But, for now, Vistar is part of an information revolution. It gives people news about Cuban-American musicians and actresses spread globally, defectors who were once persona non grata in Fidel's Cuba. And it tweaks the Cuban state in nearly every issue.

"We stay out of politics," Pedraja says when I ask about it.

I look at the magazine on his computer screen and point to a photo of a well-known Cuban skateboarder waving an American flag.

"But what about this photo?" I ask.

The slightest trace of a smile forms at the corners of Pedraja's mouth.

"That's anicephoto, isn't it?" he says.

The idea came to the Hustler in a brilliant flash, a bit like Henry Ford and his assembly line or Levi Strauss and jeans.

At the time, he was making his money from taping, copying and selling movies and HBO shows using an illegal satellite dish. It was a decent if dishonest living. Then he had his idea.

Why don't I open a print shop? Why don't I go legit?

And why not? His father's book-and-jewelry kiosk was a stone's throw from the university, teeming with students who need material copied and printed. An unused room behind the kiosk was a suitable, rent-free office.

And, even better, the government had begun to offer a small number of private licenses to people wanting to open tech-related stores.

The Hustler applied for the permits, greased the right palms, bought the right equipment and opened a few years ago. Then he started doing things that could melt a smile onto Henry Ford's icy mug.

He reinvested in better equipment. He hired a man he calls the "Computer Beast" to make the equipment sing. He trained employees to smile at customers and help quickly — notions not widespread in Cuba's state-run businesses.

He preached printing and copying faster, with higher quality, than any other shop in Havana. Eventually the Hustler didn't just run any old Cuban Kinko's.

"We are the best," he says. "Ask anyone."

Customers file in on this Friday evening, college kids toting backpacks. They have reports due, and they don't have computers and printers at home. Soon a line snakes out the door. The Computer Beast works double time to keep up.

The money is flowing, so much that the Hustler just bought his own apartment, a rarity in Cuba. He did so illegally, through a third party, proving that a hustler never really stops hustling.

He's telling his story, and it seems so blindingly obvious that finally I just say it.

"This seems like a capitalism success story," I say.

Maybe it's the third rum. Maybe it's the c-word. Whatever it is, the Hustler's mood flips, just like that. His mood flips and it's a reminder that this isn't Miami or Port-auPrince or San Juan. A reminder that the society Fidel built is still his, even as it slips from his grasp.

"I am not a capitalist!" he says in Spanish, the fury rising in his choked voice. Don't you ever call me a capitalist!

Dr. Paneque is the sort of man Fidel Castro used to count on. He's the sort of Cuban who used to make Cuba work.

He graduated from medical school in the mid-1990s, got his degree even though he rarely had enough to eat and even though his only pair of shoes fell apart as he walked to the library again and again.

After he graduated, the new doctor agreed to move to a remote Venezuelan mountain village, part of a partnership that traded Venezuelan oil for Cuban doctors. If Cuba was a wheel, the young doctor was a cog.

"I loved to help people," he says. "I loved it."

Which makes it disconcerting to learn that Miguel Paneque is on an extended leave from his medical practice. Now he works for a nonprofit and moonlights as a tour guide. Why?

The reason is complicated, he says, but the cold, hard truth is this: Paneque can make more in two good days working with tourists than he can in an entire month caring for patients.

"The salaries," he says. "They are nonsense."

Paneque represents several generations of Cuban professionals who studied hard, graduated with degrees from good universities, accepted state jobs like their parents, accepted the old reality of the Cuban government and then watched, horrified, as the economy that was supposed to protect them instead crumbled at their feet.

He represents the flip side of this new Cuban economy. A casualty of change.

Here's the math: A Cuban on a state salary makes $30 or $40 a month if lucky, enough to feed a family but nothing more. Work near tourists, and you can make that in a good afternoon.

