Fidel Castro is dead. Donald Trump was elected president. And to most outsiders, the fate of Cuba has never seemed more uncertain. Yet those who look close enough may recognize that signs of the next revolution are etched in plain view.
This is Cuba is a true story that begins in the summer of 2009 when a young American photo-journalist is offered the chance of a lifetimea two-year assignment in Havana.
For David Ariosto, the island is an intriguing new world, unmoored from the one he left behind. From neighboring military coups, suspected honey traps, salty spooks, and desperate migrants to dissidents, doctors, and Havana’s empty shelves, Ariosto uncovers the island’s subtle absurdities, its Cold War mystique, and the hopes of a people in the throes of transition. Beyond the classic cars, salsa, and cigars lies a country in which black markets are ubiquitous, free speech is restricted, privacy is curtailed, sanctions wreak havoc, and an almost Kafka-esque goo of Soviet-style bureaucracy still slows the gears of an economy desperate to move forward.
But life in Cuba is indeed changing, as satellite dishes and internet hotspots dot the landscape and more Americans want in. Still, it’s not so simple. The old sentries on both sides of the Florida Straits remain at their posts, fists clenched and guarding against the specter of a Cold War that never quite ended, despite the death of Fidel and the hand-over of the presidency to a man whose last name isn’t Castro.
And now, a crisis is brewing.
In This Is Cuba, Ariosto looks at Cuba from the inside-out over the course of nine years, endeavoring to expose clues for what’s in store for the island as it undergoes its biggest change in more than half a century.
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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
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LAST CALL WITH CASTRO
I sipped an amber rum. Habana Club. Seven years. No ice. He palmed a Bucanero beer, half wrapped in a flimsy white paper napkin. Curls of Cohiba smoke wafted between us, giving the room a translucent look and an acrid taste. Castro was having a drink. And so was I. It was a Friday evening in late November 2010, and we were ensconced on opposite ends of a small subterranean saloon on the western outskirts of Havana. It was my last night in Cuba.
Jammed in the crevices of my back pocket was a one-way ticket to Miami, scheduled for the following morning, the first leg of a connecting flight to New York City. For the past year and a half, Havana had been home during my stint as a photojournalist for CNN on an island still forbidden to most Americans. But now I was ready to leave — forever, I thought. My father, who lived in the pinelands of southern New Jersey, had been sick following acute kidney failure, which punctuated my own recognition that life in Castro's Cuba didn't much suit me anymore. So I had found a job as an editor in New York, exchanged my house on the Caribbean for a studio apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and traded the guayabera for a suit and tie; Cuban heat for a wintry chill. Crazy, it seemed, but Gotham was beckoning.
Then again, this was my last night in Havana. Better make the most of it.
"Do you know who that is?" whispered Antonina, a server in La Fontana, the private, family-run restaurant, or paladar, to which that smoky bar was attached.
"No," I replied. "Who?"
There was usually a breezy familiarity in the way she spoke, imbued with a Caribbean warmth and that marbles-in-your-mouth accent for which much of Cuba is known. The banter was usually light. The topics rarely serious.
But tonight was different. Antonina seemed different, the burden of her words a bit heavier than usual. Inside that paladar, a steady crop of regulars had shuffled in. Rum and cigars, coupled with a live singer or guitarist, usually helped to lighten the mood. But tonight, a palpable tension gripped the air. And the staff seemed to feel it. It was a sensation to which many had grown accustomed.
Situated on a leafy street a few blocks from Havana's rocky northern coast, La Fontana had opened in 1995 when authorities still investigated private restaurants for their numbers of tables and chairs (more than twelve could provoke a raid). Its clandestine feel — there was no sign outside and a surrounding stone wall all but hid the restaurant from view — was part of a broader bid for its very survival. And it looked it. The Castro government had almost never regarded privatization kindly, granting business licenses only when economic forces compelled a drip of liberalizing reform. But in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, a financial crisis had ensued. For decades, Cuba had relied on subsidies from Moscow. In their absence, it teetered on the brink of collapse. Absent his old Kremlin ally, Fidel looked inward for answers and reluctantly allowed a few private restaurants to surface in a fraught attempt to gin up local commerce. La Fontana's two owners, Horacio Reyes- Lovio and Ernesto Blanco, were among the beneficiaries of the new tone and would soon become successful restaurateurs — a dangerous prospect on an island dominated by Communist hard-liners who had spent their careers fending off "yanqui capitalists." New concentrations of wealth were forming that could undermine the Revolution. So the two businessmen kept their profiles low and were quietly, if not begrudgingly, allowed to thrive. Perhaps even government officials were loath to shut down one of the few haunts where they could still score a decent meal.
