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As Oppmann got ready to move from Seattle to Havana in 2012, he recalled his boss giving him this advice: “‘Don’t bring a lot of stuff because Fidel (Castro) could die any day.’”
That’s because some thought CNN Havana was just a “death watch bureau” set up to cover the possibility that Communist Cuba might open up after the passing of its aging Communist leader.
While that hasn’t happened, Cuba has opened up in many ways since Oppmann’s arrival nearly a decade ago and Castro’s death in 2016. The increasingly cash-strapped island has been forced to allow more capitalism and information-starved Cubans have pushed for greater internet access.
Last July, the largest anti-government protests since the 1959 revolution rocked the island and led to widespread arrests. And in November, Cuban activists reported being trapped in their homes as the government clamped down on plans for opposition protests.
Like never before, the Cuban government is under pressure to adapt or join other Communist regimes that crumbled in the face of rising dissent.
We caught up with Oppmann at his Havana home to talk about what life is like there. The following is an edited version of our conversation:
Q: First of all, what’s it like living in Cuba?
Oppmann: Living in Cuba can be a full-time job – everything that comes in is imported by the government; all supermarkets are government-run. Before, you could bring things in in suitcases, but not with Covid travel restrictions.
There are gas shortages, food shortages – there’s always a bit of desperation around food. We use WhatsApp lists if we’re at the market and there’s something hard to find, like eggs – we post it (on WhatsApp) so everyone knows. If they’re a really good friend, you’ll buy them extra while you are there.
A lot of times during the pandemic, I would drive to the countryside and load up my car with whatever there was – I’m lucky I have a car and gas. At one point we couldn’t find any protein, so a friend dropped off a whole pig. I didn’t know what to do with it – luckily I found a YouTube video on how to butcher it!
A lot of people write me and say, “Oh, it must be so hard,” but we’re very lucky: Unlike many Cubans, we’re not missing any meals.
Q: You live in Havana with your wife and four young children – what’s it like raising a family in Cuba? How is their childhood different from yours growing up in America?
Oppmann: For my kids, it’s been a great place to grow up – they play outside all the time, they love the beach, which was closed during most of the pandemic because of Covid. They are totally bilingual and they aren’t attached to gadgets as they might be if they were growing up in the US.
Since Cuba has a lot of food shortages, they appreciate the small things even more. They love apples – and then they disappear!
Q: Do Cuban citizens have access to the internet? Can they see CNN there?
Oppmann: Relatively few people have internet in their homes, but they have access on their phones. The government started slowly opening up the internet, but has been very cautious about it. And there’s no cable or satellite TV allowed here.
If you want a landline (telephone) it can take years, but you can get a SIM card with 4G in just a day. You just go to the store and then, boom, you can get online. People joke they’d rather skip a meal than not get data – and I’m sure that happens.
Before, it was nice – no one was looking at their phone in Havana – but now it’s everywhere.
You have access to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – and I wonder sometimes if the government regrets it. The year Cuba opened up wireless data, some analysts said it was the largest leap in people getting online anywhere in the world. People here now have a better idea of what life is like outside Cuba – and that’s created a lot of resentment toward the government.
Now that they’re connected and they can see how people live around the world, people want the opportunities that others have. Cubans are very educated and they don’t know why they have to work and only make $50 a month or why they can’t own their own farm. They want the same opportunities that people have in other countries.
Q: Do you ever consider moving back to the US?
Oppmann: I kind of want to see how the story plays out here, but maybe one day. We’ve learned to be very patient here.