If it seems that I’m a little preoccupied during my penultimate day in Cuba, it’s because I was.
There were activities to be done, places to go, etc. Yet my mind was focused squarely on the events of the previous afternoon.
Even as I sat in the meeting room of La Castellana Psycho-pedagogical Center, a center for students with mental disabilities, thoughts of dissent, repression, and counter-revolution flowed through my brain. I was unable to focus on another earnest talk about the well-meaning work of doctors and teachers in treating students with severe mental and emotional problems.
Instead, that morning was devoted to daydreaming.
The same scenario kept revealing itself: someone on the street announced that Castro died, as gangs of men with guns would drive around asking for volunteers. I would jump on, grab an AK-47 and join the rebellion as my stunned colleagues looked on. As the rest of my tour group hurriedly grabbed their belongings and made for the airport, I show up in a jeep with armed men and rocket launchers, asking anyone from my group to come and “make history.”
It was a silly, juvenile dream, to be sure. I’m impulsive, sure, but probably not to that extreme. Furthermore, I’d probably knock my shoulder off-kilter, as an AK-47 has a sizeable kick and is notoriously unwieldy. For me, armed rebellion works best from the business end of a gin bottle with half-drunk mates who couldn’t care less what came out of my mouth.
Yet it was difficult to pay attention to the proceedings, especially when we went from classroom to classroom. To be sure, these students had severe mental disabilities and it’s great that there’s a center for them where they can receive a fulfilling educational experience. Some of my colleagues that work with such children wept at what they saw.
I was too hard-hearted a bastard to notice.
At a place that should celebrate the joys of life, the revolution wouldn’t take a rest. Pictures of Che and Camilo Cienfuegos grace the walls. Fidel’s slogans line the workshops. Even among Cuba’s most vulnerable, the message of the regime continues its unrelenting pace.
It’s beyond unfair. In the world of ideological indoctrination, it’s the Yankees taking on your local church softball team. It’s over within two innings.
If anything positive came out of this, it was Elpidio Valdes, my new friend (No, I didn’t adopt anyone). As a souvenir of our visit, we were allowed to choose on piece of craftwork created by the students. I guess it was either his little neckerchief, or maybe his little cardboard machete (which made him look like a tropical Hitler Youth). Yet it was probably his floppy hat—so similar to my Boca Raton-tastic planter hat—that drew me to Cuba’s greatest cartoon.
Elpidio Valdes is a cartoon character popular with children across the island. A sort of Cuban Robin Hood, Valdes is constantly getting into adventures against the hated Spaniards during the Cuban War of Independence. Ever the revolutionary, Valdes protects the poor and working class against the hated rich, who are often helped by conniving Americans.
Of course, the regime uses Valdes to spread revolutionary propaganda amongst the young. But that didn’t bother me at that point…it was a cute doll.
After lunch, I needed to get my head straight. All this daydreaming—violent, gun-toting daydreaming—was messing with me (if it didn’t already). I had to step off the tour a while, to catch my breath. More than anything, I needed to take in more of Havana for myself.
Some people from our group left to find some movie posters, and I decided to tag along, if for the only reason being to get more sun. Posters in Cuba tend to be a difficult business: the political ones, especially ones with cool slogans, are owned by the Interior Ministry. Movie posters, the next popular category, can be found in other places, but the best place to find them is the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industries, or ICAIC.
ICAIC was at the center of Cuba’s golden age of cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, when directors such as Julio Garcia Espinosa, Humberto Solas and Tomas Gutierrez Alea were making remarkable films that even I enjoy. Like its literary counterpart, UNEAC, the directors under ICAIC used western techniques to tell uniquely Cuban stories, and the movie poster became high art. Furthermore, ICAIC at its height enjoyed an incredible degree of artistic freedom. Directors like Gutierrez walked a fine line between playing nice with the regime and highlighting social, political and economic problems in their country. It was one of the ways official organs were used to criticize the government, and it was a dangerous game.
The afternoon was spent trying to find the fucking place.
First we couldn’t remember the name. Then we couldn’t remember the spelling of the acronym. When we asked around the neighborhood, no one seemed to know. Someone finally pointed us to a building that seemed official enough, only to be the radio and television institute, not the film institute.
Along the wild goose chase, we ran into a souvenir market where hordes of tourists rained their hard currency on a sea of knickknacks. If this is a socialist utopia, Cuba has a pretty good sense of how capitalism works: fleece dumbass tourists with whatever crap catches their eye. Foremost among the hawkers were the men at each corner peddling their “authentic” Cohiba or Montecristo cigars.
A good marketing ploy involves (who else?) Che in numerous media: buttons, napkin holders, magnets, wallets, salt/pepper shakers. Also include any piece of crap dealing with cigars, black women in traditional garb and old 50’s cars.
Even though we never found ICAIC, the walk through the souvenir stands loosened me from the malaise of the past 24 hours. For a brief few hours, I could get the political nonsense out of my head. There was something liberating about watching bloated Canadians in relentless negotiations over cheap keepsakes while at the same time being hosed on fake cigars that taste like wet poodle.
Remember the baseball championship? Since a ticker tape parade isn’t really feasible in Havana, the city fathers decided the next best thing was to have a gigantic free concert at the Anti-Imperialist Plaza—and we were all going.