By the time I arrived in Havana, in June 2009, that old paladar had been transformed into a favorite hangout for politicians, their staffs, and foreign businesspeople alike. It was a place to eat, drink, and — in my case — write, mostly from the vantage point of a still somewhat naïve American journalist. A fixture there, I'd often scratch out pages alone atop one of the few polished wooden tables in back, filling a leather-bound notebook with run-on sentences, notes, and smears of blue ink. They were random observations, mostly. A sort of blind attempt to piece together this confounding puzzle of a nation that I now called home. His approach. Her look. Their meeting. A dribble of insight that seeped through the censors of state-run newspapers.
After a few months and what amounted to a few notebooks full of mostly useless pages, I had gotten to know the restaurant's staff. One was Antonina, whose frankness and sharp tongue seemed matched only by her curiosity. It was the former that made us friends and the latter that would drive her to leave the island as a refugee. But before she did, her occasional rum-topped whispers would help fill in my own knowledge gaps, chasms really, when it came to Cuba. Men like Ricardo Alarcon, then president of Cuba's National Assembly, were among La Fontana's well- heeled patrons who often chatted and sipped mojitos with a hardy crop of familiar faces. I'd try without much luck to listen in, attempting to discern with whom he was meeting and what they were discussing. Business could be conducted this way, and the eavesdropping went both ways.
But tonight, my last night, I wondered why Antonina was so serious and to whom she had so subtly pointed. Passing behind me with a tray of empty glasses, she leaned into my ear.
"That's Alejandro," she whispered, brushing back the unkempt strands of raven-colored hair that dropped in front of her face.
By "Alejandro," Antonina had meant Alejandro Castro Espín, a colonel within Cuba's powerful Interior Ministry and a member of the Castro family, whose inherited importance seemed to be outpacing much of the rest of the Castro clan's. It was President Raul Castro's only son who now sat across from me at the bar. How could I not have realized that before? Of course, in November 2010, the extent of Alejandro's importance was not yet clear. He had yet to broker secret deals in Ottawa and Toronto with top Obama advisers Ben Rhodes and Ricardo Zúñiga, nor had he presided over a spy-for-spy negotiation that would lay the groundwork for détente. What was clear was that Alejandro was already a player and a de facto top adviser to his father. More importantly, he was rumored to be gaining in power atop the senior echelons of the very agency tasked with Cuba's surveillance and counterintelligence; his ministry spied on journalists and dissidents alike. And by apparent coincidence, in my final hours in Cuba he sat across from me, slouched over a beer.
"Coño!" exclaimed Rafa — employing his favorite Cuban expletive — when I later told him of the encounter. Rafael, or "Rafa" for short, was a driver at CNN, and his eyes bulged as he pronounced just the ño in that typical Cuban habit of dropping whole syllables. Though he quickly recuperated, casually popped his shoulders, and gave me this simple — though at the time nonsensical — explanation:
"This is Cuba."
I had come to loathe that line, which was by now all too familiar — a favorite amongst those who seemed intent on explaining the unexplainable. In literal terms it meant little. Yet it also perfectly encapsulated everything about Cuba that was maddening, unknowable, and completely out of your hands. Even Cubans without a basis for comparison seem to know, perhaps by way of the trickle of information that seeps in from outside, that their island is somehow different.
"This is Cuba."
That Alejandro Castro Espín, one of the very men responsible for the sort of paranoid patina that coats the island, just so happened to be seated at my go-to bar on my last night in Havana ... yeah, "This is Cuba" seemed apt.