This upside-down economy creates all sorts of strangeness. During a week in Cuba I meet a ship's captain who makes more by driving my tourist butt around, an incredible linguist working as a waiter, and several Cubans with doctoral degrees now serving tourists' drinks. It also creates the strangest two-tiered class system: The haves work with tourists or receive money from U.S. family members. The have-nots are everyone else, including doctors.

"We are wasting human resources that we have trained," says Betancourt the economist.

And it gets worse for Cuba. Faced with choosing between being a low-paid doctor or a better-paid bartender, many Cuban professionals are picking Door C: the United States.

More than 43,000 Cubans found their way into the U.S. in the last fiscal year — a five-fold increase since 2010 — with thousands more settling or simply stuck elsewhere in Central or South America. Those leaving tend to be young, ambitious and highly educated. They tend to be exactly the sort of people a country doesn't want to lose.

For those like Paneque, there is a near-constant internal tension, a feeling of being wedged between Cuba's past and its future.

The doctor-turned-tour guide looks backward toward his father, a government economist who annually took time off to travel to the Cuban countryside and harvest sugar cane, a political act in support of the revolution.

He considers the present: Sometimes the pace of change seems too quick, scary even. Sometimes it feels agonizingly slow. "I can't leave, though," he says. "I love this place too much."

Then he looks toward his daughter, Alejandra. She just turned 13. She is more beautiful than the beautiful buildings of Old Havana, he thinks. He loves her more than any country.

She lives in Ecuador now, with her mother, Paneque's ex-wife. He thinks Alejandra has the talent to be a writer. Lately, she is saying she wants to be a psychologist.

"Do you want Alejandra to move back to Cuba?" I ask him. Do you want her to be a Cuban who makes the new Cuba work?


Today:Put aside those old views of Fidel and a Cuba stuck in the 1950s. In large and small ways, this country is changing fast.

Monday:Two women pursue their entrepreneurial dream inside the state-run economy.

Tuesday:A $2 weekly service is revolutionizing the way Cubans get their entertainment — and their news.

Wednesday:Twisting, turning paths bring two young Cubans to Omaha.

Thursday:A Nebraskan fights to be compensated for what Fidel Castro took from her family.

Friday:Cubans rock out to music once banned as "decadent."

Saturday:A decade ago, Nebraska was a leader in selling food to Cuba. Not anymore.

Next Sunday:Parting thoughts and images from Cuba

Find more photos plus videos


"Yes," he says. "But only if she can make some money."

The Hustler is still sore about the day they took away his printers.

It was a normal day until government agents showed up and demanded his paperwork. He had the permit to run the shop and the permit for the equipment, but not all the receipts.

So they unplugged the printers and carted them away. The Hustler found the proper receipts. Still, he didn't get his printers back. The shop was closed for a week, then two, then three. The Hustler sent the Computer Beast home. He did the hardest thing a hustler can do. He waited.

"Twenty-four days," he says, shaking his head at the memory. "I was closed for 24 days."

It's a story that illustrates two different truths of a changing Cuba.

If you focus on the 24 days that the Cuban government shut down the city's best printing shop over a receipt, the truth may be that a changing Cuba will never work.

The reform is too choppy and slow. Reform-minded Cubans will keep bumping into sharp corners until they either leave or give up.

Or you could consider what happened next, and then the truth changes.

Here is what happened next: The government returned the printing equipment. The Hustler restarted his business. The customers came back and brought their friends.

Soon the store was busier than it had ever been. The Hustler extended the hours. He unleashed the Computer Beast on even newer, fancier equipment. He hired more employees — regular Cubans who are now making more money than they ever have before.

"I'm making money! I'm making money!" the Hustler yells. "Give me the opportunity to make money and I will gladly pay more taxes to you! I will pay everyone."

The Hustler stops and notices I'm not drinking my rum. He's been talking for an hour and my glass sits half full — or half empty, depending on the point of view.

