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

The market for Internet-capable phones is hot in Cuba, with prices of about 200 convertible pesos, or roughly $220, for an iPhone 5.
The market for Internet-capable phones is hot in Cuba, with prices of about 200 convertible pesos, or roughly $220, for an iPhone 5.
Published July 16, 2015

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.

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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.