Sonia Gonzalez leads her three-year-old daughter down an unlighted flight of wooden stairs and out the front door of their apartment building into the dazzling sun over Havana, fiery even in January. Her face set in grim concentration, she unfolds a borrowed stroller and tells the child, Sonia Maria Elizondo, to hop in. This morning her daughter decides not to fuss, and mother and daughter set off briskly, heading northeast on Avenida 17, crossing busy Calle 42, deftly negotiating in black midheeled pumps the jagged ruts, piled garbage, and mud patches along the aged sidewalks of the city's Playa district.
"AOye, chica!" calls a worn-faced man in dingy T-shirt and dungarees as he rushes across the street to greet Sonia. He's a friend she hasn't seen in months, and he inquires about Sonia Maria's godmother, who recently moved to Spain. "She called you twice before she left," Sonia tells the man, "but couldn't reach you."
"Ah, bueno," he says; faulty communication in Havana is hardly unusual. Then he smiles down at Sonia Maria. "Hasn't that baby grown so big, Anina! So did you watch the pope yesterday?" Pope John Paul II had arrived for his historic visit to Cuba and celebrated a mass in Santa Clara the day before; the papal tour is an obligatory part of every conversation. "Sure," Sonia says, even though she'd caught only a bit of the live broadcast and won't have time to watch much of the ceremonies in CamagYey later this day.
Almost every weekday morning at about eight -- the time she should be working at her job as a mechanical engineer, selling machine components to manufacturers -- Sonia makes this trek to a clinic for her daughter's hourlong physical therapy. Sonia Maria was born with a malformation of her feet that has required surgery and months of therapy.
Sonia is 27 years old, her smooth brown face and black Asian eyes (characteristic of her mother's side of the family) framed by long ringlets she usually pulls back in a braid or bun. She is dressed for work in ivory pants and black, lacy blouse. Her daughter has the same dark, cottony hair but her father's down-turned eyes.
Two oversize posters adorn the walls of the small physical therapy room: One touts the legendary Tropicana nightclub; another features a happy couple standing next to a bright red Nissan Sentra they've rented from Havanauto, the state rental-car enterprise. "Somos los primeros," the print proclaims. "We're number one." Interspersed among the posters are graphic color photos of patients with missing legs, burned arms, arthritic hips. Against the far wall a man lies on his side on a flat examining table, two heated discs placed on his left hip, which is covered by a towel. A woman in a skirt and full slip sits in a chair with a heat lamp trained on her upper spine.
Sonia Maria's therapist arrives and promptly pours herself a thimble of thick, sugary coffee from a red thermos. Behind her enters Teresita, one of the clinic supervisors, carrying two of the posters that are everywhere in the city these days: the pope against a brilliant azure background. Teresita sits at a desk and unfurls them. She gazes down for a moment. "Ay, Santo Padre," she sighs. "May you bring us tranquillity ... unity ... peace." Then she rises quickly and strides to the center of the room. Reaching out a hand in mock blessing, she addresses her audience: "The pope sees a jinetera [prostitute]," she begins. "'!Carisimo!' he says to the jinetera. 'No,' she replies --" and Teresita spreads her arms and shimmies her insubstantial chest. 'ABaratisima!'" (It is a play on the church blessing, with Spanish words for "very expensive" and "very cheap.")
At this cue, therapists and patients begin to offer their own papal jokes. There are a thousand going around Havana these days, and many extremely obscure or obscene puns. At the same time, with their penchant for embracing the contradictory and tenebrous, Cubans are putting on a passionate display of piety in honor of the pope's unprecedented visit to their island. They crowd into churches, cheer the passing of the Popemobile, and decorate their homes with images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Virgin of Charity, Cuba's patroness. They voice hope that the Holy Father will somehow impel change in their unworkable economic system, somehow encourage Cuban families to unite instead of dispersing to other parts of the world. But they also say that five days of comfort and joy can't possibly have a lasting influence on their lives or their nation.
Unlike the many Cubans gathering around kitchen tables or front porches to debate the meaning of the visit, unfiltered cigarettes in one hand and glasses of rum in the other, Sonia Gonzalez doesn't allow herself the luxury of speculation. There was a time she might have been likely to discuss the significance of the occasion with her father, a party militante, back when she was a student and member of the communist youth party. But that was before her life got much harder. The pope is not going to bring back her father, who died almost two years ago, or her husband, who, three and a half years ago, left for Miami with no advance word to anyone, without knowing Sonia was pregnant.
