The Trouble With Americans in Cuba

American prosperity is already stratifying wealth and littering the streets of Cuba.

| Fall 2015

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 whom 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 12 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.