Chapter 1. Es Cuba

The first new word I learned in Cuba was sobornar, to bribe.

It was a Sunday evening in February, at the start of my second week on the island, and I was waiting to enter the Coppelia ice cream park, Havana’s hot-spot hangout populated by teenagers and grandmothers alike. Regardless of the weather or the time of day, the line wrapped around two city blocks and then snaked back in on itself, winding around the corner of L and 23rd Streets.

I stood on 23rd, smushed between a stoplight and a giant billboard of Elián González. With a bewildered expression on his face, the coveted little boy peered out from behind a mesh wire fence with the words, DEVUELVAN NUESTRO NIÑO, Return Our Child, branded in red beneath him. The air was heavy with humidity and the slow burn of patience being pushed to its utmost limit.

I had come here with my friend Alfredo more than an hour ago, and now he was off making the rounds of Coppelia, searching for a way to bypass the wait. Fifteen minutes after he left me to ponder the predicament of Elián, Alfredo returned to the line, a furtive glimmer in his eyes.

“Do you have a dollar?” he asked in a soft voice, almost a whisper. “Fula,” he added to clarify. Fula, which in street slang means “stupid,” also means “U.S. money.”

In Cuba, I had quickly become fluent in three types of currency. There were Cuban pesos and U.S. dollars and something else called convertible pesos, which were essentially dollar equivalents. Supposedly, you could use convertible pesos in both dollar and peso stores. But for bribery, the dollar was the currency of choice.

Alfredo grabbed my hand, and we rushed past the crowds of Cubans fanning themselves with the thin paper cones that the maniseros sold their peanuts in. We stopped when we reached a police officer guarding the front of the line. He was decked out in the traditional beret and hyphen-short mustache, and when Alfredo nodded at me, I handed over my dollar. The officer moved aside for a moment, allowing us to pass into the esteemed two-story ice cream parlor with its sweet odor of coconut and chocolate, of rich, cold cream.

I could tell it was a bittersweet triumph for Alfredo. For a few more dollars, we could have each gotten our ice cream instantly at Coppelia’s dollar kiosk, where the foreigners and fortunate Cuban fula-holders lined up, ordered, and ate their ice cream in a matter of minutes, the envy of everyone else.

Even though I’d only been in Cuba for a week, this scene already had a sort of déjà vu quality. It reminded me of the time I was riding through Havana in a tourist bus, and at a red light, we pulled up next to a camello, one of Cuba’s humongous humpbacked buses, where people pushed up against each other and sweat like waterfalls. As the tour guide on my bus spoke into his microphone, pointing out this hospital and that elementary school, I saw the smudged faces of the Cubans staring out of the dirty camello windows into the spacious luxury of my bus.

I had never planned to travel Cuba in a tour bus. I’d come here on a month-long language program with Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based social justice organization. The participants I’d spoken to from previous trips told me about riding camellos and living with Cuban families. But when I met up with the program in Havana’s José Martí­ International Airport, named after the nineteenth-century poet who died fighting for his country’s freedom from Spain, the director informed us that Global Exchange was now working directly with Cuba’s tourist agency. We were promptly whisked off in a tour bus to an exclusive hotel in a wealthy neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.

I met Alfredo my third night in Cuba. I was still reeling from the culture shock of my lavish accommodations and of Cuba itself- its crumbling buildings and vibrant street life, its lingering sense of hope. It was a rare, cool Havana evening, and Alfredo was wearing a too big white sweatshirt and gray pants, frayed at his ankles where he had attempted to alter them. His hair hung in tidy, Tracy Chapman-style spiral dreadlocks. He was kicking something around on the sidewalk and looked up nervously, startling me with his unassuming and almost self-conscious beauty, his doe-like eyes, as I approached with my friend Heather and Alfredo’s friend Gerardo.

Heather was part of my program, and she had met Gerardo at a salsa club our first night. This evening she had invited me to go out with them, but when Gerardo met us outside Hotel El Bosque, where we were staying, he told us he’d brought a friend.

“He’s waiting at the bus stop,” Gerardo said. I remember thinking at the time that it seemed strange, but soon I would realize that it made perfect sense from Alfredo’s perspective. He was proud to be Cuban and angry with what had been termed Cuba’s “tourist apartheid,” whereby Cubans were restricted from tourist hotels and foreigners often had more rights than Cubans. If he couldn’t fully participate in the social life of his country, he would not stand on the outskirts and watch. Alfredo just wouldn’t take part.