CÁRDENAS, Cuba — The home of Elián González is a simple affair — a one-story ranch, painted red, with a yin and yang symbol on an outer wall. His neighbors are quick to point to it with pride, along with their town, a place of revolutionary zeal ever since Fidel Castro successfully pushed the United States to return Elián to Cuba after the boy’s mother died at sea carrying him to Florida in 2000.
But Cárdenas is no longer just concerned with revolutionary fervor. It is a small but growing city of contrasts and contradictions — with horse-drawn taxis, new, bigger houses built with the wealth earned from Canadian and European tourists in the nearby resort town of Varadero, and American-backed Pentecostal churches that provide drinkable water to residents who no longer get it from the government.This epicenter of anti-American pride — where Elián celebrated his 21st birthday on Dec. 6 with a huge parade — is increasingly a microcosm of how much Cuba has changed, and the direction that the country may be heading.
“We’re going to be like China or Vietnam, a socialist country with capitalism,” said María Elena Hernández, a senior Communist Party official at the main hospital in Cárdenas. “It’s going to be hard, but it’s necessary for the revolution.”
Even more than other areas outside Havana, Cárdenas still has the feel of a small town fast becoming a dynamic suburb, while run by a small cadre of familiar loyalists. The usual murals of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro here seem to receive more fresh paint than in many other places, and when asked about the changes, one of the town’s top government officials came out of his private office to declare in view of all: “We’re very revolutionary. Still. Always.”
But the reality surrounding him suggested that Cubans, even here, are redefining the term.
Just as he finished his pronouncement in a booming voice, a woman drove by with a new refrigerator strapped to a cart. Next door sat a table covered with wooden coat racks and hand-knit purses being sold by a cuentapropista — one of about 300,000 independent small business owners in Cuba as part of its experiment with private enterprise.
Inside the local government office, ceiling tiles were missing, the black vinyl couch looked like it had been torn apart by a toddler, and the posters of Fidel and Raúl Castro showed them as younger men, in soft colors faded with the years.
Across the street, a new poster, bright as neon, advertised a business offering photography for weddings and babies. Ileana Basterrechea, 68, said that for the past three years, she had been renting out the front of her home to various businesses, often more than one a time, creating a mini-bazaar in her living room.
It is only possible, she said, because Cárdenas is growing.
Since an expansion of tourism construction in Varadero a few years ago, Cárdenas has become a magnet for Cubans from distant provinces, according to many residents. And with new arrivals and more work, new businesses have become more common.
“There’s money moving through,” Ms. Basterrechea said. “Without money, we can’t do anything.”
The expectation — voiced by both loyal members of the party, and critics — is that more money is on the way. The easing of the American trade embargo announced this week by President Obama will likely bring more American visitors to Cuban shores, and Cárdenas will be among the first to feel the impact.
Ms. Basterrechea’s eyes widened at the mention of an even busier Varadero. “It’s going to get better,” she said.
Doctors at the local hospital said they were also eager for the changes to take effect. One urologist asked when he would be able to fly to Miami to buy medicine.
Here at least, the thrill of so much, after so many years in scarcity, seems to outweigh worries about the influence of Americans, including those less sympathetic to Cuba’s ideals than the visitors who have paid premium prices to come on the people-to-people tours already allowed under American rules.
Among many of Elián González’s neighbors, there is a willingness to take on the challenge of the new — an eagerness, in some ways not unlike the way Cubans greeted the first few years of the revolution.
Many here are still wondering whether Elián González will play a role. He said in 2005 that he saw Fidel Castro as a father figure, but ever since he returned to Cuba two weeks before his sixth birthday, Mr. González has tried to avoid the spotlight. He is now studying engineering at a university in Matanzas.
“I’m a little shy, so when I stand up somewhere and know that the whole world is looking at me and I’m perhaps the center of attention, it’s pretty tough,” he said last year in a rare interview with Cuban state news media.
The craving described by many Cubans, expressed here and elsewhere, is for a life with fewer extremes than those that dominated decades past. Socialism is still sacred, but other ideas are ascendant. “Every system has good and bad — what we need to do is find a balance,” Ms. Basterrechea said.
The effort, still far from fully formed, may involve some people in government, but it also seems to be increasingly concentrated outside of the old system — among families earning hard currency, and in churches. The pope may have brokered this week’s deal between Mr. Obama and Raúl Castro, but here, Catholics are increasingly joined by Cuban congregations of churches with roots in the United States: Assembly of God; Baptists; Pentecostals.
“We’re here and growing because there are important spiritual needs,” said Jamilca González, 33, the pastor of El Fuerte Presbyterian church, which occupies a school-sized religious campus a few blocks from Elián González’s home.
More specifically, she said, many of the churches — working together in an ecumenical council — are trying to help people survive, with food, water and exercise classes, and by guiding their souls away from a focus on material things.
Greed and envy seem to be on the rise, she said: with the increasing gap between rich and poor in town, petty theft has become more common.
“People are just trying to have a better life,” said Juana Felicia Pérez, 67, the pastor’s assistant. “It’s not that they want to be rich. Everyone just wants a job and way to support a family.”
Many of the churches in Cárdenas have become a moral and economic counterweight. Communism (with Russian assistance) used to provide the necessities of life in Cuba. In Cárdenas, religion (with American assistance) is increasingly filling in the gaps. Ms. González’s church, for example, has become a hub of activity for the community largely because of a sophisticated water filtration system carried into Cuba and installed in 2012 by members of St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Orleans.
The system now employs at least one person, and provides water to any and all. On Friday morning, as cakes and sodas were laid out to celebrate two young fitness instructors who teach retirees, about 20 people lined up at three powerful outdoor spouts to fill up jugs amid the buzz and slosh of the water filters on the other side of a wall.
“The water in the ground here — it’s very dirty,” said José Antonio Hernández, 75, a retired construction worker. “The government has a plan to fix it, but it won’t be done until 2019.”