Nor will the Holy Father hold a screaming, struggling Sonia Maria on his lap while the therapist rubs a white cream over thick scars on her tiny feet and ankles and administers ultrasound waves via a silver disc at the end of a cord plugged into a battered machine. The ultrasound is applied for several minutes to each foot, after which the girl quiets, and the therapist massages and manipulates her feet to improve flexibility. When it's over, back on go lacy white socks and tennies that flash red lights when she walks. "It's been worse," Sonia says as she steers the stroller out the clinic door.
Outside they pass an old man seated against a faded brick building selling Granma, the official party daily newspaper, for a peso per copy (22 or 23 pesos equals one U.S. dollar). A decapitated fish leaking bright red guts lies incongruously on the sidewalk. There's a long line as usual outside the booth on Calle 42, guarded by a policeman, where dollars are changed into pesos. Just down the street the produce market is open, already crowded with customers picking through wood bins piled with yuca, malanga, boniato, tomatoes, oranges.
Sonia lives with her great-aunt Argelia Prado in a three-story, six-apartment building on the corner of Calle 60 and Avenida 17, a Fifties-era concrete structure called Edificio Elena. In the manner of most of Havana's once graceful residences, and like other apartment buildings and modest homes in this working-class area, Edificio Elena long ago deteriorated into disrepair, its beige paint faded and blighted by soot, the decaying front door now kept locked to keep passersby from urinating in the foyer.
When mother and daughter arrive home, they find Argelia seated at the long dining room table sorting chicharros, tiny tan peas. In Sonia's bedroom, where a small color television sits on a dresser at the foot of the double bed, the pope's mass in CamagYey is in full swing. Sonia rests for a few moments in a rocking chair by the bed, then catches Sonia Maria to dress her in the corrective device the child is supposed to wear more or less 24 hours a day. Elastic straps stretch from a belt to wind down from the outside to the inside of each leg and snap onto black orthopedic shoes, leaving Sonia Maria free to walk but with her legs and feet trained straight ahead instead of inward. A co-worker stops by to pick Sonia up for work, and she bustles down the stairs.
Argelia has been teaching Sonia Maria the Catholic liturgy, partly because the pope's visit has stirred everyone's interest and partly because she used to go to church regularly -- despite her absolute allegiance to Cuba's communist government and the fact that religious activity was frowned upon and often persecuted in Cuba for decades. Now, at 74, her round cap of hair all gray and white, Argelia has put on weight and doesn't get around well enough to be a churchgoer; still, she's convinced she has outlived all her closest relatives because, she says, she was the only one who went to church every Sunday.
"How do you say Padre Nuestro?" Argelia prompts Sonia Maria, who fidgets beside her on the bed. The girl's speech is not fully intelligible, but she has memorized many of the words: "... en la tierra como en el cielo...." "Then what do you do?" She leads Sonia Maria in making the sign of the cross: "In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," with an exaggerated kiss of the fingertips at the end. "You ask San Lazaro for what?" Argelia continues, giving the child a smothering hug. "For your feet. 'Make my feet well.' What do you do with the holy water?" Sonia Maria pretends to smooth her hair. "Oye," Argelia remonstrates, shaking her head in amusement as she rises to go back to sorting chicharros. "No es facil." It's not easy.
Later in the afternoon Argelia will sink into the rocking chair in the bedroom and take Sonia Maria onto her wide, pillowy lap. She'll sing the girl to sleep in a clear voice that doesn't seem to issue from the aged, bulky body dressed in a washed-out cotton housedress: "... and Jesus was crying. Don't cry now, Jesus.... Praise be to the Lord. Praise to Jesus.... O, Jesus."
In the evening, after Sonia has returned from work at the relatively early hour of seven, visitors arrive: her in-laws, Manuel Elizondo and Nilda Castillo. She doesn't see them often, since they live in Santa Clara, 300 kilometers to the southeast. They have taken the train to Havana to visit Nilda's sister and mother, who live not far from Edificio Elena. Sonia and her family are also from Santa Clara, and both families knew each other long before Sonia and Manuel Elizondo (son and father have the same name) met. Sonia was 13 at the time; 24-year-old Manuel had graduated from the University of Havana and was working in the capital as a trainer with the national junior boxing team. Ten years later, as Sonia was completing her bachelor's degree at the University of Havana, they met again and soon married in Havana. Manuel moved into Argelia's apartment, where Sonia had been living.
