On my second trip to Cuba, the unfamiliar became familiar. I knew how to navigate the landscape. My spanish was marginally better. And I knew where to get the best beans and rice in Havana. I am starting to recognize the nuances and contradictions of a people finding their footing between isolation and globalization. Cuba is evolving through its youth.
On a hot, Wednesday afternoon, I found myself crammed into a living room with a group of reggaeton artists in the suburbs of Havana. They sat facing each other, a foot apart, listening to a reggaeton beat from a cheap stereo on a faulty wooden shelf carefully balanced over a small television. They all bobbed their heads to the beat, giving their approval in unison. For hours, they wrote and rewrote lyrics, occasionally wiping the sweat from their brows. Reggaeton, a popular genre of music born in the Caribbean, has recently been limited by the government because of what they call crude and sexually explicit lyrics. The crackdown hasn’t stopped Cuban artists from creating new music. And they don’t have opulent recording studios. It reminded me of small town hip-hop artists in the United States. Cubans make it work with what they have — from putting up egg crates in the corner of a small apartment for better recording acoustics to printing their own paper CD sleeves.
Later in the week, I met another reggaeton artist, July (pronounced JOOL-lee) Roby el Emperador, which translates to “July Roby the Emperor”, at his home in Regla. He invited all of his friends, beat makers and producers over to brainstorm new music (which meant a lot of drinking and dancing) as he prepared for a U.S. tour. Inside July Roby had a fridge stocked full of beer, a good sound system, professional recording microphones, and, of all things, a commercial poster of American pop star Avril Lavigne. July Roby is too young to have experienced the “special period” in Cuba, when, in the 1990s, the USSR dissolved and abandoned Cuba with little access to food or energy. While the older generation of Cubans often suspects an ulterior motive and has trouble fully embracing new forms of capitalism as the government loosens its grip, July Roby has grown up with a sense of optimism, and confidence that he can reach his goals. July Roby shoots his music videos in the streets of Havana, makes a living as a reggaeton artist and has a strong following from fans outside of his home country. He is taking control of his career, and through his initiative, his business savvy, his branding, his style and his attitude, July Roby is helping to redefine Cuba’s social and cultural identity.
In addition to the emergence of reggaeton, other aspects of Cuban life are seeing the intersection of the new and old ways. I traveled to a state-run rooster fight in the town of Alcona. In Cuba, owning and training a rooster was reserved for only the very wealthy because of the cost. But with a growing upper middle class, there are new, younger rooster owners and trainers taking on the established powers.
Despite new wealth circulating throughout Cuba, poverty remains in the countryside. Through my fixer, I found a privatized sugar cane farm. And while the owner was doing well making money (and consequently trying to sell his farm for $150,000 to move to the US), the workers continue to live in poverty. They started before dawn, trying to beat the sun peaking over the crops. Their tattered clothes told the story of their hard labor. Their shoes were completely torn apart. These men go to work everyday without the guarantee of payment. They are compensated only when an order of sugar cane comes through. Sometimes it means weeks of work with no wages. I traveled home with one of the workers after his shift in the sugar cane fields. Yulien Diaz Hernandez lives in a tiny, one-room home with his wife and two children. They have running water for a couple hours every two weeks. With few work opportunities in the countryside, Diaz Hernandez says he had no choice but to work in the fields to support his family. He is the first link in the chain of sugar production. And he is the last to get paid.
My final day in Cuba was May 1, May Day. It was supposed to be a huge parade, a triumphant atmosphere as all the government businesses, neighborhoods, schools, and military, would march down one of the main streets in Havana through Revolution Square, where Raul Castro and others would wave in appreciation. I was told that when Fidel first took power, this march would start at daylight and last into the afternoon. This year it finished at 9 a.m.