Not So ‘Stuck In Time’

A student reflects on how her time in Cuba differed from what she heard about the country.

I knew I’d see the cars. Still, I found myself pausing to watch them, as if in a daze.

When I began telling people I was headed to Havana for the summer to study Spanish and U.S.-Cuban relations, someone always mentioned the 1950s cars that still speed through the streets of Cuba today.

How could you not talk about the cars? They resemble something out of an old movie that had morphed from black-and-white into brilliant, jewel-toned Technicolor.

We rode those cars to class each morning; usually, they’re “máquinas,” government-operated taxi cabs. Reggaetón blasted from their radios, hinting at Havana nightlife that was filled with impromptu salsa lessons, watery beer and conversations that swayed between Spanish and English.

One of those first mornings, I made the mistake of slamming the car door.

The driver sped away, but not before I caught a glimpse of horror on his face, followed by a sprinkling of panicked Spanish.

My friend, as new to Cuba as I was, had seen the same thing happen the day before.

“Apparently, you’re not supposed to slam the doors,” he explained. “They can fall off.”

I thought the rest of Cuba would be like those 1950s cars: “stuck in time,” a phrase often used to describe the country.

After that morning, I looked at “máquinas” differently. After all, the old cars don’t exist for novelty. They exist because newer models—ones with seatbelts and air conditioners—aren’t an option. Meanwhile, public bathrooms lack toilet paper; grocery stores lack fresh fruit. Buildings, deteriorating in their grandeur, threaten to collapse after something as ordinary as a rainstorm.

Living in Cuba, rather than gazing at pictures of it, exposed me to something more than romantic nostalgia. Resources are scarce. The effects of the trade embargo — imposed by the United States — are widespread.

One week later, I stood in a hospital waiting room, stuck in no other time but the present.

“¿Apendicitis?” I’d asked frantically, repeating the doctor’s diagnosis of my lurching stomach pains.

I’d been told to watch out for stomach bugs and Zika virus. Emergency surgery for appendicitis had been the last thing on my mind.

Within the hospital walls — lined with portraits of Che Guevara, one of Cuba’s most beloved socialist heroes — I learned something firsthand. Cuba’s healthcare system was incredible. The flurry of MRIs, X-rays, ultrasounds and follow-up appointments was undeniably more thorough than anything I’d seen in the U.S.

While Americans pay thousands of dollars for health care, my surgery in Havana — covered by Cuban insurance — cost nothing.

With three scars on my stomach, I eagerly prepared to leave the hospital when several nurses asked me what had happened in my country. “¿Qué pasó?”  It was the week of the mass shooting in Orlando. As I rummaged for the right words to explain the tragedy in Spanish, another realization hit me: gun violence, a leading cause of death in the U.S., is a rarity in Cuba.

Which country, I began to wonder, is truly stuck in time?

As a journalist, writer and Spanish-speaker, I’d come to Havana craving truth. Was Cuba a successful socialist experiment? Was it a dystopia of dictatorial oppression? A New York Times video showcased a vibrant island culture, booming with particulares, newly legal privately owned businesses. A New Yorker article ignorantly dismissed the country as “North Korea with palm trees.”

What is the truth?

My professor once remarked that the longer one stays in Cuba, the more confusing it becomes. It’s true: Cuba offers dichotomy more dizzying than a busy street of “máquinas.”

To call a country “stuck in time” is to assume its people are unaware of the outside world. The opposite was true in Havana. One Cuban friend volunteered to play Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” as we prepared for a Saturday night out. Another told me he’d learned English growing up from movies like “The Godfather.”

“I’m definitely feeling the Bern,” another friend remarked to me, flashing a smile before he went on to scoff at Ted Cruz.

I was incredulous. It wasn’t the knowledge of American media that amazed me — it was the innovative methods Cubans have used to obtain it. Using “el paquete,” an underground market of flash drives, Cubans manage to share everything from pop culture to academic literature.

Despite Cuba’s lack of resources, resourcefulness is everywhere. It’s a culture that has learned to live despite constant inconvenience: broken water pipes, a car in need of towing, little internet access.

And despite the impact the U.S. has had on Cuba — decades of political involvement, foreign investment, an economy-crushing embargo — the Cuban people I’d met were so open.

I cannot speak for a culture, and I won’t. But the Cubans I met offered unadulterated, honest opinions on the shifting relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, ranging from curiosity to hope to skepticism.  They offered new perspectives, quick jokes, an image of Cuba you could never get from reading any article, including this one.

The night before I left, a friend wrote me a hurried note. “I hope you got from Cuba the eternal night feeling that spreads” — and then — “I hope we’d keep in touch when you get back to USA.”

Each year at the United Nations General Assembly, Cuba votes to condemn the embargo, along with scores of other countries.

Cuba’s cars may be stuck in time. But many of its people persevere to move forward.

Can we?

Angela Gervasi can be reached at

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