Stanley Fogel’s ¿Que Coño Pasa? Snapshots of my Wonderful Cuban Life is the first book-length text ever published on Numéro Cinq, another first, another huge milestone in our adventure in digital publishing. I am calling it a “What it’s like living here” because, in fact, it tells us what it’s like living in Cuba today. But, of course, it doesn’t fit the pattern: it’s a book. The first chapter, the introduction, takes the lesson of Edward Said’s Orientalism and applies it to the West’s construction of the so-called Cuban historical fact. The next three chapters are very much a memoir of the years Stanley Fogel has spent living and teaching in Cuba, the personal facts behind the wall of words. Snapshots is thus a blend of the critical and the personal (with a dash of Fidel Castro’s own rhetoric added for flavour). Stanley Fogel is in a good position to see what he sees. A Canadian scholar with a yen to be “displaced,” he has spent about four months a year since the early 1990s in Cuba. He is a quirky, perceptive, thoughtful (critical in the best sense) guide to that other world. He tells a story different from the received wisdom, he fills his story with people and anecdote—our Virgil.
Me: I spent 36 years at the University of Waterloo/St. Jerome’s University where I was overcome by deconstruction and taught critical theory. A travel book, Gringo Star, ECW Press, only partly captures my desire to be displaced in the world. In 1999 I was awarded an honorary degree from Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. Re. the opus at hand: I have spent c. 4 months per year since 1991 living in Havana, discovering the richness and distinctiveness of Cuban life–culture and politics transformed by the Cuban Revolution. I am retiring there shortly. (Do come visit if you’d like an ‘insider’s’ sense of Havana.) —Stanley Fogel
¿QUE COÑO PASA?
SNAPSHOTS OF MY WONDERFUL CUBAN LIFE
By Stanley Fogel
A mi hermano, Mario Masvidal, y la revolución cubana
Thanks to Elizabeth Effinger and Trieneke Gastmeier
for typing and grooming the manuscript.
Thanks, also, to St. Jerome’s University for grants
towards the preparation of the manuscript.
The photos, man with libreta and man with eggs,
were taken by Giorgio Viera.
Chapter 1: ¿COÑO, QUE PASA? An Introduction
A loose translation of “¿Coño, Que Pasa?” is “Jeez, whazzup?” “¿Que Coño Pasa?” is a grammatically skewed version of the first phrase. Its speaker is betraying more bewilderment and/or astonishment at what s/he has witnessed or heard than in that initial formulation. Both, though, transmit the effusive, gestural nature of Cubans’ speech and flamboyant responses to what is happening locally or beyond. Indeed, to absorb the import of the remark most fully, it is best to hear it uttered by someone, steeped in Cubans’ idiomatic lexicon and delivery, who shortens the noun to “’ño,” confident its meaning will survive. If you’re planning on spending time in Cuba and want to sound authentic, work on your “’ño”; remember, the shorter the syllable the better: taking the first, small bite out of the word “gnocchi” will suffice. Despite the possibly sexist dimensions (coño=cunt) of the formulations, no offense, feminist or otherwise, should necessarily be taken by the addressee of either remark, given that both men and women have been heard to repeat them, most often in gender-free contexts.
Too often, however, the voices of individual Cubans have been muffled or overwhelmed, most noxiously, of course, by pervasive U.S. media disseminating their political leaders’ rabid and hawkish views regarding the island. “A Caribbean gulag” is the mantra incessantly uttered, one which erases any sense of the lively, polyphonic voices existing there. Much more persuasive and compelling than dogmatic right-wing comments, to my ear at any rate, are Fidel Castro’s speeches which offer the vision of utopian and egalitarian possibilities for Cuba’s inhabitants and, indeed, for the world. That impressive voice, however, has come to represent, metonymically and univocally, the diverse people who live in Cuba. In addition, it often offers idealized visions that can by no means always or easily be translated into quotidian life. Nonetheless, not least because Fidel’s speeches have been so influential in shaping Cuban government policy and because they have not had the widespread reach of American anti-Cuban material, excerpts from some of those speeches are presented here, interspersed with my own commentary. They are meant to act more as a parallel discourse than as a countervailing commentary. While it is true, that they can draw attention to a discrepancy between the ideal and the real, they also point to genuine achievements as well as noble aspirations.
These pages, it is hoped, give some hint of the richness of Cuban life, a fecundity jammed, again, to a significant extent by American efforts to isolate the country and to caricature its unique political, cultural and social dimensions. While the U.S. bombards Cuba with messages, threatening, hectoring and proselytizing, Cuban versions of itself and its interpretations of world events and tendencies don’t get a hearing of any kind in North America, unless one subscribes to Granma International or accesses granma.cu on the web. With globalization of an American-capitalist kind that has produced homogenization in much of the rest of the world, the idiosyncratic qualities of Cuba since the Revolution are even more worthy of examination, respect and transmission. In Orientalism, his groundbreaking work that in many ways launched postcolonial studies and strove to articulate a postcolonial sensibility, Edward Said pronounced on the dangers and distortions inherent in a Western imposition of meaning on the East. Surely, U.S. constructions of Cuba are no less pernicious; they may, in fact, be more deleterious given Cuba’s size, its proximity to the belligerent presence immediately to the north and its pre-revolutionary interconnectedness with the U.S.A. To that list, one could add the current constellation of political forces in Florida which dictates, in large measure, the direction of Washington’s policies towards Cuba.
I have lived in Havana for approximately three months a year since 1992, the epicentre of the “periodo especial” [special period], when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, then Cuba’s sponsor and ally, food, gasoline and electricity all but disappeared for a time from the lives of ordinary Cubans. I witnessed the seismic shift firsthand when, early in my time spent in Havana, I happened to be passing by the University of Havana Library. Just outside the doors was a large, unsightly pile of Russian language books dumped there unceremoniously by the staff. The special period’s duress may have begun; at least, though, there was the satisfaction of jettisoning a Soviet presence that many felt was joyless, arrogant, oppressive and, possibly even, racist. Traces of that occupation do remain, principally in the numerous Ivans, Liubas and Vladimirs registered in Cuba’s census. Freed from naming their children from such imperialist sources, many parents opt for such freewheeling monikers as Misleidys (my lady) or Roelvis (you’re Elvis) that augment the sense, readily apparent, of Cuban expressiveness and buoyancy. Not that politically-based nomenclatures are passé; there is always the chance of encountering a Usnavi (U.S. Navy) or, more in line with official Cuban sympathies, a Hanoi. Famously, a kid with that latter name in the early 1970s was a “one hit wonder,” singing a song demanding the release of American dissident, Angela Davis, then in a U.S. jail. When she was freed, one of her first stops was Havana where she appeared at a huge rally in her honour.
Any Cuban professional of a certain age probably can recount experiences gained in Moscow or Kiev and can still insult the unsuspecting in one of several Eastern European languages learned while studying abroad. Clearly, though, remnants of Soviet power have been easier to extirpate than the residue of Spanish and American influences; there are, nonetheless, many more Ladas than Chevys still on the roads. Also, the Russian embassy still dominates the skyline in the district of Playa; however, Krushchev’s successors probably can’t or won’t boast, as he evidently did, that they use the tower at its center to spy effectively on the U.S.A. The embassy is also probably the most loosely guarded of Havana’s diplomatic corps facilities; even the most relentless critics of the Cuban system no doubt rank sanctuary there at the bottom of their lists.
Not that the cataclysmic global event which precipitated the country’s difficulties in the early 1990s altered the cadences of the Cuban Revolution’s leader. In a speech on January 1, 1999 commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the ouster of Batista and the installation of his own Revolutionary regime, Fidel Castro could still say, in his mesmerizing, measured, articulate way, “The most extraordinary page of glory and of patriotic and revolutionary determination has been written during these years of the special period.” Many Cubans concur, though no one I have spoken to would like to have to display that steely determination and self-abnegation again. Others enact the New Year’s Day ritual that promises, if you walk around the block carrying an empty suitcase, you will soon embark upon a life-changing, i.e., exiling, journey (abetted, of course, by American laws calling out to and luring Cubans, laws inspired by Cuban-Americans who packed their bags roughly fifty years ago and cheer on defectors tallied on a sporting event-like scorecard which, they fantasize, records their victory).
In 1999 I received an honorary degree from ISA, Instituto Superior de Arte, Havana, Cuba’s leading post-secondary institution for promising artists, actors, musicians, singers and dancers. A friend, Juanito, left at my disposal a restored convertible that before its cosmetic makeover into a classic car was ridden in, so the story goes, by Naomi Campbell on a visit of hers to Cuba, the purpose of which was an appearance at the International Cigar Aficionado Festival. This was before cellphones were readily available in Cuba, so no assault charges were pursued against her while she was on the island. The car, a 1954 Plymouth Belvedere, was owned at the time by an American who paid $8,000 for it; then, he was ousted from the island, evidently for unseemly behaviour, allowing my friend, the mechanic, the luxury of claiming what he had greased and refashioned. In 2006, to offer a counterpoint to my academic award, I was arrested for (unintentionally) passing counterfeit currency, adulterated versions of the convertible peso called a CUC, an American Express-style tourist dollar (pardon the imperialist-laden analogy) that replaced the American dollar which itself was recognized by the Revolution as the principal hard currency to circulate on the island as late as 1993. Confirming perhaps the clichéd, but probably undeserved, reputation that communists produce shoddy goods, the bills all had the same serial numbers; moreover, they were smaller than their genuine confreres. Not that I noticed the discrepancy at the time. Ever after, I have held the CUCs I have purchased, even those distributed by banks or official currency conversion outlets, up to the light to confirm that Jose Martí’s ubiquitous image is hidden in them, the definitive sign that they are legit.
To give the latter situation a bit of a heroic gloss, the complainant to the police was for a time – until, that is, his complaint and testimony – Nilo, my occasional chauffeur. At $15 per day, he had easily stored up sufficient funds to claim I stiffed him for $100. I’m convinced that the bogus bills were acquired by him on the black market, not earned from me. Regardless of his crimes and misdemeanors, not to mention his poor eyesight, stuffy Lada, its puttering pace and his inevitable detours to purchase cigars which were inevitably unavailable, Nilo, grizzled and taciturn, had cachet: he had, he swore—and neighbours verified his claim–served under Che in the 1958 capture of the city of Santa Clara that marked a major victory for Castro, Che and the Revolution. His eyesight had probably been better then. The still pock-marked façade of the Hotel Santa Clara Libre continues to broadcast the victory Che and Nilo obtained there. It attests to the shelling that caused some of the last Batista hold-outs to surrender. Nonetheless, Nilo’s no doubt plentiful supply of similarly numbered banknotes will, since our falling out, have to be redeemed by other yumas who will no doubt be smitten by the Che connection.
Despite my extended time in Cuba, a yuma is what I am called. Gringo may be the label in some other Latin American countries, but thanks to the popularity here of the first film adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s story, “The 3:10 to Yuma City,” yuma is the term on most Cubans’ lips for a North American and has been since the 1950s. As Louis Perez, Jr., points out in his scholarly book, On Becoming Cuban, the relationship between Cubans and Americans, despite the artificial rupture the American embargo has caused, is a strong one, the term, yuma, being one of its minor vestiges. Even with the strong bond between the late Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and Fidel Castro, no distinctive cognomen for Canadians has emerged, regardless of the greater esteem in which Canadians are held here, so yuma does for us as well.
I may be a yuma, but my Spanish speech has become saturated with Cuban idioms and Cuban rhythms. On a recent trip to Venezuela during which I accompanied a group of ISA professors on a scholarly and pedagogical mission, I was flattered that Venezuelans I encountered there told me in somewhat bewildered fashion that I sounded like a Cuban. That I was thrilled might come as a surprise to purists, especially those with an element of imperialism in their elocutionary longings. Cubans speak as rapidly as auctioneers, eliding “s’s,” so that, for instance, “dos cervezas” [two beers] gets truncated and emerges as “do’cerveza.” Listening to Spanish speakers from the mother country—and even from most of her other linguistic children—is to think one is, on the contrary, on the receiving end of a Berlitz lesson. My cubanisms are perhaps even more of a giveaway about my sources and inspiration than the rapidity with which I speak: out of my mouth “su madre,” the truncated version of an obscenity about one’s mother, frequently pops when someone irritates me. (Even Fidel, in one television appearance, started to speak of someone’s mother with those words before he switched to the more benign “su mama” in order to avoid uttering an insult.) “¿Que coño pasa?” or its slightly milder version also often spills unhesitatingly from my lips.
A handsome and pervasive presence on Cuban television, Hector Villar got his start as a sportscaster on the local Havana channel. His gesture of two fists meeting in the guise of a baseball bat grip is mine whenever the topic of beisbol, la pelota, is introduced in conversation. Whenever a rendezvous is set for three o’clock in the afternoon, I confirm it as “la hora que mataron a Lola” – no one I have consulted, not even experts on the subject of idiomatic Cuban expressions, knows who Lola was, much less who killed her; still, the phrase endures, certainly on my lips because it has signaled 3p.m. for many Cubans of a certain age. Until he died in 2006, Hector Lima, a fixture for years as the weatherman on the national evening news, welcomed viewers by saying “con mucho afecto lo saludo,” now my own version of “hello” directed at anyone on the island. Given that each of the few television channels available throughout Cuba shows the national news at 8p.m. (except, during the baseball season, for TeleRebelde), Lima’s signature effusive greeting is still easily recognized by just about everyone. I also loved his good-bye tag-line: “les deseo lo mejor en esta su noche” [I wish you the best on this night…]. More divisively, I am drawn to using “compañero/a” as a form of address when I hail people I don’t know. This revolutionary/communist salutation gests a mixed reception, depending on how enthralled the person is with the ongoing Revolution. Some look at me as if I were a Japanese soldier, marooned on Truk, Yap or another mid-Pacific outpost, still thinking World War II was being fought. Others chuckle given my obvious yuma status, though I am unsure if they simulate flag-waving, a sign of addled- or hyper-patriotism, once I am out of sight.
No, I haven’t met Fidel Castro – the question every non-Cuban has posed to me as the litmus test of my infiltration into Cuban society. I did, though, sneak into a photo-op with Ramon Castro, Fidel’s older brother, whose vital role during the early stages of the Revolution was to impersonate Fidel and dupe the CIA’s hitmen. (In all likelihood, not even Lloyd’s of London would have insured him, though given the CIA’s record vis-à-vis Fidel, the company would have made money on the policy.) Indeed, unlike Raul, he looks very much like Fidel. My opportunity to crash a photo-op occurred because Ramon had shown up at ISA for the awarding of a more prestigious honorary degree than mine, “doctor honoris causa” as opposed to “profesor invitado,” this one to Harry Belafonte whose support of Cuba’s right to exist, his denunciation of the American embargo against the island and his material support of Cuban musicians justly earned him that degree. Under one of ISA’s expansive flamboyant trees a few hours before his award ceremony he held court for students, faculty and journalists; in his current rasping whisper of a voice he spoke of the obscenity of American foreign policy, the U.S.A.’s disgraceful conduct in the world and, more specifically, its irrational and relentless hostility towards the Cuban Revolution. Belafonte’s blunt attacks are still relevant given that even so-called liberal American media still find it permissible to carp and whine about Cuba.
In a 2008 article in The New York Review of Books, once a vehicle for progressive commentary, Vaclav Havel and other signatories to a plea for greater freedoms for Tibet delegitimized their remarks with a gratuitous swipe at Cuba, muttering some metaphorical nonsense about “the peace of the graveyard” of all things, when American militarism continues stocking literal resting places—Cuban ones, too, if one takes the simple step of remembering the Bay of Pigs and other reprehensibly invasive and/or terrorist moments past and present. Other more truculent yumas, shall we call them Helms-men, continue to produce, of course, vitriol against Cuba. Christopher Hunt in Waiting for Fidel, a mediocre work that affirms Roland Barthes’ maxim that travel writing is the most self-indulgent and forgiving of genres, never did meet Fidel despite his search being the raison d’être of his book; he met me instead and groused continually about Cuba’s shortcomings in and out of print, something not unexpected for a graduate of Dartmouth College, one of the most fervent of U.S. post-secondary institutions cheerleading on behalf of a particular version of the American way.
Many of the Cubans I did encounter in the early 1990s have, as they say, relocated elsewhere. Manuel Estefania, an ISA professor at the time and the one who helped arrange my initial stint there in 1993, fled to Sweden before I arrived to deliver my lectures that year. He now, I am told, runs an émigré blog critical of the system he left behind. My Cuban weight trainer those early years now resides just five minutes from my apartment in Toronto. The machines in his Cuban gym were built by him in part out of scrap metal; now, he puts rich clientele through their paces at homes with enough mirrored and chrome sheen to please an entire NFL football team. Then, he created programs for, among others, a collection of retirees whom I would hear recite “inhalamos, mantenemos, expulse” [inhale, hold it, breathe out]; he has forgotten that chant his brother now utters to guide a peso-paying collective through their somewhat languorous, but purposeful routines. Now, it’s upwards of seventy dollars per hour for a more individualistic set whose cell phones ring importantly even at dawn, the preferred work-out time for business people and one which doesn’t displace the power lunch. Then, creatine was cadged from Cuba’s national athletes, many of whom are willing, to augment their limited monthly stipends, to supply it on the bustling black market. Their Olympic warm-up suits have been offered to me for modest sums to the point at which, had I bought them, I could outfit the entire team once again in their original garb. Now, designer protein bulks smoothies that in turn bulk his clients’ designer sweat suits.
Jorge Lopez, who when I first met him was a handsome and youthful photographer for Granma, Cuba’s national newspaper and official organ of its communist party, now, still attractive, lives in Guadalajara, Mexico, where his first job as an expatriate photo-journalist for the tabloid press was to shoot the bullet-ridden corpses that are the frequent casualties of the drug-trade there. It almost made him nostalgic, he has told me, for the placid shots of tractors assisting in the sugar harvest or families receiving new Chinese-made refrigerators that fill Granma. The possibility of lunch-time visits to Guadalajara strip clubs though, mitigated for a time his homesickness, offering the kind of entertainment Cuba lacks, regardless of the informal parade of chicas sheathed in lycra whom he still remembers fondly. He now calls himself Giorgio Viera to differentiate himself from the many uncles and cousins inside and outside of Cuba who answer to the name, Jorge Lopez; also, he has fashioned himself as an international award-winning art photographer, garnering a couple of European-based prizes. Then, there is the kid who lived around the corner from me in the Havana neighbourhood of Santa Fe; he would often plead with me to use some of my hair gel. Now he lives – surprise – in Miami where he, no doubt, lingers at Walmart over such opulent and addictive choices as “Ultra” and “Extreme Hold.” As an employee of the complex containing the Havana gym I work out in once told me about the gusanos, as those who have departed for Florida have been called, “good…more for the rest of us,” even if that “more” doesn’t include many varieties of hair products.
For a while, during those especially tough years in the early 1990s, it seemed as if I were the ideal Cuban, maybe the only one: content to ride my one-speed Chinese bicycle, one with too narrow handle bars that almost caused me to capsize when turning, to eat a meat-free diet and to watch Fidel on television, when blackouts didn’t interfere with the transmission, as he spoke, pondered, pointed and spoke again. I displayed none of the weariness that more than fifty years of a world view and a discourse, however noble and egalitarian, caused to descend upon Cubans of a certain age, or on their offspring eager to possess first Walkmans, now MP3 players and cell phones, first Air Jordans, now whatever overpaid jock’s sneakers are au courant. Even the heat which daily drives Cubans to utter “qué calor,” a phrase I heard at least as frequently as “no es fácil,” regarding the difficulty of life in the special period, energized me. I jogged even during the summer, sweat pooling at my feet once I’d completed my run. Afterwards, uncomplainingly, I ate beans and rice, then, the day after, rice and beans.
I loved, too, lining up at the bodega, the heavily subsidized grocery and supply store that Cubans with their libretas or ration cards rely on to purchase their staples. Because my dear friend Mario, whose house I often shared, was usually too busy to attend to what is sometimes a lengthy if vital function, I took on the role of his “mensajero” or messenger. Many working Cubans hire mensajeros, proletarian gofers for proletarians, but I’m sure I was the only yuma willing to perform such schlepper duties. Cuban nationals thought I was loco, but, along with a troop of mostly older women, I would arrive most mornings at the bodega that serves Mario’s neighbourhood. His libreta was my passport there. No one questioned my presence even though I surely looked out of place and though the card, actually a booklet, is as low tech as the manual apportioning of the rations that is undertaken at the bodega. The libreta has Mario’s name and address on the first page, a list of those living in his house who are entitled to supplies and spaces for the workers to initial products (such as rice, sugar, etc.) and quantities released. There’s nary a fingerprint encoded or iris pattern registered to prepare anyone for the American invasion, corporate or military (or both), promised by the rabid Yankee right.
