Author Interviews
2:59 pm
Sun April 13, 2014

What 'Life In The New Cuba' Is Really Like

Originally published on Sun April 13, 2014 5:03 pm

Since Fidel Castro ceded authority to his brother Raul in 2006, life in Cuba has slowly been changing. Young Cubans are more comfortable talking about their government and cellphones have begun to open up the island more, connecting it in a small way to the outside world.

Julia Cooke has witnessed the changes firsthand. She traveled to Cuba as a college student in 2003, and it so affected her that she returned in 2008 and began a five-year chronicling of post-Fidel society. She writes about her time there in her new book, The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba.

Cooke says her first trip helped dissolve preconceptions she had about Cuba.

"The media situation here with Cuba is primarily dominated by politics and clichés ... and I think actually daily life is much more interesting than I had been led to believe," she tells Tess Vigeland, guest host of All Things Considered.

"And so I wanted to go back, especially on the verge of this cataclysmic change that was starting to happen — the departure of Fidel from the scene into the background — and find out how things actually functioned."


Interview Highlights

On the confusing economy of Cuba

In order to get any simple commodity, you have to figure who's selling it, and who needs to be buying it. So it's just a matter of spending a lot of time and asking a lot of questions.

I think that was one of the things I enjoyed most about being in Cuba was the almost childlike position that it put me in. I had to ask so many questions and be so prepared to have everything — all my preconceived notions — blown out of the water. Things as simple as where to buy fish. You're on an island. You think there should be fish everywhere, and there aren't.

On the Cuban black market, and buying Serrano ham

It was moment I felt like I meant something to someone in Cuba, when a friend of mine, an artist friend, gave me the phone number of his black-market food provider. Because it's kind of a dangerous thing: The black market food providers are obviously functioning illegally. And it meant he trusted me, first of all. It also meant he cared about me enough to provide more demand for the thing he also wanted, which could potentially drive up the prices of these items on the island.

So I called him and I was like, "What do you have?" And he was like, "I've got blue cheese, I've got parmesan, I've got Serrano ham, I've got smoke salmon," and he rattled off this list. And I was like, "I want Serrano ham, I want parmesan cheese and I want smoked salmon." And he just showed up the next day with this big bag full of stuff, and I paid him.

On traveling under the radar in Cuba

It was stressful. I was there on a tourist and then a student visa. I didn't want to get a journalist visa because the journalists I had known that had gotten journalist visas from Mexico City were coddled. They were given permission to do certain things; they were very much on the grid in Cuba. I didn't want that for myself. ... I wanted to be able to interview who I wanted to be able to interview, but that meant I was constantly afraid of being asked to leave.

On American misconceptions about Cuba

I've gotten so many comments recently that people are surprised to hear that Cubans don't hate Americans. And you know, I never met a Cuban who didn't have a family member of some sort who was living abroad. So Cubans are a much more sophisticated bunch than I think many Americans think they are. And there is zero animosity on the part of the Cuban people toward the American people.

I think that's one really unique thing about Cuba is that contemporary Cuba is very cognizant of how detached politics is from life. ... It's second nature to them to say, "Your government stinks, but come on in and have a rum with me."

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Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

Most Americans have no idea what life in Cuba is really like. If they have any notion it's probably of Cuba under Fidel Castro. But Castro ceded authority to his brother Raul in 2006. And Raul officially became president in 2008. The intervening years have brought immense change to the island nation, change that Julia Cooke witnessed firsthand. The Portland, Oregon native first traveled to Cuba as a college student in 2003 and it so captured her that she returned in 2008 and began a five-year chronicling of post-Fidel society. Her new book is "The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba." I asked her what pulled her back again and again.

JULIA COOKE: I wanted to go back because I had studied there and I felt that the generation that I'd gotten to know when I was 20 in 2004 at the University of Havana functioned very differently from the way that I had thought that Cubans would function. The media situation here with Cuba is primarily dominated by politics and cliches, I think. And I think actually daily life is much more interesting than I had been led to believe.