But less than two years later, during the worst days of a national economic and social crisis that precipitated mass migrations to the United States, Manuel defected while the boxing team was at a tournament in Mexico. Only a few weeks after that, Sonia learned she was pregnant. The two families, while struggling to maintain outward normality, would never regain their closeness. By the time Sonia Maria was born, in March 1995, the relationship had shifted unalterably.
Manuel and Nilda sit on the brown vinyl couch in the apartment's narrow living room, and Sonia carries her daughter in. Prancing from one adult to another as they catch her attention, the child needs some coaxing to offer the customary kisses and doesn't want to stay on their laps for long. Sonia sits quietly in a chair. Her manner is cordial, but she barely speaks. Conversations range from news of relatives in Santa Clara to food prices to, of course, the papal visit. Manuel and Nilda were already en route to Havana by the time Su Santidad held his first mass in Santa Clara the day before. In any case, they didn't regret having missed it, partly because the location was a sports complex on the outskirts of town, entailing an inconvenient trip even on the free buses that were provided.
Manuel is a retired bus mechanic; Nilda has never worked outside the home. They have two children still living in Santa Clara. Before the younger Manuel defected, crossing the Rio Grande to seek asylum in Laredo, Texas, in the fall of 1994, he'd said nothing to anyone. Though this is usual in such cases, Nilda says she was surprised when he surfaced in Miami, even though conditions in Cuba were as desperate -- materially and morally -- as they ever would be. "It was a shock for all of us," Nilda says. "Especially since I remember he told me sometime around then, 'Mama, I'm not going to leave -- I'm going to stay here.'"
Still, during the past few decades, she saw all eleven of her nieces and nephews abandon Cuba one by one; the six boys would go on to box professionally in the United States, and most still live in South Florida. In the Seventies, Nilda and her husband were prepared to take the family into exile in Spain. They secured the proper visas from the Spanish Embassy on four separate occasions, but each time, the Cuban government denied them permission to leave. Finally they resigned themselves to life on the island. "Things were better before the revolution," she declares. "Now we're isolated from the rest of the world, and there's no future for our children. Tourists have more privileges than Cubans! The people at the U.S. Interests Section tell me they see my boy [working the corner in professional boxing matches] on TV all the time, but I can't see him."
Manuel decided to leave home, as many others did then, because he'd simply lost hope for his future. It's not anything he cares to discuss at length; among Cubans, the motivations for leaving the island are understood and often unspoken. He had nowhere to go professionally, and he knew, no matter how hard he worked, he'd never have any money. So he exchanged the bleak life at home for emotional and cultural deprivation in exile. But always, like so many Cubans who have left without really wanting to, he guards the latent thought, or hope, that the system will change and he'll be able to go back to live before he loses all sense of his place of origin.
If his flight was a shock for his parents, it was devastating for his wife. Sonia doesn't talk about the phone call that came one evening from Miami. "I will be testimony to that time," says Argelia. "To the crying, the anxiety and nervousness, the sleepless nights, the difficult pregnancy, the vomiting, going to the hospital in the middle of the night, then to have Sonita born with such problems."
Argelia is cooking dinner: a stew of chicharros flavored by mild peppers and chunks of malanga, plantains, and yuca; braised chicken, rice, and fresh tomatoes. Yolanda Hernandez, a slender, doe-eyed blond woman who lives upstairs with her husband and eight-year-old son, appears at the kitchen door, having stepped down a back stairway to visit and to smoke one of Argelia's cigarettes.
Yolanda is one of Sonia Maria's guardian angels. She became part of the household over the months when the child was sick and required frequent visits to the neighborhood doctor's office or the pediatric hospital in Centro Habana. Seventeen times before her operation this past October, Sonia Maria was checked into the hospital, only to be turned away at the operating room because her asthma made administration of anesthesia too risky. Yolanda still demonstrates a remarkable empathy with the child and sometimes is the only person who can get her to stop crying.
