Comment
0
Tweet
0
Print
RSS Feeds

In Cuba, clock ticking just a bit faster for some

Saturday - 12/21/2013, 5:42am  ET

Nino Torres, a waiter at a private restaurant, wears a Santa Claus hat as he looks for customers in the streets of Old Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. A smattering of Christmas trees and wreaths hang in private businesses and homes, as holiday displays have become more common in a country that was officially atheist for decades. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

PETER ORSI
Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) -- In Cuba, time is in the eye of the beholder.

For many islanders, the days still pass slowly under an enervating sun. After a half century of Communism, they see time frozen in the facades of crumbling colonial mansions, the chrome of 1950s automobiles and the face of a stopped airport clock. They feel little sense of urgency.

Others say the pace of life has quickened considerably in the three years since President Raul Castro admonished Cubans to embrace economic reforms "without haste, but without pause." Suddenly, automobile traffic is picking up in Havana. There are appointments to be kept, private businesses to tend and deals to be made in a rush to get ahead.

"I feel like this year has gone by faster than ever. We're living in accelerated times," said Antonio Hernandez, a 57-year-old maintenance worker. "You wake up one morning ... and next thing you know we're already in December!"

The feeling of hastening time harkens back to another era. The years following the 1959 revolution marked a period of upheaval as Fidel Castro and his band of armed rebels ousted strongman Fulgencio Batista and put a quick end to his brand of freewheeling capitalism.

In short order, Castro nationalized private businesses. The new Communist government mobilized teachers across the nation to teach the poor and soon declared illiteracy had been eradicated. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion was followed by the U.S. economic embargo and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Cubans were guaranteed cradle-to-grave housing, food, health care and government jobs, regardless of performance. There were times of boom and bust, national dreams of outsized sugar harvests, military adventures in Africa and an embrace of all things Soviet, until the Eastern bloc imploded. Then for decades, life seemed to slow to a crawl. Complacency set in. Productivity waned. Time became static. The results were sometimes maddening.

Cubans spent years on waiting lists for cars and homes, or stood in lines for hours to purchase food and household goods -- sometimes without even knowing what was on offer or if there would be any left when they got to the front. Rain was reason enough to delay going to work in this tropical country.

Some found the pace liberating. There was no need to drive fast, because they weren't really expected to arrive on time. There was no pressure to answer email, because few had access to Internet. And nobody would suggest a Sunday afternoon playing dominos with friends was a waste of time, because it was a habit 40 years in the making.

Time stood still in politics, too. In other countries, a change in government often delineates an era. The Reagan administration; England under Thatcher; Obama's America. In Cuba, for nearly 50 years it was Fidel Castro and the Communist Party with no prospects for change.

Likewise in foreign relations. While the U.S. government normalized relations with China, Vietnam and Russia, Havana and Washington remained in a lockstep of hostility.

In Cuba, revolution is understood as a permanent state. History is treated as news on state TV, which often broadcasts commemorations of anniversaries of skirmishes from the 1959 uprising. Official newspapers commonly print Fidel Castro speeches from decades ago on their front pages. On a recent day, the top story was about a youth group's re-creation of the Castro brothers' return to Cuba aboard the Granma yacht in 1956, which nearly ended in disaster but ultimately launched the armed struggle to topple Batista.

Past, present and future are bound together in a single historical moment: Fidel Castro's triumphant march into Havana in January 1959.

But many Cubans say life has speeded up since Raul Castro took over the presidency in 2006, when Fidel was stricken with an intestinal disease that nearly killed him. Raul quickly legalized computers and cell phones and removed restrictions on Cubans entering tourist hotels, but he waited three years to announce more fundamental changes, including an embrace of limited forms of free market capitalism.

Cuba has begun opening up Internet access, and increased private computer and cell phone ownership. Cubans now can run their own businesses, buy and sell homes, go into business for themselves, hire workers and travel abroad without enduring the humiliation of asking their government for permission.

"When you sit down and think about it, if you were told six years ago that you could do this, this and this, and make a list of all that has changed in six years in Cuba, it's impressive," said Carlos Alzugaray, a longtime Cuban diplomat and prominent intellectual.

   1 2  -  Next page  >>