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Havana, Cuba – April 2015: Just in Time | Glennys Young


September 29, 2015

Faculty Spotlights highlight the work of UW Faculty, whether new research projects or courses offered. Read  about professor Glennys Young‘s recent trip to Havana, Cuba to conduct archival research. She is working on two related book projects.  Refugee Worlds: The Spanish Civil War, Soviet Socialism, Franco’s Spain, and Memory Politics, is the first study of the global consequences of the displacement of Spanish Civil war exiles and refugees to the USSR, the repatriation of some to Spain beginning in 1954, and the role of “Soviet Spaniards” as military advisers and cultural intermediaries in the Cuban Revolution, among other anti-colonial struggles in the 1960s and 1970s.  She is also working on Returned: From the USSR to Franco’s Spain during the Cold War, which is the first monograph in any language on the repatriation of Spanish exiles in the USSR to Spain, the return of some to the USSR, the domestic political and cultural repercussions thereof in both countries, and the international significance for the Cold War international system.

Cuba. Havana. Finally.

My wonderful hosts, Tony and Marina, at the "casa particular": the Marton Bed and Breakfast. My wonderful hosts, Tony and Marina, at the “casa particular”: the Marton Bed and Breakfast.

Ever since I was a child in the early 1960s, and heard my family and their friends speak in perplexed tones about the tropical locale that my grandparents had visited in the 1930s or so, but had become, as President Kennedy put it, “a prison, moated by water,” I had wanted to go. And now I was getting my chance.

On April 2, 2015, I flew from Miami to José Martí International Airport. At about 3 AM, I was in line at the recommended time, four hours before departure, with other passengers, many of them Cubans returning home with flat screen TVs, laptops, DVD recorders, and other goods nearly impossible to buy in Cuba. Physically, I was still in the United States. But my journey to a foreign land, I now realize, had already begun. Few, if any, of the Cubans had smartphones, let alone cellphones. So they were talking with each other, or else observing their surroundings closely. Swayed by their un-digitalized demeanor, I, too, left my cellphone tucked away. I had a sense of skipping backwards to the late 1980s or early 1990s, a sensation amplified by the not-quite-twenty-first-century décor of this underused terminal at Miami International Airport. Travelling into the past, I had begun, almost without realizing it, to enter a foreign country.

But this was not a country “frozen in time,” as I realized only hours after I arrived in Havana.   Time is never, by its very nature, frozen. And if the cliché can be taken to mean that traveling to Cuba is like being transported backwards in time, nor was that my experience. So, what were the different ways time felt like over the three weeks I was there to conduct research on my book project, a substantial part of which examines the military and civilian advisors who were Spanish Civil War exiles in the USSR before arriving in Cuba beginning in 1960?

My entryway to Cuban time was the automobile. Sure, I knew that journalists and travel writers used the 1950s cars as evidence that Cuba was moored in a vehicular past of the bygone classics—Packards, Edsels, Oldsmobiles, and the like.   As the driver I had hired to meet me at the airport took me to my bed and breakfast in a private home (casa particular) in Havana, I saw 50s cars of seemingly infinite colors, their exhaust, however, merging into a single hue that hung over the highway. And I had not seen such a high concentration of Ladas and Moskviches—cars made in the former USSR—since I was in Leningrad and Moscow a few years before the Soviet Union was dismantled. What I had not expected to see were cars and SUVS of all the world’s major venders and models, from Audi sedans to Hyundai Tucsons. Many of them were new, or nearly so. To add to my experience of vehicular diversity, I rode for the first time in a Chinese car—a Geely—in a taxi ride from near Havana’s capitol building to my casa particular in the Havana neighborhood of Vedado. My preliminary verdict, as I jotted it down in the “notes” section of my Samsung smartphone, was that Cuba lived in multiple times, from the 1950s to the present, all at once. But my adventures in Cuban time had only begun.

