist books. He calls Cuba’s political prison system his university.

Travel to Cuba and you’ll see that sort of thing is still going on. State-run TV is crammed with pirated American programming, to be sure. But Cubans are generally presented with American entertainment that paints life to the north as brutal, shallow and depraved. Think Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Grey’s Anatomy, but not Band of Brothers and Everybody Loves Raymond.

“But Cuban youth today have more information. Their parents can’t lie to them. And even their parents — who have struggled financially, were sent to labor camps and had to fight in Angola — are tired,” he said. “These young people don’t identify with the regime because they were never really formed by that regime’s ideas.”

Still, Antúnez knows that today’s regime is no less despotic, no less bent on controlling life on the island than the one that had him locked up for close to two decades for speaking his mind. Last year, about a month after he returned to Cuba from a trip abroad, he was assaulted at his home in the rural town of Placetas by government thugs who he says took a number of his few possessions, including his television and personal photographs that had nothing to do with his activism.

“The so-called Revolution has lost the most important thing: enthusiasm. A revolution without enthusiasm can’t exist. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Whenever an opponent of the government dies in a hunger strike and the government calls them mercenaries, the regime discredits itself. When you discredit every one of your opponents, you really only discredit yourself. This is a regime that doesn’t recognize any of the merit of any of its adversaries. Even those who diverge just moderately from the party line are ‘mercenaries.’ The regime has helped us that way, with their brutality and with their stupidity. They’ve been stupid. They’ve gone too far. When you ransack a house and take the computers, the documents, and that sort of thing, it’s unjustifiable, but it’s understandable. That’s what dictators do. But when you go into a house and take a TV, house keys, family photos, and all without a warrant, you’re the one who looks bad. When they do all this with impunity, they help us, because they’re breaking the law. Not just international law, but even their own law.”

Indeed, the Cuban government continues to put its intolerance of dissent on display, although the tactics have changed somewhat. Long-term political sentences like the one Antúnez served have become less common, giving way to targeted, strategic detentions that tend not to be quite so damaging to the global image of a regime that depends on tourism dollars to sustain itself.

When the regime has pursued long-term sentences, international pressure has won out. In 2008, it jailed Gorki Aguila, frontman of the underground punk rock group Porno Para Ricardo, for pre-criminal social dangerousness (a crime as ridiculous as it sounds), which carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison. International media attention led to the government’s settling for a public disorder charge. He had to pay a $30 fine.

That leaves him free — at least until the next arrest — to sing lyrics like these, from the song El Comandante.

El comandante quiere que yo trabaje
pagándome un salario miserable.
El comandante quiere que yo le aplauda
después de hablar su mierda delirante.
¡No, comandante!
No comas tanta pinga, comandante.

The comandante wants me to work
while he pays me a miserable salary.
The comandante wants me to applaud him
after he talks all his delirious shit.
No, comandante!
Don’t eat so much dick, comandante.

In 2014 alone, there were more than 8,000 political detentions in Cuba. The vast majority were short term. Planning to attend a controversial concert on the other end of the island? Detained. Got a meeting to plan a protest? We have a few questions for you. You’re coming with us. These are the sorts of detentions they used against bloggers and activists who had planned to participate in Tania Bruguera’s performance piece. By the time the police are legally obligated to let you go because they have nothing to charge you with, they’ve met their objective of keeping you from your work. What’s more, the international press doesn’t see much news in a few hours’ worth of jail time, so next to nobody even finds out what’s happened.

We cross the street from the cigar shop to Máximo Gómez domino park (yes, that exists in Miami). Despite his having been in South Florida for a while now, it’s Antúnez’s first time in Little Havana and he wants to make sure he checks this place out before he leaves town for Tampa and Washington, D.C., where he’ll be speaking to Cuban exiles and lawmakers about his struggle back home.

If there’s a place in the world outside of Cuba where Antúnez will be recognized, it’s this domino park. We meander through the domino tables where old Cuban men are too focused on their next moves to look up and notice him. As we leave the small park, Antúnez mentions how much he’s looking forward to showing people back in Cuba the photos and videos of this place. He says the regime has convinced Cubans that life in America is cold, lonely, and antisocial. His friends and neighbors will be surprised to see a park in Miami where strangers come together to play dominos … just like in Cuba.

Just then, a man near the park gate nods in agreement and says, “Hey. You’re from Placetas, right?” Antúnez confirms it. “Are you Antúnez?”

A wide smile comes over the man’s face and he proudly shakes Antúnez’s hand. He’s been in the States since his parents sent him here in Operation Pedro Pan in the ‘60s. As we walk away from the park, the fan rushes to tell his buddies what they’d missed while their heads were buried in dominoes.

