HAVANA -- In the neighborhood where Marco Rubio's family lived before they fled for better economic opportunities, Cubans said they had never heard of the Florida politician who credits himself as a defender of a free Cuba. But many Cubans are pretty sure they wouldn't vote for him if they had the chance.
Nearly 60 years after the Rubio family fled Calle Maloja and Cuba, residents here make the most of their humble surroundings. In the mornings, elderly women gathered in an empty lot stretch alongside crumbling 19th century mansions during an exercise class. Restless men sit on stoops and smoke cigarettes. A corner market displays a slaughtered pig, but only a few women line up to purchase meat to prepare roasted pork for dinner, an expensive treat for Cubans who earn on average about $25 a month.
When told about Rubio’s presidential aspirations, many residents of Calle Maloja, who otherwise had never heard of the Miami lawmaker, expressed pride. But when told of Rubio’s position on keeping the Cuban embargo in place, many grew sour on the idea that he could become the leader of the United States.
“You like to hear that one of your own is going to be president,” said Yuniel Salazar, 41, who has lived here all his life. “But if he thinks that way, he shouldn’t be president. Haven’t we had enough of that?”
The American Dream
Rubio, a Republican senator from Miami, has for years cited the tale of his family’s migration from Cuba as a way to identify with voters enamored with the idea that the American dream still exists and low-income immigrants can start over again, their hard work paying off so that their children might one day occupy the White House.
For many years, he told a compelling account of his parents and grandfather fleeing Cuba after “a thug,” Fidel Castro, took control of Havana from a right-wing dictatorship in 1959, turning one of Latin America’s most affluent countries into a land rife with hunger, poverty and stunted economic development. It's a narrative familiar to millions of Cuban families who have arrived in the United States since the Communist Revolution, seeking refuge from political repression and famine.
A more complicated timeline, however, emerged after Florida voters elected Rubio as a U.S. senator in 2010. Naturalization papers and other official records revealed Mario and Oriales Rubio actually arrived in the United States in 1956, but returned to Cuba several times after Castro came to power.
While the reconstructed narrative of the family’s migration could come up again during his presidential election, there is no denying Rubio’s many accomplishments as the U.S.-born son of Cuban immigrants. In the United States, Mario Rubio worked as a bartender and school crossing guard. Oriales Rubio was a hotel maid. Marco Rubio thrived under his humble upbringing and went on to become the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.
Back in Havana, Rubio family members were among many residents of Calle Maloja’s twisting, dust-filled streets. Mario Rubio sold coffee to earn pocket money after his mother died when he was nine years old, according to his son’s many campaign speeches over the years. Before his parents left the island, they traveled the short distance from Calle Maloja to nearby government buildings to obtain passports.
Had his family remained on Calle Maloja, Marco Rubio's life would be very different. Now 44, Rubio might have become friends with Salazar and the other middle-aged men who have spent their lives in this quiet residential neighborhood in Havana. His hardline views on Cuba and opposition to relaxing relations between the Castro regime and U.S. President Barack Obama would likely be shaped not by the conservative Cuban politics of Miami, but instead the widespread desire for change that seems to permeate nearly every discussion in Cuba.
'Nothing Will Change'
Salazar knows little about U.S. politics. He couldn’t say when the presidential election would be held or who was running for office. But he is confident the U.S. embargo has done little to improve life for those stuck in Cuba.
Salazar grew up on Calle Maloja, located a short walk from the tourist haunts near Central Park and the Simon Bolivar statue in downtown Havana. It’s where he and his younger brother spent their childhood, kicking soccer balls in the dirt road as the men of the neighborhood played dominos on card tables carefully arranged in the street. It’s where he spends most of his time as an adult, sleeping in during the mornings and counting down the hours until sunset, when the tropical heat cools down and lifelong friends gather outside their homes for a cup of coffee and a round of gossip as children play in the street.
For most of his life, Salazar worked as a nurse. He quit three years ago, he said, because the salary was so meager, he figured it was cheaper to stay at home.
“We have been hearing for 50 years that things are going to change, get better,” he said on a recent morning as he sat shirtless in his living room, smoking a cigarette as his mother prepared breakfast for the family. “We will hear it for 50 more years. Nothing will change.”
Despite its readily apparent poverty, Calle Maloja also offers hints of the grandeur Havana was famous for before the 1959 Revolution, when Spanish architecture and the Caribbean waters hugging Cuba’s expansive shore lured tourists from all over the Americas to the island. The 19th century mansions have long been divided into cramped apartments. But there remain high ceilings typical of colonial life, ornate archways, sweeping balconies overlooking the street and fragments of stained glass windows, now caked in decades of neglect and dust.
Lora Nelson Rodriquez, 66, moved to Calle Maloja with her family 30 years ago from a less affluent part of Havana. She lives with her middle-aged daughter and her two grandchildren, ages 20 and 14. She shies away from talking to neighbors, preferring to spend her days cleaning her home and running errands for her family. Like many Cubans accustomed to living under a government that limits political freedom, Rodriquez dislikes discussing politics with strangers, particularly those who self-identify as American journalists.
“Cubans are very powerful in the United States, right? There are millions of them,” she said nonchalantly when told of Rubio’s aspirations to become president.
Rodriquez had never heard of the Rubio family, but she understands why they left Cuba. She worries about her grandchildren and their futures. Her 14-year-old grandson is smart, but he might become like so many Cuban men, who spoil their ambitions and talents by remaining at home instead of waking up every morning for government jobs that pay from $10 to $15 a month, she said.
An End To The Embargo
Yolanda Paz, 48, lives with her husband, 25-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son on Calle Maloja in a one-room apartment that was once part of a large house. Her daughter works in a local cafeteria, while Paz herself is a stay-at-home mother. In the small courtyard outside her apartment, she washed her family’s shirts, shorts and socks in a bucket full of soapy water on a recent morning, then soaked them in a separate bucket full of clean water.
Paz moved to Calle Maloja seven years ago because it was quiet. She said she has heard neighbors fret about the embargo lifting and Americans flooding Havana, bringing with them new values. She wasn’t threatened by change, however. “That would never happen here,” she said. “We have our own way of life.”
Of Rubio, she said momentum was behind bringing down the embargo put in place after the Castro revolution that limits trade between Cuba and the United States. “It’s happening already. You see more tourists here than ever,” she said.
Orfeo Soto Castillo, 46, could have been another contemporary of Marco Rubio if the presidential candidate had been raised along Calle Maloja. Castillo has lived here his whole life, hustling to survive in the throttled economy by any means necessary. He has three jobs: He teaches salsa dance moves to tourists downtown, he builds furniture in a local carpentry shop, and he works as a plumber when the decades-old pipes give out and his neighbors need him.
His father abandoned Castillo, his sister and their mother in the 1980s for the economic promises of Miami. Castillo never heard from him again. The mystery of his father and the promise of financial opportunity in Florida have become a driving force for Castillo, who dreams of relocating to the United States and making a name for himself.
“Anyone can run for president, Cubans can run for president?” he asked on a recent day when told about Rubio’s White House campaign. “Imagine that. A Cuban president of the United States. That’s why people go there, right?”