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.
You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Part VIII
Santa Maria del Mar.
I’m fully convinced that there is no social, political or moral problem that can’t be solved with palm trees, endless beaches, and copious amounts of hooch.
My malaise of the two days previous—a malaise that drove me to violent, often psychopathic thoughts—would finally break on this last day in Cuba. No, I didn’t join the Orlando Bosch fan club, nor did I go on some right-wing killing spree. No members of the CCP were under my knife; not a single CDR apparatchik was swinging from a rope in a rage.
In fact, exactly the opposite: Saturday was the day I reminded myself, for good or bad, why I was falling in love with Cuba.
It began with our group taking an unscheduled break from the routine, at a little place called Santa Maria del Mar. Santa Maria del Mar is part of a string of beach towns that stretch from Havana’s eastern edge. Go far enough, and you reach Varadero, the massive resort mecca of white-sand beach, posh resorts and crowds of tourists that fuels the Cuban tourism machine.
Santa Maria was, thankfully, not Varadero (although I did see Canadians there, too). It was, in fact, a local beach where local Cubans tend to go. Local beach usually conjures up Coney Island, or the Jersey Shore—littered coastlines, mobs of tanned, sweaty bodies in brackish water, teeming boardwalks of hawkers and tacky shops.
Nothing prepared me for this. Though I heard other beaches are more spectacular, it was hard to imagine. Santa Maria was just too beautiful.
The turquoise water, sand clean and white, cushioning breezes, palm trees swaying, little huts to buy drinks…I can see why so many tourists flock here. Sometimes, the last thing you want to think about is politics. A dip in the water, a tan and a drink is what’s necessary.
That wonderful beach couldn’t have come at a better time.
Lying on the deck chair, my hat covering my already-red pate, with the world’s best pina colada in my hand, a voice shouted in my brain:
“Hey asshole! What the fuck’s the matter with you! That’s some sick shit going through your brain, buddy, and I KNOW you’re not like that! Get your fucking act together!”
The Marine drill sergeant that is my conscience couldn’t be clearer. I was so foolish to fritter my last two days in pointless, and violent, daydreams. It wasn’t me, all that killing and gunplay, the horrific thoughts about people with which I felt a genuine connection.
It also dawned on me that it was the Saturday before Easter. Even for a Catholic as lapsed as I, my attitude was entirely un-Christian. There had to be a more positive way to channel my anger, my rage, my indignation.
Inside the Artisan Market
After the sojourn at the beach, we went to the artisan market for some souvenir shopping. It was a very organized affair near a pretty smelly stretch of Havana harbor. Paintings lined two sides of the market, with the usual smattering of shirts, caps, knickknacks and whatnot in the middle. This was definitely a tourist paradise, and it offered me nothing as I quickly strolled through the booths.
Instead, I took a walk outside.
Walking through the streets of the neighborhood outside the market, much of what I hated about Cuba was there in front of me: the dilapidated houses, the lack of amenities, the stores with empty shelves, etc. But that didn’t matter to me today.
On one corner, some guys were fixing an old car. On another, a small gym was packed with people watching what I guessed was amateur boxing. There were women doing laundry, neighbors deep in conversation, and children playing in the street.
Anywhere you go in the world, children have the best radar for foreigners. A group of them immediately took me in, noticing my camera. We played their brand of stickball for a while, using a bottle cap for a ball and a PVC pipe for a bat. It was a great time, at least for the kids: watching a fat, out-of-shape Yankee imperialist shank bottlecaps in all directions had them rolling in laughter.
some of my new friends
A couple of kids, who seemed a little ashamed to be doing it, then came up to me and asked for money. They put together a story about their mother needing an operation and not having enough money. I wasn’t fooled, but I didn’t care: soon enough, the kids on my impromptu kickball team lined up and got about 10 CUC a piece for ice cream, candy and whatever crap they normally could never get. I was able to take some photos of them in return.
When I left to get back to the hotel, the kids were there to wish me bon voyage. I almost cried.
Two new friends mugging for the camera.