[pullquote]I don’t want to romanticize Cuban time. I often felt great discomfort with being deprived of the digital life to which I have grown accustomed.[/pullquote]Over the weeks that followed, I spent countless hours in the small library (Sala Cubana or Cuban Room) at the Institute of History of the Cuban Communist Party, the institution that graciously sponsored my research visit. Officially, the Sala Cubana was an un-digitalized space—or at least the part that was open to public view. There were no computers in the reading room, where portraits of Cuban revolutionaries adorned the walls. (There were, however, computers in the back room, where some of the library’s employees did their work.)  Instead as I ordered Cuban periodicals from the late 1950s through the 1970s, I encountered an oldie but goodie—the card catalogue, which has now disappeared from almost all libraries in the United States. I soon rediscovered what I had once loved about it: browsing parts of the collection by running small, index-like cards through my hands, which gave the research process a delightfully tactile dimension, rooting me as I coped with culture shock, and intense heat. Each card was itself a historical document providing information about how the library’s collection had been built up. To order materials, I filled out a form using carbon paper! But lest I would feel like I had been transported back to the 1970s—if, indeed, that recent a decade in my own memory bank—every so often I noticed one of the Cuban researchers glance at her cellphone, to take a call or read a text, or perhaps even glance at a short email message. (While existing technology on the island does not allow Cubans to have full-fledged smartphones, some phones do allow access to the email of the Cuban intranet, which functions under state auspices.) Several stories up, in the Information Room (Sala Informática), I could access my gmail account—in basic HTML—as Cubans did the same and/or checked their Facebook accounts. No one, though, was surfing the web at lightning fast speeds, visiting any and all websites at will.  Only in limited spaces such as high-end hotels, to which entry to boundless internet access could be granted through money (the Cuban convertible peso, with an hour of wifi access costing about $12-15, an exorbitant amount for almost all Cubans), or the inner sancta of government offices, where the ticket inside was political reliability (being a trusted, high-level government official) was it possible to live in the digital world of 2015, surfing the internet as one would in an internet café in the United States.

The small church I attended near my "casa particular" in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana

The small church I attended near my “casa particular” in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana

Different spaces, I soon realized, offered different experiences of Cuba’s hybrid time, of a hybridity whose opposing strands held greater contrast than I was used to experiencing in the United States. While the reading room at the Institute of History was officially un-digitalized, the small Catholic church that I attended the three Sundays (including Easter) I was in Cuba was not. I had no idea what to expect, of course, when I walked up the steps of the small but well-kept building that was at most a ten-minute walk from my casa particular in Vedado.   But I never thought I would see a Catholic service in Havana, Cuba that incorporated PowerPoint! The technology functioned perfectly. The parishioners seemed comfortable with it, enjoying the ease of reading the words of songs or Bible passages on the screen.

I don’t want to romanticize Cuban time. I often felt great discomfort with being deprived of the digital life to which I have grown accustomed. The joy I felt when I could access my gmail account in the Sala Informática was only rivalled by the relief I felt when I escaped from the blistering heat and humidity to the air-conditioned sanctuary of my room in the casa particular. And some Cubans with whom I spoke said they wanted greater internet access.   But there was a gift in their “deprivation,” too.   Because Cubans rarely possessed the technology to defy the law that it takes time to traverse space, they could partake of the richness of the bounded present. And so did I, as I availed myself, over the course of three weeks, of only of a cellphone with a Cuban SIM card. I could make local phone calls and international ones as well, but the latter I did sparingly because of the high cost. I could text locally, too, but rarely did that, preferring to call or talk to people face-to-face. Cuba: the island that, at times, was for me a refuge from the prison of digital possibility.

[pullquote]Cuba: the island that, at times, was for me a refuge from the prison of digital possibility.[/pullquote]After what at times seemed like a long three weeks, I was back at José Martí International Airport for my return flight to Miami on my Sun Country charter. As I sat on the plane and waited, impatiently, for it to taxi to the runway, I savored the image of three Cuban airport workers outside the international terminal building. They were on break, or else there was a lull in activity. They were not looking down at their phones. They were looking at each other, talking and laughing. Sometimes they looked at the planes coming and going. It seemed like the sociability of a bygone era. As I recall that parting shot, my mind now darts towards other images of similar sociability that I had stockpiled over the course of three weeks. I see coworkers at the Institute of History lounging on sofas in the courtyard of the building–the former Palacio de Aldama, built in 1840. They are eating lunch and chatting, joking with each other, one getting up to tend to the small white cat, whom I affectionately named Blanquito. I see three or four coworkers at the entryway to the reading room at the National Archive, all enjoying, in a kind of secular communion, the Cuban soda Ciego Montero as the sweat sojourned on their brows on a day that was over 100 degrees, the fans only keeping the heat somewhat at bay.

Two hours after I was gazing at the airport workers, I was back in Miami but still in Cuba. By that I mean that I carried with me the memory of Cuban time, not frozen but supple. Could I bend US time to my needs, choosing to de-digitalize when it served me best, using the Cuban models as an example?  Would I be able to remember that the virtual boundlessness of digitalized demeanor is often a constraint? Time would tell.