Tuesday, August 21, 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: The Catholic Church’s proper response to Pennsylvania scandal

Editorial: The Catholic Church’s proper response to Pennsylvania scandal

Forceful words are coming from the pope’s pen as well as pulpits around Tampa Bay: The sexual abuse of minors, which proliferated for decades within the Roman Catholic Church, were not merely sins but crimes whose repercussions are still being felt b...
Published: 08/20/18
Editorial: Did Rick Scott’s wallet affect his epiphany on rail line?

Editorial: Did Rick Scott’s wallet affect his epiphany on rail line?

Within weeks of taking office in 2011, Gov. Rick Scott made one of the worst decisions of his administration and refused $2.4 billion in federal money for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. Within months of leaving office, the governor...
Published: 08/17/18
Editorial: Hillsborough has a place among growing number of governments suing opioid makers

Editorial: Hillsborough has a place among growing number of governments suing opioid makers

Local governments across the land can find plenty of reasons to go after the drug industry over the crisis of opioid addiction.Hillsborough County can find more reasons than most.• In 2016, the county led the state with 579 babies born addicted to dr...
Published: 08/17/18
Editorial: Here’s what needs to be done to stop algae blooms

Editorial: Here’s what needs to be done to stop algae blooms

The environmental crisis in South Florida has fast become a political crisis. Politicians in both parties are busy blaming one another for the waves of toxic algae blooms spreading out from Lake Okeechobee and beyond, fouling both coasts and damaging...
Published: 08/15/18
Updated: 08/20/18
Editorial: Journalists are friends of democracy, not the enemy

Editorial: Journalists are friends of democracy, not the enemy

It is real news that the Hillsborough County School District said this week it will accelerate testing for lead in drinking water and release the results after the Tampa Bay Times reported testing would take years and that until we asked families wer...
Published: 08/15/18
Updated: 08/16/18

Bumping into GOP cowardice on guns

One small island of sanity in the generally insane ocean of American gun culture is the near-complete federal ban on civilian possession of fully automatic weapons — machine guns.The nation got a bitter taste last year of what we’d be facing on a reg...
Published: 08/14/18
Updated: 08/17/18
Editorial: Vaccinations are safe way to prevent measles

Editorial: Vaccinations are safe way to prevent measles

The revelation that three people in Pinellas County have contracted the measles virus should be a wake-up call to everyone to get vaccinated if they haven’t been — and to implore parents to immunize their kids. Contagious diseases such as measles can...
Published: 08/14/18
Updated: 08/17/18
Editorial: Habitat for Humanity still has questions to answer about selling mortgages

Editorial: Habitat for Humanity still has questions to answer about selling mortgages

A good reputation can vanish overnight, which is why Habitat for Humanity of Hills-borough County made a smart decision by announcing it would seek to buy back 12 mortgages it sold to a Tampa company with a history of flipping properties. The arrange...
Published: 08/14/18
Editorial: Vote — or a minority of the electorate will decide your future without you

Editorial: Vote — or a minority of the electorate will decide your future without you

40%of Americans who were eligible to vote for president in 2016 just didn’t bother. That number dwarfs the portion of all eligible voters who cast a ballot for President Donald Trump — 27.6 percent — or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton, 28.8 percent...
Published: 08/13/18
Updated: 08/17/18
Editorial: Why stand your ground has to go

Editorial: Why stand your ground has to go

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe made a reasonable decision to charge Michael Drejka with manslaughter in last month’s deadly Clearwater convenience store parking lot confrontation. The shooting, which erupted over use of a handicap parkin...
Published: 08/13/18