HAVANA (AP) – Rolling toward customs with a 60-pound suitcase filled with clothing and electronics for friends, my stomach clenched when a female agent in a light green uniform approached. As a former longtime Cuba correspondent returning after nearly six years, I thought I knew what would come next: a search of my luggage by stoned-faced military men, a scolding, maybe even a fine.
Instead, I got a pass.
"Pasa, mi amor," the agent said with a smile, directing me to the exit. "Go right on through, my love."
It was the first sign of the more relaxed and hopeful atmosphere I found during a brief visit back to Havana this month, a feeling that didn't exist during my 1999-2009 tenure. The differences I saw and felt made me realize how much my decade in Cuba had been characterized by anxiety and isolation, and what a different country it is becoming under President Raul Castro's modest reforms. Everywhere I traveled around Havana, hopes were high for more change after Cuba and the U.S. announcement on Dec. 17 they would move toward a more normal relationship. Cubans seem especially keen for more visits by Americans.
When I lived here as an American journalist, rigid government control and suspicion reigned, especially during my early years. A uniformed agent once demanded to enter my apartment in Old Havana to ensure I didn't have a fax machine, considered a dangerous device. Although there was little traffic or commerce in the streets, blue-uniformed members of the National Revolutionary Police stood on almost every block, and they certainly weren't smiling.
As a foreigner with access to dollars, my circumstances were far better than those of average Cubans. But no one could escape all the difficulties still lingering after the "special period" of the 1990s â€” a time of economic austerity following the loss of Soviet subsidies. Blackouts lasted for hours, resulting in sleepless, sweltering summer nights without air conditioning, making bathing impossible in buildings where water ran with electricity, and causing refrigerated food to spoil. There were shortages of basic goods, such as toilet paper and eggs.
Cubans' economic desperation played out in their dealings with foreigners. A middle-aged woman once trailed me for four blocks up Old Havana's Obispo Street, begging me for a bar of soap I did not have. Driving one night down the Malecon coastal thoroughfare, then pitch black without public lighting, I nearly struck a young woman in a low-cut evening gown standing in the middle of the roadway, waving at motorists to stop.
But going back to Havana, I didn't see any of the obvious sex workers, known as jineteras, who once trolled the Malecon and lurked in hotel lobbies. Cubans didn't trouble me on the street for money or anything else, and I noticed few uniformed police officers standing on corners.
Buildings around the capital, some constructed more than two centuries ago, remain in desperate need of a coat of paint, and in many cases their facades are crumbling. Dangerous-looking tangles of electrical and telephone wires still stretch across narrow streets pocked with potholes. But tour buses now park along the Malecon's eastern end, with tourists spilling out to roam Old Havana's colonial plazas. A string of historic lampposts now illuminate the thoroughfare in the evening.
The majority of islanders still depend on government salaries that average around $20 a month -- about the same amount as when I left Cuba –along with the universal subsidies for food, housing, utilities and transportation. Many people continue to hustle to survive, working a second job, or living "por la izquierda," literally "off to the left," supplementing their meager income by selling goods stolen from government workplaces, or hawking products from their monthly food ration.
I found several older friends who were doing poorly, lacking the resources or energy to profit from the reforms. A former female neighbor in her mid-70s wept as she described the challenges of subsisting on odd jobs and a monthly pension worth little more than $5. Numerous other acquaintances had left the island for better opportunities not only in the United States, but in Venezuela and Spain.
Cubans with their own businesses said the reforms mean they are now harassed less and it is OK to try to get ahead. Jean Barrionuebo, who worked as an illegal taxi driver for six years before getting official approval two years ago, told me, "The pressure of trying to avoid a fine prevents you from being productive."
"We Cubans are crazy to get ourselves out of this conflict with the United States," said Barrionuebo, who drives an old Russian-made Moskvitch sedan he bought after selling an apartment inherited from his parents. "This has been going on for 56 years and it is the Cubans who have to pay the cost."
