taxi driver looks at camera through rear view mirror

I had a remarkable and revealing exchange with a Cuban taxi driver when I was in Santiago, Chile last September. With today’s news about the re-establishing of relations between the United States and Cuba, I thought it a good time to post this.

I’ll call him Hugo. His real name is something similar, but it escaped me. Luckily his story didn’t.

It was supposed to be an uneventful cab ride and it was until I noticed the Cuban flags on the driver’s dash and hanging from his rear view mirror. I decided to strike up a conversation.

Hugo emigrated to Chile 20 years ago. Things were bad in his country when he left, he said. What surprised me was that when I met him, he’d only been back to Cuba for the first time about six months earlier.

Much has been made of the economic reforms that have begun to “open up” Cuba, private ownership of housing and cars and the right to buy and sell them, among the most prominent examples announced in 2011.

Despite the reforms, Hugo said, not much had changed when he visited 19 years after his departure. Houses were falling apart and newfound ownership was prompting people to sell and leave the country.

a man driving a taxi looks to the back seat through the rearview mirror
‘Hugo’ drives a taxi in Santiago, but Cuba is never far from his thoughts, like the flags on his dashboard.

Before he left Cuba, he worked at a popular beach near a compound that used to host international students and delegations in Varadero. In Santiago he drives a taxi and he says life is good and he loves Chile.

But his family is separated. Hugo’s mother, two of his older children and his sister are all still in Cuba. His mother is eligible for a Spanish passport and has applied. She hopes it will allow her to travel more freely and provide greater opportunities than a Cuban passport.

Hugo’s sister and brother-in-law want to join him in Chile, but it’s difficult, he says. His sister is a teacher and his brother-in-law is a doctor, professions in high demand and essential to the system’s provision of free healthcare and education.

But even a generation removed from Cuba, the island nation’s pull is still there. His youngest son, born in Chile, went with Hugo to Cuba on his 2013 visit. He absolutely loved it. He loved the music and the colours, the people and the climate.

Looking back through the rearview mirror, the memory made Hugo pause. He was surprised at how much his young son felt at home in Cuba. Perhaps the re-establishment of relations between Cuba and the United States will mean a chance for Hugo to go back to his home country, or at least a brighter future for him and his family there.