The bodega used to be situated just across the street from Mario’s house in the district of Santa Fe in what had been a supermarket in the 1950s; the owners, keen to embrace the Revolution’s precepts, granted it to the state even before Fidel asked for the keys to every till in the country to be turned over. They retained the apartment built over the store which their son continues to inhabit. I and the other neighbours occasionally heard him shouting that he wanted his family’s property back; this was met with bemused and indulgent looks from all, even the head of the local CDR, Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, who lived nearby. (A worse fate evidently befell a parrot, prepped by some joker or other, in an outlying town, whose counter-revolutionary squawks in the town’s central square resulted in its sudden disappearance one day. Some, though, attributed the bird’s mysterious departure, somewhat less politically, to hunger and the persistent food shortages of the special period.) The former supermarket has been refurbished somewhat spiffily as a hard currency store, the busiest spot in the ‘hood, where electronic goods are wedged up against shoes and where clothes are arrayed beside canned and frozen goods, the better to siphon off the mainly American greenbacks sent from Miami by relatives and spent now as convertible Cuban pesos, rich cousins to moneda nacional, the local tender.
Since the upgrading of the building and its conversion, I’ve gone around the corner a couple of blocks to the bodega’s current location. It is a smaller space, the ground floor of one of the 1970s or ‘80s apartment buildings built collectively and cooperatively by those who then moved into their units. While a shortage of construction supplies through the 1990s halted that kind of collective venture for a time, community projects have resumed as the economy has picked up. During one summer recently, grade schools in Havana were targeted for refurbishing. Materials were delivered; then, parents took over, painting and plastering with the kind of zeal Che Guevara purportedly showed when he helped out with undertakings such as these – which, evidently, he often did. Indeed, public buildings have acquired a sheen unseen for many years–stylish restorations visible throughout the city.
On the way to the bodega, especially recently, I pass a couple of the fruit and vegetable stands that have sprung up throughout the country now that the worst days of the special period are over. My favourite offers primarily local, organic produce as all do; Havana has ceded its vacant lots to gardens which now, it is said, grow enough to supply the entire city with its produce needs. The country is way ahead of the yuppie-led push for local foodstuffs that has become de rigueur in North America. Cuban tomatoes, in fact, deserve an international food critic’s paean; the local onions are flavourful and the mangos juicy and rich. In addition to those ambrosial goods, though, the guy behind the counter of this stand cheerfully, if covertly, also pushes black market Viagra which, at one convertible peso a pop, would make even an Ontario university professor – whose drug plan covers such an essential medicine – envious. While there are fake cigars aplenty, some containing toilet paper, a once relatively scarce commodity as filler, loaded into genuine Cohiba cigar boxes and sold to unsuspecting tourists, in this case, where there’s smoke, as it were, there’s fire, performance matching packaging. Such enterprising activity indeed renders superfluous the booming trade on the internet, more and more accessible to Cubans, but still restricted for the most part to government, school and business venues.
It’s more than impulsive shopping that makes me stock up on this bootleg item. Marcia, one of the bodega’s workers, used to deliver Mario’s rations before I took over and we occasionally used that pretext to build an intimacy. At her insistence this involved formal discussion about the rations at the door before a request for a glass of water that legitimized, she averred, her entry into the house. The next rule was that all the louvered windows be closed for fear of gossip and resentment in the densely interconnected neighbourhood. Had anyone been snooping, of course, the very act of shutting the windows would have been as transparent as the glimpse of an unhooked bra. Nonetheless, the daily ration of bread, one fibrous roll per legitimate occupant and the less mandated, but equally nourishing breasts of Marcia made the ritual pleasurable as well as salubrious. Despite the cessation of encounters with Marcia, I am still someone who fervently endorses the health and taste benefits of the bread, regarded more skeptically by many Cubans who, with more disposable currency, hard or soft, opt for a Wonder-breadish product available for purchase at supermarkets or bakeries. I was chagrined that the wife of a Cuban friend, both of whom were visiting me in Toronto, stocked up on that very brand while there; mind you, it is also commonplace for touring Cubans, before their return to Havana, to load up on, among other items, electronic goods at Walmart, happy to ignore my “hegemonic, anti-worker” tirade that I direct against that outfit. With little in the way of commercial goods available to them, Cubans, in and out of the country, acquire what they can without regard for my epicene Canadian-made socialist criteria. That previous bit of gossip about Marcia and me should not, rest assured, deflect from the revolutionary purity with which I undertook my mensajero duties. The subsidized packets of coffee may, as some people unfairly claim, be adulterated with chick peas, while the premium beans go into vacuum-packed Cubita bags available primarily for tourists and for export. Still, the bartering, in which I participated, that goes on outside the bodega among coffee drinkers who don’t smoke, and therefore offer up their cheap cigarettes, and smokers who don’t drink coffee keeps the system functioning smoothly.
Oblivious, perhaps, to the commercial dimensions of right and left in capitalist milieus, Cubans can, at the very least, locate Baghdad on a map with greater accuracy than Americans whose high school educations for the most part privilege cheerleading over geography. Beyond that, they respond strongly to reverberations of a political nature around the world: a cheer went up in my gym when recent pictures of the journalist chucking his shoes at George W. Bush were shown on tv. Moreover, Cubans are alert to their own political significance in the world at large. At the 2004 Havana Film Festival, the Colombian feature, El Rey, had its premiere screening. A clichéd if lively narco-thriller (street kid morphs into a vain, tyrannical drug lord and then into a stiff), it, nonetheless, played to a raucous, sold-out crowd in the cavernous, art deco if dowdy, two-tiered Yara Cinema in the heart of the heart of Havana, just across the street from the park and ice cream parlour made famous internationally in the film Fresa y Chocolate. (Be careful where you plunk yourself down in the Yara, however; some of the seat bottoms are missing!) Most of the films tend to sell out. A ticket costs three pesos, affordable, as are all sporting and cultural events, even by the vast majority of Cubans whose earnings are in moneda nacional and are modest. There is none of the booking online months in advance and little of the pretentious art film ambience that causes a cynic to want to slash the tires of the limousines recruited for and parked outside the cinemas hosting, say, the Toronto International Film Festival. Nor is there the People magazine-style star-gushing and Hollywood-slobbering associated with such an event. Husky-voiced, full-breasted Nora, in line with me for El Rey and wearing camouflage-coloured shorts and t-shirt that camouflaged little (thereby, perhaps linking Cannes and Cuba), had never even heard of Jack Nicholson or, thankfully twice over, seen him on television courtside at Los Angeles Lakers’ basketball games. Not that the lack of pop cultural fawning eliminates fandom at the Havana festival: an Almodóvar film being shown at that 2004 festival brought out the police; would-be attendees had spilled out onto the street blocking traffic.
Anyway, the audience for El Rey was especially vocal after the film had been screened. At that point the producer, director and lead actor took to the stage. Instead of clichéd artspeak pap or, less likely, profundity about their cinematic achievement, they immediately shouted “Viva Cuba.” Then they went on to proclaim the importance and necessity of the Cuban Revolution in ways that would no doubt cause Colombia’s current president, Uribe, just about the only right-wing leader in Latin America at the moment, to froth at the mouth. They concluded simply by thanking everyone in attendance for being Cuban which for them, as for many others around the world, clearly connotes achievement and merit; in most other countries, of course, one’s nationality isn’t as loaded politically. The response from the audience was a thunderous ovation, not at all coaxed, and this, perhaps surprisingly, coming from a predominantly youthful audience, a segment of the Cuban population, somewhat jaded by, if not inured to, the oft-repeated and self-proclaimed glories of the Revolution.
In this regard, Cubans are, possibly, not unlike Israelis who, freighted with monolithic or dualistic symbolic, national value which can obliterate or at least obscure their sense of themselves beyond this construction, may be sensitive to fissures within their country, but are unreceptive to the din of usually hostile pronouncements from large portions of the international community. I even noticed this fierce rejection of outsiders’ assessments of Cuba’s history and society at a few of the academic conferences I have attended in Havana. Twice, I watched as well-meaning yumas gave papers –– one on Julio Antonio Mella, the early twentieth century founder of the Cuban Communist Party, the other on commercial dimensions of artisanal practices in Cuba –– that led to perceptible muttering during the conferees’ deliveries and resistant commentary in the question and answer sessions which followed. Both addresses had been sympathetic and well-intentioned; however, both involved speaking for and about Cuba and Cubans, tendencies already too pronounced in official international forums and many media abroad.
The accumulated weight that a country’s image brings to bear on its citizens can distort, misrepresent or sometimes enhance their identities. This is clearly the case when it comes to Cuba and, Fidel Castro, its former leader who, more often than not, stands in metonymically for the whole country. As a recent biographer contends, Castro is “still a bone…stuck in American throats,” leaving Americans unable to swallow anything redeemable emanating from Cuba or, most especially, its now somewhat retired comandante. This is so despite the opposite, laudatory view from many parts of the world: Nelson Mandela’s praise for Cuba’s role in anti-colonial African wars; thanks for the phalanxes of Cuban medical personnel sent to needy countries around the world; thanks, too, for the Cuban teachers eradicating illiteracy in a number of countries; more recently, of course, acknowledgement from a plethora of Latin American leaders that Castro’s vision is the one that will transform a world glutted with American-inspired neo-liberalism and debased by laissez-faire capitalism.
Then, too, there is the generous creation of ELAM, Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina, the Latin American School of Medicine, situated on the outskirts of Havana in what was once a Cuban naval academy. Venerated by a good many international leaders whose citizens study there without having to pay anything, ELAM received its apotheosis in Comandante, Oliver Stone’s documentary about Fidel. In the film, he and Fidel tour the facilities to a rapturous reception by students, staff and faculty. ELAM graduates doctors from nations too impoverished or, as in the case of the USA, too unwilling to provide a tuition-free medical education for qualified candidates. I happened one evening to be eating dinner at La Vicaria, an inexpensive restaurant in Siboney district, relatively close to ELAM, that also serves as a training facility for Cuban youth entering the hospitality industry. In walked a group of ELAM medical students, clearly from diverse countries, chanting “Fidel, Fidel, Cuba socialista!” The mainly Cuban diners, used to such patriotic effusions at various and frequent official ceremonies, but not at quiet restaurant dinners, appeared startled at the display, a genuine eruption of fervour and gratitude. I questioned one of the students, a member of an aboriginal tribe along the Amazon, who said Cuba’s commitment to offer a free medical education to people such as himself was the only reason he was able to pursue a career in medicine. His plan was to set up a clinic in his home village in Brazil once he graduated.
It is not inappropriate, surely, that the book, Fidel Castro: Biografía en dos voces, by Ignacio Ramonet of Le Monde Diplomatique was issued in Cuba in 2006 as Cien Horas Con Fidel: Conversaciones con Ignacio Ramonet. There are not two authoritative voices that have spoken over the years in and for this country; this has remained the case even after Fidel stepped down as Cuba’s leader. He writes a good many newspaper columns, “reflexiones” [reflections] they are called, on matters local, national and international. Moreover, one hundred hours are many fewer than most Cubans here heard him speak. In mid-May 2006, for instance, he was in Havana province to deliver a televised speech on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of “campismo popular,” the mainly summer retreats, complete with pools, sports and cultural activities, available to many Cubans for a minimal charge in Cuban pesos. That infamous, compelling voice –– carefully enunciating, stentorian, lucid, hectoring, orotund, extemporaneous –– did not cease until four-plus hours had lapsed. On such a seemingly inauspicious occasion, Fidel expanded his remarks to include references to the dignity of low-paying work, the value of a non-bourgeois respite, the vileness of a striated capitalism where—this isn’t his analogy—a select few stay at Hotel Georges V in Paris, France and the rest at Motel 6 in Potsdam, New York.
In every speech I have heard or read, he extrapolates from a specific event or commemoration to legitimize Cuban socialism as the model for a post-imperial, post-industrial world. Whether it is an address on camping, Condoleezza Rice or “¿que coño pasa en los Estados Unidos?” regarding convicted terrorist-at-large, Luis Posada Carriles, or the five Cubans incarcerated there after infiltrating rabid counter-revolutionary Cuban-American groups, global lessons are drawn and insisted upon. What, though, of the audiences for those performances, the various functionaries who sit patiently behind Fidel on podiums, never even betraying the need to pee? Or the thousands, even millions who march in or assemble at rallies aplenty, most manifesting a zeal and energy that don’t seem forced or faked? Or the many others who bypass those events (and don’t appear to be penalized for such refusals)? A large number of ordinary citizens, it should be said, take to various podiums and platforms throughout the land to echo Fidel’s precepts: all not only reiterate his point-of-view, but they also, with varying degrees of success, try to emulate his rhythms of speech, his rhetorical tactics with their emphatic gestural accompaniment. Cuban society is a debating one, flamboyant mannerisms as much as speech recruited to give the debater an advantage. The loud, vibrant theatrical arguments over baseball players and strategies occurring daily in Parque Central, the plaza across from the Hotel Inglaterra provide one apolitical example of this tendency. Particularly memorable, on a more politically combative level, were youthful speakers at rallies demanding the return of Elian Gonzales, the child once at the middle of a bi-national custody battle: one bespectacled child prodigy stunned and entertained crowds with precocious, paragraph-perfect encomia to the Revolution. I remember, too, Hassan Perez, former leader of the Cuban university students’ union, overwhelming ex-US President Jimmy Carter at a question and answer session with an accounting of Cuban virtues and triumphs – universal medicare, free tuition etc.; Carter was only able to respond weakly, with a diplomatic version of “different strokes for different folks,” instead of his usual earnest if simplistic plea for “free” elections and American notions of democracy, an insipid and etiolated strain of the pervasive and belligerent conservatism that passes these days for liberalism, U.S. style .
A few years ago, a London Review of Books reviewer of a collection of essays entitled Adventures inRussian Historical Research commented that the contributors to that volume were struck by “how different Soviet life as they experienced it was from its ideologically charged Western representation.” If that misrepresentation was true of the Soviet Union, then it is, perhaps, even more valid in terms of skewed points of view and distorted depictions of Cuba since the Revolution began. Given the size of Cuba, its proximity to the USA and its accessibility via tourism (albeit not to “average” Americans, prohibited from such activity by officials safeguarding “the world’s greatest democracy”), there is even less excuse for the caricatures presented. Nonetheless, because of relentless US meddling in the island’s affairs and disgruntlement over the “loss” of a country so close geographically, there appears to be a visceral—and with George W. Bush at the helm—perhaps a psychotic need on the part of American media to stigmatize and stereotype Cuba. Because of the many political and concomitant social transformations that have occurred recently on the island, those caricatures appear incrementally more and more inadequate as a description of the country.
One can’t even trust The New Yorker to get it remotely right. Perhaps that mag feared that sending its fabled fact-checkers to confirm one of its assertions regarding Cuba would have contravened laws pertaining to Americans’ travel to that island (though a check of satellite photos would, no doubt, have sufficed). In an issue devoted to Cuba that was triggered by Pope John Paul II’s visit there, a safe and cautious reason for the special number in the first place, one of its writers described ISA in the following manner: “A huge Soviet-style concrete bunker of a dormitory was put up in front of several [of ISA’s] buildings.” He thereby imputed that the attractive vistas which include unique edifices worthy of inclusion as UNESCO heritage sites –– structures designed in the early 1960s by the Cuban architect, Ricardo Porro, along with two Italians–– had been ineradicably sullied. Well, sorry –– the dorm is a three-storey building situated at the edge of the campus. It in no way obstructs the view of the architecturally innovative edifices that preceded its erection. As for the attribution, “Soviet-style,” the dormitory is no more sterile looking than any of the many 1960s-built North American university residences and those, of course, come with a price tag that students must pay. Moreover, in this era of solipsistic iPod and MP3 listeners abroad, it is a joy to hear music resonating from ISA’s courtyard which comes straight from students’ mouths and instruments; dancers practice their manoeuvres on the campus’s acreage. All of ISA’s students, freed from the requirement to flip burgers to pay for their education, can avail themselves of time to loll, even to indulge in carefree student life; they disport, too, with an energy and warmth immediately evident to any visitor.
Regardless, The New Yorker clearly needed to package a lesson, an ideologically charged one at that, to accompany the advertisement sidebars on its pages that pander to a readership no doubt resistant to socialist notions of university funding. A riff on the virtues of tuition-free university education to those ersatz progressives living in close proximity, say, to the private and excessively priced Columbia University in New York clearly wouldn’t do. ISA’s beauty, not to mention the accomplishments of its gifted students, mocks capitalist contexts for the study of the arts, severely damaged now that excessive tuition costs have drastically undermined, so to speak, the pleasures of the text. So, too, does its history. A palimpsest, ISAwas formerly the Havana Country Club, an elitist, racist, pre-Revolutionary golf club that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro insisted be turned over to artists for their nurturing and development.
The same blinkered and censorious approach can be seen in the occasional CNN dispatches from Havana. Situating a journalist there seemed like a coup for then media honcho, Ted Turner; evidently, he used to visit with Fidel in the Hotel Habana Libre. (Wife Jane might have been labeled Hanoi Jane by right-wing commentators; hubby, however, was never saddled with the nickname, Havana Ted.) Instead, the gig has turned into more of the same, a commercial broadcaster’s cliché. Despite the predominance of the state in all aspects of production, Lucy Newman, who for a long time was CNN’s wo-man in Havana, chose to report gushingly on a horse breeder and a tobacco grower who retained capitalist-compatible rights to their livelihoods. To transmit some of the communist society’s successes from within its paradigm would have been to force the network to admit that, if Cuba could “learn” from American practices, then the opposite, too, might be true. (Michael Moore’s Sicko, laudatory regarding the Cuban medical system, is one of the rare U.S. cultural products affirming that such reciprocity must be heeded.) These and other examples cast doubt on Robin Blackburn’s hopeful tone in an article published in 2000 in New Left Review, when he avers, “Cuba is most likely to salvage what is best in the revolution – if it can escape the brutal claws of the blockade and open up a lively dialogue with the less reactionary forces in American society…”. Adbusters may rail against the excesses of advertising, but Cuba’s version of adbusting – government-dictated elimination of such material except for public service ads and endorsements of the Revolution – is probably not what that mag’s publisher and its readers have in mind; it’s certainly not what even purportedly progressive Americans seem to want. Even Now magazine, one of the alternative media in my own country, Canada, can’t get past Cuba’s limitations on the “free” press to grant the country praise for its deserved achievements. Such straitjacketing homogenizes and/or ignores the vibrancy and diversity of the country. It is more worthy of the host of right-wing media and political assertions which already bray vocally and repetitively at Cuban communism, quite possibly with the aid of Chinese manufactured technological products, for its perceived sins.
So, again, what of daily life in Havana and how is it read? In William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, Shreve McCannon, his Canadian roommate at Harvard, begs Quentin Compson to give him a hint of the southern U.S. sensibility, so exotic and remote does it seem to McCannon. The same level of interest, one would think, should attach to Cuba, so close to the USA, yet so different; as Walter Benjamin has written, the foreigner tends to be fascinated by what s/he perceives as “the superficial inducement, the exotic, the picturesque.” One of my Cuban friends, trying to enhance that element of exoticism, suggested substituting “Lenin” for a “gezuntheit” or “Bless You” whenever anyone sneezed. It didn’t catch on; however, there is plenty of otherness that Americans in their eagerness to convert Cubans or Canadians in their insistence on filling generic tourist resorts seem to overlook or distort. Despite vituperative and deadly actions and rhetoric from their government, the few Americans who do go to Cuba don’t find a virulent anti-American attitude on display. At the 1997 “14o Festival Mundial de la Juventud y los Estudiantes” [aka, 14th World Socialist Youth and Student Festival] which took place in Havana, the chant “Fuck You…S.A.” was uttered by a straggling and undermanned American delegation. On the contrary, Cubans watching the parade obeyed the oft-repeated call from Fidel for dignity in the face of U.S. aggression and did not pick up the refrain.