And so I wanted to go back, especially on the verge of this cataclysmic change that was starting to happen, the departure of Fidel from the scene into the background and find out how things actually functioned.

VIGELAND: One of the things you write about is how hard it is to understand the most basic parts of the Cuban economy as an outsider, that there are these layers upon layers of markets for every commodity. Can you try to explain that for us, give us a sense of what that's like?

COOKE: Oh, in order to get any simple commodity you have to figure out who's selling it and who needs to be buying it. So it's just a matter of spending a lot of time and asking a lot of questions. I think that was one of the things that I enjoyed most about being in Cuba, was the almost child-like position that it put me in. I had to ask so many questions and be so prepared to have everything - all of my preconceived notions blown out of the water, things as simple as where to buy fish. You're on an island. You think there should be fish everywhere. And there aren't.

VIGELAND: I was particularly struck by your descriptions of the black market there. I mean, you were able to get things like Serrano ham and parmesan cheese, but not through traditional methods.

COOKE: Not at all. I remember it was one of the most thrilling moments. It was a moment when I felt like I had really - like I meant something to someone in Cuba, when a friend of mine, an artist friend, gave me the phone number of his black-market food provider. Because it's kind of a dangerous thing. The black market food providers are obviously functioning illegally. And it meant that he trusted me, first of all. And it also meant that he cared about me enough to provide more demand for the thing that he also wanted, which could potentially drive up the prices of these items on the island.

So I called him and I was like, what do you have? And he was like, I've got blue cheese, I've got parmesan, I've got Serrano ham, I've got smoked salmon, and he rattled off this list. And I was like, I want Serrano ham, I want parmesan cheese and I want smoked salmon. And he just showed up the next day with this big bag full of stuff, and I paid him.

VIGELAND: You were able to travel back and forth from this country that is cut off to most Americans. And that's because you went to and from Mexico City. Talk to us a little bit about what that's like because you were basically off the grid. I mean, you weren't there in any official capacity. You had to do transactions, you know, practically in an alleyway. I mean, this was not a lot of stuff that you could do out in public. How did you manage over those five years?

COOKE: It was stressful. I was there on a tourist and then a student visa. I didn't want to get a journalist visa because the journalists I had known that had gotten journalist visas from Mexico City were coddled. They were given permission to do certain things; they were very much on the grid in Cuba. I didn't want that for myself. I didn't want - I wanted to be able to interview who I wanted to be able to interview. But that meant that I was constantly afraid of being asked to leave.

VIGELAND: Well, what kind of risk was there for you, and not just you but the people who you were dealing with?

COOKE: I worried about that a lot. The people that I was dealing with, I worried that they would face some kind of issue for talking to me less than - the risk to me was pretty low. I would've just been asked to leave the country. Compared to what some Americans actually do do in Cuba, distributing satellite equipment or doing other covert type operations, what I was doing was pretty innocuous.

But, yeah, I worried a lot about my sources. I worried that they would have trouble getting jobs or that they would face some kind of problem from the government. I haven't heard of anything. No one that I've interviewed has had trouble leaving the country because of me luckily. That would've broken my heart. I'm very - I'm glad, and I think that reflects a profound change in the way that Cuba is dealing with the idea of openness.

When you walk around and if you want to talk to someone about their government, people nowadays speak quite freely. And that was not always the case.

VIGELAND: What do you think our most outdated and inaccurate vision is of Cuba?

COOKE: You know, I think the - it's twofold. I think first of all, so many Americans - I've gotten so many comments recently that people are surprised to hear that Cubans don't hate Americans. And, you know, Cubans - I never met a Cuban who didn't have a family member of some sort who was living abroad. So Cubans are a much more sophisticated bunch than I think many Americans think they are. And there is zero animosity on the part of the Cuban people toward the American people.

I think that's one really unique thing about Cuba, is that contemporary Cuba is very cognizant of how detached politics is from life. And they're completely - it's second nature to them to say, your government stinks but come on in and have a rum with me.

VIGELAND: Julia Cooke's new book is called "The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba." Julia, thank you so much.

COOKE: Thank you so much, Tess. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.