As for Alejandro, he appeared reticent, reserved, and almost brooding over his beer. With a close-cropped mustache and goatee, and clad in a button-down shirt, the forty-five-year-old Castro scion had the look of middle management. Smart, though privileged, his ascent had been rapid as he sought to burnish his own revolutionary credentials. Alejandro had lost vision in one eye during a military deployment to Angola and yet nonetheless later earned a doctorate in political science, giving him the added chops he may have needed to author a 2009 book, titled The Empire of Terror. It derided corporate influence on U.S. governance and was tantamount to an anti-American manifesto. But those who knew Alejandro considered him more sophisticated than that. His old professor Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat posted to the European Union, later told me that his former pupil may have published that book to reinforce his qualifications, and thus curry favor with the old guard. Veterans of the Revolution and the island's one-party system remained skeptical of Cuba's approaching political and economic transition. They may have needed some reassuring. Much of the politburo and many of the military chiefs were in their golden years, indelibly imprinted with Socialist traditions and Communist rhetoric, which they certainly weren't about to abandon. Though a generational shift was under way, conventional wisdom suggested that deference to these old Cold Warriors — who had spent their careers opposing Americans — was a safe bet for anyone with political aspirations.
"When you talk about U.S. imperialism, you have to hit them hard," Alzugaray told me. Even Fidel had needed their tacit buy-in to rule.
Alejandro seemed to understand that, having spent his life immersed in traditions cultivated by his uncle Fidel and father, Raul, who had officially assumed the presidency only in 2008, the year before I arrived. More gatekeeper than puppet master within Cuba's intelligence services, the young colonel's climb within the intelligence apparatus dovetailed with his dad's newfound power. Though the muscle was Raul's, the younger Castro controlled the flow of information. And while precisely who else had their hands on Cuba's levers of power would remain capricious and shrouded in secrecy, drinkers and waitstaff in La Fontana all seemed to know to pay attention when the young Castro walked in.
Alejandro, however, didn't look like the offspring of leftist firebrands. Though he was garrulous and passionate by reputation, here he appeared quiet and lost in thought. From his eyes sparkled gloomy fires, imbued with the sort of melancholy common to so many restless aristocrats. And they seemed to grow colder and darken as the night wore on.
"Oye!" yelled a squat man seated beside him. "Do you want another?" he asked Alejandro, giving that universal hand-wave that signaled a request for more beer.
"No, thank you," he replied. With his back propped against the wall, the colonel kept the room in front of him. And every now and then he glared in my direction. His pupils, by now habituated to the saloon's darkness, flitted about the room, alternating between his warmish beer and me.
I should say something, I thought. How could I not?
But what exactly does one say to the man whose agency is charged with spying on you? How does that conversation begin?
As I sat there sipping my rum and planning my approach, the bartender — an impressively tattooed woman named Jacqueline — sensed my intention and beat me to the punch.
"Oye! Alejandro!" she bellowed, snatching another frosty glass from below the bar. "Do you know David? He's with CNN."
Conversation ground to a halt. Alejandro put down his glass.
They all just looked at me.
"Uh ... hola," I said.
The men hardly moved. They just stared. And after an agonizingly long pause, the Colonel tipped his head in my direction. It was an acknowledgment and as much of an opening as I'd get. It seemed enough, and so I went in for a proper introduction.
"I know who you are," he interrupted, slowly adjusting his gaze as he peered over his beer.
In the eyes of many in government, I was an instrument of their enemy: an American journalist with mediocre Spanish whose country had endeavored to remove the Castros from power, slapping Cuba with an economic trade embargo — which authorities refer to as el bloqueo (the blockade) — that had lasted for more than half a century.
But how did he know me?
My thoughts searched back to hundreds of stories I had filmed and written about over the years, which included dissident protests, political prisoners, and black-market trade, any number of which could have piqued government interest. But none of it made me unique. The island's foreign press corps may have lacked a deep bench, yet few of its journalists shied away from investigative stories. Of course, with a government as tightly wound as this one, scoops were relatively rare.
Nothing came to mind — until something did.
Though not quite a scoop, it had all started on a sunny Friday afternoon more than a year earlier, on November 6, 2009, with a woman whose long brown hair and bohemian attire seemed to accentuate her solemn gaze.
Yoani Sánchez was on her way to a march.
The thirty-four-year-old dissident blogger had become one of the Castros' most visible critics. And over the course of just two years, she had developed a sizeable foreign following through her blog, Generación Y. In fact, her writings about the hardships of Cuban life and her criticism of its government had earned her international acclaim. In 2008, Time magazine listed Yoani as among the world's one hundred most influential people. Posing as a German tourist, she'd sneak into hotel internet cafés to upload her latest musings or deliver them on thumb drives to Cuban exiles living in South Florida. But that day, which had been hotter than most, she was heading to a march against violence in the Cuban capital with fellow bloggers. As temperatures soared and the bloggers approached the march, a pair of "burly" state security agents cut them off.