Even more surprisingly and quirkily perhaps, Al Medina, situated in Old Havana and one of the very few Middle Eastern restaurants in the country, was forced to suspend its practice of having a barker out front in a kitschy version of an “Arab” outfit complete with fez. After the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, passers-by began to shout insults at the hapless fellow. Not that the occasional American visitor who does appear and tries to pull a “how dare you respond without that ‘have a nice day’ grin” doesn’t get a comeuppance. I witnessed one such in one of the Pain de Paris bread and croissant-making and -serving outlets, at the time a joint French-Cuban venture that in some ways signaled the end of the worst of the special period. (The French have since left the building—things change rapidly in Cuba–apparently taking their croissant recipe with them; the chain, however, remains in operation.) An American customer, unaware that urgency is rarely on the menu at Cuban eateries, groused, in English, about the slow service at the same time as she bailed out of line. Another patron quickly regaled her with “hija de puta,” then suspecting, probably correctly, monolingual tendencies in the American heartland, shouted “beetch” before she got out the door.
Sometimes, too, even well meaning but paternalistic American assessments deserve some resistance. Take Tom Miller’s book, Trading With the Enemy. A nice guy, Cubans who have met him say, as well as a friend of Cuba, Miller, nonetheless, holds up, as an example of the exotic, a sign for the “socialismo o muerte” [socialism or death] bakery he reports having discovered. While there are a good many non-neon billboards celebrating that specific either/or (another being “patria o muerte” [country or death]), even some on bakery walls, they probably number about as many as New Hampshire license plates trumpeting “Live Free or Die” and certainly many fewer than American flags flapping their patriotism in both public and private venues. It’s doubtful that the bakery was called that; indeed, it might not have been called by any brand name. It is simply the neighbourhood bakery, one that needn’t advertise itself to the egregious extent of having an identity different from the bakeries in other locales.
Another work, Alma Guillermoprieto’s Dancing With Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution, also sympathetic, if a bit whiny, towards the Revolution, betrays in its “Epilogue” that recurring chastisement, the lesson to be learned, that seems to be an essential component of a book about Cuba bound for American consumption. Recruited in 1970 to teach dance at ENA, Escuela Nacional de Arte, ISA’s forerunner and still the high school feeder to that institute of higher learning, Guillermoprieto describes tenderly yet wryly, if somewhat self-absorbedly, her experiences with the Revolution’s rhetoric and practice; however, in the aforementioned coda she hauls out the “Cuba in ruins” motif, in this case as it pertains to music: “The 1950s with their rumba rompe y rasga were an unacknowledged nostalgia in 1970, but today everyone admits that the Batista era was the golden age of Afro-Cuban music.” Well, that everyone doesn’t include any of the music students who have taken one of my postmodern theory classes at ISA…or, indeed, any of the many concertgoers and club habitués who respond avidly to multiple strains of contemporary Cuban tunes. “Los Orishas,” the very name signifying a connection with Afro-Cuban music, are an immensely popular rap group; Telmary, another rapper, who commutes between Havana and Toronto, has avid fans in both countries. Youth, especially, gravitate towards hip-hop and reggaeton. Repentistas, country rappers you might call them, salsa bands, trova singers–indebted in many ways to Silvio Rodriguez: these are some of the styles that flourish. Those music students of mine: some of them audition for Chucho Valdes, a Grammy Award winner and himself a recipient of an ISA honorary degree, and his orchestra. Others I recognize on TV and in the clubs performing sometimes in transformative ways that aren’t in most cases freighted ponderously with a sense of the past. In short, the music scene is one of the richest in the world at the moment!
Guillermoprieto’s preferences and prejudices also explain the popularity of the movie, The Buenavista Social Club, in the USA. (She currently churns out columns full of dour commentary on Latin America, Cuba included, for the increasingly stodgy New York Review of Books.) This is not to diminish their talents and charisma, but as an older assemblage, schooled before 1959 and the coming to power of Castro, the members of the Buenavista Social Club don’t present a challenge to American commentators on communist Cuba; in fact, they reinforce clichéd notions of the decline of that state since the Revolution began. What would those folks have made, for example, of the inaugural performance in late 1999 of Cuba’s National Youth Orchestra. It was a free concert in Teatro Amadeo Roldán, itself an impeccably restored grand theatre in the district of Vedado that not only recalls the past, but also speaks to its being surpassed. The members included talented multi-racial youth, tutored at schools and universities throughout the country where playing a classical instrument doesn’t depend on being driven in a BMW to a teacher whose meter starts running the moment the first note is struck. The Youth Orchestra, moreover, was conducted by two women, one of whom was a woman of colour.
During the early 1990s, the worst stretch of the special period, I and millions of others would propel ourselves on our avoirdupois Chinese-made bicycles on uneven roads free of cars, past decaying buildings free of fresh paint. Occasionally, along 5th Avenue in the district of Playa, I would ride past the directional sign for the autopista, the main highway running the length of the country. Serendipitously, perhaps, the “A” had faded, skewing the message to read “utopista,” the utopian highway as it were. No one, not even the most fervent member of the Cuban Communist Party, would have affirmed at that time that it was the road they were on. Nonetheless, for many, and especially recently, during a period of globalization that is often interpreted by those unsympathetic to it as Americanization, for many more abroad, the CubanRevolution has offered a vision that in terms of medicine, education and sustainable, egalitarian living might be matched in reality. The demands these last fifty or so years, though, on the Cuban population to live that dream have been acute and relentless.
Those demands have not, of course, weighed as heavily on non-nationals living in the country. More than likely, for instance, I came to Cuba and the Revolution too late in my life to have had that life radically redefined by them the way, say, Ariel Dorfman had his life reconstituted by the election of Salvador Allende in Chile. Dorfman had named his son Fidel because, as Dorfman wrote in a memoir, “he had freed Cuba from the Americans. And now we were going to free Chile as well.” I lecture at a number of universities and institutes in Cuba and live there a substantial part of each year, thereby endorsing the educational and social equality created by the Revolution; however, that’s as much of a draw on my will and a deflection of my self-indulgence as I am probably able to muster. Being repulsed by American belligerence towards Cuba or occasionally donning a Che t-shirt and marching in demonstrations on behalf of the country hardly merits inclusion in the roster of those who, as some Cuban billboards exhort, live Che’s example.
I remember reading in the London Review of Books, an uncharitable review of leftist sympathizers somewhere in Latin America, “fired up on café con leche, hunched at a table, poring over headlines about an imminent visit from Fidel Castro.” While I drink espressos, not lattes, the dig may well be appropriate. Certainly life for yumas in Cuba is not an uphill climb, even literally on a ponderous Chinese-manufactured bicycle. Maybe, too, ogling the femme-flesh parading down 5th Avenue (not to mention other city streets) has distorted my vision. Nonetheless, while the “autopsia,” the Western dissection of this particular version of utopia that Fidel, most prominently, shaped, has been largely and misguidedly to proclaim a corpse, my own goal is restorative, albeit more modest. In a way, it is an attempt to avoid donning the “A” as a scarlet letter in order to write an “autopsia,” Cuba’s epitaph. On the other hand, one need not write a simplistic encomium to a Cuban utopia—not even the creators and sustainers of the Revolution want to do that. Rather, the wish here is to capture the diversity and energy in a place where people live lives so often distorted by the weight of Cuba’s symbolic presence outside as well as inside the country. Say what you will about contemporary Cuba, but one consequence of the Revolution that should gratify even the most suspicious observer is that by taking over the Hilton Hotel, renaming it the Hotel Habana Libre, without paying compensation, Fidel and company just might have fractionally reduced Paris Hilton’s inheritance.
Chapter 2: First Extended Sightings…Obscured Somewhat by Frequent Blackouts
Armed, in September 1993, with an entry visa, the “best before” date on which had expired the week before, I spent my first night as a visiting professor at ISA restricted to the Immigration area of the Jose Martí International Airport in Havana fitfully dozing on an uncomfortable bench over which a neon light shone relentlessly. It was to be the most consistent electrical performance I was to witness my entire academic term in Cuba, one plagued by numerous apagónes [blackouts]. I swore to the taciturn Ministry of the Interior officers, in my at the time non-existent Spanish, that the lectures I had been scheduled to deliver on postmodernism would not get a hearing, a threat they clearly absorbed as less impactful than the American embargo or the then recent collapse of the Soviet Union with the consequent withdrawal of its subsidies. (Those latter perquisites, I was later to learn, had made life on the island in the 1980s, especially, quite benign.)
I was puzzled that something seemingly negligible, such as a slightly delayed arrival that had caused my visa to expire–to me a mere bureaucratic obstacle–could have impeded my entry into the country. The year before, in 1992, when I had visited the island to begin the process that snared me what I regarded then, and still do now, as a prized professorial gig, I sauntered off the plane onto the tarmac, baseball glove in hand, and was quickly recruited by some military officials grouped at the foot of the plane’s stairs for a game of catch. It was there I learned for the first time how properly to throw a curveball. I should have remembered then what a priest told me upon my arrival some years ago on the Marshall Islands, out there in the middle of the Pacific where I’d gone in tow and in thrall to a Canadian woman, my girlfriend at the time. He said that those who went to Majuro, the Marshall Islands’ capital, prepared to help the Marshallese, ended up having sex with their women, eating their food and going out fishing, things, he said, the Marshallese were already good at. So, on the tarmac in Havana I was already more pupil than teacher, something that hasn’t since been altered significantly when it comes to living and even giving lectures in Cuba.Only smoking, it seems, wasn’t permitted near the plane. For that one had to go into the terminal, a pleasantly aerated, nonfunctional building. It has since been replaced by a generic, duty-free dominating facility inaugurated in the late 1990s by then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien so that Canadian touristic hordes, increasing rapidly in numbers, might more efficiently disembark from and return to their helpings of shepherd’s pie which framed a week of hoovering mojitos and hymning that omnipresent touristy song, not at all related to Guantanamo, “Guantanamera.” My nostalgia for the old airport is rekindled every time I check-in and pass through Immigration at the newer one with its bureaucratic, professional sheen. Current signs that insist ticket changes must be handled by supervisors and that maintain the Immigration scrutiny requires no payment remind me that “then” a fifty-dollar sweetener got you bumped up to business class and every day was, the Immigration officer innocently announced, his or her birthday which required a modest “regalo” [gift] to help in blowing out the candles.
There was no hint of the kind of package deals in Havana and on the rest of the island that prompted the building of an efficient and tourist-friendly airport in the early 1990s. The one plane a week from Toronto was a ponderous Russian-built Ilyushin aircraft operated by Cubana Airlines. Take-offs usually included bathroom doors and overhead bins detaching, blanching already pale Canadians. The trip itself took longer than necessary, but this was the fault of the American government which, for a time, forced the Cuban national airline to circumvent U.S. air space on the Toronto-Havana run. On one of my early trips back from Havana, the Ilyushin transporting me negotiated the air successfully; near the hangar, however, as it turned towards home something broke in the wheel base causing passengers to sit for a few hours until guesses were made as to the likelihood of safely proceeding the final hundred or so yards. I happened, that day, to have an audition to co-host a Canadian national arts show on television and barely made it to the studio on time. (The bad news for habitual viewers of that show was that the airport boondoggle did not derail—to mix travel metaphors—my brief and abortive move into television.)In those days, too, the flight wasn’t a direct one; it stopped first in Varadero where everyone wearing Bermuda shorts and shod in flip-flops, that is to say almost everyone, decamped. Then it was on to the city, accompanied by a smattering of fiery-eyed North American Marxist-Leninists primed by Pathfinder Books publications to strap on machetes and fulfill brigade duties, sweetening their revolutionary credentials by helping with the sugar harvest. Also remaining on board were assorted jaded diplomatic types girding themselves for a return to the rigours of chauffeur-conducted rides from the airport to their staff-prepared mint-fresh mojitos with ice cubes intact, the result of generator-induced electricity.
I was fortunate to have had a contact in Havana for that initial visit, a well-placed one at that. Karen Bernard, who had attended a few of my lectures in Canada, had secured a position with Granma International as a Spanish-to-English translator for the weekly English edition of that paper. Despite the revolutionary zeal that propelled her there, Karen maintained the sublime, innocent look of Patty Hearst before the American heiress’s makeover into a snarling, gun-toting guerrilla fighter. With a wholesome smile and unperturbed presence, she dispensed a translated version of the Cuban Communist word, Granma being the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party, to that relatively small band of anglos around the world eager to receive that message. She lived in blackout-plagued, line-up dominated Havana as serenely as if she were vacationing at an upscale spa or yoga retreat. Only chipped cups for coffee, the result her boss said of a population slow to adapt to the paradigm shift begun in 1959? Dinner darkened by the onset of an apagón that, had it begun earlier…and it often did, could very well have spoiled the meal entirely? Being “la ultima,” the last person in line, waiting interminably for a bus that might very well be a no-show? “No problema” –– it is perhaps the easiest phrase for a foreigner to learn (mind though, that problema is an idiosyncratic word in Spanish; despite ending in “a,” it is a masculine noun). “No problema” may be a universal mantra; however, it was often supplanted by “no es facile,” [it’s not easy], one of the phrases characterizing their daily lives that sprang to the lips of many Cubans especially in the early 1990s during the heart of the heart of the special period. I never heard Karen utter that formulaic phrase, though, even when dinner got cooked at 1 a.m. or the overcrowded bus either left her stranded or admitted her to a bout of clandestine groping.
The claustrophobic nightmare of a dark elevator, replacement light bulbs being in short supply, didn’t faze her either, though it did me; the burnt-out light wasn’t replaced in the elevator of her apartment building the entire time I was in Cuba, leaving one a blind ride that could become entombment at any moment if the power went off. Nor did the squealing of a pig the next door neighbours kept on their balcony to forestall future hunger pains—a common hedge against the lack of a reliable food supply then, at the nadir of the special period. Karen’s guerrillera, revolutionary credentials were also bulked by her amours. These included, most prominently, Vicente, a Salvadoran guerrilla fighter recuperating in Cuba from a battle-incurred wound. Cuba was, at the time, providing a safe haven near Havana for the FMLN, Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, the leftist guerrilla group engaged in a civil war for control of El Salvador. A wiry guy, still limping from grenade fragments in his legs, Vicente, when I first met him, asked one favour of me: that I take him to the Tropicana Night Club, still operating in a Disneyfied way to remind tourists, primarily, of the kitschy pre-Revolutionary glam that during the special period didn’t exist elsewhere in Cuba. Had the fruit in the Carmen Miranda headgear worn by the leggy dancers been genuine, that is to say edible, the chapeaux would in the early 1990s have been dinner. Had the lion’s roar that signaled a show-stopping moment in the spectacle been other than a taped bellow, protein would for a brief moment have augmented the performers’ diets.
Having never fired a gun, much less undergone trauma more stressful than singing the Haftorah portion at my Bar Mitzvah, I was awed by Vicente’s revolutionary zeal as well as the harrowing stories of his life in El Salvador. The murder of his family because he chose to join the FMLN left him with enormous guilt and a drinking problem that ultimately doomed his relationship with Karen. Regardless, there we were at the Tropicana, the artificial splendor of which, was made especially disconcerting by the then rundown condition of the neighbourhood in which it was located, as well as the inflated prices that yielded entry. Vicente, though, had his bourgeois moment, rendered even more delicious because the club’s master of ceremonies chose him randomly to croon solo a few bars of that old musical standby, “Besame Mucho.” Fortunately for the FMLN and for me, certainly, there was no reciprocal request that I join his guerrilla outfit and experience a Latin American version of the short, happy life of Francis Macomber.
Soon after Vicente’s club appearance it was “besame nunca mas” insofar as Karen was concerned –– she broke up with him. Some years later she married another Salvadoran, a non-combatant, and gave up the dream of riding into San Salvador perched on the front of a tank for what probably was a more mundane taxi ride into that city from the airport. Nonetheless, Cuban aid probably contributed to that cab ride what with its support for the revolutionary movement that ultimately won a peace treaty for El Salvador. (Of course, that country’s direction and history are not the only ones to have been altered by Cuba’s contributions and influence.) I miss not only Karen’s gliding, calming presence in today’s Havana, but also her Spanish to English acumen. News media and tourist magazines now come up with dreadfully translated concoctions such as the following that touts a vaunted musical collaboration and horrifies grammarians: “Since the veteran French chansonnier expressed his wish in Paris, at the end of the summer, until it managed to materialize in Havana, the discography alliance between Charles Aznavour and Chucho Valdes turned into a happening of the inter-oceanic musical ambit.”
Similarly baroque prose, to shift musical styles, accompanied my inter-oceanic relationship with Mercedes, Karen’s closest friend in Havana. Both had turned up to greet me at the airport. In the land of 1980s Ladas and over-praised 1950s Chevys, she was a model even Germany would have happily unveiled in 1992. Indeed, she not only impressed me, but also Pico Iyer, a travel writer of some repute, who happened to be on the same flight as I was and who was also booked at the same hotel, the Colina, a somewhat louche outpost across the street from the University of Havana. His fascination with Havana prodded him to produce a novel, Cuba and the Night. It may have been panned by the critics, but it has, I find, some redeeming features. Not that I think the novel is particularly compelling; however, it works for me as a roman à clef. I make a cameo appearance, a rather bland one as a professor of critical theory from a west coast Canadian university. Mercedes, my girlfriend then, is recognizable in the novel as a flamboyant negrita with a shaved head, rare for a Cuban then or now who signed herself as feminine, but true to her actual look.
Screwing, as Donald Ritchie bluntly endorses it in The Japan Journals, is never more compelling than for the traveler, whatever his or her sexual preference. As alluring as that activity is, especially in the land of spandex-clad women who eye foreign males with an intensity that speaks louder even than the Cuban ‘psst,’ an onomatopoeic version of ‘hey you,’ that usually accompanies the glance, strutting with an animated, informative Mercedes provided a richer pleasure; as well, it stifled, but only somewhat, the ocular hustle over what were, at the time, too few dollar-laden yumas to distribute among the strutting chicas. Arm-in-arm with her signaled for me the sort of assimilation that belies the disorientation of being on foreign soil. Indeed, you can see relief radiating visibly on the face of every stiffly moving oldie who flaunts a sexy young sidekick on the streets of Havana. Overexposed to the sun, bulging bellies advertising ready access to food and drink, they have since become a bumper crop, gladly harvested by the girls/women. Some of the men responded not only to their sexual desires, but also to claims of deprivation and need; others were duped elaborately, one Canadian being taken in by a chica who produced a bogus family which was happy to strip the guy of money and passport.
Not only was she one of the Revolution’s children, comfortable in a bustling and multi-racial city and optimistic about the possibility of realizing her ambitions, Mercedes gave me my first extended Spanish lessons. One consisted of a limerick, the source of which I have been unable to discover:“Tengo, tengo, tengo,tu no tienes nada.Tengo tres obejasen una cabaña”[I have, I have, I have,you have nothing.I have three sheepin an enclosure.]Its taunting, acquisitive, proto-capitalist thrust notwithstanding, I chant it as my mantra, a measure of my growing ease in circumnavigating Havana with or without company, as well as my expanding fluency in Spanish.
More vitally, Mercedes, an aspiring actor and singer, took me everywhere–to frequent auditions where she occasionally secured a role, to haunts where artists lounged, on busses where I inhaled the Revolution’s sweat and ferment. In a capitalist country, she would have been forced in all likelihood to affix a hyphenated “waitress” to “aspiring singer and actor.” In Havana, however, that wasn’t necessary. One of her friends, in fact, “did” tae-kwondo. That –– kicking at her instructor’s command –– is what she non-remuneratively did. This puzzled a Canadian couple to whom I introduced her, “do,” as in “what do you do?” meaning something more substantive vocationally to them. More weightily perhaps, though that might be to hierarchize in unrepresentative Cuban ways, another friend was a writer. Having published a book of poetry, he was a poet, ergo a member of UNEAC, Union Nacional de Escritores y Artistes de Cuba, the writers and artists union. Housed in a sumptuously restored mansion in Vedado, downtown Havana, UNEAC offers drinks, music, and readings – a meeting place for a culture community not regulated by market forces. Of course, the vast majority of Cubans do work that conforms to capitalist notions of a job. Especially at schools and universities which I visited frequently during the difficult years of the early 1990s, I was amazed by the commitment and organization that prevailed at those institutions despite hardships getting to work, getting enough food and coping with ever-recurring blackouts. Certainly, it is heartening to see a state subsidize activities that don’t necessarily contribute to the GDP or even get evaluated in such terms. Outside my gym, the city of Havana beach volleyball team assembles every day to train; it is what they “do.” Drills and informal games, as well as weight-lifting and aerobics, which take place beside the Atlantic Ocean, comprise their regimen; occasionally, one of them gets called up to the national team for training even more rigorous and supervised. The nets may be frayed from repetitive use, the practice balls scuffed; regardless, energy, commitment and zeal are visible—so, too, is laughter as they work on spiking setting and defending. Then they launch into intramural games, with mixed, male-female teams sometimes adding to the festive air.
