It was on our first morning in Havana that my friend and I discovered how obsessively Cubans have been following recent developments in American politics. Our hostess, a middle-aged bleached blonde with a hardened good cheer, served us our eggs and proceeded to engage us on the subject of the Sasha and Malia Obama dolls. It was only a few days after the inauguration and the world was still tipsy on Obamamania, but it felt odd that someone would know something so infinitesimally peculiar on a blockaded island with a handful of state newspapers and four Party-approved TV channels, all repeating the same agit-prop ad nauseam. Norma went on. “It’s great that Michelle’s mother is going to be living with them,” she said. “It’ll be good for the girls, and it shows what kind of man Obama is.”
Later that day, while walking around Vedado, in Central Havana, we were invited to join three generations dancing to reggae in their living room. One of the neighbors was there and, on hearing we were American, quickly buttonholed us, eager to share his thoughts on Obama’s ban on lobbyists. If we had been surprised by Norma’s mastery of Obama trivia or this man’s wonkishness, we would find still more of it a few blocks away. At the Café Pekin, three rehearsing musicians befriended us gringas over some cans of Bucanero beer; between their soul-straining renditions of the son classics, one of the crooners asked my friend about the Bank of America bailout. She barely had a chance to answer when, one arm cradling his guitar and one arm marking his points, he began to explain why nationalizing banks would make sense for America. (His information, my friend admitted later, was quite accurate.)
We weren’t expecting to find this kind of parrying in Revolutionary Havana. Plenty of countries are well-informed about our political process, though we may know next to nothing about theirs. Cuba, however, is still very much a police state that puts a premium on controlling the information its citizens consume. And yet that was three people unfurling their up-to-date Americana within the span of a few short hours. How, we wondered, were Cubans getting these contraband factoids? And, more importantly, why were they so intent on getting them?
With the aging of its leaders and the growing staleness of the Revolution, the state has gotten a little gummy in its enforcement of the information lockdown and its subjects have grown bored with the fare the state feeds them. Every type of media—from television to women’s magazines—is state-controlled and produced by ideologically vetted cadres, which means little variety and even less nuance. News from America tends to concern American aggression, foolishness or greed. When Obama signed the order to close the detainee prison at Guantánamo, for example, Granma, the Cuban version of Pravda, reported that “Barack Obama fulfilled one of his main election promises by closing the prison located on the illegal base at Guantánamo, Cuba.” When the papers reported on our presidential election, it was to point out the the amounts of money wasted on the process and how the election was actually indirect and therefore unfair.
Most Cubans, however, seem to have developed an immunity to this kind of jingoism. When a revolution has been waged for decades, you tend to stop paying attention—especially when your daily life is spent in the chasm between Revolutionary rhetoric and reality: It’s hard for Cubans to believe that more revolution (the state’s answer to the embargo) will put more food on the table. Or to stomach the fact that, despite the Revolution’s promises of dignity and sovereignty from the Empire, tourists will see more of their homeland than they could ever afford to. Or that the country is scarcely free of the humiliating tourism-related vices of the pre-Castro era. Or that despite promises of egalitarianism, ministers and generals live not in crumbling Havana but in the posh suburb of Miramar where their well-fed, well-coiffed daughters can buy all the groceries they want with currency only available to foreigners.
As the government’s narrative of reality inches more and more toward the absurd, it breeds a palpable sense of boredom and hunger in a population far too educated for the island’s scant opportunities. (Billboards exhorting people to work and work harder—when there are no jobs to be had—look more than a little insulting in a city where thousands of unemployed Habaneros hang out on their stoops on weekday afternoons.) The sense of enclosure on the blockaded island only heightens the appetite for information.