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Patrick Oppmann has been reporting under one of the most secretive regimes in the world for nearly a decade. DailyExpertNews is the only American television network with an office in communist Cuba.
As Oppmann prepared to move from Seattle to Havana in 2012, he recalled his boss giving him this advice: “‘Don’t take a lot of stuff with you, because Fidel (Castro) could die any day.'”
That’s because some thought that DailyExpertNews Havana was just a “death watch agency” created to cover the possibility of communist Cuba opening up after the death 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 cramped island has been forced to allow more capitalism and the information-hungry Cubans. have pushed for more internet access.
See what Havana will look like when Cuba reopens to tourists
Last July, the biggest anti-government protests since the 1959 revolution shook the island, leading to widespread arrests. And in November, Cuban activists reported being trapped in their homes when the government curtailed plans for opposition protests.
As never before, the Cuban government is under pressure to adapt to or join other communist regimes that have crumbled as a result of growing dissension.
We spoke to Oppmann at his home in Havana to talk about what life is like there. The following is an edited version of our conversation:
oppmann: Living in Cuba can be a full-time job – everything that comes in is imported by the government; all supermarkets are run by the government. You used to be able to carry things in suitcases, but not with Covid travel restrictions.
There are gas shortages, food shortages – there is always a bit of desperation around food. We use WhatsApp lists when we are in the market and something is hard to find, like eggs – we put it (on WhatsApp) for everyone to know. If they are a really good friend, buy them extra while you are there.
More Cubans than ever are leaving the island. Look where they are going
During the pandemic, I often drove to the countryside and loaded up my car with whatever was there – I’m lucky to 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 slaughter it!
A lot of people write to me and say, “Oh, it must be so hard”, but we’re very lucky: unlike many Cubans, we don’t miss meals.
oppmann: For my kids it was 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 completely bilingual and not attached to gadgets as they would be growing up in the US.
Since Cuba has many food shortages, they appreciate the little things even more. They like apples – and then they disappear!
oppmann: Relatively few people have internet at home, but they do have access on their phone. The government has slowly started opening up the internet, but has been very careful about it. And no cable or satellite TV is allowed here.
If you want a fixed line (telephone), it can take years, but within a day you will have a SIM card with 4G. You just go to the store and then, boom, you can go online. People joke that they’d rather skip a meal than not get any data — and I’m sure it does.
It used to be fun – nobody looked at their phone in Havana – but now it’s everywhere.
You can access Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – and I sometimes wonder if the government regrets that. In the year Cuba opened wireless data, some analysts said it was the biggest jump in people going online around the world. The people here now have a better idea of what life is like outside of Cuba – and that has led to a lot of resentment towards the government.
Now that they are connected and they can see how people live around the world, people want the opportunities that others have. Cubans are highly educated and they don’t know why they have to work and earn only $50 a month or why they can’t own a farm. They want the same opportunities that people in other countries have.
oppmann: I actually want to see how the story plays out here, but maybe someday. We have learned to be very patient here.