For Mercedes, unfortunately, the special period was especially cruel. Thriving even on overcrowded busses, despite the pickpockets and persistent gropers, she grew less willing to venture out when transportation became as sporadic as rehearsals themselves. Even more drastically, she let her hair grown in. Nonetheless, although I’ve lost contact with her, I noticed, via a newspaper report, that she has recently co-authored a book on the history of aboriginals in Cuba, of whom none remain. Only Mercedes’ book and the image of Hatuey, a native leader memorialized by having a beer named after him, give them continuing visibility (in the latter case, on each can and bottle of Hatuey produced).
Not that Mercedes was my only entrée to erotic Cuban life. My first day sauntering out on my own, it took me all of ten or so paces from the front door of the Hotel Colina to make contact with a woman in canary-yellow spandex pants, Lycra still standing in as the national fabric, at least for the attention-seeking seductive set. (An often largely aging and Italian male audience continues to be grateful for the attention reciprocally paid to it.) Surreptitiously, the woman in question slid me two U.S. twenty dollar bills, forty dollars more than was necessary to propel me into a cab with her. On her instructions we drove to the only collection of stores that at the time sold glitzy North American and European goods. In the early 1990s such stores, requiring a foreign passport for entry, were off-limits to Cubans; moreover, hard currency was also restricted. As requested, I bought a pair of children’s shoes for her. After I had accomplished that task, we hopped into another car which took us to her “aunt’s” house, similar, I soon learned, to one that many lycra-clad women had at their paid disposal. Later, back at the Colina, I discovered that I still had a dollar or two of the twenties I’d been given. This, I speculated, fancifully but faultily, was the difference between capitalism and communism. A few more desultory encounters, “pssts” and eye contact leading to aunties’ hospitality, however, quickly disabused me of that notion.
The Colina, itself, is a palimpsest, symptomatic of the transitions Cuba has undergone since the beginning of the special period, indeed since its conversion into a hotel. Cuban friends tell me that they often stayed there in the halcyon period of the 1980s if, indeed, they didn’t have the more substantial amount of moneda nacional required to book in at the more upscale Hotel Habana Libre. Tourists were scant in those days and Cubans were free to stay at whichever hotels they chose. With the recent 2008 passage of a law, Cubans are once again able to stay in hotels even if it’s not their honeymoon. (The Colina had been one of the second tier hotels available to Cubans for such a special moment.) In the intervening twenty or so years, when tourism was pushed as the anodyne to the hard currency shortages triggered by the USSR’s collapse, even the rather shabby Colina’s rooms were commandeered for foreign eyes and bodies only. The hotel had before the Revolution been a student residence housing, among others at one time, Fidel Castro. Without a facelift until the last few years, the Colina, the year I arrived, was an economical place to stay – it still is that. In the early 1990s, though, cockroaches aplenty enlivened the faded wallpaper in the hotel rooms as well as the restaurant; hot water was non-existent and the mattresses sagged with the weight of the hotel’s history. Still, it is situated at the top of the hill that leads in one direction to the university and in another to the Coppelia at the corner of 23 and L, the city centre, as it were, housing the ice cream parlour that features ling line-ups, and until an article railing against it in Granma, terrible service. Because of its location, the Colina (hill in Spanish), serves less attractively as an aural receptacle for the unsymphonic sounds emanating from brake-diminished and muffler-challenged cars and busses that no doubt puncture the sleeping patterns of anyone not hibernating, or, since summer dominates Cuban seasons, estivating in its rooms.
The Colina was by no means the only venue recruited if not rehabilitated in the rush to find revenue sources to supplant vanished Soviet subsidies. At the western tip of the country lies a horseshoe shaped 20-kilometre beach of unparalleled remoteness and tranquility. A small retreat built for the Communist party there, Maria la Gorda was turned over to the Ministry of Tourism and transformed into a rather spartan hotel that now beckons divers from around the world, some of whom have testified to the stunning coral vistas contained underwater. Close by,another resort has sprung up. Yet another sign of Cuba’s transformation into a tourist destination is the number of boutique hotels that have sprung up, especially in Old Havana. One, the Raquel, contains Jewish memorabilia and motifs, this despite some Middle Eastern governments’ attempts to sabotage its opening. All this, though, emerged some time after that brief period I spent at the Colina in 1992.
Because Estefania, the ISA professor who had been my initial academic contact in Cuba, had fled and Karen, too, was abroad in El Salvador with her future husband, my only contact on my arrival in September, 1993, to take up lecture duties and live in Havana was Mercedes. Because I had brought a Canadian girlfriend along at that point, she, perhaps spitefully, arranged for me to rent an apartment said to be her uncle’s in a building horribly misnamed Edificio Palacio. Had I paid attention to the section in G. Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers, his nostalgic novel/memoir of pre-revolutionary Havana, in which he mentions that high-rise, I might have been prepared for what I was to encounter there. The place, he wrote, was already a dump in the 1950s. Sure, Infante’s notion of an inferno was post-Revolutionary Cuba and Mea Cuba, his collection of essays about the country, is a compendium of complaints about the damage communism has inflicted on the island; nonetheless, he was correct in his apolitical assessment when it came to our non-palatial digs where we lasted a month. It hadn’t helped that our bourgeois sensibilities which responded well to the apartment’s seemingly exalted eighth floor locale, a room with a view, quickly deteriorated at the prospect of frequent climbs to our vantage point because of those untimely and more than intermittent blackouts. I never learned how denizens of the upper floors of this and other apartment buildings, some of them twenty to thirty stories high, consigned to them for far longer stretches than we were, coped throughout the demanding years of the early 1990s.
My companion, already a recluse from the sun’s power, grew paler and paler there, partly out of frustration and partly from the soot that gave us a nightly coating. This necrological, nocturnal deposit, we assumed in a macabre, but probably correct way, came from the chimneys of the nearby hospital which, since our building was close to the summit of Avenida de los Presidentes, were located at our eighth floor level. That, though, was easier to digest than the splattering of fecal matter that an upper level dweller in the apartment building occasionally flung out her window only to have the wind, already seeded with infirmary ash, blow it into ours. Also troubling was the flow of running water which made its appearance at Edificio Palacio for only brief periods each day; unfortunately it rarely coincided apparently with the offender’s urgency to flush or ours for that matter, though good burghers that we were, we left our calling cards in the toilet bowl until the water flowed. Not that such a liberating moment transformed our hygienic practices; the shower head next to the toilet, given that it was situated at ankle level, rarely unsoiled us satisfactorily.
Still, there was something adventurous about the apartment situation for a guerrillero manqué, for a yuma, if not for a citizenry for whom deprivation was becoming endemic and systemic. It was thrilling for me to have occasionally to force elevator doors open or to throw open the ceiling hatch and crank the cage up to a floor level when the electricity cut out. Even the ride itself, when operational, was exciting: light broke in whenever the creaking contraption passed sections of the building that had corroded and the edifice had lost some of its facing. Clearly the elevator hadn’t been inspected since Batista’s henchmen might have peered up the shaft in the hunt for dissidents and revolutionaries. Less enthralled with the ride was an older woman, a neighbour on my floor, who expressed disappointment that this yuma wasn’t a journalist preparing a report on the miserable conditions at Edificio Palacio. A youth who sawme labouring up the aforementioned eight flights of stairs with what appeared to be exotica, bags of food, helped me carry them to my door, then ran exultantly down the hall towards his family’s apartment with his reward, a can of tuna. That protein prize augmented, probably for the only time during the worst of the special period, the carbohydrate-loaded root vegetables, boniato [sweet potato] and yucca, which were primary food staples then.
Hortatory billboards throughout the city reminded me that Che (“tu ejemplo vive” [your example lives]) would not have been discouraged by something as minor as body bits settling on him or an elevator malfunction. So if he could trek through the Sierra Maestre, wracked by asthma and chased by Batista’s soldiers, surely I, in my engagement with the Cuban Revolution, could carry my fifty-two pound Chinese-made bicycle, a “Flying Pigeon” as it was inappropriately called, up and down eight floors of a winding, piss-drenched staircase. Moreover, I could join the thousands of others, denied more accelerating forms of transportation by gasoline shortages, who contributed to Havana’s of necessity eco-friendly car-, bus- and truck-depleted streets. The “Flying Pigeons” might have been cumbersome machines, their handlebars badly designed, but they were sturdy beasts. They were even rendered stylish by many of their owners. Che’s “ejemplo” to the fore, cool kids customized them so that they could ferry friends upright over their back wheels; or they parked girlfriends on those handlebars which may have adversely affected some practical maneuvers, but which securely supported favoured derrieres. With few cars to contend with, amours could flourish and even come close to being consummated in Cirque du Soleil style. Families, too, took outings on the sturdy machines, the tinier tot on a constructed wooden seat in front of the principal rider, the bigger kid on the handlebars and mom on a padded seat over the rear wheel. Strain, as far as I could see, rarely distorted the faces of the ones who had to do the pedaling.
Indefatigable Mario used to set out once a month on his pedestrian Flying Pigeon from Santa Fe, Havana’s western-most district, to Guanabacoa, a neighbourhood in the city’s east end. Undeterred by the hitch in his pedal mechanism that gave his forward momentum a hiccupping rhythm, he got to his mother’s house in around two hours. Café con azúcar on arrival offered him the energy to reverse direction, this time with mom compliantly if not comfortably on the back seat for the return trip to Santa Fe where she stayed the night – on a mattress that had metamorphosed over the years into a hammock – before the odyssey to get her home again commenced. Since around the year 2000, as the worst conditions of the special period abated, Flying Pigeons have gradually given way to ten-speed bikes and, more recently, to motorized vehicular traffic. A sign of the times: the privileged bicycle lanes each way along the Malecón have disappeared. Nonetheless, Cuba is most likely less car-dependent than any other country in the Americas; hitch-hiking and other more formal forms of sharing transportation continue in this country. I tried, over the years, to assist in keeping the circulation of bicycles in the ascendancy, shipping up to ten from Toronto. A number of accidents and robberies, as well as more voluntary forms of redistribution, later, I’m left relying, sometimes legally, sometimes not, on various Lada equivalents of the Flying Pigeon for my movement around Havana.
There was that heady day, however, in 1993 when I set out for ISA on my Flying Pigeon to announce to the university administration my arrival in Havana and see to procedures and preparations for my course. A phone call could have facilitated those plans; however, that would have meant a) having a phone that was operational and b) knowing the correct number. Havana city phone directories, now published yearly, were non-existent in the early years of the special period. Moreover, despite assurances that our palatial home phone a) would be working and b) had the number we’d been given, the combination never led to a single phone call made or received during our tenure there. So, lumbering down the stairs with the Flying Pigeon, no doubt the only one in the city that had been leased for a hefty price, I began the trip undaunted, even exhilarated. Starting from the top of a hill, I momentarily got to fly along the ample boulevard that is Avenida de los Presidentes to the street perpendicular to it, the seaside Malecón. Avenida de los Presidentes, at the time, should really have been called Avenida sin los Presidentes; this was the case because after Fidel made it to Havana as the head of the Revolution, all the heads (and many of the torsos) of the country’s former leaders, dead Prezzes as it were, were lopped off their pedestals, reduced to e-Bay type pieces à la the Saddam Hussein figurines that are no doubt out there. Only the bases remained, absences signaling the Revolution’s insistence that calendar years in Cuba be counted from its incipience. Recently, more worthy figures have been immortalized where a linear history was once enshrined; a bust of Salvador Allende, for one, is stationed there.
Also remaining, as one turns onto the Malecón and proceeds a few hundred meters or so, is the at the time somewhat faded and pockmarked, though still colourful and eye-catching dome-like structure that once housed the Hotel Riviera’s casino. Had it still been the 1950s, I would, no doubt, have been wiped out inside…to the delight of Meyer Lansky, proprietor. This time, though, out front a wave rose over the parapet fronting the Malecón, a not infrequent occurrence I learned too late, and smacked me onto the pavement. Soaked and bewildered I made my way back to my palace, this time getting a better look at the deposed past presidents’ since there was no way, wet or dry, that I could pedal my Flying Pigeon up the Avenida’s steep incline. I also had to renegotiate the eight flights of stairs, the apagón, one of the first Spanish words I learned, still prevailing.
The next day, a different shirt, but the same route; I got lucky at the casino, though, avoiding any snake-eyed waves. Pedaling further west along the Malecón, with the water on my right, was as inspiring as a 52-pound bike could allow it to be. Sirens in spandex pants urged me to make a non-salt water detour, but I was resolute, that one day anyway. Later in the school year, I created the ironclad rule that allowed me to be seduced or sidetracked by spandex as long as it was parked on the same side of the road I was navigating on my Flying Pigeon. Like a junkie who vows not to shoot up before breakfast, I was not always successful in adhering to my rule, some upholstered rears deserving a u-turn however shakily executed. Besides, where else but Havana in the early 1990s could an aging yuma on a bicycle be seen as the equivalent of a stud in a Porsche?
However, because it was going to be my first day at the office, as it were, I continued dutifully pedaling west, crossing the iron bridge over the Rio Almendares that marks the border between the districts of Vedado and Playa; at that time only pedestrians and cyclists were allowed over that bridge during daytime hours. I felt like an extra in a movie about Mao’s China, a sentiment confirmed by the presence of a Chinese restaurant sitting on the Playa side of the river, but undone, as it still is, by the variegated garb of the Cubans I encountered.
A bit further on, I passed the Mexican Embassy, an occasional site in the 1990s for would-be refugee mayhem, the gates being open to Cubans when an anti-Castro edict came down from right-leaning Mexican leaders, and therefore a venue fronted by Cuban security. The Canadian Embassy a few blocks further on presented a more tranquil aura. The few Cuban sentries posted there could not obscure the view of a swimming pool and tennis court that, in my minimal contact with Canadian diplomats, came to represent one thing for me: lettuce. Being one of the few Canadians not in the diplomatic corps who was spending an extended period of time in Havana during the early 1990s, I was introduced to the cultural attaché while registering at the Embassy. He invited me and my partner to dinner one night at his stylish, staffed house where we were treated to that then rare leaf vegetable. Anyone who has tried to subsist on okra for a few months at a time will empathize with my slack-jawed appreciation of what usually triggers a more mundane response elsewhere and probably will sympathize with the snuffling or slobbering sounds that I began to realize I made whenever I was in the presence of unanticipated foodstuffs or at least food I regarded as edible, since more than likely being the only non-meat eater on the island at the time, I rarely spied anything other than a pork sandwich and even that infrequently. Ordinary Cubans, alas, rarely saw such a staple during those trying times. That the island’s citizens retained their sanity and dignity in the face of such exigencies awed me. On one bus trip, a tour of the city that ISA’s professor of Cuban culture had arranged for the faculty, it seemed that everyone but me was oblivious to the fact that the bus, without air conditioning but with windows unopened and stuck in place, was an inferno and that food and/or drink would be unavailable throughout the day. Laughter echoed around me as I hallucinated cool breezes and nouvelle cuisine. The acute food shortages of that period were made most apparent to me by the efforts of the Chair of the Philosophy Department at ISA who was overseeing my course offering; she promised me a home cooked meal once she had secured enough to feed an extra person. The invitation was rescinded with apologies a few days before I returned to Canada; she said that she was not able to obtain enough food to provide that additional meal throughout that entire term at the epicenter of the special period.
Arriving at ISA on or off of a Flying Pigeon, however, could make anyone forget for a moment the limitations of the special period. Cupolas topping the fine arts building in one corner of the campus as well as sprawling and flowering flamboyant trees and objets d’art were visiblethroughout the campus. Where the golf course once was, goats nibbled the fairway greens, rebuking, by their lounging presence, pesticide-saturated bourgeois-catering golf courses everywhere. Trumpeters and saxophonists, among other musicians, installed themselves then, as they do now, at appropriate distances from one another so that they were able to work on their techniques; so, too, did dancers –– folkloric, balletic, contemporary –– whose movements choreographed the overgrown spaces. From the music rooms in the former clubhouse of the Havana Country Club emanated the trills of student operatic singers practicing their scales. Then there were the student drummers whose playing, even behind closed doors, rhythmically accompanied all campus activities. Sure, the pool, a vestige of effete pre-revolutionary life, was and is rarely filled and toilet paper has rarely graced the bathrooms; however, this is a tuition-free school where the best and brightest, aka the most creative and talented, study in a luxuriant and nurturing setting. Instituto Superior de Arte is a tribute to the Revolution and will be one of its sterling legacies, regardless of what the future has in store for Cuba. I do not think there is another university like it in the rest of the world. Especially now when fees for studying the humanities or the performing and plastic arts make a mockery of an uncommodified arts education in the so-called first world, ISA is a treasure. Piquancy is added because this school, as poignantly as any place on the island that has been reconstituted by the Revolution, palpably contains a rich, layered history. Once, evidently, it was Richard Nixon’s favourite golf course. His bedroom has become, with symbolism still intact, the office of the institute’s president, its rector/a. A few dishes with the Havana Country Club logo were still circulating in the early 1990s, prizes to be spirited away, and I was given one as a gift. Batista probably didn’t have one in his collection, unless a member stole one for him. Despite being the head of the country, hewas considered to be too dark-skinned to be eligible to join the exclusive club. A quick glance at the multi-racial faculty, staff and student body affirms just one aspect of the Revolution’s revolution.Now a UNESCO heritage site, ISA has, nonetheless, had its struggles throughout the special period. As their contribution to an arts exhibition one year, the painting and sculpture students, disgruntled by their building’s decrepit condition, put up a mock scaffolding, part performance art, part challenge to the administration. The faux structure, while it made a political statement that the administration did not respond unfavourably towards, also facilitated access to the domed roofs, havens for parties and trysts. (The vulval architecture below, part of the building’s innovative and celebrated design, yielded only a hint of the sexual explorations above.) Always a feisty lot, the young artists published a magazine called “Enema”; like other bright, iconoclastic students around the world, the magazine and their work was edgy, tending to push the limits of what was sayable and permissible. One year, indeed, in the late 1990s, a student exhibited a work which featured the same iconic image of Fidel, repeated, one for each year of the Revolution to that point. A few, signaling especially tough years, were hung slightly askew. That particular oeuvre had a limited run.
Nonetheless, top-down control of the arts has shrunk greatly since the early 1960s when Beatles’ music was censored and bands as well as radio and television music programmers found their access to stages and stations cut for featuring too much American content. Now, there is a statue of John Lennon in an Old Havana park and in a move possibly designed to have the population long for a return to tighter controls, Britney Spears videos can be seen on televised music shows that bear a striking similarity to MTV and Much Music. Also, as the financial exigencies of the special period ease for the government, ISA has been undergoing restorations to the 60s buildings, one of which, a maze-like structure called Elsinore Castle, houses the dance and theatre classes, as well as to the original country club. Even in the darkest days though, when the toilets didn’t flush and blackouts prevailed, music still floated over the place and all the performing arts were taught and pursued with discipline and imagination. If the choice had come down to the apocalyptic “Pushkin or shoes,” art or the necessities, when, as it were, Pushkin came to shove, the arts at ISA would have prevailed – and did, as they continue to do in less stringent circumstances. Not that most students, faculty or staff members would, given the choice, opt for those more demanding times. Then, for instance, with public transportation at best erratic and at worst at a standstill, ISA sent out a shell of a bus pulled by a tractor to pick up and drop off students, faculty and staff. Convivial and egalitarian, the pokey commute offered an antidote to the hierarchical and status-laden methods of going to and from school found in the rest of North America. Indeed, it is probably refreshing, for anyone who has spent any length of time in academia, to think of telling one’s university administrators to take a hike. That, though, is what almost everyone did at one time or another, hitchhike, the only alternative to the lugubrious tractor-pulled bus.
Despite the deprivation, the hardships, there was energy aplenty for impromptu parties fuelled by plenty of bootleg rum and desire. Now, ISA has a security service to police its campus. Then, however, then being the 1980s and 1990s, guard duty was required of all faculty and staff. Instituted in North American universities, this practice could help to dispel the notion of the effete professor; most likely, however, it would just lead to more break-ins. Scholarly and professional resumes were one thing; picking up one’s weapon for a night on patrol to deter theft of instruments and other supplies was quite another. Regardless, one of my academic friends loved the requirement; he paid a colleague to take up his rifle which afforded him the chance to linger throughout the night with his lover. His guard duty provided the perfect cover for his dalliances.
