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.
You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Part VII
An obligatory picture of an old 50's car in Havana. More will come later.
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.
Do a good job. Remember Che is watching.
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.
"We are fighting for a society that is 100% fair, with a true equality of possibilities for all children and citizens of the nation." ~ Fidel
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.
How about a nice box with Che's face on it...
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.
...or maybe a wall-hanging key holder with Che's vigorous visage...
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.
...or perhaps lovely figurines of both Che and Fidel, each with a detachable Cohiba!
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.
Anti-Imperialist Plaza. Note the forest of flagpoles in the back.
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.
Crowds at the concert.
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
Elian Gonzalez Statue
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.
The Bim Bom, where the crowds are lively and the ice cream runs free...until it's closed.
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.
Filed under Uncategorized
Tagged as Che Guevara, Civil Rights, Comedy, Commentary, Communications, Cuba, Cuba history, Cuban cinema, Cuban Travel, Cultural Literacy, current events, Education, Educational leadership, Elian Gonzalez, Fidel Castro, History, homosexuality in Cuba, Humor, Humour, ICAIC, Latin American history, LGBT issues in Cuba, motion pictures, movies, Opinion, Social studies, Teachers, Teaching, Travel, World History