"A revolution is not a bed of roses. A revolution is a struggle between the future and the past." – Fidel Castro (1959)
With his hands perched at his side, he stomps left-right-left to the salsa melody coming from the temporary stage erected on a corner in Old Havana along the buzzing Avenida de Maceo, famously known as The Malecón.
He and his friends dance on the side of the road, laughing as they compare moves and try to steal the best ones from each other. They look like they just stepped off the set of a hip-hop music video: sunken crotch sweatpants, sneakers and T-shirts.
Everyone looks good. It is Saturday night, all after, and it seems like all of Old Havana is lined up along the five-mile wall of the promenade.
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If there is anything you should know about Havana, it's that The Malecón is the place to be on a Saturday night; every corner along this stretch of road plays host to something or other: live music, outdoor cinema, food. There is such electricity in the warm coastal breeze that it almost drowns out the sound of the roaring ocean.
I stop to watch a film, a dated animation about how Cuba bravely defended itself against an attack by a corrupted, and notably more European-looking, Puerto Rican army. As I look around at the young faces engaged, I wonder how they navigate life beyond the propaganda they are force-fed weekly. Yet they don't look "stuck in an era" to me.
While Cuba has been open to tourism from most of the world for 20 years now, initial tourism laws keep locals and visitors from integrating and were only dropped in 2008.
"My brother of Sudáfrica."
Ironically, his name is Nelson. "Like Mandela," he points out.
A quick stop to buy cheap, handmade fridge magnets turned into a reunion of familiar faces, separated by decades of isolation and "tourist apartheid". While Cuba has been open to tourism from most of the world for 20 years now, initial tourism laws keep locals and visitors from integrating and were only dropped in 2008.
Nelson's souvenir kiosk outside his casa, a block from El Capitolio, is made up of a metal sheet adorned in ceramic magnets for a dollar apiece and a table decked with ashtrays the colours of Cuba's flag and oil paintings on Cuban newspaper featuring old Chevies. Everything is a fraction of the cost at the tourist store across from the former seat of government — five times less, at least.
As I pack away my loot, he catches a glimpse of a pair of five-dollar H&M flip-flops stashed in my backpack. Unable to piece together a sentence in English now, Nelson hands me a bundle of 10 cigars from under his table pointing to the bag, talking Spanish. He wants to trade.
While many brands are still restricted from Cuba owing to the commercial blockade imposed by the U.S., a common way Havana youth stay in style is by buying clothes from visitors. I declined Nelson's generous offer, fretting about customs, only to find that certain Cuban goods are now permitted into the U.S. But I get a second offer just 20 minutes later as I walk down Paseo del Prado, a parallel street dividing Old and Centro Habana.
I notice him following me down the walkway, dodging smartphone-clasping skaters. But he is pushing a stroller, so I don't think too much of it. I stop to "take a photo" and turn around so I have a clear view of my stalker's face. He then, finally, builds up the courage to approach me.
Ramon is wearing denim shorts, a matching denim vest and a brightly coloured snapback cap. In fact, he followed me all this way, baby in tow, because he likes the JOBURG snapback I am wearing and wants to me to name a price.
I decline his offer, but he is curious about my accent and we begin a strange exchange where I speak really slowly in English and he speaks really slowly in Spanish, but we only understand each other by our hand gestures, an informal sign language:
- He shows me his Air Jordan tattoo on his leg and points to the one on my bag
- I tell him that the writing on my cap is short for Johannesburg
- He compares his blingy earrings to mine
He says to me, "We're not so different", even though I don't understand a word of what Ramon is actually saying.
There Goes the Neighbourhood
Cuba screams: children playing in the narrow streets of Centro Habana, neighbours exchanging gossip and laughter from opposite ends of the road, banter seeping out the open doors of casas down to The Malecón. Standing outside on any day, it is hard to imagine this vibrant backdrop as an oppressive dictatorship.
Depending on where in the world you are from, the Cuban Revolution was either a beacon of hope or threat to stability. This revolt against colonial rule and its legacy spread rebellion like wildfire worldwide, with Cuba backing many uprisings against oppressive regimes. But a gross number of political executions on the island in the decades that followed painted its political elite as just as cruel to anyone who dares oppose "the people".
While police still occupy almost every corner of Centro Habana today, signs of protest linger alongside them. It would be peculiar if a culture so expressive simply bit its tongue around such abuse of power. One group seems pretty adamant to be heard. Its outlet of expression? An artistic act of vandalism made popular by American urban youth: graffiti.
Murals of a masked figure can be found all over the old neighbourhood. Some of the accompanying messages are more explicitly political than others, but one constant feature is a reference to George Orwell's book "1984", a false equation used as an example of false campaign slogans by political parties, "2+2=5".
Young people are innovatively using the internet to claim a share of tourism dollars.
A World of Opportunity
Victor asks me to hand the money to his girlfriend sitting shotgun as we approach the airport.
"No police, see," he says.
He is a driver for a cab service I found online that capitalises on bridging the language barrier for tourists who do not speak Spanish by taking bookings via email. Victor does not own a car but hires one every time he lands a job. He rates are competitive, and yet he still manages to walk away having made 200 percent profit — untaxed, of course.
The rise of internet connectivity in Cuba, which is still restricted to a handful of hotels, through prepaid vouchers has not only influenced youth by exposing them to popular culture without restriction, but also inspired a new wave of entrepreneurship. Young people are using the internet innovatively to claim a share of tourism dollars.
A search on Airbnb will bring up more than 100 casas in Cuba's capital. The online marketplace helps diversify business by exposing visitors to a wider range of hosts. The Chinatown casa I stayed at is booked for most of the next three months. The owner's niece, Irina, created his listing and manages his account, as he does not speak English.
Advancing technology and accessibility to it presents young Cubans with inspiration and opportunity. Cuban youth aren't necessarily taking to the street to call for change; theirs is a cultural revolution defined by their refusal to be left behind in a fast-evolving world.