That short time with the local kids was the most cleansing experience of my whole trip. I must’ve spent over 100 CUCs on those kids, but it was the best money I’ve spent all week. In my mind, it was better there than in the flea market, where I’m sure a good chunk of that dough goes to the government.
Even more important, it finally broke, once and for all, that terrible dark cloud over me. The good Catholic in me came shining through, and any negative feeling I felt, especially towards anyone on my tour, melted away.
Even though my own political opinions, and my opinions about the Cuban government, didn’t change, my attitude toward Cuba certainly did. Stop shouting so much, stop talking, I said to myself.
Just look and listen. Your senses will never steer you wrong.
When I got back, I made one last visit to Juan’s bookstore. One of the ways I was going to channel my emotion was through charity. Upon greeting Juan, I asked if there was anything he needed, or if I could send back any messages to anyone in the States. He politely refused, but I insisted on giving him some cash to help him out. Ever the rebel, Juan insisted I take some more books with me since he felt bad taking my money for nothing. My bags were already bursting (why is it that the contraband books are all huge, and hardcover?), and I was in no mood to pay more for overweight fees at the airport. Yet I really admired Juan’s spirit, and on giving him a last hug, really hoped to see him again.
I had a great meal in a (wait for it) Middle-Eastern restaurant in Old Havana with great new friends and soda. In a bit of counter-revolution, we’ve made it a practice to sneak in a bottle of rum to avoid giving any marked-up cocktail costs to the regime. It worked until the wait staff didn’t give a shit, which meant we were brazenly hawking the bottle on the table. To the barricades…and bring some ice!
Since we were leaving early in the morning, I made it my business to stay up until we left the next morning. To that end, most of our tour group (the younger folk, mostly) got together as much beer, rum, soda and cups as we could muster and had a Cuban good time on the Malecon. With booze, some little cigars that came from God-knows-where, the music on the street and the people along the seawall, the setting couldn’t be better for a perfect last night.
Mr. D on his last night in Havana.
In my glee, in my zeal, I forgot all of the negativity of the past, at least for a moment. It was important, on this last day, to see everyone for what they were, not what my demented brain was creating them to be.
To be fair, I found something to like in all my groupmates. I may not agree with many of them politically, or socially, or in any other way. Yet it’s safe to say that it was a group of people that were, for the most part, great to be around.
Mariana brought her friends from the last night, and we were all pretty much the last few people hanging out as the hours dripped away…12…1…2…3…
As I talked to her friends, one mantra kept coming out which I hope resonates through the island:
There was a Cuba before the revolution.
There will be a Cuba after the revolution.
Cuba will always be here.
In a place where change can come sooner rather than later, the importance of identity can never be underestimated. Change is going to happen, whether those on the left or right like it or not. If it does, Cuba cannot forget what makes it a special and unique place.
It has nothing to do with a group of bearded guys with guns, a repressive government and a stagnant economy.
Without Cuba, we wouldn’t have beautiful beaches, rich colonial heritage, a polyglot society of African, Native American and European influences, great rum, fantastic cigars, strong cups of coffee, music such as son, mambo, salsa, cha cha, Jose Marti’s stirring words, Gutierrez Alea’s thought-provoking films, black beans and rice, a lechon on the barbecue, the daiquiri, the Cuba Libre, the mojito, great baseball players (the ones that defect, anyway.), reruns of I Love Lucy, straw hats, old cars, and an even older spirit of camaraderie and bonhomie that can only exist on an island like this one.
Say what you will about the politics, because Cuba doesn’t need it to be a special place. It already was one, and as I took off on the plane home, I saw the island one last time.
It was so beautiful.
It was a beauty that made me angry sometimes, even psychotic.
Yet it was beautiful, nonetheless.
I really grew to love this country. More importantly, I cannot wait for the opportunity to go back.
Next Time, an Epilogue will tie up my loose ends on Cuba, including an analysis of what is in store for the future of the island.
As an added bonus, I’m putting a music video to a popular song from Cuba, Gozando en la Habana (Having Fun in Havana) by Charanga Habanera. It’s cheesy, I know, but it was a real feel-good song, and it always put a smile on my face. Enjoy.
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