In Argelia's bedroom, the little girl is standing on the bed, performing a skewed version of a military salute to the encouragement of Sonia's mother Marta, who is half-seriously preparing her granddaughter to be one of the Pioneers, an organization formed to inculcate socialist values in young children. The room's wood-louver doors open on to a narrow balcony, overlooking Avenida 17, where clothes, towels, and sheets dry on a line. Other than the bed, the only furnishings in the room are a large cherry wardrobe, an aluminum lawn chair, and a dressing table supporting a mirror and a dusty shortwave radio. Photographs of Argelia's late husband, mother, and father sit atop the wardrobe, and a picture of her and her husband when they were young sits next to the bed. "Now let's march," Marta urges Sonia Maria, who slithers off the bed and begins a spirited dance.
Over the years Marta, like Argelia, has remained dedicated to the revolution and expresses genuine affection for its heroes. The reasons for her loyalty are simple, she says: The revolution gave her a place in society. Before 1959, her family in Santa Clara belonged to the most marginalized segment of the population -- poor, uneducated, and black. In the city's central park, they were literally marginalized: "The white people walked around in the park, and the black people had to walk around the perimeters," says Marta, who smokes cigarettes with gusto and is thin despite a great fondness for food and drink. "There were two social clubs in Santa Clara before the revolution -- one for whites, and one called El Gran Maceo [named after the hero of the war for independence, mulatto general Antonio Maceo]. They wouldn't even let us into Maceo." She runs a finger up and down her right forearm. "We were too dark."
Argelia, whose father was the first secretary general of the communist party in Santa Clara and was eventually imprisoned by the Batista government, remembers longing to be one of the Daughters of Teresa, a club for Catholic girls at her church. Except she couldn't join. She too runs her finger up and down her forearm in explanation. "On Sunday the black girls would have to wash the front steps of the church, then the white girls would go in for mass. We had to wait until their mass was finished. Then we'd have ours."
After 1959 the Castro regime wiped out the most blatant racist practices, instituted free universal education and health care, and provided jobs and housing. It also confiscated private property and businesses, closed church-run schools, persecuted priests, and imprisoned and executed thousands of "enemies of the revolution." But the families of Marta and Argelia, who had little to begin with, didn't see the darker side of the new society. Overall, they gained.
So neither woman will criticize the revolution. They hear plenty of complaints: from young blacks and mulattos who confront less overt forms of racism today, and from all ages who want more freedom and fewer economic restraints. The older women suffer with everyone else from power failures and water cutoffs and scarcities in medicine, food, and clothes. They scrape by on pensions worth about six dollars a month, knowing life would be almost unlivable now without dollars and the meat bought on the black market with those dollars. But they don't have to worry about the future any more, and they remember the harsh past and feel grateful.
In some ways, Marta reckons her life had its beginning with the battle of Santa Clara. She was just fifteen when the rebel army took Santa Clara during fighting in the last days of 1958. The battle was the final one of the revolution, clearing the way for Castro's forces to march into Havana on New Year's Day 1959.
Marta vividly remembers the famous "tunnel" the rebels constructed inside Santa Clara homes to hide from Batista's police and army -- they knocked down walls within a line of homes, some belonging to friends of her family, so they could obscure their advance. "The people fed the [rebel] soldiers," she says. "The women would take turns cooking for them. They captured the police station and the 31st Battalion. The whole city of Santa Clara was dark, and by the morning of the 31st, there was a truce. But before that, Batista's soldiers were going around to houses and searching for the revolucionarios. In the house of my friend Ofelia, they came in and there was a sick old man, Antonio, lying in bed, and they killed him, and then they killed Ofelia's brother."
Nilda Castillo's memories of that time in Santa Clara are just as vivid. Late on the night of December 29, she was about to give birth to her second child, Manuel Elizondo, who 34 years later would marry Marta's second child, Sonia Gonzalez. Her husband drove her to the Santa Clara military hospital. "All the doctors were gone," she recalls. "There was one nurse on duty, and she told me the only thing she'd ever done during a delivery was to cut the umbilical cord." At five the next morning, Manuel was born. "The nurse took him and went around the hospital, showing everyone this baby she birthed," Nilda says, "leaving me lying there in a daze."
By January 1, 1959, Argelia Prado had been living in Havana for more than ten years and was enjoying the capital's famous bacchanalian night life. "We went out to fancy clubs all the time," she recalls with a smile of pure delight, "and danced until the sun came up." She was happily married to her second husband Juan Manuel Molina and working as a housekeeper/nanny for a wealthy family in the Alturas de Vedado neighborhood. "There was practically no other job a black woman was allowed to do," she explains. "Clean a rich woman's floors and take care of her children. That's not to say I didn't like that job -- they were very good people, and they treated me extremely well. The woman ran Pan American Airlines for all of Latin America."
