The U.S. Influence On Cuba's Rapid Cultural Change
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Cuba is happening - The Rolling Stones, the Obamas, the Kardashians. American cruise ships have all gone there this year, a lot for a country that hasn't seen those kinds of visitors for a very long time. NPR's Mandalit del Barco tells us that some Cubans are both welcoming and a little worried about what might come next.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Here in downtown Havana, the walls of the old buildings are filled with faded images of Che Guevara and slogans of the 1959 Revolution. But you don't see any billboards or commercial ads. Artist Nelson Ramirez Arellano Conde imagines an alternate reality.
NELSON RAMIREZ ARELLANO CONDE: This is a series entitled "Hotel Havana."
DEL BARCO: Ramirez is the director of the photography institute, Fototeca de Cuba. He has an exhibition of his work on the gallery walls of la Fabrica de Arte Cubano. Ramirez has taken archival images of Havana from the 1940s and '50s. On the old buildings, he's photoshopped advertisements - Coca-Cola, Google, Chevrolet and McDonald's, companies, he says, might be in Cuba's future.
RAMIREZ: This future is represented by billboards and advertisements that for many people are a sign of progress and for other people are a sign of visual pollution.
DEL BARCO: Ramirez says some Cubans may fear change. Others may be excited about, but that evolution is what the revolution was all about.
RAMIREZ: The revolution is supposed to be Marxist. According to that theory, things have to change to stay alive, you know.
DEL BARCO: During my visit, I asked other Cubans what they hoped and feared as more Americans and American companies began coming here.
ALEJANDRO SANCHEZ COBAS: For my generation, we love the American culture. We are not hungry for dollars. We are hungry for friends. We are hungry for friendship.
DEL BARCO: Alejandro Sanchez Cobas is a physical therapist for Cuban athletes. Like everyone else here, the Cuban government paid for his education and his health care. But he doesn't earn enough from the government to live comfortably, so he works as a guide for visitors. He even took my editor and I around the island.
Sanchez says he and his friends love American music and would love to visit the U.S., but he'd like some American businesses to stay away from Cuba.
SANCHEZ COBAS: We are not interested in - you know, in McDonald's, in Starbucks. We are interested in more friends.
DEL BARCO: Not McDonald's or Starbucks.
SANCHEZ COBAS: No because we have the best coffee, I think, in the Caribbean. We don't need Starbucks.
DEL BARCO: Companies such as Verizon and AT&T are making deals in Cuba. But many other things Americans take for granted are still missing. Access to the Internet is still very limited and slow for most Cubans. That frustrates filmmaker Claudia Calvino.
CLAUDIA CALVINO: I need Internet, please. I need it to work. It's very hard for me. I really need a good bank account, a credit card. I need many stuff.
DEL BARCO: At the same time, Calvino said she also really appreciates not being so plugged in.
CALVINO: You talk to people. People talk to you. People look at your eyes. People talk to you and say you're beautiful. I don't know if I could live with having my email all the time with me, you know, or texting to my friend and not talking to them by phone hours because here the landline costs nothing.
I don't see my mother maybe in two weeks. But I talk to her every day, one hour. And maybe it's not the way of reality works in other places, so, yes, Cuba is a bit old-fashioned. But I don't think it's frozen in time. In some ways, I will hope we can maintain.
DEL BARCO: That's something Roel Villas thinks about, too. He works in a historic library in Sancti Spiritus, a colonial city in the middle of the island.
ROEL VILLAS: Very good things may come, such as cultural interchange. Scientists in the United States are amazing musicians. There can also come bad things such as weapons and drugs.
DEL BARCO: To my surprise, I saw U.S. flags hanging from cars, people wearing leggings or entire outfits made to look like the American flag. That would've been unheard of a few years ago. At a street party in the city of Cienfuegos, I found Francisco Montero wearing a tank top and shorts designed entirely in the stars and stripes.
FRANCISCO MONTERO: (Speaking Spanish).
DEL BARCO: Any changes that come, he says, should be positive for both countries. He likes the American flag as a fashion statement. But like everyone else I spoke to, Montero remains proudly Cuban. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.