The Anti-Imperialist Plaza is a funny place; insofar that it symbolizes Cuban-American relations at its most juvenile. The first building around that site was the Swiss embassy, which houses the US Interests Section. We don’t have a formal embassy, so we use space from the Swiss to make our presence felt in Havana. The front of the building would have electronic tickers and huge, garish posters spouting anti-Communist rhetoric in the subtlety one would expect from non-diplomatic lackeys who usually run this station. The Castros thought this wasn’t playing fair, so they planted a forest of flagpoles in the plaza in front of the US interests section—a forest so thick it obstructs any view of the propaganda from the building. As if this wasn’t enough, the plaza in front was renamed Anti-Imperialist Plaza and a giant bandstand/stage/platform was built in front of the flagpole forest, nicknamed the “Protestadrome” by the locals. It is here that rallies, anti-US protests and concerts are held, always thick with revolutionary rhetoric and vitriol.
The whole thing plays like a schoolyard brawl, as the smarmy little snitches play and laugh at the big dumb jock sitting in detention—a jock capable of pulverizing every one of those little pricks into oblivion if given the opportunity.
Thousands—and I mean thousands—of Cubans converged on the plaza around 5 in the afternoon for a huge free concert. Politics was far from their mind as the musicians pounded out their tunes to a teeming, throbbing, sweaty mass cooled by the relentless gusts from the Straits of Florida. It was estimated that close to half a million Cubans packed the plaza and the sea wall, and it was probably accurate. After all, in a place where the only recreation available is out of reach to average Cubans, free concerts seem a welcome respite.
I kept staring at the Elian Gonzalez statue at one end of the plaza. Remember
him? The kid whose mom died in the raft heading to Florida, but was forcibly returned to his dad in Cuba? In a further swipe in the Cuba-US pissing contest, the government put up a statue commemorating the traumatized tyke. He is depicted in Jose Marti’s arms as he points an accusatory finger at the US Interests section. Locals call it a signpost to show everyone where to line up for visas.
We watched the festivities, drinking beer and munching on popcorn along the sea wall, blissfully taking in the only real crowds we ever saw in Cuba. One thing about totalitarian states—there were no brawls or spats in the crowd to speak of. If this was half a million people in New York, you know some drunken asshole was coming out swinging. It was almost eerie seeing a small city being polite all at once; the police presence on rooftops, in the stands and among the crowds also helped.
This being Cuba, the festivities ended promptly at 8: no one wanted to deal with a crowd like this at night.
That night was weird, and enlightening. At first, we weren’t exactly sure what to do. Then, we heard Mariana was visiting some folks in town and had wanted to go dancing, my friend Britton and I decide to tag along. Visiting Cubans in their homes was something I wanted to do, especially after the showcase homes in Las Terrazas.
The first was at a house in Vedado that was being rented by Mariana’s friend who is getting married to a Cuban. Since it was an engagement party, we brought rum (lots of it) and local Tu Kola (lots of that, too). After going up a hallway reeking of urine, we arrive at what seems to be a clean, well-kept apartment. It was like some of the better-kept apartments in the South Bronx, but with less electronic doo-dads. We chit-chatted with our hosts, getting acquainted, having a nice civil conversation.
Even in this house, the revolution, or at least its regulations, came creeping in. The mistress of the house, in a nice motherly tone, apologized for the interruption and asked for our identification. Our new friends seemed incredulous—even Mariana, whose been here before, seemed miffed at the request.
I didn’t mind, as I understood the consequences for not documenting us. Cubans cannot have foreigners in their homes with permission or authorization. Violating this law leads to stiff fines and confiscation of one’s home. So I readily handed in my passport, knowing full well it was better for our host to cover her ass.
We then went to another of Mariana’s friends, in Habana Centro. Habana Centro is a dense residential neighborhood with old, dilapidated buildings packed onto colonial streets barely wide enough to accommodate two-lane traffic. The house we visited was a small, tight space that had a jerry-rigged second floor. Water was brought in from a cistern in buckets, usually done at night. The state television network was flickering on the screen. The news anchors wore suits so worn they looked homeless.
Yet there was not a breath of complaint about it. Maybe this was one of the better homes in the neighborhood. Or, possibly, it was imprudent to make such complaints in a dense neighborhood.
The night ended with an extended walk down the Malecon. Along the way, probably since we were getting tired and weren’t in the mood for dancing, we headed back to the hotel, stopping by the Bim Bom, a local ice cream joint.
I wouldn’t mention this but for the fact that Bim Bom is THE place to be for a homosexual in Havana out on the make.
Homosexuals and conservatives share one distinction on this island, that being our lack of a love affair with the Castros. Gays have had a rough time in Cuba, and considering my first-hand reporting, still encounter stiff official harassment. The reasoning is simple: take a society that already looks upon homosexuals with suspicion, and add a veneer of socialist rhetoric that attacks homosexuality, or any sexual orientation for that matter, as a “western deviance” and “counterrevolutionary.” What you get is official repression, one that many Cubans actually might even agree with.
At least here at the Bim Bom, there is little problem with that, which accounts for how much things have changed since the darker times of the past. I saw at least half a dozen drag queens, with gear that could put our USA-bred trannies to shame. Everyone seemed relaxed, hanging out, having a good time.
Standing around wondering when I should return to my hotel, I came to realize that my time here in Cuba was about to end. It was difficult to comprehend the previous week. Even in my writings, the rambling nature of it lends itself to my confusion. And Thursday was a train wreck in it of itself.
If today seemed a little different, a little disjointed, it’s because Friday was like that. By the end of the week, everything would come together.
Part VIII covers my last day: some “research” with blue water and pina coladas, visiting local kids, revisiting an acquaintance and the longest, strangest final night ever.