Argelia and Juan Manuel had been out partying New Year's Eve and didn't discover until the following afternoon that Havana and the nation had changed hands. "Everything was closed. We asked people, 'What's going on?' And they said, 'Don't you know? Batista has left Cuba, and the rebel army has taken over!' We were thrilled! We went with everyone else to watch the soldiers marching into town." Argelia doesn't begrudge the government its wholesale closure of casinos and nightclubs. She didn't stop dancing, but she danced in other places, like community halls and residences. "Fueron dias divinos," she says. "Those were divine days, when I was young."
The father and children in the mansion where she worked left Cuba soon after, but the woman stayed. "She didn't want to leave," Argelia says. "But her family in Miami kept urging her to join them. She finally did. She gave me all the papers of ownership of the house, all the keys, and she cried and wished us well."
In 1961 the government decided to convert the three-story mansion to an embassy and moved Argelia and Juan Manuel into the apartment in Edificio Elena. She got a new job as a classroom assistant at the Ciudad de Libertad, a complex of schools in nearby Marianao. They never had children, but family members were always around.
And that's how it was until the desolate day in 1984 when Juan Manuel died. Walking home from his job as a construction worker, he was passing a friend's house where several men were sharing a bottle of homemade rum. They offered him a glass and, though he was never much of a drinker, he stopped to sip and talk. At home an hour later, he collapsed. Argelia found some men to help her take him to a hospital. "I stayed there alone with him until he died," she says. "I took a bus home alone, and then I was alone in our apartment." The rum had been part of a batch that poisoned dozens of people, Argelia explains. Several other men died as well.
She was glad when Sonia came from Santa Clara in 1987 and moved in with her. By then the apartment building was showing the effects of decades of wear and little if any maintenance. Sonia, with an engineer's resourcefulness, got to work painting the walls, installing shelves and locks, patching the ancient metal tanks that provided running water.
But in the world beyond Cuba, the entire communist infrastructure that had been the island's philosophical and economic lifeline was beginning to collapse, and the country would soon enter its "special period," the government's euphemism for that time of extreme hardship. New economic measures included legalization of the dollar and increased emphasis on foreign investment and tourism. Those measures inevitably encouraged the opening of Cuba's closed society to more outside influence, while also creating greater rifts between Cubans with access to dollars and those without.
When her baby was six months old, Sonia injured both legs in a bicycle accident. She was in casts for the next three months. "And her taking care of that child, going around on crutches," recalls Argelia. "Both of them with their legs bandaged. But at least Sonia had her father. She'd call him, and he'd drive over in three minutes. They were so close."
Manuel Gonzalez and Marta Gracia, Sonia's mother, lived in a large apartment near the Havana airport, where Marta lives alone today. Manuel was a handsome, dynamic man, a "militante de lo maximo," in Argelia's words: a communist militant of the highest order who served on several party committees, in addition to his work as a mechanical engineer. His family still grieves over his sudden death in 1996 from heart failure. He was just 51. Marta, whose face had shown barely a line before, suddenly looked a decade older.
Sonia endures other, more subtle losses shared by thousands of Cuban women who have been symbolically widowed by the disappearance of their husbands into voluntary exile. "People talk about you because your husband is there," she says. "Even if they don't know the truth, you can't stop it. And if your husband has left, most people assume you're going to leave too. With me at my job, that can hurt me." To be the subject of rumors in Cuba isn't always the same as elsewhere, largely because rumors can become official information via the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, in which neighbors keep tabs on neighbors and may report counterrevolutionary behavior.
Even though she (like most other highly educated professionals in Cuba) earns an impossibly low salary -- around 300 pesos per month, or less than $15 -- Sonia loves her job and is optimistic about her future, citing an increasing demand from foreign companies for the equipment she sells. "I can't let anyone think I'm going to leave." Her husband used to call her from Miami and ask her to join him, she says. "I could probably do that, but I thought about it. I'd have to wash floors or serve food. I couldn't work as an engineer. Why would I want to abandon everything to live like that?
