Early in our Cuban trip, our guide said we would be watched by secret police as we walked about Havana.

Some of them were obvious, positioned near the hotel’s entrance.

All political cultures live on euphemisms, because there are some truths they don’t want to acknowledge. In Cuba, the new class of business proprietors are not called business owners. They are called self-employed. And economic change is not called reform. It is called an update of the economic model. “‘Reform’ is not linguistically acceptable,” said Dr. Rosa Lopez, who spoke to us about Cuban foreign policy.

“Cuban-U.S. relations were rock bottom” in the George W. Bush administration, Lopez said. “Obama is a great improvement.”

Ricardo Torres, an economist at the University of Havana, said: “We’ll see much change in the future,” He indicated that Cuba is looking at New Zealand and Singapore as economic models.

“It’s very evident to Cubans that the agricultural model hasn’t worked,” he said.

In our travels, we saw a man plowing a field with a team of oxen, and we drove past horse-drawn carts bringing farm goods to market. The organic farm we visited was impressive. But that scale of agriculture is insufficient to feed the island.

Cuba imports some 70 percent of its food. Following a law signed by President Clinton, the U.S. exports agricultural goods to Cuba.

Torres also noted that Cuba’s population is aging, while the younger demographic casts its eyes abroad.

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Our most surprising Cuban visit was to the Seminario Evangelico De Teolocia, an ecumenical seminary in the town of Matanzas, 90 minutes from Havana. The origin of this seminary was the distressing period following the Soviet Union’s collapse and the end of its economic subsidy to Cuba. That cut Cuban GDP by 30 percent. It also caused a religious reawakening.

To meet the need for pastors, this seminary was created by the Cuban Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches. It had 26 students and three professors when we visited.

Following lunch in the seminary’s refectory, we heard a concert in the chapel. This a capella group was simply astounding in its celestial beauty. Their singing of Shenandoah brought tears to some American eyes.

***

It was a very special treat to watch a group of about 30 dancers of the National Ballet of Cuba go through its morning exercises. The music for their routines came not from a piano, but from drums. Three men beat drum rhythms while chanting in an African call-and-response motif. The 20 minutes of exercises began with movements akin to yoga and built up to leaps and expressive dancing. This was their first class, to be followed by ballet, ensemble work and a rehearsal.

The dancers were notably not bulimic. They had strong, healthy bodies and were a rainbow of color.

***

On our last night in Havana, my wife and I walked to the Hotel Seville, because it’s in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, a book that evokes prerevolution Cuba of the late ’50s. Our walk down empty sidewalks amidst buildings that were deteriorating hulks was like a scene in The Third Man, the Graham Greene story set in postwar Vienna.

The mood changed abruptly when we turned the corner to the Seville. A doorman was tending a guest’s car. In the expansive lobby, large couches and overstuffed chairs were arranged for conversation. On the lobby walls were photos of distinguished former residents: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Santo Trafficante – heavyweights of the underworld. The Mob was in Havana, big time, in the 1950s. And they didn’t see the revolution coming.

***

Americans tend to see Cuba through the lens of our trade embargo and the obsession with Fidel Castro among the Cuban-American bloc of Miami. To be in Cuba is to see the deep layers of culture in this island which has been an ethnic crossroads for centuries. In the cemetery we visited were mausoleums of Spanish nobility. Slavery was abolished in 1886, two decades following America’s lead. Abraham Lincoln’s statue is on a Havana plaza and in the presidential palace.

The young artists we visited were sophisticated and worldly. The dancers perform abroad, including America. The economist we met had just finished a period at Columbia University.

Cubans are shopping for a new idea.

— S.A.F.