Despite a succession of sweeping changes in recent years – rapprochement with the US, Fidel Castro’s death – the rhythm of life on the island remains as languid as ever.
In Old Havana, locals still watch life go by from the balconies of their dilapidated colonial buildings, as classic American cars putter down cobblestone streets and seemingly endless games of dominoes play out on sidewalk tables.
Tourists love the island’s timelessness, which gives it the aura of a living postcard immune to change.
For Cubans, who have made standing in line an art form and bureaucracy a way of life, this vestige of communism is less charming. “We live in slow motion – because we’re an island, because it’s the Caribbean and because of the whole legacy of socialism,” said writer Wendy Guerra, a rising star of Cuban literature.
“Time isn’t money here. Very few people produce anything for themselves. The country stopped producing a long time ago. People act like they’re working, and the state acts like it pays them,” the 46-year-old novelist and poet said.
“There’s no schedule. No one ever has to be somewhere urgently. There’s no traffic, and public transportation problems have made us all officially unpunctual.”
In her novel Everyone Leaves, Guerra’s heroine ends up frozen on Havana’s famous seaside boulevard, the Malecon, “stuck in the immobility of Cuba.”
Cuban artist Alejandro Campins also addresses the island’s lethargy in his work. “Every Cuban’s subconscious is a waiting room,” he said.
Standing in line “is in our DNA,” said port agent Daniel Rios, 36, whose job involves a lot of queuing.
Many artists have found inspiration in Cuban time. “Coming to Cuba is like travelling back to the past. Time doesn’t move here,” said the artist Dagoberto Rodriguez.
He and a collaborator made waves in 2012 with a piece where a troupe danced backward up a Havana avenue, symbolizing Cubans’ peculiar relationship with time.
But things have been evolving since President Raul Castro came to power in 2008. Since he replaced his big brother Fidel, tourism has boomed, Wi-Fi hotspots have flourished and private restaurants and hotels have gone from banned to blossoming.
Besides the long-unthinkable rapprochement with Washington, Raul Castro has sought to modernize Cuba’s Soviet-style economy by allowing small private businesses, the sale of cars and homes, and international travel.
“Time has accelerated in Cuba as a result of the economic reforms,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a professor at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.
Not so fast
Still, the country is not exactly jumping to light speed.
“Time may be moving quickly by Cuban standards, but not by the standards of the rest of the world,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue research institute.
“For most Cubans, life remains unchanged even to this day.”
Nearly six decades after the Cuban Revolution, a Castro is still in power, dissent is muzzled, the US embargo remains in place and the island’s economy is 80% controlled by the state. Foreign investment is limited, and requires navigating a labyrinthine bureaucracy.
“Foreign corporations have a hard time understanding why things take so much longer here. A contract that would take three or four months somewhere else takes a year or two,” said cell phone maker Nokia’s Cuba representative, Charles Ferrer.
Cuba is stuck in “a different dimension of time,” said Cuban economist Pavel Vidal, who teaches in Colombia.
Raul Castro’s economic reforms, he said, could have been “faster and broader.” The president has said he will implement his reforms “without hurry, but without pausing.”