"Manuel supports us -- I don't know what we'd do without his help. But there's a lot more to life than material things." Sonia's eyes well with tears each time she struggles with the contradictions that now shape her thoughts: She's married but she isn't; she still loves him but can't keep loving him; maybe they'll end up back together with their child but they probably won't. "I don't know what to think any more; I don't know any more whether he sends us so much out of love or out of obligation. But after a while, you have to stop wondering. You just have to get on with your life as best as you can." So to get on with her life and head off any damage to her career, she filed for divorce in November.
Sonia isn't one of those Cubans with fe. (A saying circulating for the past few years goes: If you're Cuban, you've got to have fe, which is the Spanish word for faith, but also an acronym for familia extranjera -- relatives on the outside). Other than Manuel, that is, soon to be her ex-husband. Her job is going well, but other young professionals, also with good jobs, say it's almost an exercise in futility to work hard because they can't advance, either financially or professionally. She works hard anyway, leaving her with little time to think about anything but caring for Sonia Maria. Sometimes she'll go to a restaurant with co-workers, and she always attends the ferias, or international business expositions, that come to Havana. People suggest that she begin to date, but she gets an indecipherable look on her face, shrugs her shoulders. Sometimes she cries.
Even at three in the morning the day of the mass in Havana, the sounds of shuffling sandals and sporadic conversations drift through the predawn quiet outside Edificio Elena. As the next hours pass and the sky fades from black to gray, scattered groups of walkers grow into two thin streams flowing south on either side of Calle 60. The customary street noises begin a gradual crescendo, the tinny ringing of bicycle bells occasionally sounding through the roar of unmuffled, smoke-spewing engines. Buses are waiting nearby to take early risers the five miles to the plaza. They will be among the first arrivals at the site of the 9:30 mass, the ones who will crowd closest to the stage overarched by a white canopy shaped like the wings of a dove.
Few of the residents of Edificio Elena, though, will go to the plaza this chilly, overcast morning to hear John Paul talk about justice, faith, and reconciliation among Cubans and unification with the rest of the world. Most will elect to watch the event on television, as they did the pope's previous masses. They'll never see or read about the sporadic anti-government chants and yells from a small number of protesters, or the subsequent removal of a few of them, which U.S. media outlets will make much of. Sonia and Argelia have more immediate concerns.
They've had a rough night, kept up by Sonia Maria, who was suffering from asthma and crying for hours. She'd also wet the double bed she shares with her mother, and all the bedclothes had to be washed by hand in the deep utility sink that stands in an open-air passageway outside the kitchen door.
Then one of the water tanks springs a leak, leaving the apartment without running water. Yolanda and her husband Daniel rush downstairs to help Sonia fix the tank. But in the kitchen, thick black water begins to bubble up through the drain in the middle of the linoleum floor. The sewage spreads across the kitchen and into a hallway leading to the bathroom and bedrooms. It's coming up through the kitchen sink, too. Yolanda finds a plunger and works on the sink drain, while Argelia gets down on her hands and knees and digs up globs of food and muck from inside the drain.
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Everyone is working silently as if they're a hospital emergency room team, and even Sonia Maria resists the temptation to step in the sewage. But the black water keeps bubbling, and finally Sonia calls a plumber. She can't afford the several dollars he is sure to charge, but there's no other remedy. Soon he arrives on a bicycle, a toolbox strapped behind the seat. He shouts up from the street, and Yolanda runs down to let him in.
That evening Argelia -- her tattered canvas shoes still damp -- stands in front of the television to watch the ceremonies at Jose Marti International Airport. The pope is leaving Cuba, saying a long goodbye to Fidel and other government and church officials. He shambles along a red carpet to the plane, surrounded by his entourage. After several minutes the aircraft begins to taxi away, and from his window, John Paul waves slowly. Fidel waves back. He looks almost wistful.
"When Fidel goes to bed tonight," Argelia muses, "he's going to feel so proud! I never imagined this could happen." Sonia is drying off Sonia Maria after a quick bath, which the child hates. Her hair dripping in the cold, damp air, she tries to slip free and grabs for her new Barbie doll, a present from her father. Sonia glances up at the TV screen. Argelia still stands gazing as the plane takes off and the camera zooms back to show Fidel, the ministers and priests standing on the red carpet watching the lights of the jet fade into the thick dark clouds. Sonia rolls her eyes, smiles slightly, and sighs. "No es facil," she says.