My own desires were stimulated on campus by a Spanish class ISA graciously offered to me and my Canadian girlfriend that first teaching term of mine. Our teacher, it turned out, was the voluptuous and animated Lidunka, homage to Russia in her name and to Cuba in her expressive character, who throughout the lessons loomed lushly, obliterating the Spanish language. Like most of her male students, probably, I remembered only tidbits from the course, tangents to her pedagogical purposes. That Guatemalans were called guatemaltecos/as was information that, anyways, was minimally useful in Havana; more compelling and less challenging linguistically was the fact that, that Lidunka was a stunner, a flamboyant one at that. At this point in her life she hadn’t committed to an ill-advised marriage to a guy inappropriately named Ernesto, who abused her, got arrested and convicted for a break-and-enter, fathered their daughter Cher and was the first one, but not the only one, to translate my own name, Stan, as Stalin. While my street Spanish has been bulked since the kind of classroom steaminess I hadn’t experienced since high school, “chica” and “quema” [hot] now rolling off my tongue, verb declensions can still clot my palate; for this I blame Lidunka and her distracting presence.
The logistics of staging my postgraduate course during those difficult days forced the class off campus to the former Brazilian embassy located more centrally in Vedado district. It has since metamorphosed into Instituto Periodismo, a think-tank and school of journalism, one of the many institutes of its kind which give Cuba its strong non-capitalist dimension; throughout the country, self-interrogative, self-reflexive theory-based centres have proliferated, contributing to enlightenment instead of GDP. In its incarnation as Instituto Periodismo, it has been restored spiffily, but the year I taught there it hadn’t had a new paint job or identity and seemed to be haunted by ghosts of state dinner parties past in the guise of my clearly underfed students. This, though, didn’t deter an avidity to consume postmodern theory, fare not to the taste of overfed neo-con Americans fixated on winning…what else but the canon wars. Full-time workers, journalists, artists and public intellectuals also sat in on the course which occasionally spilled over into the evening, fuelled by alcohol and cigarettes as well as lively debate. Used to credit-and grade-obsessed, as well as cost-preoccupied students who often have to decamp to part-time jobs as soon as classes end and sometimes even before, I found the sessions to be revolutionary for me if not for the students. One of the participants and enlightened contributors, for instance, was Jose Massip, a documentary film-maker and professor who had been with Che and his brigades in Africa. Massip’s films of those anti-colonial wars in which Cubans had played a vital role won him prizes at Eastern European film festivals when there were such Cold War entities; viewings in North America could very well augment the current Che obsession that has recently produced a couple of hagiographical mainstream films.
Rejuvenation, the result of my time on the ISA campus and in my downtown seminars, did not, however, redeem my stay at Edificio Palacio which became more and more nightmarish. One exceptional night of being wined and dined at the expense of the Canadian government reminded me that water shortages and nightly infestations of minuscule body parts might be sapping my revolutionary will. My companion, already more suspicious than me of Che’s example, concurred. Still, I was reluctant to relocate because of the palace’s proximity to the Hotel Habana Libre with its uninspiring and overpriced, but readily available restaurant food. It was also just down the street from the University of Havana’s sports stadium. That space had a 1950s-vintage weight room filled with 1990s bodies, ancient Ben Weider-molded dumbbells offering no impediment clearly to the development and sculpting of one’s musculature.
Indeed, if one of the triumphs of the Revolution is the educational system, another is the availability of fitness equipment and expertise. Even the Granma building complex where Karen and Mercedes lived featured a gym. Sure, it was in the bowels of the building and the weights could be carbon-dated, but the gym was functional and usually featured a trainer on hand, paid for by the state, to provide programs and encouragement. Why Fidel Castro hasn’t received an honorary degree from a prestigious North American university for his commitment to education – no school was closed during the special period – and physical culture, not to mention free and fine medical care, is surely attributable only to the anxiety he produces in capitalist circles. Recently, late in 2008 CNN’s treacle-laden quest for heroes unearthed someone worthy, the network declared, for helping to eliminate illiteracy. Castro, of course, with the help of hundreds of Cuban teachers, has been bent on eradicating illiteracy in many countries around the world; don’t bet on his efforts, done on a gargantuan scale, to be feted by CNN any time soon.
Outside of the University of Havana weight room, a quarter mile dirt track circled pick-up baseball games where high levels of grace and skill overwhelmed the lack of proper athletic footwear and the use of a ball Batista might have thrown out as the first pitch of a Triple A Havana Sugar Kings home opener. Late in the afternoon every weekday, gigantic speakers that had possibly announced the beginning of the Korean conflict – from the North Korean side – were hauled onto the field for what was probably the least bourgeois aerobics class in the world. Led by the son of a British Fidelista who had moved his family to Havana soon after Fidel entered the city and his wife, a former Eastern European track star with a body to prove it, the session began at an accelerated pace and quickened from there. Gradually, exhausted participants sprawled on the infield grass and the focus for the final 10 minutes or so shifted from group exercise to spectacle as the former top tier athlete gyrated to the music at a pace only she could possibly maintain. I took that class frequently; at other times, I sidled off with one of the workers at the athletic complex, someone not as fit as the aerobics instructor, but softer and more alluring; she controlled access to the stadium’s many rooms and sometimes steered me into secluded corners of the building for brief, but immensely pleasurable, furtive encounters.
Another fond memory of my stint at the palace started out quite inauspiciously: walking down the eight floors of fetid steps, I was overtaken with nausea and threw up over my jeans and shoes. Displaying more than a little resolve, I returned to my apartment, changed my clothes and, undaunted, retraced my steps. Near the Hotel Habana Libre, I flagged a cab and laconically asked the driver to take me to a house near the Canadian Embassy where a battalion of American Marines lived. Sensing, perhaps, a recurrence of the Bay of Pigs attack, the cab driver blanched, fearing that a Cuban fifth column might be sheltering such a crew. Nonetheless, there was then and there is now such an American presence in Havana. This is not a unit that somehow took a wrong turn from Guantanamo Bay and strayed into Cuba’s capital. Rather, this assemblage, despite the machinations of the American political and espionage machines, is not only accepted by the Cuban government, it has free passage in Havana, though without license to hone its waterboarding techniques. The U.S. Embassy, once the USA got grumpy and broke off relations with Cuba in the early 1960s, did not evacuate its staff; instead, it gave itself a linguistic facelift and was reconfigured as the American Interests Section, a more apt name, though self-interests might be even more incisive. Regardless, it still sits, placidly if belligerently, on the Malecón near that restored vestige of pre-Revolutionary Cuba, the Hotel Nacional. Surrounded in a leisurely way on its perimeter by members of the Cuban military and often faced with taunting billboards that since 9/11 rightfully point out the discrepancies in the so-called war on terror that ignores or rather assists American-led terrorist acts directed at the island, it is guarded from within by that aforementioned Marine battalion. This crew, evidently, does little damage—much less so than the meddlesome (un)diplomatic corps it protects, one that often tries to intrude on and reshape Cuba’s internal policies. In the W. era (such—“doble v”–is the way Cuba dismissively refers to the son of a Bush), the Interests Section has taken to displaying cheesy, retail-style anti-Castro slogans atop its headquarters. The Cuban authorities responded by erecting a forest of flags to obscure the messages.
That American Marines occupy a house in Havana would probably surprise most Cubans. It certainly surprised me when in October, 1993, I approached the Canadian Embassy to inquire about the possibility of viewing that year’s baseball World Series which featured Canada’s Toronto Blue Jays and the Philadelphia Phillies. Alas, said the appropriate Canadian authority figure, no access to the embassy and its satellite tv reception could be made available to Canadian citizens, even those avid to support the Jays. He did mention, off-handedly, that though hoi polloi were refused entry into the inner sanctum of his embassy, the American Marines, of all people, were in this case more likely to be democratically inclined; he casually gave me their home phone number. C’mon over, they said. So, when the dubious cabbie deposited me at the gate to their place, I sauntered up to their door, no sentry in sight in that upscale neighbourhood. My Che t-shirt exchanged for one licensed by Major League baseball, I was welcomed by an off-duty Marine who promptly offered me a Budweiser beer, a McCain’s frozen pizza and the remote control to their satellite-receiving television. Because of the shortages and blackouts outside this informally gated community, I suspended my overwrought allegiance to the Jays, hoping not for a sweep of the Series but rather a seven game, fourteen pizza unfolding. My wish was almost granted and my hosts were loquacious and generous, unconcerned by my non-baseball allegiances. Their tendency towards garrulousness can perhaps be attributed to the fact that one of their rules of engagement was disengagement from most Cubans; contact and conversation with Cuban nationals was only permitted in the line of duty.
Around the corner from the Marines’ place, there was, it turned out, a house for rent, unofficially and discreetly of course, as was and often is the case, one that looked genuinely palatial; i.e., it had had a recent paint job, rare in those (literally) dark days. Thus it was that Acunia, the house’s owner, was our saviour and we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Oz had relatively contemporary furniture, running water, as well as a garden front and back. Sure, there was a resident cockroach in the front door peephole which was introduced to me the first time there was a knock at the door. Sure, soon after we moved in, Acunia, who lived upstairs, appeared at the door with a large tuna, which would have fed the entire complement of the world’s bodybuilders for an extended period of time, and which he offered to us at an unreasonable price. Over the next few weeks he also attempted to sell us his military uniform as well as black market lobster, cheese, cigars and rum. That we didn’t bite (the tuna or many of the other products) didn’t seem to faze him; his son-in-law, a math professor, had an academic position in Canada, so money was probably flowing from that source.
We did take Acunia up on one of his offers during our stay there: rental of his Lada. Playas del Este, long stretches of sandy beach a half hour or so outside of Havana, had been beckoning us for some time. So, with dutifully purchased black market gasoline and aided by the requisite push delivered in lieu of a black market battery, we set off. Only at the point at which we were motoring down the hill from the University of Havana’s steps did we discover that black market brakes weren’t included in the rental package. Only through the good graces of the special period were our lives spared. We sailed through a red light at a major intersection; fortunately, however, with Acunia appearing to be the only one with access to black marketgasoline, no other cars appeared in the intersection to greet us. Nonetheless, the Cuban couple who decided to accompany us to the beach probably felt the prospect of a rickety raft on the high seas to the Florida Keys was less risky than a ride in Acunia’s Lada; others, to be sure, have opted for that mode of transportation.
Cars are certainly one way, albeit an overly clichéd one, of framing the Cuban experience, especially for those interested in the island from afar. Pre-Revolutionary American cars preen from every coffee table book about the island, front countless postcards; they also chauffeur nostalgia-loving tourists in licit or illicit fashion. (The latter results from private citizens whispering “taxi” to any yuma passing by.) To be sure, cars could metonymically steer me through my wonderful Cuban life. Not only did Juanito have that glam Naomi Campbell-driven car – with “tremendo swing,” as Cubans of a certain age would say to signify “cool,” his principal vehicle was a 1948 Chevy. It was spacious enough that a few four-year olds could and often did play the Cuban version of ring-around-the-rosy between the front and back seats without bumping their heads on the roof. Its sheen belied its vintage status; its innards, though, were fashioned from whatever was at hand, usually cannibalized Lada spare parts that were available on the black market. So adept mechanically was Juanito and so vaunted his reputation that for a time he was recruited by the American owner of a stupendous yacht anchored at nearby Marina Hemingway to keep operational the various motors of the smaller boats and even cars stashed on the guy’s dreamboat.
I remember once seeing Juanito with the captain on the ship’s deck and getting a bemused regal wave that resonated with the history of Cuban-American relations and that would, no doubt, be a harbinger of future interaction were the Revolution to come to an end and American influence be resurrected. Indeed, the Marina itself offers a clue to that relationship aswell as to shifting political allegiances. Named after the Nobel Prize-winning author who visited there only once, but whose image was and still is internationally bankable, Marina Hemingway has operated for a time as a counterweight to the more notorious American-occupied Guantanamo base at the island’s eastern end. Here, leisurely living, boat-owning yumas defy their government’s prohibition against tourist visits in order to lure chicas to a localized bit of “stars and stripes” real estate without the girls having to hitch a ride to Key West on a raft.
Somewhat derogatorily referred to as Miami by the Santa Fe inhabitants living close by, the Marina sits near the abandoned shell of a planned casino, begun, with a perfect sense of bad timing, by the developers, in the late 1950s. It has that gated-community feel, with security guards manning the entrance as well as the access roads to the bourgeois homes strung out along the canals. A Canadian franchise, Pizza Nova, occupies a choice bit of Marina land close to Fifth Avenue. Poignantly and ironically, across that avenue sits the Ñico Lopez School of Marxist thought that draws party faithful for conferences and credit courses, whereas the lingua franca at Pizza Nova is the credit card. Meanwhile, the ghost of Hemingway lives on in the Marina’s nomenclature: there’s Papa’s, a disco, Fiesta, a now defunct restaurant, the annual Hemingway deep-sea fishing tournament and El Viejo y el Mar, a four-star hotel. Or rather it had that rating when tourism was in its heyday on the island.
Tourist dollars, of course, are still important to the Cuban economy. But they were even more vital at the low point of the special period which was the high point of the government’s hard currency needs. Through the late 1990s, one of the most publicized events of the year was the tourism expo that drew tour operators et al. to sample and assess Cuba’s offerings. Fidel Castro had said that tourism was temporarily at least, of crucial importance for financial reasons; this was the rationale given, along with the concern over access and egalitarianism, that until recently excluded Cubans from the tourist facilities on their own island. As the economy has regained steam and Cuba has found new allies in Latin America to support and enact its concept of socialism, however, tourism has been deemphasized somewhat. Not that millions don’t flock to the country. For political reasons and/or because of the weather, Cuba is a popular destination. Nonetheless, the Marina provides an insight into the shift in priorities. In the 1990s it catered to European tour groups and also provided a port for those aforementioned American louts. Now that the Venezuelan connection has reduced the reliance on the French connection, one might say, El Viejo y el Mar has been turned into a hospice for Venezuelans recovering from or awaiting surgery. One day, after the transformation, I unwittingly walked into the lobby to have a drink at the bar; puzzled but unfazed by the numerous casts on display, I asked for a rum before realizing that rubbing alcohol, not Havana Club, was the new liquid of choice in that venue. That the bandages hadn’t alerted me to the reallocation of the hotel, I attributed to the fact that in the early stages of the special period there were a lot of people with broken bones, the result of those damn blackouts that made walking the streets at night a perilous activity. Donald Barthelme’s parodic, anti-war short story, “Report,” about a word that, when uttered, causes fractures over a wide area may be apposite here; that word in the vicinity of the hotel, though, is “socialism.” Many of those awaiting surgery or recuperating from it had, according to reports, never had access to a doctor until Chavez came to power. Now, Marina Hemingway, as with other parts of Cuba, is often awash in a sea of red…red t-shirts denoting the revolución bolivariana taking place in Venezuela and worn by the many citizens of that country in Cuba for business, educational or medical reasons who are supporters of that movement.
Such a transformation seemed a long way off those days and nights at Acunia’s when food spoiled and sleeping indoors was a sweltering experience. Mosquitoes tyrannized and tempers flared. One of the few spontaneous anti-government riots occurred one hot apagón-filled 1990s night in Centro Habana; it required Fidel, himself, to appear in order to calm things down. Without threats or intimidation he waded into the crowd as much to apologize for the difficult circumstances Cuba found itself in as to plead for understanding. That situation was defused; however, blackouts, not to mention chronic shortages, left most Cubans frustrated. Often on summer nights families in Santa Fe would relocate en masse to the beach instead of sleeping indoors. Before doing that, my friend Mario, as well as his son and then wife and, both of whom have since decamped to Florida in search of a more reliable supply of air-conditioning, would haul a rocking chair and his guitar into the front yard; neighbours would arrive and a songfest would begin, lasting for hours. Mario’s son, Arian, would grumble a lot and derisively shout “Thanks, Fidel,” once the power was restored. Fifteen-plus years later though, on return visits from Miami, he remembers those nights nostalgically, referring to the warmth and laughter as well as the music. Moonlighting as a singer and waiter in a Latin restaurant to help pay the bills not covered completely by his job as a Florida school teacher, he can perhaps credit those concerts in the dark for honing his voice, one that has even won some competitions on South Florida television. As with many others who have fled the island, he can thank the Revolution for giving him an excellent education without burdening him with a monstrous student debt.
That house and those days, despite my palatial traumas, rekindle fond memories for me, too. For a few years after 1993, during frequent teaching stints at ISA, having grown closer to Mario and his family, I was invited to stay there rather than try my luck on the underground real estate market. It is worth pausing here to elaborate further on Mario: if, as those resistant to American hegemony, to neo-liberalism, to globalization are fond of saying, “un mundo mejor es posible” [a better world is possible], then identity formations other than bourgeois ones cancertainly be consolidated. Whenever Mario is wont to speak of long term personal goals, plans that smack of stability, of life insurance, his current partner, who works in the Canadian Embassy, tells him he’s being too Canadian. Certainly, he has strolled Toronto’s streets a good many times and “passed,” buying books at Pages, a theory-smart Toronto bookstore, and dining at our multicultural eateries – from Soul Food (St. Lucian) to Tempo (Pan-Asian)—as long as the food wasn’t too spicy for his Cuban palate. His Canadian guise did, though, slip when a well-meaning friend invited him to a cottage north-east of Toronto, a vital if overvalued ritual for bourgeois and bourgeois-aspirant Torontonians. The phalanxes of mosquitoes and black flies made him dubious before an abbreviated dip in a lake that has no relation to tepid, aka swim-friendly, Caribbean island waters confirmed that, as he shouted to his astonished host, “I’m Cuban!” His check-ins at the Toronto Airport, on his way back to Havana, also mark him as Cuban since he has durable goods that swell his baggage beyond airline-imposed limits. Also, when we shipped out from Caracas as part of one of the many cultural and pedagogical missions he has essayed, he checked in for his flight to Havana laden with four new tires for his aging VW Beetle, itself a testament to cubanismo.
Nonetheless, it is history and lifestyle, sense and sensibility, which most insistently register him as Cuban: since he is in his mid-fifties, he is, above all, a child of the Revolution, one with a noble pedigree. His father, a well known graphic designer in pre-revolutionary Havana and someone who was friendly with Alberto Korda, the photographer responsible for that iconic and oft-produced image of Che, prepared the banners that welcomed Fidel there in 1959. He, thus, marched with the guerrillas in an oft-photographed and storied entrance into the city. His legacy extends to two of Mario’s brothers, two of four sons, who are also prominent Cuban designers. One works with Eusebio Leal on the restoration of Old Havana and beyond, having to his design credit a few of the stylish boutique hotels that have sprung up under the auspices of the firm, Habaguanex, in the wake of Cuba’s tourism and rehabilitation boom. His work is evident in the refurbished Hotel Ambos Mundos, the home for a time of Ernest Hemingway; another example of his artistic and architectural genius can be found in the Hotel Raquel. These and other small Old Havana hotels are not inexpensive; nor do they tend to draw Canadians who prefer Cuban sand to Cuban style. Europeans, though, are enamoured of them; indeed, they are often filled to capacity.
Another son is a book designer. Both have won national prizes for their work, have travelled abroad and radiate urbanity and creativity. A third brother has taken Cuban music on the road, being a bandleader and composing music for two hunks called Los Gemelos [The Twins], who wowed them for a time in Italy. When that twosome tired of European adulation, they returned to Havana; Javier, Mario’s youngest brother, however, reconstituted a Cuban group and plays on still in Milan. The three eldest brothers speak often of the good times in the 1980s when the highlife was accessible to Cubans. Hotel rooms were cheap and shortages of most goods and services were unheard of. Despite more straitened circumstances, the three brothers still living in Havana radiate conviviality and bonhomie; their lifestyles, social networks and outreach would probably be the envy of a boulevardier or flaneur anywhere.
Sociability remains a Cuban virtue and practice with non-business urban encounters – handshakes, hugs, laughter, drinks, coffee – occurring, it seems to me, much more frequently and genuinely than they do in most other major – read, capitalist and excessively purposeful – cities. This extends to academic arenas which to anyone who has spent time at North American universities transmit a solipsistic, drab, restrained and furtively or even overtly competitive aura, this in disciplines contradictorily named the humanities. At ISA, where Mario is a professor, geniality flows. It is overlaid, too, with a sensuality that contrasts even more sharply with frigid North American university campuses. On one of my first visits to ISA, I was startled to see a music professor with his arm draped over a student’s shoulders as he explained something to the group surrounding him. Perhaps it is the remnants of machismo, so relentlessly expunged on those North American campuses, that are to be blamed, though this would, I think, be unfair to the pronounced and powerful female presence in the professoriate and the administration at ISA and other Cuban universities. Certainly, many Cuban men – and this yuma as well – are still prone to acting as “ventiladores,” swivelling fans, male heads moving rapidly in a semi-circular motion to survey whichever females are parading by. Once, on a motor scooter borrowed from Mario’s son, I was emulating a ventilador to the extent that I overlooked a parked car in front of me and found myself catapulted onto its trunk when I ran into it. The object of my affection appeared charmed. Certainly, too, dress codes are less puritanical – so, too, are behavioural codes which permit the hugging and kissing now outré in North American academia. As a flamboyant and assured presence on and off the campus, Mario is comfortable with the designation, ladies man, happy to participate in informal interaction at ISA with gusto and ardour.
