Cubans, Frozen in Time, Yearn for Freedom

PHOTO: Pope Benedict XVI waves to faithful from his popemobile as he makes his way to Plaza de la Paz or Peace Plaza in Guanajuato, Mexico, Saturday, March 24, 2012.Alexandre Meneghini/AP Photo
Pope Benedict XVI waves to faithful from his popemobile as he makes his way to Plaza de la Paz or Peace Plaza in Guanajuato, Mexico, Saturday, March 24, 2012.

Havana is a place of fading beauty that somehow maintains its magnetic allure.

Look past the grand colonial-style buildings with their crumbling columns and peeling plaster, and you'll find the city's beating heart. We found rum, rhythms and romance, but Cuba is also about all that you can't see. This is a place with no Internet, no Facebook, no tools of the modern world.

Cuba stands as one of the world's last bastions of communism and it feels as if it's locked in a time warp. Only a tiny fraction of the population has ever been online and most of the motorists drive cars not seen on American roads since the 1950s.

We were officially here for Pope Benedicts XVI's visit, an occasion of great pomp and circumstance, but in between the masses and the meetings, we set out to find the real Cuba.

We drove to a small town called Bauta, outside of Havana. The road was lined with sun-bleached portraits of revolutionary heroes half a century after their glory days. In the center of the square, we found a Catholic church packed for Sunday mass.

There we met Ana, who sings in the church choir and teaches English in town. She was willing to speak openly with us, and said, "In my classrooms, I am supposed to develop in them the political aspect here -- the communism, Marxism. I don't because I can't stand that, and they agree with me, most of them. If I go to the United States, I can find a student of mine everywhere, in each corner."

Ana expressed so eloquently, and bravely, the yearning for freedom we heard from many other Cubans.

"This is not life," she said. "I'm 54 and when I look back, what have I done, what have I seen?"

When asked why there was no "Cuban Spring," no uprising for democracy, as there had been in the Arab world, Ana replied, "They say we have democracy but it's a lie. People here are afraid of losing their jobs. Of talking like this and getting imprisoned. Of getting hurt. So they keep quiet."

We saw that fear again and again. A few university students who were making a video for one of their classes refused to be interviewed once they found out we were journalists from the U.S.

Another group of university students was eating and drinking after class, much like any American college kids would do, but these Cuban students' lives are radically different. They are not plugged in, not connected, not part of the 21st century. Not one of them has access to the Internet.

The more questions we asked them about their lives in Cuba, the more nervous they became. When we asked one of the students if she thought she would have a successful future, she replied, "not so much. I don't want to be talking about that so much."

Another young man, Robert, admitted he wished things were different, but then he also warned that they shouldn't talk about that. Every single one of them told us they want to leave Cuba for a better future somewhere else.

But many have taken advantage of the small but important changes that have taken root in the last few years. When Fidel Castro handed the presidency to his brother Raul Castro in 2008, the brother started experimenting with free enterprise and allowed Cubans to have their own private businesses. Shops and cafes dot the sidewalks of Havana now, and for the first time since the revolution, Cubans can buy and sell properties.

The Castros seem to be counting on the fact that if their people are lining their pockets with a little extra cash, they will be satisfied, and it seems to be working because there is no sign of an impending "Cuban Spring." Perhaps that's because the few dissidents have no organizing tool -- the social media that helped galvanize the Arab world isn't accessible here.

Walfrido, who works as an IT specialist, is one of the few who has Internet access. As the pope held mass this morning, he told us, "The pope can bring faith, but he's not going to make the change. It's going to come from us. When we have the courage, everything can be changed."