The push to improve Cuba-U.S. relations has put the issue of human rights in the spotlight for American officials and rights activists, but most Cubans I talked to seemed far less interested in that than in making more money to provide for their families. And most former friends and acquaintances I saw seemed better off – or at least no worse off –" than before.
"A-NI-ta! Mu-CHA-cha!" a cleaning woman cried out as I entered the renovated historic building where The Associated Press has its offices. Several other cleaners, security guards and maintenance workers greeted me with Caribbean enthusiasm, making me feel like I'd returned after only six days, not six years. They sadly reported the death of Lazaro, the elderly street vendor with a goatee who once sold gladiolas on the cobblestone plaza. They told me Ernesto the electrician, who called on me as a witness for his second wedding at a government "Matrimony Palace," had moved to Miami, now on his sixth wife.
The economic changes I saw came from reforms that Raul Castro initiated after taking over from ailing brother Fidel in early 2008. The first thing he did was eliminate the "tourism apartheid" that prevented Cubans from staying in hotels reserved for foreigners. Later, prohibitions on the sale of private homes and cars were lifted, and permission was granted for private taxis. The government lifted the despised "white card" required for decades of Cubans who wished to leave their own country, even on vacation.
Signs of the latest reform on its way – the merging of Cuba's two currencies – are now in the government stores. Prices are listed in the ordinary pesos worth about 4 cents each as well as the convertible pesos tied to the U.S. dollar.
Furniture dealer Elia Rodriguez talked about how Cubans newly flush from their private businesses buy more of the mahogany treasures I once bought from her business of more than a decade. "Everyone wants their house to look nice," RodrÃguez said before excusing herself to greet a group of customers.
Standing amid low-slung Cuban rocking chairs called "comadritas" and antique armoires with brass pulls, Rodriguez told me that the inspectors who used to come at least once a month, using up valuable time while they reviewed her premises and records, haven't visited in more than three years. Originally running the furniture renovation business with just her husband, daughter and son-in-law, Rodriguez said she can now hire non-relatives to refinish and sell the pieces faster.
The first private businesses the government allowed in the 1990s included family restaurants called paladars. Tucked inside people's homes like dirty secrets, they were restricted to just 12 chairs. Sales of hard liquor, and "luxury" foods like shrimp, lobster and beef were prohibited. At one of the dozen or so paladars operating back then in the capital, my friends and I regularly asked a waiter for jibaro – wild boar – a code to order an illegal steak.
Today, hundreds of private restaurants operate in Havana and can serve whatever food or drink they want, as long as they can prove it was purchased legally. They can also serve as many patrons as they want, and can advertise. On a recent evening, a lively group of several dozen Americans visiting the island on a licensed trip crowded the main dining room at the hugely popular El Atelier. At La California restaurant, daily specials were promoted on a blackboard outside the front door, in English.
Farmers markets where vendors set their own prices were also first allowed back in the 1990s, initially to ensure people got enough to eat amid economic crisis.
Revisiting the 19th Street farmers market I once frequented, I found fewer vendors, but more variety of produce. Broccoli and cauliflower were on offer alongside Cuban sweet potatoes, taro roots, huge cabbages, eggplants and assorted dried beans. While the products are cheap for foreigners, they're still expensive for most Cubans, who carefully select only a few items to buy each month: a few onions, a bottle of homemade tomato paste.
During my time away, new private businesses had sprung up across the street: a juice stand, a small pizza joint, a shop selling leather purses and rustic metal coffee pots. Also new was the watch repair stand, a plumber and a locksmith.
Inside the covered market, 51-year-old Leonardo Santos sold shredded coconut for 35 cents a pound under a blue placard that announced "My Name is Santos" in English for American groups that sometimes pass through.
Radames Betancourt, an 81-year-old who works for tips carrying shoppers' bags, smiled when he recognized me from my earlier time in Havana, his eyes scrunching up into half-moons. Betancourt told me he's thrilled about the prospect of improved U.S.-Cuba relations, and more visits by Americans.
"Let them come, let them come," he said excitedly. "We've been waiting for them for a long time."