Sometimes it’s missed in all the political nonsense, but there was a Cuba before the revolution. That Cuba was the focus of today’s tour of Old Havana, or Habana Vieja.
San Cristobal de la Habana, Havana’s full name, was founded in 1515 and started out as a launching pad for future Conquistadors such as Hernan Cortes, Hernando De Soto and Francisco de Coronado. King Phillip II of Spain designated Havana an official city in 1592, and it soon became one of the biggest cities in the Americas, third behind Lima and Mexico City. The great Spanish treasure fleet, the armada of ships laden with gold and silver from across the continent, gathered in Havana’s harbor for the annual journey to Spain. It also became the center for sugar, coffee, tobacco and especially the African slave trade.
Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site, features many of the important buildings that harken to Cuba’s glorious (and not so glorious) colonial past. The narrow lanes, colonial and neo-classical architecture, and cobblestone squares have undergone extensive renovations, making it the most tourist-friendly area in the whole city.
That’s the problem. Old Havana, being landmarked, has few, if any, actual Cubans in it. They just didn’t fit with the tourist model, I guess. Most tourists, after all, look to get away from reality, and the everyday Cuban’s existence is way too fucking real.
So Old Havana is your slightly Disneyfied version of itself. It has the look and feel of a Latin Colonial Williamsburg sans the goofy actors that would make it a ghastly idea: “And on your left, folks, is Padre Eduardo baptizing a heretic before he is burned alive. On your right you’ll see our friendly slave auctioneer, Pablo, with a new crop of young bucks from the Gambia. Say Hola to the nice people, Pablo!”
It got even goofier when we reached the Hostel Ambos Mundos, a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway. Now, there’s a lot to like about Hemingway: his terse writing style, his depressing dramatic arc, his propensity to find gin bottles in all sorts of places.
Yet the Ambos Mundos was a little too Hemingway—too terse (it was smaller than I thought), too depressing (did you see the tourists? And their black socks?) and the gin bottles were neatly stacked next to the Havana Club Rum. I could see why he moved to Idaho in 1960, to eventually enjoy a date with the business end of a 12-gauge.
With one look at the pathetic “Papa” look-alike out front taking pictures with tourists, I could’ve used a 12-gauge as well.
One sight that was somewhat of a relief was a working church. Since John Paul II’s visit in 1998, Cuba has enjoyed a good deal of religious freedom. Churches, synagogues, even mosques were advertising their services openly. The Cathedral of Havana, dating from the 1700s, is the center of Catholic life on the island—a life that was officially put on hold for quite a few years.
They were advertising Good Friday services, which tells me there’s more than one bearded revolutionary that Cubans listen to.
For some interesting armaments—and a good laugh—try the Museum of the Revolution, only a minute or two by bus from Old Havana. The Museum of the Revolution was once the Presidential Palace, from 1926 until 1959, and looks pretty much as it did when the July 26th guys came in 1959, signaling a change in management. The first floors have the old presidential office and cabinet room, to show just what kind of a bastard was Cuba’s last pre-revolutionary president, Fulgencio Batista.
Left or right, there is no argument that Fulgencio Batista was a colossal prick and a real asshole. Batista was president during two stretches of time, from 1933-1944 and 1952-1959. He basically ran the show behind the scenes between these two stretches. He became a typical Latin-American strongman: silencing all opposition, curbing civil rights, engorging himself on government funds meant for public programs, and worst of all, enriching himself off of corrupt deals with American companies and American organized crime figures such as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.
Even the US—which will tolerate ANYONE so long as they don’t utter the “C” word (hint—it’s not cancer)—couldn’t stomach Batista much longer. So it was a relief, somewhat, when he fled into exile on New Years Day of 1959.
The story of that movement is told throughout the rest of the museum, often in interesting and amusing ways. One thing I appreciated was the dioramas of the 1953 Moncada barracks attack, and the 1958 Santa Clara offensive. Nobody makes good dioramas anymore, with the neat cardboard roofs and trees topped with green sponge—although a couple of the roofs need to be replaced.
