Circumventing the state, however, is not without its dangers. Getting caught could get you or your family members kicked out of work or university, effectively blacklisting you for ideological impurity. Incurring economic punishment in the poverty-stricken country, though, could be far worse: An illegal dish might mean a catastrophic fine of a thousand pesos, more than most people earn in two months. And, though the enforcement is spotty and lurching, the official line has only grown harsher: With the ascent of Raúl, the world hoped for a loosening of the noose, but Cubans knew better. Soon, he proved them right, appointing an old Revolutionary comrade and former head of the secret police to head up the Information Ministry. He, in turn, introduced a law that forbids receiving foreign media from tourists. An infraction carries a three-year jail sentence. The point is clear: no outside media. Period.
But days after a sweep, the satellite dishes sprout right back up. The hunger and the boredom are still there and, now that we’ve elected a young black president, Cubans, half of whom are of mixed race and ruled by a cadre of feckless septuagenarians, want to know even more what we’re up to. Every conversation, we soon realized, followed a template: Once it was established that we were “yanquis,” all talk turned to Obama. How great he was, how he was going to fix Cuba’s problems by lifting the embargo, how noble of him to close down Guantánamo. An old man at one of Havana’s last synagogues proudly showed us a Xeroxed news clipping from a Mexican newspaper that showed Obama’s two Jewish wing men: Axelrod and Emanuel. “Jewish!” he exclaimed happily. Even the official press has taken a cautious, even optimistic tone when describing the new president. It is unclear, however, if this signals a softening of the confrontational Castro line or—less likely—is in response to Cubans’ hunger for change and faith in Obama.
“There is an absence of narrative here,” blogger Yoani Sánchez told me one afternoon in Havana. Few people in Cuba read her blog, Generation Y, but she is famous because she was once shown on TV in Miami and, thanks to Radio Bemba, the entire island now knows who she is. “We don’t know anything about our government—who their wives are, where they live. The Obamas have become our narrative. They are our telenovela.”