What happened next would offer a snapshot of what reporting was like in a place where freedom of speech and assembly are not only severely curtailed, but where authorities seem to take pride in their own opacity. According to Yoani and fellow bloggers, the agents didn't want them to attend the march and were intent on preventing them from reaching it.
The situation would quickly devolve. A third security agent joined the men and the three promptly seized the marchers, allegedly forcing Yoani into a waiting car, pummeling her body and grabbing fistfuls of her hair. She fought back, clawing at their arms and grabbing one man's genitals. But Yoani was quickly overpowered and shoved face-first into the back seat, where she was restrained and briefly detained.
When Yoani returned home, the story circulated like wildfire among the island's small foreign press corps as the news wires quickly picked up the story.
I had to go interview her.
"Where does Yoani live?" I asked our office manager, Dagmara, who breathed a deep sigh before handing me the address scrawled on a piece of paper. Dagmara, per usual, knew far more than I did. This wouldn't end well. She knew that, but handed me the paper anyway. And the next morning I headed out to meet Yoani, arriving at her small Havana apartment just after breakfast time. There, I trudged up a series of concrete steps until an older man, with a pomp of salt and pepper hair, named Reinaldo Escobar — Yoani's husband — greeted me at the door.
"Hello, David," he said, welcoming me inside their apartment. The sun's morning light had already flooded their small living room, and cast a warm glow over Yoani, who was seated at the kitchen table. When she saw me, she strained to stand, leaning on a single crutch.
"Quieres café?" she asked, embracing my hand and offering me coffee.
She looked tired. Slight swelling had puffed up under her left eye, and a few bruises had surfaced along her foot and legs. We chatted a bit off camera as she told me her story. But as I adjusted the tripod and focused my lens, Reinaldo, also a dissident blogger, slid a collection of Yoani's painkillers into the camera's frame.
"Can you see this?" he asked me, before the interview started, pushing the stack of the bottles closer to Yoani, who was leaning forward on her crutch as we spoke. I ignored him and zoomed in closer to her face, largely erasing all but his wife's portrait from the camera's viewfinder. Yet Reinaldo was undeterred and slid the pills closer still, seemingly intent on ensuring his wife's suffering was evident for viewers. Neither was a media novice, and after a few more to-and-fros of this sort, I began to feel like I was being managed. Reinaldo adjusted her crutch. Suddenly aware of it, she shooed him away.
Only then did the small talk end and our interview commence. She leaned forward and recalled the men, their car, and her own sense of panic.
"'Yoani,'" she quoted one of her assailants. "'This is it.' And in that moment, I thought I was going to die."
There was a subtle resignation to her words, soft and deliberate as they were. And I listened intently. While the Castro-led government often viewed its opponents as mercenaries in America's employ, imprisoning dissidents and intimidating sympathizers, overt killings had not been in its playbook, at least not in recent years. What's more, Raul had announced a year earlier in 2008 that virtually all prisoner death sentences were to be commuted to lengthy prison terms.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "This Is Cuba"
Copyright © 2018 David Ariosto.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsAuthor’s Note
Chapter 1 Last Call with Castro
Chapter 2 The Spies Among Us
Chapter 3 Men from State
Chapter 4 The Missing Sink
Chapter 5 Hearts, We Do Not Know
Chapter 6. Por Bortella
Chapter 7 Los Yankees
Chapter 8 Blue Shrinkwrap
Chapter 9 Rumble To the East
Chapter 10 Rising Dissent
Chapter 11 The Church Broker
Chapter 12 ‘The Wild Colt of New Technologies’
Chapter 13 Left Behind
Chapter 15 Return To Gotham
Chapter 16 The Benefactor
Chapter 17 Into Chaos
Chapter 18 Trappings of Détente
Chapter 19 The Normalization
Chapter 20 The Old Guard
Chapter 21 Alan Gross
Chapter 22 Return Of the Embassies
Chapter 23 The Boom Years
Chapter 24 Cold War Games
Chapter 25 Baltimore Backchannel