It's not often that I get to stand on a street corner in Old Havana and talk to an 81-year-old man (who is selling Granma, the state-run newspaper, no less) about Fidel Castro's asshole.
"What do you think happened to him?" I ask.
"Well, it's not his rectum," my new friend, Rene, says. He pauses. He nods. I nod. The word rectum hangs in the air.
"Maybe it's his intestine. But if he got only a bit of his intestine taken out" Rene holds up his thumb and forefinger two inches apart "then he wouldn't be laid up this long. No, I think he got a lot of his intestine taken out." Rene holds his hands about a foot apart.
A beret-clad policeman stands on the corner, a few feet away. I wonder if Rene will get in trouble for talking about Fidel's bowels in public. Rene moves closer to me. "Things have to change here," he whispers.
Forget about baseball. The new national sport in Cuba is speculation about Fidel's health, about Raul's capabilities as president, about Cuba's future.
Ralph Amat, a pissed-off American who has finally gotten his Cuban wife out of the country after seven years of paperwork, sums it up nicely: "Everybody is just waiting for that bastard to die."
The difference between Cuba five years ago when I last visited and Cuba now couldn't have been more stark.
Everywhere everyone spewed about how this was the worst holiday season ever (no pork cutlets for Nochebuena, don't even think about an entire pig), worse than the Special Period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, worse than anything anyone had ever seen. People openly panhandled in the streets something unseen five years ago. Buildings everywhere are peeling, crumbling, disintegrating into the streets. Internet, cell phones hell, even phones are nonexistent for regular Cubans. Even acting president Raul Castro went on national TV while I was there to carp about how bad the transportation and food situations were. "In this revolution, we are tired of excuses," he grumbled.
On the street, all it took was a "How's Havana?" or a simple "How are you?" to launch a bitter rant.
"Transportation? Horrible," Rene said. "Food? Terrible."
A taxi driver told me he doesn't make enough money in one month to buy a new pair of pants. "Look at these," he said, disgusted, rubbing his finger on his thigh. His khaki pants were nubby and frayed.
Paranoia, never in short supply in Cuba, has ratcheted up to uncharted levels. No one, of course, wanted to give me a white woman from Miami his or her last name for this article; some didn't want to give their names at all. Especially in public.
"We can't talk here," said Daniel, a 39-year-old parking attendant I met in the shadow of the capitol building. "You can get five years in prison for talking bad about Fidel."
The busy, bright street suddenly filled with creepiness. We retreated to a dark bar. Like many people I spoke with, Daniel is worried about the future. On one hand, he said, there is hope: Raul recently said he would like to begin a dialogue with the United States. The recent visit from U.S. congressmen six Democrats, four Republicans, headed by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) was seen as another positive step.
On the other hand, Raul, who heads the military, is perceived by many as more of a hard-ass than Fidel, people said.
"All Raul wants is war," Daniel said. "And Cubans don't want war."
Whatever happens, Daniel hopes to someday have a girlfriend. It's nearly impossible now because most Cuban women want to date and marry foreigners. And even if he meets a woman, he can't take her back home to spend the night.
"I sleep in the same room as my mom," he said, embarrassed.
The general consensus is that Fidel is history. Everyone acknowledges he is sick, ill beyond the point of returning to power.
So people wait. They wait, as they have done for years, for buses and for bread, for medicine and for visas. This time, they hope, the wait will be worth it.
"I want to see what's next for Cuba," said Pedro, a genial taxi driver who chatted about how he watched America TeVe (Channel 41) out of Miami the night the government announced Fidel was sick.
Pedro's view of Cuba was the most optimistic. He has a vision for a more socialist democracy, along the lines of Spain's. He's trying to position himself to take advantage of the changes: He plans to rent out a room in his house, he's experienced at hooking up pirated DirectTV, and he's working on his Italian, just in case. (He speaks four languages already.)
The gloomiest vision of Cuba came from Nelida, a weary fortuneteller in the moribund town of Regla, just outside Havana.
"What's in Cuba's future?" I asked as she shuffled the cards. Behind her a black Santería doll in a wildly colored dress stood on a faded table. It was stifling-hot inside Nelida's tiny apartment, and she looked at me seriously as she tapped a card.
"Suffering," she said. "Sadness and suffering and change."
I left her with ten dollars and a promise to someday return, hoping that when I do, her predictions won't have come true.
Yet the tourists mostly German, French, and Spanish still go. There are fewer Americans these days, but they are there, hiding behind their dog-eared Lonely Planet guides and mojitos. Some have a passing curiosity about Fidel, but many are happy to see Cuba in all its communist Disneyland glory.
"I want to see it before it changes," was the common refrain.
The tourists all gaze at the few restored buildings and well-kept plazas, sighing romantically. Men gawk at the prostitutes who are still there, just a little more low-key after several crackdowns and the women still blush when Cuban men with seductive eyes ask them to dance.
They shake their hips stiffly to the salsa band belting out a cover of Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are," not knowing the band has been placed in that bar by the government, paid by the government, controlled by the government.
Some tourists seem to be baffled as to why certain things aren't available upon request like in other Caribbean getaways pineapples, newspapers, three-quarters of a menu at some restaurants but they shrug and move on.
They do buy cigars and rum by the bagful, and when unleashed on the Havana airport for their departure, they swoon at the last few things for sale on Cuban soil.
"Hey," called one excited American tourist to her friends before an early-morning flight to Cancun. "They have a Che Swatch watch over there!"
It took everything I had not to walk over and slap her. I thought of Rene, the newspaper vendor, who had worked for Che Guevara in the government during the early Sixties. He turned down a good job in New York in those heady days after the revolution, telling the employer he wanted to stay on the island because "there are good things in Cuba's future."
Even though his country is in shambles, Rene remembers Che with fondness. "I'm not a Fidel-ista," he said. "I'm a Che-ista."
Tourists shuffled by, taking no interest in Rene's newspapers. The police officer in the beret moved on. An exhausted-looking Cuban man hauled some two-by-fours past us in a wheelbarrow. I grew sad as we talked; Rene seemed to embody all the surreal contradictions and nonsensical paradoxes of his homeland.
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Now, at age 81, Rene survives on a meager pension, tourist tips gleaned from working four hours a day, and some family cash from Miami.
Viva la revolución.
Next week: Dissident journalists in Cuba do their jobs without notebooks, pens, or food.
New Times is not disclosing the name of Our Woman in Havana because she traveled to Cuba without the proper visa required to report there.