This is not to say that ISA’s faculty generally, or Mario specifically, take academic responsibilities lightly or treats them frivolously. Mario, himself, when I met him, occupied the position of Vice-Rector, Academic. Indeed, had he belonged to the Cuban Communist Party, there would have been the possibility of him assuming the position of Rector. More comfortable with student interaction and with a love of teaching than with bureaucratic wrangling, he was not sorry to forego the opportunity to move even further up the administrative hierarchy even though one of the job’s perks was a car and driver. Academic rigour and professional efficiency are not subverted by the extracurricular joys in evidence on campus. These pleasures, no doubt, result, on the students’ side, from not being forced to work part-time to pay for their educations and to subsist, a necessity for the majority of North American students. The ISA school year culminates in a creative effulgence, with performances or exhibitions by graduating students in music, dance theatre and art, each assessed by faculty and experts in the appropriate fields.
While most full-time academics I know outside of Cuba have minimal teaching schedules that allow them to pursue research on their own terms, I have witnessed Mario teaching classes and attending meetings five days a week, most weeks of the year. In addition to his ISA classes on semiotics, he delivers guest lectures at the University of Havana and serves on the national committee that regulates and oversees the awarding of Ph.D.s in the country. Then there are the lectures abroad; ISA’s many contacts throughout Latin America and beyond have enabled him, as they have many other faculty members, to give courses or attend conferences throughout the world. A Hemingway expert, as well, he is often at the former Hemingway estate, now a museum devoted to the author’s life in Cuba. Also, every Sunday morning from 6a.m. to noon he co-hosts a music and talk show; this used to necessitate his departure from Santa Fe at 4:30am, riding his bicycle in the darkness to the radio station downtown in Vedado, a machete stuffed in his backpack for security.
As co-host, this time of the television show, “Cuerda Viva,” he is often at mid-week tapings or on road trips throughout the island to interview bands, poets or artists. At home he vets anime videos for which he writes and presents the introductions; hosting that show which runs on another channel involves another weekly taping. At least middle age has moved him off his bicycle and into 10 peso taxis which provide (slightly) more reliable and (slightly) faster transportation. A salary which is slightly more substantial than the take-home pay of the driver of the 10 peso taxi—and much less than that of a waiter at a hard-currency restaurant–provides only the fiduciary recompense for this rich, diverse life. Intellectual, social and cultural stimulation appears to be the actual reward. Such must be the felt compensation for the many Cubans who toil in the public service and who do so for a pittance. Many others, of course, have opted for work in the tourism sector which gives easier access to hard currency. Drivers of tourist-oriented taxis who have perfected the skill of disconnecting both meter and odometer in order to be able to negotiate fares that are then pocketed probably make more in a day than public sector workers earn in a month. Doctors, too, are similarly disadvantaged. Nonetheless, the academic, media and medical professions don’t seem to have been significantly undermined by the lure of this extramural cash. You might have to wait months for your Canadian skin doctor to perform some basic surgery that is covered by medicare, whereas a Botox shot is immediately yours for the asking. In Havana, on the other hand, the polyclinics and hospitals are amply staffed to meet one’s pressing medical needs – that do not include Botox treatments. Similarly, class sizes at Cuban universities have not been inflated obscenely and impractically by an evacuation of scholars; this is not the case in North American universities where budgets, not pedagogical logic, dictate class sizes.
That Mario responds responsibly to his academic and media duties from what some urbanites might regard as an outpost – Santa Fe – most likely caused some tensions with his ex-wife, who would have preferred living downtown, but the distance and commuting difficulties, mitigated somewhat lately by improved public transportation, haven’t stopped him from meeting his commitments. He was urged by his former wife to trade the house for a Vedado apartment for the sake of convenience – and for the buzz of downtown life, something he enjoys. Regardless, the Santa Fe abode gives him the space he cherishes. It was built for his father-in-law when the latter did what many North Americans in the 1950s thought was de rigueur, move to the suburbs. Were you to drive west along Fifth Avenue in Playa, you would, at the intersection of 42nd Street pass a large concrete bowl that once marked the city limits until suburban sprawl pushed the city past 120th Street even, engulfing the fishing villages of Jaimanitas and beyond that, Santa Fe. There, midst banana trees, along busy 7th Avenue sits the Masvidal house. Being situated between a daycare and a property replete with pigs and chickens doesn’t diminish its attractiveness for Mario. Nor does the lack of air-conditioning, toilet seats (until I purchased one), window bars or window screens; mosquitoes, as much as Mayito, consider it home. Furniture, as it is in most Cuban abodes, is spartan and minimal. The television set model is as far from plasma as a Flying Pigeon is from an Olympic racing bicycle. The mattresses have borne too many revolutions to lay flat—more than anything, it is probably the deterioration of hard goods that makes life a challenge for many Cubans.
Mario’s ex-wife and son were happy to bid the house farewell for Florida, where no condo worthy of the name is in all likelihood without marble countertops, but Mario loves it. And I do too, even if the one grapefruit tree that bore ambrosial fruit was blown away in one of the recent hurricanes. There is an in-law suite, my territory, one that has a summer kitchen backing onto the lush garden. Five to ten cats call it home, too, and respond to my whistle with the crazed yet perceptive realization that I’m going to open a can of tuna or sardines for them whether I’ve been away for a few hours or a few months. Living in a perennial state of special period, cat food having only recently appeared in only recently opened pet food stores, they devour frantically and heedlessly the tomato sauce or vegetable oil that has lived in the can in close proximity to their beloved fish.
Arian loved the house for one reason–its view of the chicas who paraded in and out of the hard currency store across the street; he would hang over the fence for hours, chatting with friends while he ogled the inevitable parade of beauties. I would often do sentinel duty him. While he is happier in Miami, he still likes the sensuality he finds on the streets of Havana and returns as often as George W. Bush permits him to. Mario’s affection for the locale has never flagged, but it certainly peaked when he began having trysts with one of the store’s clerks, which ended when she found Jesus, a fairly infrequent occurrence in Cuba, despite the occasional round of American missionaries who can flaunt the blockade with their religious-cum-capitalist pitches. More prevalent on the streets of Havana, insofar as religion is concerned, are the white garbed santeria worshippers.
Not that location is the primary qualification in his courting of chicas—being handsome and charming are his principal lures. That his full media and academic schedule is matched by his overcrowded datebook – aided only modestly by me operating as a Viagra mule from abroad when the black market agramercado dealer is bereft of supplies—is a feat probably not in the mould of Che’s “guerrillero heroic,” but it is challenging, nonetheless. There is no pattern to his dalliances, no Slothropian logic to them; however, given the distances, vagaries of transportation and assorted potential jealous lovers and/or rivals, surely something potentially significant is afoot here given that neither a catastrophe nor a diminution of desire has ensued. There is even an international flavour to his love life, since professorial travel to Venezuela, Mexico, Spain, the Ukraine and Canada has opened those vistas. This is not to mention his frequent excursions from one end of the island to the other with their ostensible work-related origins. Some assignations have taken place in posadas, Cuba’s version of love hotels. During an amorous moment in one rundown posada, Mario has told me, a cockroach began travelling up one of his legs. Unwilling to interrupt the lovemaking, he attempted to dislodge the critter by shaking his leg; this produced, his partner swore, the fiercest orgasm she ever had.
Mario, of course, has a privileged life – as do most academics in most countries. Nonetheless, his allegiance to Cuba with the concomitant recognition that it is the Revolution that has fostered his possibilities, academic and otherwise, is fierce. Despite his droll, wry, sceptical sensibility, he has grown increasingly irritated with carpers and whiners inside and outside the country who, on various social occasions he has shared with me, have articulated their displeasure with the way Cuban things are. While a critic of caution and timidity in Cuban media, he is a supporter of a context within which art can be produced without commercial pressures. Most of us who are academics till our narrow terrains, establish our reputations within limited specializations and venture outside our own universities with name tags affixed to our lapels to ensure our legitimacy in a world that by and large doesn’t give a damn about our esoteric vocabularies and internecine feuds. Now that Bolivia and Ecuador appear to be interested in ISA’s socialist educational point-of-view, Mario’s sphere of influence, already having expanded to many parts of Latin America, via his media presence on Cubavisión Internacional and via lectures given on behalf of and programs shaped by ISA, might just dwarf that of most other private citizens, this despite the USA’s attempts to limit Cuba’s and Cubans’ impact abroad. That someone with such capabilities and scope promulgates the production of an egalitarian culture, as well as interrogates the social consequences of cultural transmissions—socialist and capitalist–with wit and whimsy makes his achievements even more remarkable.
My moving into Mario’s house meant that Arian, himself, had to move—out of his own room. Nightly, despite being twenty years old, he positioned himself at the foot of his parents’ double bed to sleep there. My remonstrations notwithstanding, mother, father and son appeared to cope comfortably with the cramped quarters. Less harmonious was the relationship between Mario and his mother-in-law after her husband died. It deteriorated further after Arian left the country and even more precipitously once his wife followed her son. Unwilling to give up rights to the house which would pass to her despised son-in-law, Laura hung in for a number of years, her goal being to irritate Mario to the extent that he would leave and free her to negotiate an under-the-table real estate deal. Although that never materialized, selected pieces of furniture, as well as the family motorbike, registered in her name, would suddenly disappear from the house. The struggle turned geo-political as well as familial and culminated in a shouting match I witnessed over a televised volleyball match between the national women’s teams of Brazil and Cuba. Laura shrieked with delight whenever Brazil scored a point, which signified the triumph of capitalism over communism and the affirmation of marriage and fidelity—perhaps the wrong word–over dissolute behaviour, Mario making no secret of the amours in which he delighted. The Cuban team’s scoring was equally freighted. Despite Brazil’s victory, Laura soon capitulated, moving to Miami; the house, however, remains in her name.
Not that I didn’t have my own difficulties in that house. A yuma in a house without bars on the windows meant an inevitable robbery which included, most tragically, once, my electric shaver which left me at the mercy of a Flying Pigeon of a substitute that greeted me most mornings by repeatedly ripping hairs out of my face and neck. I took to barricading myself in my room the nights I slept alone in the house, peeing in a plastic bottle to avoid exposing myself to anyone who had gained access to the house. It didn’t help my confidence that Mario’s defense against potential thieves was to leave the window slats open in the kitchen and the lights and radio on, this, evidently, to dupe would-be criminals into thinking someone in the house was awake and alert. I finally hired a bodyguard, a gym buddy who had served in one of Cuba’s elite military units; fortunately for would-be thieves, his skills, in that regard, never proved necessary.
Then, there was the roof debacle during one particularly rainy season: the ceiling in my bedroom sprang innumerable leaks. I was forced to keep repositioning my bed to avoid a night of water torture, un-American style. Most of the time, I was able to align myself, if not the entire bed, in order to facilitate sleeping instead of swimming. With that managed, I could look forward to what I came to regard as my Cuban alarm clock. As was customary with most home owners in Cuba, no one was deposed from his or her house with the commencement of the Revolution in 1959 unless nefarious ties to the Batista regime were discovered. Once, however, someone had vacated his or her premises and relocated to another country, the property was turned over to the state which often in the early days of the Revolution gave it to a worthy former guerrilla fighter and his or her family. Thus, one of the perhaps unintended consequences of this redistribution was to integrate previously whites-only neighbourhoods since, by and large, those fleeing to Miami were of a whiter shade of pale and those rewarded foot soldiers less so.
Another possibility for a vacated house was to turn it into a useful venue. With the Revolution’s commitment to universal access to medicine, education and daycare, many houses were appropriated to serve that goal. Such was the case with the house next door to Mario’s which has operated, since soon after the Revolution began, as a neighbourhood daycare. I often peeked out my bedroom window to watch the kids napping or playing games, supervised by a phalanx of early childhood education staffers, something impossible to duplicate in cost-conscious capitalist countries—or else possible, the result of meager wages and inflated tuitions. Before my idyllic glimpses of that scene, though, came the 8:30 a.m. reckoning, when the arriving children were assembled just outside my window for the singing of the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance to Jose Martí and Fidel. Once I realized I wasn’t dreaming, I could appreciate the zeal of the workers and the energy of the children in their neat height-regulated rows.
Somewhat less enchanting was the cacophony their untrained voices produced on my sleep-deficient brain, but this ritual involved the nurturing and maintaining of the Revolution, so I sometimes surreptitiously sang and chanted along with them. Another refrain, one I became quite familiar with, was generated at the time that tensions between Cuba and the U.S.A., usually fraught with strain, were even more heightened. This was during the Elian Gonzales affair when the child, plucked from a raft and sequestered in Miami, was a bargaining chip and symbolic counter between the two governments. Until he was finally returned to his father in Matanzas, a few hours east of Havana, the daycare workers inculcated in their charges the slogan, “Elian, amigo, el pueblo esta con tigo” [Elian, our friend, the Cuban people are with you]. Those of us of a certain political temperament, inundated by advertising jingles, with far too many rattling around relentlessly in our heads, might find it redemptive to have “Elian, amigo, el pueblo esta con tigo” supplant “things go better with Coke” at least temporarily. (Cubans, fortunately for them, don’t face that commercial onslaught.) Or so I convinced myself as I heard the former phrase non-stop from morning until evening during that battle of governmental wills.
Those youthful voices found their adult echoes in the marches that continued throughout the special period. Despite troubling shortages, busses, choreographed with perfection—for those displays–to get people places, were mobilized to consolidate crowds demanding Elian’s return. Once there, hundreds of thousands of people chanted with as much confidence and energy as thekids at the daycare next door to me did. In my seminars, too, I heard compelling voices, articulate and incisive, if less orchestrated; even as geo-political events threatened to usurp their speech and turn it into a bathetic bit of American echolalia, participants engaged the topic of postmodernism and its implications for Cuba with self-assurance and resoluteness. Confounding a good many predictions, distinctively Cuban voices have, thankfully, refused to be altered, adulterated or silenced.
Chapter 3: Of Toilet Seats and Other Curiosities: The UTIC Years
Emboldened by my first stint as a visiting professor at ISA and by successive periods simply hanging out in Havana, I decided to save Cuba! Jean-Guy Allard, from Quebec, lives in Havana where he contributes trenchant investigative journalism to Granma, focusing on Cuban-American terrorist acts and schemes against Cuba and its citizens. Jane Bunnett, a Canadian jazz musician, has undertaken to funnel instruments to Cuba. A group called Pastors for Peace has shipped school busses to the island. That some make a pun out of the Spanish “pastores por le paz,” pronounced paw, doubling it to papa or potato and turning the emissaries who are also missionaries into preachers for potatoes, doesn’t detract from their largesse. That their leader also had his wallet snatched on exiting a restaurant only to have his colleagues chase the thief and curse Cubans also needn’t be seen as necessarily undermining their efforts. (Cubans can be quite irreverent, even towards well-meaning yumas. When Jimmy Carter arrived in Havana, as an ex-President, of course, oozing benignity and goodwill, people jokily resuscitated the refrain, “Carter, carterista” [Carter, pickpocket], that had been in vogue when he was, as Americans would have it, Commander-in-Chief.)
Many others, via NGOs or friendship associations, have sought to assist the Revolution, so I wasn’t alone in my messianic zeal. (There is an award, the “Medalla de la Amistad” [Friendship Medal], which goes to foreigners in recognition of their support of Cuba.) Nonetheless, I mustered what I thought was a unique contribution to the island’s well-being: I sought out Cuban universities, most notably ISA which I knew well, to see whether they wanted to make spaces available to foreign students I would recruit abroad; this, I hypothesized, would provide some much needed hard currency to assist in their educational mandate. Spanish as a second language would be the principal course, but others, such as Cuban culture and various art, music, sports and dance courses, were possibilities I also proposed. Given the competent faculties, solid infrastructures and astute administrations aware of the value of donors to and/or partners in the cause of Cuban education, it seemed like a worthwhile idea. It probably helped that I was as naïve when it came to business as those clerks in Cuban hard currency stores, especially at their inception and before hard currency was legalized for ordinary Cubans, who, unused to beneficent faces of American presidents – in this case, those fronting American greenbacks – handled each bill as if it were one of Che Guevara’s bone fragments.
Along with my companion at the time, I downsized intrepidly, creating University Term in Cuba, Inc., thinking UTIC a catchy acronym and planning to assist the Revolution on the back – rather front – of my already overburdened credit card. So, we began placing ads, first, in Canadian dailies and, voila, the antithesis to dot.com billions, though not to more modest, noble and supportive goals. For reasons we soon regretted, we set three months as the time frame for exposure to Cuba and absorption of Spanish. Another flawed decision was to stock the pioneer group with university students of mine from Canada. One by one they cracked: okra, rice and some undistinguishable meat ate them up. So did the blackouts. So did the identities they for the most part uncomprehendingly carried; their privileged Canadian status inevitably undermined whatever intimate relationships they embarked upon with Cubans, many eager to ride a bankable passport on out. Gradually or in some cases rapidly, they turned on me, saving their animus for the Dean at my university. On the receiving end of complaints that included false advertising – Cuban, not Spanish, one griped, was the language taught, I was forced to make partial restitution. That was the easy part. While there, the male students grew testy at being seen as marriage partners; the female students, at least some of them, were disenchanted, first by the ogling, then by their stature as trophy or, worse yet, goddess. The one thing that redeemed their time in Cuba, besides the inordinate quantities of bootleg rum consumed, seemed to be their frantic attempts to master salsa dancing. In most cases, traces of Canadian rigidity adhered to their bodies, regardless of how many lessons they were given.
One adventurous student, there’s always one of course, “went native,” hitchhiking to Santiago de Cuba only to return with what I thought was dengue fever, a sure ruin, my partner and I speculated, to our fantasies of language school franchises throughout Latin America. Fortunately, for us and him, he survived; his fever disappeared, but not his zeal for authentic Cuban experiences. He became a devotee of santeria. The postponement of his first ritualistic slaughtering of a chicken, a staple of santeria rites, didn’t deter him. This being the special period, his sponsors could not find a victim, willing or unwilling. Nonetheless, he went on to do a doctorate on the subject back in Canada, where chickens weren’t in short supply, though their sacrifice there is, for the most part, more matter-of–fact KFC dispatch than sanctification-laden ceremony.
Another student, appropriately named Linda, meaning pretty in Spanish, fell in love with a baseball player from Cienfuegos of the Cuban elite league. She stayed in Cuba long after our program ended; during the off-season he played in a provincial league and Linda could occasionally be found helping him and his teammates push their often broken down bus to their next game so they wouldn’t have to forfeit it. Later, with her now husband in tow, she returned to Canada and, for a time, operated an NGO shipping bicycles to Cuba where they were retrofitted and distributed to the populace. Other students from our group, meeker ones, clustered around their Canadian identities which allowed them access to Friday night events held at the Canadian Embassy and called, with some tropical smugness, Polar Bars. While Cuban nationals weren’t permitted access to the soirees, American Marines not on duty guarding the U.S. Interests Section complex were. Indeed, a romance developed between one of the “few good men” and a UTIC student, outrageous not to mention traitorous, some of us in the program felt, to our Fidelista credentials. It was as if I were a Jewish parent who sent his child to Israel and learned that s/he was going out with a goy.
The Embassy, though, proved to be more than a dating outlet. Recognizing UTIC’s pioneering status, the ambassador invited us to a party at his home to celebrate Canada Day. The invitation, hand delivered by an embassy staff member to our entire group at ISA, had once read, “The Ambassador and his wife…”; however, “and his wife” had been crossed out, something that came into focus as the party wore on. Fidel wasn’t there, but his signed card propped up beside a bouquet of flowers he had sent to acknowledge the occasion was stolen by one of our enterprising UTIC students who has, no doubt, since auctioned it off on eBay. Other dignitaries, including many ambassadors from other countries, did attend, though. Once they departed, the meaning of the palinodic “and his wife” became clearer. Into the pool sans ambassadorial, or any other, garb went the chief representative of the Canadian government in Cuba. He was followed enthusiastically by many of our students, grateful earlier for the free and lavish food and drink and even more pleased to learn from the ambassador how gracefully to accept rum and cigars from embassy staff seemingly unperturbed by the nude consumers. They were also keen to convince Teofilo Stevenson, Olympic gold-medalist in boxing, as well as one of Cuba’s most famous sportsmen, to enter the ring…of students. Despite his initial reluctance, international relations were at stake; so he bowed to the pressure and participated in this bout of Cuban-Canadian mutual admiration.
