For once I do not smell the pollution of the vintage cars when I cross the street in front of Hotel Capri, because the smell of fresh asphalt is even stronger. We are close to the United States Embassy. The sound of drilling machines hurts my ears. Drips of paint are falling down from above; the facades and balconies are rapidly (but not so carefully) given a fresh color. Park benches and fences too. Suddenly the usual garbage on the street corner is gone. And everyone knows: Obama will pass here, in this street!
During Obama’s visit from Sunday to Tuesday, important government services will be shut down; banks and exchange offices, the Cuban telecommunications store ETECSA and all the museums are closed, just like many important roads. “The next few days are complicated. Watch yourself, and do not plan important meetings for which you need public transport”, I was warned several times. “It is always like this, when anything important happens”, my landlady explains.
I could feel the city’s exciting vibes. The conversations between thrilled Cubans in the stores, at the market, and in the waiting lines were about nothing else in the last few weeks. It was a week that was supposed to become a ‘turning point’ in Cuba’s history, and it put the island in the spotlight of the global media. This and another great event made my final week of fieldwork in Cuba historical: three days after Barrack Obama visited the country as the first United States president in 88 years, the Rolling Stones gave a free concert in the Ciudad Deportiva of Havana, attended by supposedly half a million people. And I think about that moment…
I am standing on a field in the Ciudad Deportiva of Havana with my roommate Rochelle and thousands and thousands of people, the sun burning on our skin. The first big rock concert in Havana by the Rolling Stones is considered historical. The stage is only about ten meters in front of us, as Rochelle and I were among those who were waiting already all day, to start sprinting hand-in-hand at exactly two o’clock in the afternoon, avoiding gates fallen down at the grass. Cuban fans brought their beloved arroz con frijoles (rice and beans) in large buckets for lunch and dinner. It is now about 8.30 pm and people are sweaty before the concert even started. A 42-yeard old Cuban man next to me talks and talks, thrilled and obviously a huge fan, about how much he loves the Rolling Stones. In the middle of a sentence, he suddenly stops and waves my question away; just at the moment that Keith Richard plays the first notes on his electric guitar on Cuban soil.
“Aquí estamos finalmente” (Here we are, finally) says Mick Jagger just after the opening song Jumping Jack Flash. And later: “We know that earlier it was difficult for you to listen to our music, but I guess times are changing, aren’t they?” Whereas everyone around us is screaming, singing and jumping, the man next to me is silent and I see him wiping away tears from his face. “After this day, I may die”, he tells me emotionally. “It is unbelievable that I may experience this. You probably cannot understand, as you could already see the Rolling Stones before, but for me, this is like…I don’t know… the first time I have sex, something like that. It is legendary. Finally Cuba is changing.” The crowd bawls and the huge screens shows waving United States and Cuban flags, actually, all the flags of the world.
And I think about what one of my informants had said earlier about the question whether many Cubans indeed want to leave the island: “I want to stay in my Cuba, of course! I want to be there at the Grand Moment of History. That is, when everyone acknowledges… that a change is possible in this country.” Maybe this week was already that point in history, as Camilo foresaw, that Cubans recognized that things are changing and about to change even more in Cuba. This final week in Havana made very clear to me that people are not only and always thinking economically. Cubans are proud of their country and culture. At this moment of rock-grandeur, maybe this pride is even more important than improving the economy (a goal that is often emphasized by the media) or leaving the island to live a ‘better life’. What a great (and even unexpectedly anthropological) experience my final week on Cuba was!
Caroline van Slobbe has a bachelor in journalism and just finished her master thesis in Social and Cultural Anthropology about Cuban entrepreneurs, their working culture, their difficulties and solutions, and their view of the future, in the context of the Cuban transition. More blogs, see www.carolinevanslobbe.nl