By Mario Reinaldo Machado
The upper half of Alberto’s torso is buried in the behemoth engine of his 1957 Chrysler while his wife Juana sits in the front seat and tells me about her grandchildren and the new one on the way. After some fiddling and cursing in Spanish, followed in kind with admonishments from his wife, Alberto closes the lid and slides into the driver seat. With a small prayer and a moment’s anticipation, he plunges the key into the ignition, firing the engine until finally, it catches. The motor rolls-over sweetly and only slightly begrudgingly, as if such a thing were a possibility all along and yet this car, made in the year my father was born, just now decided to oblige. Cheeky bugger.
Alberto is doing what he can (like driving me to the airport) to make some extra money on the side. As for me, I am still trying to figure this place out and while it’s true what they say, “todo es posible in Cuba” (everything is possible in Cuba), it is hardly ever so easy.
Change on Its Own Terms
There is this romantic image of Cuba as a place stuck in time. And while romance and passion abound on the island as much as rum and cigars, I have become increasingly hesitant to correlate that with any sense of antiquity. Surely, things in Cuba in the year 2016 look significantly different than many other places in Latin America and the Caribbean, but the notion that Cuba has remained unchanged since the revolution in 1959 obscures the most incredible thing about the country: namely, how Cuba has managed to change on its own terms over the past 60 years.
What my time spent traveling and working in Cuba over the past few years has revealed is instead a portrait of a place in constant flux. The material realities can be deceiving—they belie a greater, more complex vitality hidden just below the surface.
’57 Chrysler Frankenstein
Take the ubiquitous old cars for example, seemingly the quintessential illustration of a “Cuba stuck in time.” Any conversation with a Cuban cab driver such as Alberto will quickly reveal—in addition to many details about family size, structure, and characteristics—that the cars dotting the autopista and downtown la Habana are less the purebred American classics that they seem and more Frankenstein monsters born of necessity, ingenuity, and the incredible talents of Cuban mechanics.
Many Cuban taxistas or families keep the bodies of the old cars because the steel frames are much more durable and sturdy than the newer, plastic-exterior models being made today. The motors, however, have largely been replaced with engines from newer cars. Alberto’s 1957 Chrysler, for instance, has had its original diesel engine replaced with a 2006 petrol engine from a Korean model whose parts were imported piecemeal via Mexico (truly, todo es possible en Cuba). Additionally, modern CD players, stereo systems, and even television screens are not uncommon features of some of these classic cars. The anachronism is unusual and amusing for tourists and visitors, no doubt, but this is hardly symptomatic of a static country.
In the U.S., change might be seen in the newest model of iPhone. In Cuba, change is manifest everyday by continually adapting yesterday’s material realities to today’s needs. Cuba’s general isolation and anti-capitalist stance have certainly translated to a dynamism that is uniquely Cuban, but it is an incredible dynamism nonetheless.
It is for reasons like this that I always cringe whenever I hear people refer to Cuba as a “developing” country, lumping it in with other countries in which I have worked where the comparisons just do not seem to make sense. Even a cursory analysis of Cuba’s rankings in various human development indices in regards to life expectancy, education, and gender equality set it apart from many other countries in the world.
This is not to idealize Cuba nor to suggest that there is not room for improvement. This is only to highlight the fact that Cuba does represent a living departure from the ordinary categories of “change” and “development” as we have come to understand them in the Western world. But this alternative position does not come without its challenges, as Cubans often acknowledge in their invocation of the phrase “la lucha” (“the struggle” or “the fight”). This common Cuban expression subtly signifies two parallel concepts: both the greater struggle between competing ideas of what it means to develop and progress in the modern world, and the day-to-day struggle of making this alternative vision a reality.
The car rolls along the highway towards the airport while I maintain a lazy conversation with Alberto and Juana in between their periodic squabbling. It is a hot day and the open windows rattle against the steel frame inside the door and I am thinking how much I will miss the heavy humidity of my past month in Cuba. Leaving the country is always a strange moment for me as I confront the tensions between the worlds I inhabit: the easy consumerism, comfort, and connectivity of my life in the U.S. and the dynamic, ever-challenging novelty of my life in Cuba. It is hard to say which I prefer and often my feelings on the matter change by the day, but in a way, it feels like this is my own version of la lucha.
Estoy en la lucha. Aren’t we all.