The Wall of Cretins is definitely a must-see, especially if you’re a fan of bad caricatures from the early 1990s. On the wall are overwrought cartoons of Batista in his officer’s uniform, Ronald Reagan as a cowboy and George H. W. Bush looking sickly and prissy in Roman armor, which makes me wonder whether there are Cuban agents in Skull and Bones.
Take a look outside, towards the back, and there sits a fair amount of military vehicles surrounding the crown jewel of Cuba: the Granma, the boat that took the boys home in 1956 to begin the revolution. It’s surrounded by glass and guards, although the T-34 tank and the fighter wings had no such protection. I dared not ask if the Granma was available for charters during the daytime. I didn’t see any fighting chairs on the back, either.
Yet the revolutionary lovefest can get downright silly. The Che wing (like you didn’t expect one) is off the main route and is lit in an eerie low light. His effects are displayed in a box as if in a funeral parlor. Yet the commanding feature of the room is its goofiest. Dominating the room is a giant diorama scene of two life-sized figures—Che Guevara and his buddy Camilo Cienfuegos—plodding through the jungle. The whole image smacked of the natural history museum: two Cro-Magnon men with fatigues and automatic weapons.
I haven’t yet mentioned much about Camilo Cienfuegos, but he definitely forms a Cuban “trinity”, if you will, with Che and Fidel. Cienfuegos is something of a good-ole-boy character in the revolutionary story: not as ideologically tight-assed as Che, nor as militarily tight-assed as Fidel. Cienfuegos was famous for his good humor, rapport with regular Cubans, and his reckless courage (he preferred to fight standing up, rather than ducking for cover).
In a sense, he embodies all Cubans: good-hearted, sociable with a high degree of solidarity that makes one lose all sense of reason or logic.
Logic does pop up, however, in a more sinister way. All through the museum, I kept wondering why we needed to drive two minutes to a museum that was clearly within walking distance. A jaunt down the blocks from the palace revealed why. Remember that tourism in Cuba is designed to keep reality as far away as possible from the tourist, and that neighborhood was all too real.
Dilapidated old buildings. Apartments with, little, if any, furnishings. Locals milling around or walking to and fro, in what looked like hand-me-down clothes from a decade earlier. A sign saying that “Water was coming Sunday,” which may or may not have been wishful thinking.
The local store, however, topped it all. It just didn’t seem like a store. There were a few meal sacks, a scale, and an old lady behind empty shelves and a giant chalkboard. On this chalkboard had beans, coffee, sugar, corn, cooking oil – all commodities rationed to all Cubans. Yet there were what I thought were dates, and I pray to God that they weren’t. If so, then this shop hasn’t seen coffee since January. Same with sugar, probably the same with corn.
This was not a place to spend CUCs, unless you plan to subsidize a family for a month (which can be done with 20-25 CUC).
The cat was out of the bag a long time ago, so all this wasn’t that surprising. What amazed me was the effort it took to actually AVOID this place. If you’re ashamed of something so much, I guess you’ll go to any lengths to not confront the situation.
Yet there’s no time for too much contemplation—our chariot waited for another visit with functionaries. After lunch, we went to the Friendship House, a house with a tragic love story too convoluted to remember, but was now home of the tour company and also the institute that is its parent company, the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, or ICAP. ICAP’s purpose is to promote “in all possible ways the relationships of friendship towards Cuba.”
This seemed sincere enough. The Friendship House staff were very nice, and the two speakers who spoke about ICAP were very friendly and open to our questions—even mine, which at that point needed to be asked.
In America, if you call for the end of the Cuban embargo, certain words are thrown in your direction: commie, leftist, pinko, granola, hippie, drape-smoker, dopehead, Castro-lover, Che-lover, socialist pig, etc. etc. Frankly, the ending of the embargo labels you an outsider, an outcast, and a freak.