Things are going to get better

Diddier hasn’t moved to the U.S. permanently, either. He’s still living in Cuba. Just taking long trips to the States, making sure not to exceed the two-year limit that the Cuban government set on travel abroad when it started allowing more citizens to venture away from the island (one of the few real concessions it’s made in the last decade or so).

“I think that, in the long term, [the recent policy changes announced by Obama] will be good for civil society. In the long term,” Diddier said. He pauses a moment as he thinks about what the changes might mean more immediately. “In the short and medium term, I can see how in art or other areas it might be helpful. It might be easier to get support from the U.S. government. I hope that the Cuban government doesn’t set some kind of double standard, where it’s OK for them to benefit financially from openings and not all right for others.”

Antúnez, as you might guess, has his mind pretty well made up on what the new policy means for change in Cuba. He recalls an exchange he had in a Miami shopping center. A woman recognized his face and asked whether he thought things would get better on the island as a result.

“I told her, ‘Yes. They’re getting better for the oppressive regime.’ They’ll have more resources with which to oppress the people,” he said. He leaves no room for confusion about his hard-line position. “There will be increased Internet access for people at government institutions and less for those who oppose them,” he said. “There will be development, but it will be unequal. The beatings, the incarcerations, and the invasions of our homes will continue, because the regime will consider itself to have been vindicated morally and economically.”

“I think the United States is breaking from more than 50 years of a policy of solidarity (with Cuban civil society),” he continued.

For all their differences on U.S. policy, both men seem to agree on at least these key points.

First, the core of the Cuban system of government has got to change. Like the broader Cuban community on and off the island, Antúnez and Diddier have different ideas about how we get there. But they both hope to see a Cuba free from the shackles of communism. Until that’s changed, there will be plenty of hunger for something new in Cuba.

“There are things that need to be rescued, things that need to be replaced,” Diddier said, “and things that need to be eliminated completely from Cuba.”

Second, change in Cuba is primarily the problem of Cubans. It’s not something that can be imported or imposed. In fact, depending too heavily on other governments to help can prove costly.

“If (after Obama) there’s a new U.S. government with another agenda, maybe an embassy opens today and closes tomorrow,” said Diddier. “It’ll be a political game. But that’ll be their problem. We, as a civil society, need to focus on capitalizing on any opportunities we might have.”

Third, Cuban civil society is better off with friends in the United States. And it’s not just about the embargo. For example, Antúnez says it used to be the case that he and others in Cuban civil society could head to the U.S. Interest Section in Havana and present evidence identifying Cuban government operatives who participated in beatings and other repressive activities. That was enough to keep those individuals from being able to obtain permission to travel to the States. That created a strong disincentive for people to participate in so-calledactos de repudio, or acts of repudiation, which are government-organized mobs put together to harass dissidents like Antúnez as they walk down the street or sit in their homes.

Under Obama, he says, his and others’ claims have fallen on deaf ears, and Cubans are more easily tempted to throw stones (often literally) when they know that it won’t hurt their chances of getting out of the country later on.

Finally, they both agree that change is on the way. When and how it arrives is another matter, but they agree that something’s got to (and will) give.

“I won’t leave (Cuba) or be silent because I have faith that change is coming,” Antúnez said. “Maybe I would leave if these were different times, with different possibilities and if I had faith in something else. I’m not interested in being a martyr. I don’t want to die. But I believe that this is my duty and I see a light of liberty at the end of the tunnel.”

We hear over and over that Cuba is “frozen in time.” But to suggest that Cuba’s been unchanged since 1959 misses the point. The island has been falling to pieces for more than half a century. Even people who travel frequently to see family will tell you that they notice the decay getting worse from trip to trip. From the paint peeling off of practically every structure in Havana to the antique cars that Cubans see as necessary evils while tourists (especially Americans) admire them nostalgically from their rented Kias and Peugeots, the country is blanketed in evidence that it’s gone too long under a system that’s effective only insofar as it’s managed to perpetuate itself. That is to say, the only thing that’s “frozen” in Cuba is the Castro regime. The rest of it has been slowly melting away.

Someday, we’ll all be able to travel to Cuba and exchange freely with everyone from our cab drivers to rappers to activists and bloggers—even independent tobacconists and cigar makers. For now, though, we’re still dealing with the same Castros, and they’ve made it pretty clear they’re not OK with that sort of thing. Here’s hoping that light at the end of Antúnez’s tunnel gets brighter in a hurry.


Nicolás Antonio Jiménez is the senior editor of Cigar Snob Magazine.

Email him at NJimenez@CigarSnobMag.com or connect with him onTwitter or Instagram.