The first friend I make in Cuba is Chaviano, the bus station master in Trinidad. I have just finished a six-hour ride from Havana, and all is well except for the absence of my suitcase. "Unusual," says Chaviano, but not something to worry about. And, indeed, 24 hours later, in rolls the suitcase, missing nothing but an envelope marked cash--which, ingeniously, contained all my money. An investigation is launched, and Chaviano asks me to give an affidavit--this being Sunday and his afternoon off--at his home. I head to the baseball diamond, find his cinderblock apartment, meet his neighbors, do some magic tricks for his son, and finally sit down to present my account of the theft. Chaviano, in shorts and smoking a cigar, asks piercing questions and painstakingly writes everything down, longhand, on three crisp pieces of paper. I sign the affidavit, he signs the affidavit, and we say a fond farewell.
It's early August, right after the announcement that Fidel Castro has undergone an urgent operation and is transferring power to his younger brother, Raul. The moment is charged. Except, nothing is happening. Would Fidel make a presidential comeback? Would he die? Would Cuba change? On the surface, at least, Cubans go about their business indifferent to the limbo--as if not hearing anything from, or about, the only leader many have ever known is perfectly normal. There is no outpouring of emotion for the ailing president, no real support rallies for Raul, and no opposition awakening or mass demand for democracy.
At the Trinidad beach, I meet Daidy, a spunky, 26-year-old twicedivorced mother of two. She introduces me to her father, a member of the security forces who augments his $17-a-month state salary by running an illegal neighborhood lottery. I ask them how they would feel about a Cuba without Castro and why everyone seems so calm in the face of the possibility. "We are sad," the father says--stiffly and predictably--and wanders away.
As an outsider and, in particular, as a journalist and, more complicated yet, as a journalist who has come into Cuba on a tourist visa, it's hard to get anyone properly talking politics. And then, once you get Cubans talking, it's often unclear why they are telling you what they are. And, besides, no one has any information anyway. The state-owned radio stations and newspapers give no details; the state TV channels keep to their usual telenovela schedule.
Daidy suggests I talk to her best friend, Rocco, for some deeper perspective. He will have a lot to say about the "situation," she promises, whispering even though we are alone. I snap a photo of her with my mobile phone, we kiss goodbye, and I set off to track down Rocco. The tranquility is deceptive, he says, when I find him in the nearby town of Sancti Spiritus. Cubans, unused to a vacuum of leadership, are nervous and confused without someone telling them what to do. It's paralysis, not calm, Rocco corrects. In addition, he adds, while pointing out security men in spaces an outsider's eye would simply skim, police and military vigilance--on some sort of autopilot--remains high. Rocco introduces me to his friend Nestor. The three of us sit around the deserted state-run restaurant where they work, slurping garbanzo bean soup. Nestor recounts the story of his father, a dissident who was once, he says, punished with electric-shock treatment and jail time for putting a picture of Che Guevara in a cooking pot and throwing it into the street.
Rocco insists I stay at his place, and we walk the unpaved Avenida Sovietica into the countryside. He lives with his mother, a 53-year-old widow who works in a state-owned fish cannery. She promises to make me fresh mango juice in the morning and lends me a brown flowery nightgown, and we all go to sleep in the stifling heat. At six o'clock in the morning, three men in uniform rap on the front door. They are from immigration and want to see me. "Read the back of your entry form," the top officer advises. Bleary-eyed, hair on end, I find the form and read the small print on the reverse. "In other [sic] to stay outside hotels ... request authorization from immigration," it says. We are all in trouble. "My mother is too nervous to make the mango juice," Rocco says apologetically as we leave for the immigration office.
An officer named Javier, together with a nameless surly civilian, interrogate me. They interrogate Rocco. Rocco's mother starts bawling. I feel awful. I apologize for not reading the visa form correctly. Three hours later, we are let off with a warning. I go into a specialty foreigner's shop, where luxuries like toilet paper are sold, and buy Rocco's mother a box of chocolates. She speaks to me gently. "We have rules in this country," she says and heads to work. How did they know who I was and where I was? And why, if they knew all that, did they let me leave? There are no answers. Rocco and I go to the restaurant. Nestor is in the back room typing a poem on an old typewriter. Rocco now suspects it was his friend who ratted to immigration. "Many things in Cuba are not as they seem," he says.
A few days later, back in Havana, I meet Daniel, the head bus station master. He takes me into his office, shows me a binder thick with handwritten affidavits relating to my case, and stares me straight in the eyes, trying to psych me out. Perhaps I am lying to them about the lost money, I can see him thinking. I have $3 left in my pocket. Yet I start wondering the same thing, doubting my own story. Did I hide the money somewhere? Did I bring money to Cuba to begin with? I borrow cash and go with a friend to the expensive cabaret show at the Hotel Nacional. Onstage, the can-can girls in feathery headdresses and glittery nipple pasties are kicking their heels. I feel watched, but I know no one in the crowd. I have one of those flashes when you can't remember where you are. Or who you are. I have been in the country just ten days, and I am beginning to understand the emotional confusion here. I am beginning to understand the fear. And the attachment. And the paralysis. And I, like Daidy's dad--but maybe different--feel sad about things.
Danna Harman is a Latin America correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.
This article originally ran in the October 16, 2006, issue of the magazine.