HAVANA—In Cuba, time is in the eye of the beholder.
For many islanders, the days still pass slowly under an enervating sun. After a half century of Communism, they see time frozen in the facades of crumbling colonial mansions, the chrome of 1950s automobiles and the face of a stopped airport clock. They feel little sense of urgency.
Others say the pace of life has quickened considerably in the three years since President Raul Castro admonished Cubans to embrace economic reforms “without haste, but without pause.” Suddenly, automobile traffic is picking up in Havana. There are appointments to be kept, private businesses to tend and deals to be made in a rush to get ahead.
“I feel like this year has gone by faster than ever. We’re living in accelerated times,” said Antonio Hernandez, a 57-year-old maintenance worker. “You wake up one morning ... and next thing you know we’re already in December!”
The feeling of hastening time harkens back to another era. The years following the 1959 revolution marked a period of upheaval as Fidel Castro and his band of armed rebels ousted strongman Fulgencio Batista and put a quick end to his brand of freewheeling capitalism.
In short order, Castro nationalized private businesses. The new Communist government mobilized teachers across the nation to teach the poor and soon declared illiteracy had been eradicated. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion was followed by the U.S. economic embargo and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Cubans were guaranteed cradle-to-grave housing, food, health care and government jobs, regardless of performance. There were times of boom and bust, national dreams of outsized sugar harvests, military adventures in Africa and an embrace of all things Soviet, until the Eastern bloc imploded. Then for decades, life seemed to slow to a crawl. Complacency set in. Productivity waned. Time became static. The results were sometimes maddening.
Cubans spent years on waiting lists for cars and homes, or stood in lines for hours to purchase food and household goods — sometimes without even knowing what was on offer or if there would be any left when they got to the front. Rain was reason enough to delay going to work in this tropical country.
Some found the pace liberating. There was no need to drive fast, because they weren’t really expected to arrive on time. There was no pressure to answer email, because few had access to Internet. And nobody would suggest a Sunday afternoon playing dominos with friends was a waste of time, because it was a habit 40 years in the making.
Time stood still in politics, too. In other countries, a change in government often delineates an era. The Reagan administration; England under Thatcher; Obama’s America. In Cuba, for nearly 50 years it was Fidel Castro and the Communist Party with no prospects for change.
Likewise in foreign relations. While the U.S. government normalized relations with China, Vietnam and Russia, Havana and Washington remained in a lockstep of hostility.
In Cuba, revolution is understood as a permanent state. History is treated as news on state TV, which often broadcasts commemorations of anniversaries of skirmishes from the 1959 uprising. Official newspapers commonly print Fidel Castro speeches from decades ago on their front pages. On a recent day, the top story was about a youth group’s re-creation of the Castro brothers’ return to Cuba aboard the Granma yacht in 1956, which nearly ended in disaster but ultimately launched the armed struggle to topple Batista.
Past, present and future are bound together in a single historical moment: Fidel Castro’s triumphant march into Havana in January 1959.
But many Cubans say life has speeded up since Raul Castro took over the presidency in 2006, when Fidel was stricken with an intestinal disease that nearly killed him. Raul quickly legalized computers and cell phones and removed restrictions on Cubans entering tourist hotels, but he waited three years to announce more fundamental changes, including an embrace of limited forms of free market capitalism.
Cuba has begun opening up Internet access, and increased private computer and cell phone ownership. Cubans now can run their own businesses, buy and sell homes, go into business for themselves, hire workers and travel abroad without enduring the humiliation of asking their government for permission.
“When you sit down and think about it, if you were told six years ago that you could do this, this and this, and make a list of all that has changed in six years in Cuba, it’s impressive,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a longtime Cuban diplomat and prominent intellectual.
For Cuba’s new entrepreneurs, missing an appointment can mean lost business. For their employees, showing up late can mean a lost job. Some put vacations on hold to run their micro-enterprises; others seem to walk just a little more purposefully on the sidewalks.
“You now see Cubans — it’s a minority, in certain parts of the city — and they’re on a mission, you know?” said Gregory Biniowsky, a Canadian lawyer and consultant who lives in Cuba. “The last three years, all of a sudden you feel time is speeding up. They’re in a hurry getting somewhere. If you compare it to Cuba of the ‘70s or ‘80s, nobody was in a hurry because there was nowhere to go.”
Aviel Sanmiguel, the 42-year-old manager of Dona Eutimia, a privately run restaurant with 18 employees in Old Havana, said it was a shock getting used to working 15-hour days. He also struggled with firing an employee for poor performance.
“It something that has been very difficult. We have been taken care of for a long time,” Sanmiguel said. “Now I know I have to get up early. ... If I don’t do my job, the client suffers, as do 18 people who have 18 families, and even more counting all the people who depend on it: the florist, the person who cleans the tablecloths.”
For the restless, change is coming too slowly. Yes, they can travel and buy property, but they want more: more money, more opportunity, more political freedom. The Communist Party is still the only legal political party on the island, and officials say that’s not up for debate. The economy remains feeble. Dissidents still are routinely harassed and detained. It’s legal to work independently as a bathroom attendant or fruit peeler, but not to hang your shingle as a private lawyer. And Cuba remains the country with the lowest Internet penetration, and slowest service, in the Western Hemisphere.
“Change? What change?” said Orlando Rivera, a 28-year-old unemployed Havana resident. “What I want is to get out of here. My mind’s made up, and I’m desperate.”
While Fidel Castro largely governed by fiat and force of personality, his brother Raul is more considered. He seeks consensus, which takes time.
Fiddling with a new iPhone, the diplomat Alzugaray, 70, said he, too, would like to see faster-paced change, but he said Raul Castro’s measured pace ultimately may yield longer-lasting results. “There’s a conservative sector that he can’t just shove aside,” Alzugaray said.
In many parts of Havana, the cityscape is changing rapidly. Along a once darkened street, pedestrians now walk through the neon glow of signs advertising new bars, restaurants and rooms for rent. On the waterfront, a crumbling pier has been razed and a gleaming microbrewery is set to open its doors.
A smattering of Christmas trees and wreaths hang in private businesses and homes, as holiday displays have become more common in a country that was officially atheist for decades. Increasingly, late-mode European and Asian automobiles share the road with vintage Chevrolets and boxy Russian Ladas, idling at new stoplights.
As much as he repeats the phrase “without haste, but without pause,” Castro, too, is hearing the tick of the clock. He is 82 years old and, in a sign of the changing times, has said he will retire when his term ends in 2018. He turned to the next generation in naming Miguel Diaz-Canel, 53, as his top vice president and heir-apparent.
“There’s just a couple grains of sand in their hourglass,” said Biniowsky, the Canadian lawyer. “And they realize that ... if they want to preserve their legacy, and if they want to preserve some semblance of the revolution as an institution, as a continuing thing, they are in a race against time.”
Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed.
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