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opinion | Bina Venkataraman

Cubans will keep waiting for progress

Samples of products for sale are seen in a bodega, where Cubans can buy basic products with a ration book they receive annually from the government, in Havana Dec. 18.REUTERS

When I lived in Havana 14 years ago, I was always waiting for something. And watching people wait. In Cuba, the act of waiting — to collect rations of rice and beans, to board a bus, to buy an ice cream cone — is endemic.

Near bus stops in Havana, children played jacks on the almond-stained sidewalks, old men chattered at each other, and people crossed the street to buy paper funnels filled with peanuts or to dial friends on the public telephone. No one betrayed urgency for a bus to arrive. Sometimes buses took hours; sometimes buses broke down or never showed up.


The illusion of disorder around a bus stop was shattered whenever a bus did arrive. As a blue-striped behemoth rolled up, everyone bid good-bye to friends, finished transactions, and merged into a perfect line. No elbows out, jockeying for position. No confusion.

When you get to a bus stop in Havana, you ask, Quién es el último? or Who is the last one? Somewhere among the professors, plumbers, school kids, and doctors scattered around attending to their newspapers or gossip circles or buying vegetables at a nearby stand, a solitary finger will raise and a voice will respond: Soy yo. As the words escape his lips, you become el último. You have marked your place behind the last person to arrive at the bus stop. When the bus comes, you will follow him just as the next person to ask will follow you.

I mostly waited for buses to take me from the wide boulevards of the Miramar district where I lived to the University of Havana, where I participated in what was billed as the first semester program since 1959 to integrate US and Cuban college students. I studied anthropology and history, learning the distinct drum rhythms of Santería ceremonies. I watched films with a cinema critic who had a stash the Castro regime had banned. In one film, “Alicia en el Pueblo de Maravillas,” a girl visits a dystopic town where everyone wears clothes bearing a nonsensical pattern of fried eggs: a critique of conformity without rationale.


I learned from my Cuban friends what it is to have “chispas” — a word that reflects their spark for life and resourcefulness. A Cuban I knew fixed a ‘59 Chevy with an aluminum can; another worked as a street vendor from the perch of a fifth-story apartment by lowering down homemade “peso pizza” in a basket. It is little wonder that Cubans invented a system to wait for the bus that frees them from the constraints of a line. It makes the act of waiting more tolerable, more human.

While elegant, El Último is also an elaborate system of waiting for something that may or may not arrive. Cubans have waited too long for too many things: the spoils of economic growth, the ability to start businesses and speak political viewpoints freely, the chance to express intellectual and artistic ideas that are not, as Fidel Castro required, “inside the revolution.”

Now that the United States is rekindling diplomatic relations with Cuba, more exchanges of ideas and investment between the Cuban and American people will be possible. But until our Congress acts to lift the embargo against Cuba, its government will retain an excuse for its citizens to endure long waits for reform. Our failed policies toward Cuba have ironically served as fierce reinforcement for its regime.


During my half-year in Havana, businesses and schools would close one morning every few weeks, and people from across the city would gather along the Malecón, a scenic sea wall overtopped by waves when a tropical storm nears. These government-sponsored “protests” invariably focused on American policy: the embargo, our “wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy, the Elián González case. Fidel and other icons of the revolution would speak for hours, rallying people against the United States.

In retrospect, I see those demonstrations as an engineered and enforced system of waiting, a way of channeling political animus as a distraction from political change. As long as our embargo stands, Cubans will keep waiting for progress.

Bina Venkataraman is director of global policy initiatives at the Broad Institute, a lecturer at MIT, and former senior adviser for climate change innovation in the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @binajv.