Photograph: Sarah Hill
The immigration official at Santiago’s Antonio Maceo Airport smiled when he asked if he could stamp my passport. He was solicitous, like a waiter offering fresh-ground pepper for your salad.
This was a first. In the past, on arrival in Cuba, I usually endured several minutes of cold inquiries about who I intended to visit in Santiago, the purpose of my visit, and so on before I’d receive my passport, unmarred by any permanent indication that I had entered the country, and a slip of paper bearing a seal—my tourist card. For much of the past half-century, the Cuban government had elected not to stamp the passports of U.S. visitors, enabling them to keep their trips—both legal and not—off the record.
In that moment in March—just twelve weeks after the White House released details of its revised Cuba policies—I recognized how deeply the idea of a new relationship had sunk into the routines of Cuban bureaucracy. Already.
The out-of-character welcome was the first of many opportunities for giddy conversation. In these discussions, my own and those I overheard, I couldn’t help noticing a phrase that tripped off tongues at every turn: cuando vengan los Americanos.
“When the Americans come.” Santiagueros invoked this phrase in the midst of banal observations about ordinary shortages of consumer goods, in the heat of soliloquies on the failings of Cuban culture, and as a kind of catchall for a vague but promising future, with pots of gold at the end of American rainbows.
In important respects, though, the future is now. The coming of the Americans has already begun.
For starters, there is the trash. In seven years of traveling to Santiago, I have never seen so much. People who didn’t own trashcans now have them. People who already had them have purchased larger ones—big, American-style ones. Now, for the first time, dumpsters are scattered throughout the historic city center.
Santiagueros never needed trashcans before because they bought very little, and what they did buy was fully consumed, down to the containers goods came in: cardboard, bottles, cans, and plastic bags. These became the raw material for party decorations, planters, bird feeders, hair rollers, toys, clothespins, and much else. Excess food—there was not much—was siphoned off to fatten the pigs residents raised on rooftops or underneath apartment stairwells.
Now, however, American—which is to say, “consumer”—patterns of waste generation have been on the rise. About a year ago, the city added a third street-sweeping shift to handle the round-the-clock accumulation of garbage. More is on the way, but Santiagueros seem blissfully unaware of the challenges in store. One friend told me that if the coming of the Americans means more garbage, then “let the city be covered in it.” Havana, which has long been Cuba’s most litter-strewn place, hints at the pollution ahead.
Another indication of the American presence is inequality. Those with access to foreigners, or foreign income, already have made dramatic improvements in their material well being. They are taking advantage of the new upscale, designer retail stores replacing spare shops trading in cheap Chinese goods. Their renovated houses stand in the midst of relics and wrecks. Those with fewer resources now face the prospect of wealth stratification, which had been mostly foreign to Cuba.
When I asked friends what the phrase “when the Americans come” means, they all agreed that Cubans imagine things will get better. For some, this is undoubtedly the case. But it means, as well, the promise of prosperity for all and the reality only for some.