I have hoped, from time to time, for recognition from the Cuban government for our UTIC venture. The Medalla de la Amistad, once given to Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a former Canadian Prime Minister and also a good friend of Castro’s, was something I had been eying. (The grand house made available to Trudeau for his Havana sojourns might not have been on my wish list, but that stint at Edificio Palacio sure made it look glam.) Our experience at the Embassy that day, though, also encouraged me to consider some sort of honour from my own government. This possibility momentarily occurred to me because the ambassador not only enjoyed frolicking with the students from my program, but he also needed a favour from the prettiest among them. His term ending and his Under the Volcano-like dislocation accelerating, he needed the women, he maintained, to help him pack for his trip home. “…and his wife” might have been useful at that point, but she had decamped earlier because, unlike the consul in the aforementioned novel, drink hadn’t undermined his desire for Latin American women.
I also deserved Canadian commendations, it seemed to me, for returning that first group, as well as subsequent ones, alive to its and my country of origin. After watching bewilderment and perplexity grow rather than abate with that initial group, my partner and I altered the parameters of the program. Six weeks–because that was the length of the course–with a few days of acclimatization thrown in at the beginning of the students’ stay in Cuba became the norm. Much less time than that had driven a few of our pioneering UTICers to steal the toilet seat that distinguished the bathroom of my rented accommodations from that of most other Cuban homes…as well as of the students’ residence. My partner, Lyn, and I had rented a rather ostentatious place close to ISA that first year in order to be close to the university; we also hosted weekly parties to gain feedback about the program and to lose our toilet seats. This especially hampered Lyn’s young son, Jamie, from remaining perched on the toilet bowl for the duration of his bowel movements. Some lingering Freudian scar might continue to affect him; however, I consider that he came out ahead, the result of the social skills he acquired in the ‘hood. Neighbours would invite him over to play with their children and, more importantly, to teach him to dance salsa. Whereas it would take a version of the Tonton Macoute to make most North American bodies sway rhythmically to music, the kid became positively Cuban after a few dance lessons. His pals, of course, also sought mischievously to teach him a more demotic Spanish vocabulary than “gracias.” I first informed Lyn of the good news: his vocabulary was growing, then the bad news, that it was expanding to include “comemierda,” shit-eater, and “comepinga,” cocksucker. Nonetheless, the boy roamed the ‘hood confidently, sharing in Cuban notions of community which, it seems to me, are much richer than North American versions. He even charmed the police who operated a division out of a house across the street. Jamie took longer shifts there than most of the cops. Transfixed by the action, he was at liberty to spy on prisoners in their cells and strut about in a policeman’s hat. We had, however, to request he be restricted in his use of handcuffs and baton.
This probably worked against us the first night we were robbed. Havana is certainly safer than other Latin American cities or, indeed, most North American ones. A doctor friend who works in an inner city hospital says he has never had to treat a gunshot wound. Nonetheless, yumas in a big, sprawling house, one with unbarred windows, were clearly too juicy a target to overlook. We woke up one morning stunned to discover, or rather not to discover, the laptop Lyn had unadvisedly brought to Havana. Also missing were our wallets, too much American money, and our passports, all of which had been sitting plumply on our dresser. Left behind as a calling card was an old Cuban three peso note, signed by then Finance Minister Che Guevara, a much favoured, overpriced and omnipresent item offered by hawkers in Old Havana, but one not able to support us in any lifestyle whatsoever; regardless, I almost had to resort to peddling it to gullible tourists. It took predictably dispiriting dealings with our bank, via the Canadian Embassy, to restore our access to credit. In the backyard of our house we later found one of Jamie’s shoes which the thieves had dropped; it left him for a time the best shod amongst the three of us.
His co-detectives were quickly summoned; they arrived with dispatch, dusted for fingerprints and said that robbers such as those who, not incidentally, would in all likelihood not be found, prefer working between 3 and 5 a.m. when their unwilling clients sleep most soundly. This bit of trivia I have retained with more ferocity than the postmodern theories I trot out in classrooms each semester. Pacho, our landlord, who had stashed himself, his wife and his child in a backroom, while we took over the rest of the house, the better to siphon off our rental monies, professed perplexity, not to mention a sleeping pattern similar to ours. Or perhaps, the cracked, ever unrepaired lenses in his glasses gave him a look more inscrutable than confused. Our UTIC students, properly sympathetic, returned our toilet seat; the night thieves, alas, weren’t quite so reciprocating.
In addition to the police, we turned for advice to Bill Brent, the most formidable presence we knew in Havana. Brent, who died in 2006, was a story in his own right, one he published in a compelling memoir called Long Time Gone. A small time crook while in his teens in the southern U.S.A., he later became a Black Panther, one caught up in the infamous shootout orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover and reconstructed in Martin van Peebles’ film, Panther. The prospect of jail time or worse in the USA for having shot a policeman in that confrontation appealed minimally to him, so he hijacked a plane to Havana. In those heady days when hijackers took over planes in order to land them safely at the locales of their choice, Havanawas the O’Hare Airport of destinations. So many perpetrators found their way there that the Cuban government opened a kind of motel, located in Siboney district and fancifully called Skyjack House by some, for the frequent arrivals.
Brent, however, had been given a bad rap to Cuban officials by Panther higher-ups; consequently, he was jailed for a time upon his arrival. On the other hand, Huey Newton, a better known Black Panther who reached Cuba by less extreme means, found himself for a time pumping gas, when such a commodity existed, in pre-special period Villa Clara. Brent’s profile in Cuba, once he was released from jail, was far more visible and laudatory. He started by volunteering to cut sugar cane, a rigorous task even for someone who had done prison time in two countries. Surviving that, by pissing on his hands to toughen them up, a tried-and-true method, he tells us in Long Time Gone, he dedicated himself to polishing his Spanish and getting a university degree. Accessible education for every segment of the Cuban population—and in this case, an American on the run–is surely one of the major successes of the Revolution. Brent not only took advantage of it, he went on to become a highly respected teacher at an inner-city school before accepting an easier gig as a deejay on Radio Taino, the national station catering to tourism. Retired when I met him, he graciously submitted to an interview for a Canadian alternative culture magazine I co-edited, then became an habitué of the gym I recommended. Even in his late 60s he was a formidable presence there, chanting “tiburón, tiburón” [shark, shark] in a deep, incantatory voice as he pumped iron.
Unlike many who sought temporary or permanent political refuge in Cuba, Brent made a rich life for himself; he was a contributor to the revolution and a visible presence in Havana, driving around town in a 1960s VW bug, the steering wheel perched subserviently under his goateed chin. He lived in the district of Playa just across the river from Vedado with his wife, Jane McManus. She herself was an expatriate American, having left the USA for political and personal reasons that weren’t as dire as Brent’s. Like him she contributed to the public life of the country, authoring a book on the history of Isla de la Juventud, the Isle of Youth, the largish island off the southwest coast of Cuba which before the Revolution had been called Isla de las Pinas, the Isle of Pines, and had been claimed by the USA as well as Cuba early in the twentieth century. The Brents’ place, a light-and plant-filled terraced apartment, was festooned with posters of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an African-American currently on death row in the USA. Indeed, despite his increasingly Cuban ways, Brent to the end identified himself as a Black Panther and was most alert to the impositions race dealt. The politics of identity for most Cubans eddy around notions of nation, something, of course, as much imposed from without as developed from within. Race, though, was paramount for Brent.
When Long Time Gone was being launched, an American television network showed up in Havana to do an interview with him, preparing for a feature on a life clearly at the crux of events and issues important to Americans. Unapologetic about his having shot a policeman who, Brent maintained, would have been happy to shoot him, he had a tape of the proposed feature sent to him with an apologetic note from the producer of the piece. The network had decided not to air it; no doubt, had he uttered a “mea culpa” and found the fundamentalist Jesus or any other jejune form of revelation so beloved by prospective viewers, the broadcaster would have had the uplifting story it clearly wanted. Nonetheless, Brent loved viewing the segment, especially because of the clips containing supportive remarks by family members, some of whom he had never met. Fortunately for Brent, his story had a twist which almost turned in the American government’s favour, but left him able to avoid its clutches. Sent by Cuba to participate in an educational assistance program for a newly elected leftist regime in Grenada, Brent was on that island when the Americans invaded it. He was on one of the first planes back to Cuba.
When I sought his advice after the robbery, he wryly said that the thieves would return. Alerted to this possibility, our landlord, Pacho, shored up his backroom bunker while leaving us, a few weeks later, to fend off a knife-wielding intruder; this we managed to do despite his no doubt researched 3-5a.m. arrival time. After that, by withholding rent monies, I forced Pacho onto the roof of our house for a nightly patrol he managed to undertake successfully. Regardless, we hedged our bets, stacking furniture against the door of our bedroom in case Pacho, with the cracked lens in his glasses, was seeing stars – or was being paid off.
UTIC was never a big moneymaker, except perhaps for those first thieves. Nonetheless, it generated enough cash to fill our shoes – literally! With each group we accompanied to Cuba, either Lyn or I would load our Doc Martens boots with $10,000 or so in U.S. hundred dollar bills. Touristic grins pasted over our anxious faces, we would pass through Immigration/Customs and be met by two of ISA’s burliest employees to be taken to the cashier’s office at the university, there to hand over the money and watch it relocated to the safe, the only kind of bank account the school maintained independently at the time. During the handover, each bill was placed face up and its serial number recorded. Once disburdened of the money, we watched proudly over the weeks that followed as desks were bought and air conditioners installed.
During that same stretch we were faced with the carping and whining of some of the students who, to our surprise, began to consist mainly of retirees. Cubans smoking, playing music loudly, in short, enjoying themselves: these signs of deviant behaviour triggered complaints from the UTIC members who weren’t keen on expressive displays or were otherwise unable to adapt. Curiously, what especially irked many was the garbage toss, Cubans heedlessly jettisoning empty beer cans and water bottles wherever. The explanation was simple enough for any of us who had been around in the early 1990s: any empty plastic bottle thrown aside, for instance, was quickly picked up and reused, such were the shortages at the time. With relative plenty producing more garbage in later years, the idea of recycling has just recently made it onto the list of Cubans’ priorities, public service ads now focusing on the perils of littering.
For some of the students who participated over the years in the program, it was a transformative experience, for others the next plane out. A good many managed to shift their locus from the campus to the Hotel Palco, located across the street. After their morning class they would sprawl on chaises longues poolside, dissecting the difference between “ser” and “estar” and otherwise transforming themselves into 4-star hotel habitués. One retired teacher, though, after a semester in a UTIC-arranged Spanish course, returned annually to ISA as an English teacher. Another retiree who often went to the beach for an afternoon snooze would, preparatory to dozing off, stick his wallet in one of his shoes. Predictably, shoeless and penniless, he didn’t last out the six week course.
Called to the residence one time to accompany a student with severe stomach troubles to the hospital, I found myself riding in the back of an ambulance with a beautiful young female doctor, another of the fruits of the Revolution, and the student. The doctor, Lorena, and I fell in love–with the siren blaring, the ambulance speeding and the patient groaning (but not in dire straits). Once the Canadian was settled in a hospital bed and pronounced in need of a night of rehydration and nothing more, Lorena and I recruited the ambulance driver to take us to my favourite restaurant – sans siren, though we were both quite hungry. A brief, scintillating relationship ensued – our planning regarding the possibility of her doing postgraduate work in psychiatry at McGill University of Montreal, Quebec, which I had attended in the early sixties, proceeded to the point at which I enlisted the aid of a cousin and noted psychiatry professor. However, almost as quickly as the UTIC student was returned to his dorm, our ardour was displaced.
Lorena, along with those brigades of Cuban doctors who have done mission work, ministering medically to people throughout the world, has, no doubt, served illustriously and humanely inside and outside Cuba. It is also not unfair to speculate that, unlike bourgeois doctors, her commitment to the Hippocratic Oath has been unadulterated by plans to incorporate as a business or specialize in cosmetic surgery. Michael Moore’s Sicko is perhaps a bit too sublime a representation of medical care in Cuba as well as Canada. However, from tumbles I have taken, that have driven me to various polyclinics – I once tripped over an extension cord and split my scalp in Mario’s house – as well as accounts from others, even skeptical Cubans, the (communist) system in place clearly produces fast, sound and equitable treatment. Indeed, a Cuban now living in Canada who experienced a not unusual eight hour stint in the waiting room of a leading Toronto hospital told me that she thinks Moore was far too generous in his assessment of Canadian – but not Cuban – health care. UN statistics regarding longevity and other measures also give credence to Cuba’s system. Given the hardships of the special period, the data that reflect positively on Cuban well-being and the medical personnel in place to protect and foster it gain even more significance and legitimacy. Besides, Lorena was young and beautiful!
The demands of tending to UTIC students’ needs drove Lyn and me to hire one particularly calm and organized retiree to act as our resource person. This left me free to roam the streets of Havana, differentiating, in informal ways, “ser” from “estar,” “tambien” from “tampoco” and “guatemalteca,” from “peruano.” I didn’t meet a citizen of either Guatemala or Peru, but a Colombian student, sent to ISA by her parents because they preferred Cuba’s “just say no to drugs” campaign to their country’s way of packaging the message, helped me to hone my Spanish by whispering “cuentame” [tell me a story] while I masturbated her and practiced my declensions.
Another language learning venue for me was Abreu Fontan, the teachers’ union beach club, that gave my friend Rafi Lopez a space from which to operate his gym and weight room. “Peso muerto” [dead lift] and “encojimientos” [shoulder shrugs] were terms I mastered almost as quickly as “chica.” I especially liked the warm-up exercises Rafi insisted we do; they were wonderful metonymic language devices as well as preliminary drills. I still shake out all parts of my body according to the meticulous movement from head to toe, counted out “uno, dos, uno, dos, uno, dos, y ultimo…dos.” In a land where “ahorita” or “pronto” might mean “in a couple of hours,” Rafi ran the room with Olympic quality rigour and precision. Everyone was given a time to arrive and a program to which to adhere. Show up late for your session and you were required to sweep the floor. Complete an exercise with sloppy technique and you were scolded and commanded to repeat the set. The equipment – bench presses, leg presses, universal – was built by him with the help of family and friends out of scrap metal. Since Rafi left the country and his brother, Panchy, took over the gym, the equipment has deteriorated somewhat and workout regimens have become less precisely co-ordinated; while engaged in “remo sentado,” [seated row] an exercise to bulk back muscles, I flew across the room, the result of a frayed cable which snapped. My neck almost snapped as well. The camaraderie of that gym, though, makes it worthwhile to continue working out there. Whereas Rafi would shake his head ruefully at women with ample–he called them “Cuban”–derrieres trying to bring their figures into some kind of balance, Panchy is content to derive a voyeuristic delight at their enactment of ”peso muerto.” He may not demand perfect form, but let a busty woman start to do a set of decline dumbbell presses and he is immediately there to guide her elbows.
Abreu Fontan, which houses the gym, has other charms as well; these include a seawall along which one can walk after a workout and from which one can jump into the Atlantic. Fontan is just one of the beach clubs for the pre-Revolutionary haute bourgeoisie, a contribution to a racist and class-striated society that has been turned over to less financially segregated and less homogenously racial groups. Next to it sits a club that has been allotted to the Cuban military. Parties, sports events, conventions – these fill both venues with animation and energy. Sure, you have to bring your own towel and the paint is perhaps peeling from the walls, but in these clubs, the activities take place in an egalitarian context. Grammy Award winners and actors of note have passed through Fontan’s gym. So, too, does a crazed Australian who boasts of his leftist allegiances while pumping iron and then dives into the ocean regardless of inclement weather. There’s also a Chilean-Cuban woman with whom I often work out. Her family had moved to Cuba after Pinochet crudely quashed the socialist government of Salvador Allende. She tried life in capitalist Chile once Pinochet’s fascist rule had ended; however, she soon returned to Cuba, preferring billboards which read “hasta la victoria siempre” to militant calls to shop. Given the rate of disappearances from the gym and the country over the years – many, no doubt, to Miami weight rooms where a fluffy towel a day is probably the norm – she is a rarity.
Nonetheless, the gym still has its habitués. The padding may be splitting on the benches, a good many of the home-made weights have disappeared and the floors are swept less often. The collection of seniors who assembled for their enriching and exacting program of stretching and light weights has dwindled. The gym, too, is also open more sporadically. Still, Cubais not an overly nostalgic society; it is people outside the country who dwell on the 1950s cars and the Buenavista Social Club. Panchy may be an infrequent visitor to his own gym; however, new recruits still appear there. Indeed, as the difficulties of the special period have eased, more and more of Havana’s citizens are exercising; they can be seen jogging along the Malecón or, in Playa, along Fifth Avenue. Other gyms, too, are busier than they used to be.
At Fontan, Rusia is still a regular. A few years after Fidel and company ousted Batista, a woman in Santa Fe gave birth to twin girls. More aware than most Americans, say, somnolent about geopolitics except in terms CNN frames, or maybe just hedging her bets, she named them Rusia and Amerika. Both grew up to be beautiful women: Rusia, with startlingly accentuated cheekbones and a muscular gender-bending back bodybuilders spend hours cultivating and doping up for; Amerika, with softer, more curvaceous features that many bodybuilders also probably dream about, though less narcissistically. Rusia works out, Amerika works – as a union leader, to jumble the signification of their naming. Before paladares, independently owned restaurants, became legal entities, their mother operated one, El Pescador. In the early 1990s “psst” alerted yumas to these underground spots. A few years later, taxation and a twelve seat limit formalized the relationship between paladar operators and the government.
Some flourished. El Laurel, situated just outside the grounds of Marina Hemingway, began covertly to serve inside the house fronting Fifth Avenue, Santa Fe. It then moved its tables onto the verandah. Once it was a legal enterprise, it expanded to its spacious grounds behind the house that approach one of the Marina’s canals. A huge thatched roof now covers the bar and grill. Seating under another thatched roof gives one a ringside seat to the water, to a wandering minstrel and to limpid sunsets. The parking lot, overseen by an attendant, often contains cars with diplomatic licence plates. Another paladar success story is Gringo Viejo in Vedado which has a celebrity photo décor that makes it look like Jerry’s Famous Deli in Los Angeles. It serves up a little New York attitude as well; arrive late or with the number of guests in tow which doesn’t correlate to the reservation and you’re liable to press in vain the buzzer to the entrance.
El Pescador closed its doors in the face of state legislation. Before that, however, it had a deserved reputation for serving fresh fish. Picúa, which means barracuda to Cubans, a fabled Santa Fe fisherman and brother of the aforementioned twins, would bring home his catch of shark and other, smaller species that mom would then cook up and serve. No Havana fine dining guide was necessary to disseminate El Pescador’s fame; as with unpublicized, but notable musical performances that draw large crowds, somehow people heard about the place. Often, foreigners, mainly Europeans, would be crowded into what had once no doubt been mom’s living room. Picúa, himself, prospered as a result of more commercial fame. Some years younger than Rusia and Amerika, a stunning physical specimen, tattooed and hip, he drew the attention of a professional photographer from Italy who snapped him, the young man and the sea, for a European fashion magazine. After the photo appeared, he got a number of marriage proposals from abroad and did serve some time being pawed and admired on the Italian Riviera. The allure of that effete and bourgeois coastal life soon waned and he returned to more effervescent, less refined water sports, reversing, in a way, the route evidently taken by a guy, a gusano as some call those who go over to “the other side,” aka Miami, who made it most of the way to the Florida Keys on his windsurfer. Picúa flashed his form closer to home, but did manage another kind of international adventure. He was taken up by a woman who was a member of the Japanese diplomatic corps. When last seen he was married to her, had fathered a child and was cruising about town in a spiffy new SUV.
