The Plaza de la Revolución fills much the same role in Havana as the National Mall does in Washington. It lies in the shadow of the city's tallest monument, constructed to honor the memory of the country's great revolutionary hero. Huge crowds, sometimes topping a million people, have crammed onto the concrete square to partake in patriotic ceremonies, concerts, or speeches by Fidel Castro or the Pope.
When I visited Cuba earlier this year, the Plaza was eerily empty. Dozens of vultures circled patiently overhead, as if waiting for the 83-year-old Castro and his 51-year-old revolution to succumb to the steady march of time.
The 11 million people of Cuba are waiting, too. Castro, ailing from a digestive illness, stepped down as president in 2008, handing over the reins of power to his younger brother, Raúl. The junior Castro has largely continued the policies and leadership style of his predecessor, but there is a sense that he is merely a stepping stone between the five-decade-long rule of Fidel and whatever comes next.
Across the Vedado district — a former Mafia haven of luxury hotels and crumbling mansions — from the Plaza, my brother and I chatted with an energetic 30-something stranger-turned-confidant named Tati in a seedy basement bar. Several cigars and mojitos in, the conversation turned to politics.
"Fidel is the kind of genius who comes along every few hundred years," Tati said. "But Raúl"—this was with a perfunctory glance over the shoulder, followed by a tap on the head—"doesn't have it up here."
He finished off his mojito and replenished it with rum from a cheap bottle we'd picked up at a nearby convenience store.
"It's not just me saying that," he said. "Ask anyone — they'll tell you the same thing."
So they did. In the lush valley town of Viñales, 120 miles southwest of Havana, our host, his tongue also loosened by several glasses of rum, shook his head at the mention of Raúl.
"Fidel is a hero to every Cuban," he said. "But Raúl is crazy — much crazier than Fidel."
Yet no one attempted to articulate what exactly it was about Raúl that made him so inferior to his brother. Instead, it appeared that his greatest crime was simply not being Fidel, whose unimpeachable hero status among many Cubans has propped up a sagging Communist regime far past its time.
Cubans enjoy privileges — a decent public education, free health care — that can't be found elsewhere in the third world, or even in parts of the first. Racism is largely absent from a society that boasts an astonishing degree of economic equality. And some of the island's social restrictions have been relaxed, if not altogether removed. (Until 1988, Cubans who "publicly flaunted their homosexual condition" faced prison sentences; now Cubans are entitled to free sex-change operations. Our first night in Cuba, we happened upon a jam-packed rooftop gay party in Central Havana — with plenty of flaunting.)
But it's economic concerns that dominate the lives and daily banter of most Cubans. The country's unusual two-currency system — enacted in 2004 to remove the powerful influence of the U.S. dollar — puts a wide range of basic necessities, including most toiletries and clothes, out of the reach of ordinary Cubans, who receive their wages in the badly devalued national peso. Food staples are rationed, but quite a few people said to me that their monthly rations rarely get them by for more than two weeks. Each short stroll we took through Havana saw us accosted by locals pleading for milk money (the most common request, since the milk ration is evidently the stingiest of all), our old clothes or razor blades, or a chance to sell us cigars and chicas (usually offered in that order).
Foreign travel is out of the question for Cubans, and most habaneros I spoke with had never even ventured to other parts of their country. Much to my surprise, nearly everyone I spoke with became visibly excited when I said I was from the States, and they all wanted to exchange stories. "I love talking to foreigners," one stranger said. "It's my way of traveling."
Upon our return to Havana after two days exploring the hills and caves of Viñales, we sought Tati out once again. When we'd parted with him in front of his building four days earlier, he'd told us how to find him in the future: "Come to this corner and ask anyone, 'Where's Tati,' and they'll tell you," he'd said. We were skeptical, but sure enough, when we posed the question to the only person in the street, a studious-looking young fellow, he replied without so much as blinking: "Go up the block, turn left into the first alley, go to the end, turn left again, and there you'll find Tati playing dominoes."
This time, he was quite drunk before we arrived — I never quite figured out how Cubans who couldn't afford milk managed to consume so much rum — and his pithy political observations had given way to a full-fledged vitriolic rant. In a hoarse whisper, again accompanied by the compulsory glances over his shoulder and frequent swigs from a rum bottle I'd bought with him in mind, he railed against the lack of free expression and economic opportunity in his country. My brother attempted to interject with praise for a society where neighbors help one another on a daily basis and where no one slips through the cracks into hopeless poverty. But Tati was quick to point out that these ideals, whose lack we so frequently bemoan in America, only get you so far when life feels static and stifled.
"Here in Cuba, we have nothing," he hissed. "I am nobody. In my neighborhood, I am somebody. Everyone says, 'Oh, Tati, I know Tati, I like Tati, I respect Tati.' But in Cuba? I am nobody. I am shit."
He got up to relieve himself in a corner, then returned to his lengthy lament. "We can't express ourselves. We can't do anything. You don't understand what it's like. You spend a week in Cuba and expect to understand these things? Impossible."
We listened with a sense of resignation, and eventually had to pull ourselves away to catch a taxi to the airport. We parted with a hug and a promise that we'd see him again soon. But Tati, so vocal just minutes before, said simply, with tears in his eyes, "No, you won't," and turned away.