I am none of the things above. In fact, I was probably the cop that put you in jail for being these things.
Yet it is becoming clear to me (and to others in power as well) that the embargo does nothing but cement Fidel in power as he uses it as his bogeyman to scare Cuba into submission. Although I see a different conclusion, I do have a similar objective.
Frankly, groups like mine, in large part, are already affirming what they believe. It was mostly preaching to the choir—and a loud choir, at that. To them, I’m the greaser out back revving my Harley during the Ave Maria while smoking a joint and fingering Mary O’Shaughnessy from St. Agnes down the street.
Now I’m going to sound really arrogant, but I’m being as fair as I can. If this embargo is to be lifted, its guys like me that have to be convinced.
Even though the “direct action,” is noble and can often get the attention of people in power, the guys like me have a more direct “in.” We know the people in power, went to school with the children of the people in power, and have more direct access to actual powerbrokers. Jose Serrano and Bernie Sanders may listen to the Venceremos brigade, but real power in Washington see them as a nuisance, not as a viable policy option.
So I asked the nice ladies if ICAP were spearheading any efforts to get conservatives like me to come research Cuba, and (this wasn’t said, obviously) conservatives who resent the fact that they must listen to official rhetoric at 3 in the afternoon without the requisite rum sloshing.
The translator issued my demands, the ladies smiled and gave a confusing answer that I forgot (even though I understand Spanish). Asking the others, my question wasn’t answered—not like I was actually expecting a straight answer.
The last stop was at the Plaza of the Revolution, the center of Cuba’s revolutionary government. It’s a plaza in the academic sense of the term, in that it’s a common space between a lot of important landmarks. Basically, it’s a paved lot in front of the grotesquely huge Marti Monument, and facing one of the most fearsome buildings in Cuba—the Ministry of the Interior, or MININT.
The front of the building has a huge wrought-iron rendering of the famous Korda photograph of Che Guevara. This made perfect sense: in the early days, Che was responsible, along with Raul Castro, of rounding up and “administering justice” to dozens of Batista apparatchiks—justice largely administered through a 7.62 mm slug straight to the temple.
The guards in front were nervous about me taking pictures of the place. Maybe they wanted to drown out the torture sessions inside, where counterrevolutionaries are subject to full-length Bertolt Brecht plays in the original German followed by generous choruses of Guantanamera. That would make any man talk. I’d start after Act I of Mother Courage (note the forced irony).
The night brought more important concerns. If the revolutionary rhetoric didn’t brainwash me, the sports hysteria certainly did—I was concerned about my Industriales. Industriales of Havana was playing game 7 of the national baseball championship with Villa Clara, and any nighttime excursion will involve this game somewhere.
Industriales basically equates to the New York Yankees of Cuba. Since its inception after the revolution, Industriales had been Cuban champion 11 times and were looking for ring # 12. According to the bartender at the Riviera, our first stop, the team has suffered from a piss-poor bullpen, thus forcing this final game.
By the time we got to a music club in Miramar, the game was well into extra innings, and the dance floor was not as packed as Cubans crammed into the side bars to watch the game. The gaggle of whores approached once, but then kept their distance. We were of a different mind that night—can the Lions of the Prado win against the bumpkins from Santa Clara? And why was I giving a shit about a 7-hour ballgame by amateurs that can’t turn a decent double play?
On the last out of the game, the place exploded. People were hugging, kissing, high-fiving all over the place. The DJs and the band suddenly sprouted blue Industriales gear and chanted their praises well into the night. Even the hookers seemed happy, though it could be because the tourists would be shelling out more in this celebratory mood.
We continued dancing for an hour or two more. It was an awesome time.
For one night, being in Cuba seemed downright normal, even in spite of the lunacy of daylight.
For Part VI, we’ll see a “literacy museum”, a visit with a Castro, my first encounter with dissidents as well as my most counter-revolutionary act to date.