Friday, July 20, 2018
Opinion

Column: Times changing in Cuba, but not always for the better

Perhaps the saddest sight in Cuba these days isn't the crumbling architecture or the billboards celebrating a tired revolution well into its 56th year.

It's the sight of Cubans texting.

Until recently, seeing texters on the island was kind of like seeing a Cuban jogging: It didn't happen. (Scurrying around just to survive is enough to burn excess calories, however few.)

I took a picture recently of the first Cuban I saw tapping out an instant message on her phone. She was standing behind the counter at La Copelia, the "Cathedral of Ice Cream" in Havana, where Cubans line up for whatever flavor of unpasteurized sweetness the day has to offer. Sorry, no 31 flavors here.

As a Cuban-American, I was struck with pity for future hunched-over souls — not many, yet — looking into their laps and turning away from what makes Cuba and Cubans so engaging in person: a mutual intensity that nurtures deep friendships and fuels good-natured debates about health care and the finer points of baseball — heated exchanges that are national pastimes in themselves.

This way of Cuban life, however, is on the verge of fragmenting in ways we know very well.

As the U.S. government readies its Havana embassy for reopening Monday, the move is largely symbolic. The United States is already in Cuba in seminal ways: We've already exported our "together-alone" culture, where the ability to multitask and be busy at all times are stripes of self-worth and achievement. Cubans are beginning to get a taste of what it's like to be "connected" — to feel the rush of dopamine that comes with squeezing off a text between moments of real work.

More than a million working mobile phones have penetrated an island of more than 11 million people; roughly one in 10 Cubans has a mobile device. It's not uncommon to see the latest iPhone and Android phones.

The market for Internet-capable phones is on fire in Cuba, with prices commanding in the neighborhood of 200 convertible pesos, roughly $220 for an iPhone 5. The prices might seem insurmountable for the average Cuban worker, who earns the equivalent of about $22 a month. The phones are attainable, however, with a second tourist-sector job that yields such earnings in a single night.

The Castros have called the Internet and mobile devices the greatest modern-day plague on humanity, for reasons that clearly have more to do with the spread of any information that threatens their lock on power. The attention-destroying nature of texting and other forms of rapid electronic communication should frighten the brothers more if they were guarding the national treasure of sincere face-to-face interaction so much a part of the Cuban psyche.

As I watch the liberalization of the island, I find myself second-guessing how wonderful these changes will really be. The mantra now is "go to Cuba before everything changes." It's true. Cuba, a distinct place, is going to become like everyplace else as relations with the United States improve.

Will there soon be a Starbucks on the Malecon, the iconic seawall promenade that is, at this moment, serenely absent of private watercraft and small boats because they would provide immediate means of escape for anyone wanting to cross the Florida Straits? I'll bet on it.

Havana will get a Starbucks and some version of the same menu (hey, a grande needs no translation!), kind of like Moscow got its first a McDonald's in 1990 as the Soviet Union collapsed.

One thing is for sure: If you don't go soon it might be harder to order an authentic cafecito without having to add any qualifiers — tall, skinny, decaf, whatever — and savor the deceptively complex nature of Cuban coffee while standing on a corner in Old Havana, sans anyone shuffling by, phone in hand.

Alex Lyda is a freelance writer and frequent traveler to Cuba, most recently visiting Cienfuegos, his mother's birthplace. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Comments

Editorial: NFL calls wise time-out on disciplining protests

The National Football League kept an embarrassing situation from becoming even worse by shelving its new policy clamping down on players who refuse to stand for the national anthem.The league announced late Thursday it would suspend the 2-month old p...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Editorial: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s responsible budget

Editorial: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s responsible budget

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is shoring up his final year in office with the proposed city budget he released Thursday. The plan includes no big-ticket items, opting instead to maintain ongoing investments in parks, roads and other basic public services....
Updated: 2 hours ago

IRS making ‘dark money’ darker

Under a perverse interpretation of federal law, tax-exempt nonprofit organizations supposedly devoted to "social welfare" can spend large amounts of money to influence elections without publicly disclosing the identities of their donors. But instead ...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Editorial: Ferry is fun but should pay for itself in long run

Editorial: Ferry is fun but should pay for itself in long run

The CrossBay Ferry appears headed for another round of rides across Tampa Bay, with local governments pledging one more year of financial support. But as more taxpayer money is steered into this project, it’s important to recognize what purpose the f...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Editorial: Scott should order investigation of concealed weapons permitting

Editorial: Scott should order investigation of concealed weapons permitting

To his credit, Gov. Rick Scott says he is considering requests to order an independent investigation of how Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s office screens applications for concealed weapon permits. It’s a reasonable request, and the governor h...
Published: 07/18/18
Editorial: Algae blooms, toll woes and beach battles -- Florida’s fouled up summer

Editorial: Algae blooms, toll woes and beach battles -- Florida’s fouled up summer

July in Florida. The height of summer tourist season. Rental cars clog the highways and tourists crowd the beaches, motels and all-you-can-eat shrimp joints. Many of our neighbors are off to North Carolina or somewhere cooler. So it’s an awfully inco...
Published: 07/17/18
Updated: 07/20/18
Editorial: Sacrificing two kayaks and a Toyota for free speech

Editorial: Sacrificing two kayaks and a Toyota for free speech

Maggy Hurchalla joked this spring that all she could offer a billionaire who won a $4.4 million judgment against her after she exercised her free speech rights were "two kayaks and an aging Toyota.’’ The billionaire didn’t laugh. This week, Martin Co...
Published: 07/17/18
Updated: 07/18/18
Editorial: Trump sides with Putin over America

Editorial: Trump sides with Putin over America

In one of the most surreal news conferences of our time, President Donald Trump actually stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday and called the federal investigation into Russia’s meddling into the 2016 election "a disaster for our coun...
Published: 07/16/18
Editorial: A vote for preserving waterfront parks by St. Petersburg City Council

Editorial: A vote for preserving waterfront parks by St. Petersburg City Council

The St. Petersburg City Council made the appropriate but difficult decision to reject a contract with renowned artist Janet Echelman for one of her aerial sculptures. It would be wonderful for the city to have one of her signature works, but Spa Beac...
Published: 07/13/18

‘Everybody needed to know what happened’

The brutal murder of Emmett Till, a black Chicago youth, in Mississippi nearly 63 years ago went unpunished, but not forgotten. A decision by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to allow an open casket at Emmett’s Chicago funeral represented an act of def...
Published: 07/13/18