It's a fine metaphor for Cuba, I think, as Guns N' Roses rattles the walls. Half full or half empty. Hopeful or hopeless. Struggling toward something better or just passing the time until the country collapses.

The Hustler has other ideas about that glass of rum.

He whispers to an employee, and she carries over a bottle of Havana Club and drains it wordlessly into my glass. And I start to smile, and the smile grows into a chuckle, and then I'm sitting in a smoke-filled living room inside the heartbeat of a new Cuba and tipping my head back and shaking with laughter.

The Hustler has changed the metaphor. He has taken an outsider's neat-and-tidy explanation of Cuba and effortlessly smashed it to smithereens.

This glass is now filled to the brim. It's entirely full because the Hustler made it so.

Cuba is changing. It is changing because the Hustler is changing it.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1064, matthew.hansen@owh.com twitter.com/redcloud_scribe


Wait, isn't the embargo over?

Didn't Barack Obama end it?

That's a common misconception. The president has thawed the long-frosty relationship, doing things like meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro, opening an embassy in Cuba and ending a ban on commercial flights to Cuba.

Obama also favors ending the trade embargo, which bans the sale of most goods (though not food) to Cuba and the purchase of Cuban imports. But the president doesn't have the power to end the embargo — that's up to Congress.

So when will the embargo end?

Unclear. It depends entirely on politics in both countries. Florida politicians — influenced by that state's powerful Cuban-American community — tend to be pro-embargo, citing human rights abuses in Cuba. Also, a number of thorny issues need to be resolved before Congress acts, including the billions of dollars in property claims that American citizens have on houses, businesses and land they lost when Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

Experts say the embargo can end only if Congress amends or repeals a law known as the Helms-Burton Act. And that may not happen until 2018, when Miguel Díaz-Canel will likely become the new Cuban president, replacing the retiring Raúl Castro. Díaz-Canel's presidency might speed political and economic reforms in Cuba, and the fact that he isn't a Castro may make it easier for American politicians to end the embargo.

Can I go to Cuba legally?

Yes, you can, and it's getting easier. This year U.S. commercial airlines will begin flights to Cuba for the first time in more than a half-century. Travel to Cuba is still officially restricted to one of 12 purposes, such as visiting relatives, educational trips, business and humanitarian projects. But it's an open secret in 2016 that as long as you say you are going for one of those 12 purposes, the American government won't ask any more questions.

As Robert Muse, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in Cuban law, told the New York Times: If somebody wishes to travel to Cuba and they "can't think up a way to fit into those categories, they are not trying."

The Cuban government welcomes American tourists and their American dollars with open arms.

Is Cuba safe?

Quite. Gun violence is nonexistent, and Cuba experts in both the United States and Cuba agree that you are safer on the streets of Havana than almost any major American city.

— Matthew Hansen

SPECIAL THANKSThis trip was made possible through a grant from the Andy Awards, a University of Nebraska at Omaha-sponsored program that seeks to promote international journalism.

The Andy Awards have long been funded by former World-Herald Publisher Harold "Andy" Andersen and Marian Andersen. Harold Andersen passed away in December at the age of 92 after a distinguished career that saw him repeatedly advocate for stories and photos that brought the far corners of the world to The World-Herald's Nebraska and Iowa readership.

We are grateful that Andy's vision of journalism extended beyond the borders of our state and country. His generous contribution to the grant program that bears his nickname will continue to allow Nebraska media outlets to pursue such important work for years to come.

We also would like to thank UNO International Studies & Programs, which founded and maintained this grant program under the leadership of now-retired dean Tom Gouttierre and current director Patrick McNamara.

Finally, a special thanks to Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a UNO political science professor and an assistant vice chancellor for student affairs. Benjamin-Alvarado helped us with the tricky logistics of traveling to Cuba and introduced us to many of the people, places and things he has encountered during his 23 trips to the island. Simply put, this trip wouldn't have been possible without his selfless assistance.

— Matthew Hansen

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