In Cuba, the walls of buildings are often only partially painted. There are swaths of yellows, pinks and blues before they taper off to reveal cold, blank chunks of stucco and stone. The unfinished aesthetic extends far beyond the paint jobs. It’s seen in the houses that haven’t changed since 1959 and the holes of the chalkboards that lie tilted on the walls of a University of Havana classroom.

Driving along the Malecón, the oceanside promenade that stretches along the coast for miles, one sees the silhouette of tall buildings — spread apart, dark and empty. There are no recognizable signs or shimmering lights along doorframes — just old, faded architecture on one side and the ocean eroding a stone barrier on the other. The vision, written out, sounds bleak. But it’s beautiful for what it is — its hollowness, its singularity, its antiquity. It’s free from becoming a string of shops that all look the same, sell the same things and discontinue a culture dedicated to the scarcity of materialism.

My grandmother, originally from Romania, grew up in Mexico. Escaping the Nazis during World War II, she and her family moved from Bucharest to Paris to the south of France to Mexico City, where she lived until her studies brought her to the United States. Before she died, she wrote a collection of memoirs for her grandchildren — bound together in a spiral notebook consisting of 150 pages.

When she writes about her adolescence spent in Mexico, she mentions the colors, the warmth, the dogs and cats and birds that nested themselves within her home. She writes about the city of fishermen, the beautiful, clear ocean from which they fished and the small group of cliff divers, known only by the locals. One would never guess that the city which she describes — idyllic and quaint — is in fact Acapulco, presently bustling with spring breakers, cheap hotels and A-line restaurants.

In her memoir, my grandmother mentions that she returned to Mexico City with my grandfather 30 years after leaving the country, only to be greeted by air thickened by fumes, severe economic disparity and the disturbing implications of tourism and time. She vowed never to go back after that, and never did.

When I returned home from Havana in May of 2014, after having studied there for four months, I had dreams about the embargo being lifted. I imagined that during the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton would win, would somehow make Congress lift the embargo and I’d go back to Cuba. I thought of how my Cuban friends and then-boyfriend, Alberto, would fare in a new Cuba — one that was no longer avoided by the free world. When I lived there, the majority of problems plaguing my friends were those associated with the economy — shortages, rations, the general lack of money — and ironically, the reason we were all probably friends in the first place. At the time, I hated the embargo, and I hated socialism even more, because in order to maintain a participatory workforce, it held those who I loved on the island captive.

After a formative four months, I came back to America and time went by. I went back to throwing all of my waste in the trashcan as opposed to reusing it, going to the grocery store only to let my tomatoes go bad a week later, shopping for T-shirts I’d wear three times. Back in Cuba, Alberto had two shirts and one pair of pants that he washed with a bar of soap and a bucket of water every few days. When in Cuba, I resented the system that made dispensability impossible. But back in America, once the small and painful daily realities of Cuban life faded away from my consciousness, I began to reestablish my faith in the functionality of socialism.

In the fall, I took a class on Latin American Revolutions, and when we studied the Cuban Revolution I thought, Damn. Che and Castro accomplished some serious shit. They made the country, previously rife with inequality, socialist within a matter of years. But my new opinions, formulated within an academic context, negated ones I’d formed while actually living amongst socialism — that humans are inherently too selfish, too individualistic, not to crave economic progress. That aside from an aesthetic standpoint — one that favors a highly primitive, untouched visage — business that brings money and people and new life is needed.

Ironically, I found out that the United States would be restoring its relationship with Cuba during the final exam for my Latin American Revolutions course. During the last 10 minutes, my professor rose up out of her seat, smiling, and on the chalkboard wrote giddily — “Obama has just restored diplomatic relations with Cuba.” I read this, scribbled down a few concluding sentences to an essay question, shoved the exam onto her desk, left the room and cried. That night I called Alberto on the phone — in the moment it was worth the million dollars a minute it costs to speak overseas to Cuba.

¿Como te sientes sobre todo? “How do you feel about all this?” I asked. Bien. “Fine,” he answered. “Listen, my love. Can you send some money?”

His apathy spoke mountains of truth — despite the exciting prospect of dismantling an oppressive 55-year-long blockade, Cubans aren’t going to see the positive implications for a while. The only people who’ll be benefitting now will be the travelers ooh-ing and ah-ing at 1950s-era cars. Until the embargo is, in fact, lifted, life for Cubans will remain the same — stagnant, poor, hopeless. Alberto will continue to ask me for money as he often does. What the opening up of Cuba will do, I fear, is the same thing that happens to all cities and countries that are overly accepting of the tourist’s dollar. Havana, I fear, will become to me what Mexico City and Acapulco became to my grandmother — unrecognizable.

Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed the other day, I saw pictures of a Cuba backdrop, clearly intended as a party theme, with a girl sitting in a beach chair, drinking out of a straw, captioned, “welcome to Cuba.” I shut my computer.

As my friend would say, “the hipster reason” for my anxiety about Cuba’s future is in part due to the fact that everyone will soon be able to travel to the place that made me, me. For a week, they’ll lounge on beach chairs, drink out of coconuts and spin on dance floors with Cuban swingers at a salsa club. But, as tourists, they won’t necessarily begin to understand the deep cultural, political and anti-imperialistic history that cloaks the small and beautiful nation. Then, when more people visit for a week, everything — down to the coconuts — will get more expensive. It will create greater disparity between Cuban citizens and tourists; it will convert it into the next Dominican Republic.

I drift between different lines of thought. This is what Alberto would want, I think to myself. This is what they need. But this validates that perfect socialism isn’t attainable there — a concept I’m reluctant to admit but finally do. Still, I hope that the hollow beauty along the Malecón remains the same. But I know it won’t.

Abby Taskier can be reached at

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