Perhaps this is a parable. Cuba seems always to maintain its idiosyncratic way, sometimes, because of global alignments and re-alignments, shifting alliances precipitously. The Bay of Pigs, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent special period, Pope John Paul II’s visit, Fidel’s recent ill health: emulating a more American-sounding version of Pavlov’s dog, Miami’s expatriate Cuban connection started slobbering and salivating at each one, sure that the numbering of calendar years beginning in 1959 with the overthrow of Batista would revert to the Christian calendar. Yet, here we are at fifty-plus years and counting. Sure, baseball players have fled the island; so, too, at one point, did almost the entire men’s national volleyball team. More recently, Arturo Olero, a leading animator on Cuban television, went awol. The Beijing Olympics no doubt drew American agents waving wads of cash at Cuban athletes; some might even have succumbed to their blandishments. A guy at my gym who was mightily perplexed by my vegetarianism recently left. Yet, as Jose the coordinator of athletic facilities at Abreu Fontan, was fond of saying, “they can go, I am a patriot.”
Indeed, Jose, a sweet and smart man, deserves his encomium: in order to work out in the gym at Abreu Fontan, one ascends an eroding circular stone staircase at the side of the building, then enters an office with spartan furnishings – desk, chair and sofa, all left over clearly from the pre-Revolutionary 1950s and showing their age – where Jose was based for eight or so years up until 2007. This was his first job after graduating with an honours degree in geography from the University of Havana. Underemployed in many senses, he was co-ordinator of intramural sports events and groundskeeper of the softball field just below. Cajoling a city worker with an antiquated lawnmower to cut the outfield grass, meticulously grooming the infield, organizing tournaments, overseeing the beach volleyball courts at the sea’s edge: these were his principal duties until a hurricane of a few years ago added some reconstruction work to his schedule.
Despite the mundane nature of his tasks, Jose uncomplainingly performed his duties; moreover, he was rarely was absent from Fontan, even though his commute to work was an arduous one. He and his mother shared a beautiful sprawling bungalow with a half acre garden full of fruit trees in the heart of San Antonio de los Baños, a town 30 minutes by car southwest of Havana. This meant hitchhiking and/or being crammed into a standing room only camion for a long sweaty ride. Since Jose wasn’t a foxy young female, botella, as hitchhiking in called in Cuba because of the link with sharing a bottle you didn’t buy, i.e., getting something for nothing, was an iffy proposition; the camion was the likelier option. It would dump him on the outskirts of Havana, necessitating the navigation of a couple of extended city bus routes before he reached Fontan. Regardless, Jose never seemed grumpy on arrival.
Perhaps it was the chance to hand over volleyballs and other equipment to the lithe beach volleyballers who, just as faithfully, assembled each weekday for their training regimens. More likely from my observation, it was his chance to read literature in English and hone his grammatical and oral skills in that language, since the demands of his job were minimal and sporadic. Once when I was in Havana for a long stretch of time, he laboriously plodded through Moby-Dick the entire time I was there, demanding assistance in comprehending recondite passages but reading assiduously. In addition, he would recruit me to rehearse situations which required him to converse in his nascent second language. Beyond his love of the English language was his attraction to a mythical Canada, one he knew once removed—from books and one heart throb; only the former, though, remained constant.
That he got to schedule the Canadian Embassy on his softball field and thereby gain a contact with whom he was in touch frequently augmented his joy. More than most Canadians, to be sure, he knew our history and our geography–important dates, the names of Prime Ministers, provincial capitals, major waterways, etc. His desire to visit, however, would have been thwarted by Canadian Embassy heavies who, not being softball enthusiasts, would have undoubtedly regarded him as a threat to remain in Canada. With the lifting, recently, of many travel restrictions by the Cuban state, things have taken a darkly comic turn: foreign governments that, no doubt, lobbied for more “freedoms” for Cubans, place stringent conditions on the granting of visas to them. I agreed to write a letter of invitation, but he and I both knew the chances of him obtaining a visa were non-existent, this despite his certain return to Cuba.
He had an elderly single mother whom he wouldn’t have wanted to abandon; also, the house they owned would have reverted to the state were his mother to die while he was in Canada beyond his allotted time. Moreover, Jose would often discuss with me – in English and/or Spanish – his attraction to socialism and his belief in egalitarianism, not, despite tepid New Democratic Party endorsements, a virulent strain in Canada. A beautiful girlfriend who later became his wife was also an incentive to stay in Cuba. A compromise that hasn’t exactly allowed him to fulfill his dream, but has provided more hard currency than most Cubans earn, was a position he has accepted with the Canadian Embassy as a night-watchman. His status has since been upgraded to that of gardener at the ambassador’s lavish house. I told him that in one sense the position was ideal: he got to spend days in Canada, staid, secure Canada, and nights in Cuba, lively, salsa-laden Cuba.
Patriotism, it appears, is also a defining characteristic of the candidates for Cuba’s National Assembly whose profiles are featured early each year in Granma in the run-up to elections. Raised on newspapers bulked by too many car and furniture ads, I’m happy to endorse and read scrupulously what is normally an eight page daily; Granma doubles in size when it accommodates the profiles of those people nominated for public office. Cuban baseball scores, a column on language, American depredations, triumphal achievements of Cuban agriculture, culture news, policy announcements: these are enough for me to digest each morning with my strong and aromatic espresso. The special edition, doubled version of Granma, though, contains bios and photos I savour even more. Sure, the candidates presented will be elected. This, needless to say, causes considerable frothing at the mouth and word processor of many foreigners, especially those employed by the “free press.” Even more galling, no doubt, is the fact that they are all members of the Cuban Communist Party. That they may be sterling citizens whose moves into politics don’t require fundraising committees and spin doctors; that they might compare most favourably, in terms of intelligence, probity and capability with the elected officials thrown up by the G-8 countries in elections “free and fair”: these are perspectives that are not granted credence by any international media except, perhaps Telesur, Chavez’s baby, meant to rival CNN, or Cubavisión Internacional. Maybe when those outlets have the range and sway of CNN, the balance will shift.
Take one of the candidates whose profile I viewed in Granma in 2008: Isidora Gordón Benjamin, whom I have chosen more or less randomly. The Chief of Nursing for the province of Holguin, she completed international missions in Honduras and Angola. Data and testaments that affirm the good, medically, those and other missions have done – such as the thousands of cataract operations recently performed by Cuban doctors in Venezuela – are readily available, though they are not readily disseminated in Western media. I do not recall a mention by American media of the Cuban offer of assistance to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. If there were a notice in those news outlets, it would, I am sure, been treated as a curiosity or somewhat comic interlude to the depressing reports coming from New Orleans.
The candidacy of Gordón Benjamin, a member of the bureau of the national leadership for Union Jovenes Comunistas, the Union of Young Communists, also points to the strides Cuba, unlike the G-8 countries, has made in terms of the issue of gender and representation in politics. Women and persons of colour appear in the election supplement pages of Granma and, more importantly, in the National Assembly in percentages far greater than those found, say, in my own country, Canada. Again, the “free” press, which rarely endorses free tuition, total pharmacy care or state subsidized dental care, would not get past the lack of competition, of opposition parties, to seize on the worthiness of individual Cuban parliamentarians or the fact, too terrifying to contemplate for journalists used to professional politicians or lawyers-cum-politicians, that proletarian workers (a far cry, thankfully, from North American populists) actually assume positions in government. A Cuban voter, too, is thankfully spared photos of the candidate’s family and his or her religious zeal and affiliation or hobbies. Given, however, the preponderance of international media voices – loud, affluent, aggressive –as opposed to the modestly sized Cuban media’s univocal pronouncements, it is not likely that Gordón Benjamin’s political career will gain the legitimacy of, say, Hillary Clinton’s which required millions of fund-raised dollars to inaugurate and maintain.
Comparisons, inevitably, favour the power and reach of the assessor or framer of those comparisons. Unless one is a regular viewer of “Mesa Redonda” [Round Table], that is available on Cuban television and that devotes an hour and a half Monday through Friday to a specific issue of national or global concern (e.g., transportation in Cuba or the situation in the Middle East), the Cuban point-of-view will be more than likely ignored, derided or at least overwhelmed. Given, too, that while CNN’s various political forums are available in all Cuba’s tourist venues, the Cuban point-of-view is mostly absent anywhere outside of Cuba (and now Venezuela). Take baseball, for instance. Compare North America’s Major Leagues with Cuba’s Serie Nacional de Beisbol. The latter, it seems to me, an avid baseball fan who has watched countless hours, on television and in stadia, of both versions, is played more insularly perhaps, but certainly more exuberantly. Major League protocol means that a home run hitter circles the bases quickly and with an impassive visage for fear of showing up the opposing pitcher. In the Serie Nacional de Beisbol, expressive gestures are everywhere. “¿Que coño pasa?” is in every hand movement a catcher gives his pitcher when the latter’s control deserts him or in a coach’s expression when a batter only fouls off a fat pitch or misses it completely. Rhythmic applause and cheers, usually, mechanically generated in North American ballparks by the stadium’s loudspeakers, are here generated by the players themselves; this would be regarded as unseemly or unprofessional by those who measure their salaries in millions. Each run during a Serie Nacional game is greeted by a ceremonial line-up of the entire team outside the dugout.
The bat-boy, called a “carga bates” [keeper of bats], bless Cuba’s attempt at full employment, human concerns preceding profit, is no boy at all, but an older guy earning almost as many Cuban pesos as the ballplayers. It’s that – the human scale of the game – that sets it apart from its North American counterpart, an over-packaged, overproduced variety of sport. There isn’t the television camera buried a few feet in front of home plate, as there is in MLB play-off games, to provide what surely is a superfluous angle to a batter’s swing. There are also no glimpses in the play-offs of team owners’ private boxes, coaches’ family members who’ve donated kidneys or been stricken with cancer and there are precious few players who thank God as they cross home plate. There is not a glut of sports talk-radio stations or hyperthyroid sports sections in Granma. That newspaper publishes team standings as well as batting and pitching statistics once a week during the season. This hasn’t done anything to detract from team and league loyalties or knowledgeable and/or devoted baseball talk among fanatics of the Cuban game. Thankfully, too, there are no Pizza Pizza signs that form the relentless backdrop to every Toronto Blue Jays home game that’s televised. I would probably dial 967 1111, the Pizza Pizza phone number, instead of 911 in the event of an emergency, so often have I spied its advertisement. The backdrop of televised games in the Serie Nacional is an unadorned stadium wall. Cuban stadiums, like Cuban streets, are mercifully free of advertising, except for the hortatory billboards that proclaim the value of sport and exercise and, of course, the dignity of a country that celebrates such things instead of 2-for-1 deals with plenty of mozzarella and pepperoni.
The social distortion of a contract Alex Rodriguez, currently of the New York Yankees, signed for 250 million dollars or of the full-time bodyguard hired by Mike Mussina, also with the Yankees, is made acute for me when I recall one of the games I attended in Estadio Latino-americano. I had gone there with Tito Rodriguez, no relation to Alex, a former reserve infielder with Metropolitanos, the less storied of the two Havana city teams in the sixteen team league. We found seats at Tito’s insistence over the Metros’ dugout so he could converse with current team members whom he knew from his stint with the team. Seating, anyway, is more democratic than at North American ballparks, so that fans don’t have to contend with steep, hierarchically-based prices in order to attend a baseball game. Cubans pay three pesos in national money to enter the ballpark while yumas part with three convertible pesos. Good coffee and peanuts are sold for peanuts, as it were, throughout the stands.
The same kind of pricing prevails at art and music events, many foregoing any charge whatsoever, too, so that access to sports and culture is not income driven. At the end of the game, Tito, on my behalf, offered a ride home to one of his former teammates who, he knew, lived near me in Santa Fe. Otherwise, it would have been the team bus or public transportation for this veteran, a solid ballplayer, one who had competed in international venues. There was no Bentley or chauffeured limo to take home an athlete who, while we drove home, expressed his love for baseball, not some commodified, commercialized version of it. Here again, to extrapolate, legitimately, of course, since baseball has often provided metaphors and lessons for life: Cuba’s state-run enterprises, baseball included, provide transportation to its employees, thereby reducing congestion, pollution and reliance on automobiles. That the ballplayers display the kind of boyish energy and commitment to the game is attributable to its democratized place in the country’s scheme of things. Ironically, when North American ball fans complain about the inequities giving large market teams an unfair advantage over small market ones, they implicitly endorse the Cuban version of la pelota. Don’t, however, look for Cuba to be hauled out as a role model for sport or any other pursuit any time soon.
Occasionally, during the early years of the special period, when the weather was too severe for me to confront it on my Flying Pigeon, I, along with some of my ISA colleagues, got a ride home on the university’s workers’ special, an inoperable, windowless bus, pulled lugubriously by a sputtering tractor. Regardless, it was probably faster than rush hour traffic on clogged major routes in and around most large cities. There was also abundant camaraderie and conviviality that contrasts with the solitary, suited folk in their shiny late model cars who people most big city freeways. In this instance, as with the culture surrounding baseball, Cuba is more progressive than other countries, anticipating a planet trying to cope with diminished natural resources. It deserves international media features lauding its styles; instead, it is mostly on the receiving end of carping. With typical arrogance, especially in what passes for liberal American media, Cuba gets scolded…or chided: reason with them, their argument runs, and Cubans are bound to opt for “our” privatized, privileged ways. (I suppose this is better than the verbal and legislative bullying of the neo-cons who insist on change via bombing or slightly less egregious forms of meddling.) On the contrary, a guy with a clipboard signaling cars to pull over to a bus stop to load up with people looking to travel in the same direction, as is done with great success in Havana, is never offered as a solution by those purported bastions of liberalism, Harper’s, or The New Yorker or Vanity Fair. Advertisers would no doubt pull ads from a medium proposing such egalitarian measures.
Back to baseball: it’s also a relief to learn that neither Tito nor his friend has ever heard of Barry Bonds, his putative steroid use or his recent quest, overly publicized in North America, at least, to overtake Henry Aaron for the Major League career home run record. Tito does have the ball Kendry Morales hit for his first Serie Nacional home run, but unless Morales, who defected a few years ago and now plays occasionally for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, becomes the success he to this point isn’t, I won’t be auctioning that ball on eBay to help augment Tito’s moneda nacional pension. Not that he needs or wants such a dollop of commercialism for he lives, I think it’s fair to say, the communist baseball dream. There’s nothing wrong with affirming that, since one often hears MLB players aver that they are living out their dream. Tito smoked cigarettes in the Metropolitanos dugout, was an occasional late inning defensive replacement and later, once his playing days were over, turned to coaching. He has spent two years in Venezuela as a trainer of precocious teens. I met him on the rough-hewn baseball field encircled by the jogging track close to Mario’s Santa Fe home. There, Tito coaches 8-12 year olds on weekdays after school; he also oversees the city’s teenage all-star team on weekends. His is a life spent in baseball.
As it is at many other playing fields and community centers throughout the country, baseball coaches paid for by the state put kids through their paces. The practices Tito conducts are sharply focused and precisely organized. For a few hundred Cuban pesos a month, he starts his charges with fifteen minutes of stretches. Next, they run the bases against a stopwatch he wields…or wielded until it seized up and I brought him another one from Toronto. Then his assistant coaches take over, simultaneously operating fielding and batting drills which Tito oversees, alert, coaxing, hectoring, always transmitting energy, his gravelly voice bellowing “cogela!” [catch it]. The players and their parents are attentive and respectful, “profe” [teacher] being the common mode of address. The baseballs may be scuffed; the batting cage consists of one of the parents tossing up balls that the batter smacks into a leaky net. Regardless, the play is crisp and astonishingly professional. Finally, an intra-squad game takes place, featuring some incredibly skilled youngsters who are gradually swallowed up by darkness; not that this diminishes their zeal to keep playing or Tito’s to coach. Tito’s resumé also includes courses in first aid and kinesiology; he is often at coaching clinics to upgrade his own skills and to become more knowledgeable. In addition, he boasts (often) of a teenage son who, having absorbed his father’s lessons, has a place on the provincial team for his age group.
Despite its deserved international reputation in baseball, cemented in 2007 by the appearance of Cuba’s national team in the finals of the World Baseball Classic, internal rivalries generate their own internecine fervour. Whenever, Santiago de Cuba, one of the Serie Nacional titans, is in Havana to play Industriales, another perennial powerhouse, the cry that echoes throughout Estadio Latinoamericano, Industriales’ home park, is, curiously enough, “palestinos, palestinos.” Despite the Cuban state’s strong links to the Palestinian cause, the derisive cheer of Industriales’ fans is meant to convey the sense that Santiaguerans are rubes, people dispossessed; it is also an affirmation of Havana’s urbane, metropolitan status and is usually chanted with a hint of sheepishness except by the most inebriated fans. The chant doesn’t seem to faze the Santiago fans who make the trip to Havana for the game; they immediately start dancing in place to the beat of a conga drum and don’t stop until the game ends.
Such divisions are obliterated, however, whenever the contest pits the Cuban nation versus the USA, its gargantuan neighbour to the north, though the American government prefers and, indeed, affixes the designation “enemy” to the relationship. Frequently, along with a million or so others, I have assembled in the Plaza de la Revolución or marched along the Malecón past the U.S. Interests Section to protest various American actions or measures: the sequestering of Elian Gonzales, the incarceration of five Cubans held in diverse American jails for infiltrating right-wing Cuban-American groups bent on terrorist acts in Cuba, the protection and liberty in the USA offered Posada Cariles, convicted in Venezuela of bringing down a commercial Cuban aircraft with a bomb, killing all on board. I have attended, as well, May Day parades and July 26 celebrations which commemorate the first attempt in 1953 by Fidel Castro and other partisans to storm the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba and initiate a nationalist uprising. Other rallies have been organized to voice opposition to the American embargo and a discriminatory law which offers Cuban immigrants and refugees who arrive in the USA by whatever means instant recognition and status. (This, of course, is in sharp contrast to the reception other Latin American immigrants, illegal ones, are given–a rude reversal of direction.) I know the names of the unjustly jailed and meanly treated Cuban five (Gerardo, Antonio, Ramón, René and Fernando) as well as I know the roster of the 1958 Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League, the recitation of which I occasionally turn to when I have trouble sleeping.
In 1997 I sat on the low wall fronting the Hotel Habana Libre to watch the delegations to the World Socialist Youth Festival march past; many were chanting, “Fidel, seguro, a los yanquis dale duro” [Fidel, for sure, you’ll give it to the Americans/deal with them firmly]. Cubans, in fact, do marches and rallies in a more orderly way than people in other countries–decorously and articulately; unruliness, the throwing of objects: these are not permitted. Also, perhaps surprisingly, the rallies begin punctually and are highly coordinated. They are organizational tours de force that get the hundreds of thousands onto buses and to staging areas with a precision that, especially during the special period, was belied by daily life. At other times, then, the wait for public transportation was unsuccessful or at least protracted; however, for rallies, then and now, people from outlying districts are funneled to their allotted places as if they were units in the impeccably timed musical ride of Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Cuban police line the routes of the march, but even alongside the building and grounds of the U.S. Interests Section, they are assertive but unthreatening. “Abajo el bloqueo, viva la patria” [down with the embargo, long live Cuba] is the measured chant one often hears; it is uttered without rancour and with dignity.
I happened at one stage of my wonderful Cuban life to be living in the apartment of the head of a local CDR, Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (such a committee operates in all areas of the country as a combination neighbourhood watch and community council). He, like Mario’s son, returned to his family home to share a parent’s bed so I could occupy his place. As the head of the CDR he was responsible for mobilizing, organizing and assembling the area’s contingent. He allowed me to accompany him as he strolled around the streets of his district at dawn the day of one particular march. Without prodding, indeed, with plenty of good cheer and anticipation, people, young and old, came out of their homes to meet him and congregate by the already assembled busses. No list of absentees was kept; indeed, some of my friends, rather weary of the cause, jaded by the often repeated call to continue “la lucha,” the battle, against the USA, breezily skipped the march entirely. They even regarded with bemusement my participation, simulating the waving of a flag to comment jocularly, on my involvement. This, of course, doesn’t jive with the western presses’ version of a rally in a communist country: surely, they maintain, the throngs, who appeared in a celebratory mood to my eye, were coerced into being there. Duty, on the other hand, seems to me to be the primary motivation of those stacked behind candidates at political rallies in Canada and the USA.
A small Cuban flag glued to a largely unsanded stick always ends up in my hand at these events. I hold it aloft and wave it at various moments along with countless others. We generate a distinctive flapping sound as prevalent and forceful as our cheers. Clearly, I have been aplatanado [banana-ed], which is what non-Cubans who appear to be assimilated on the island are called. I have traveled across the country from Maria la Gorda, a beach at the western most tip of the island, to the city of Santiago de Cuba in the south-east. I have also been to Isla de la Juventud, a truly tranquil oasis devoid of cars, half of which is a protected nature reserve. I was sent there by Cuba’s Ministry of Culture to be part of a jury deciding various awards for regional television submissions. For a time, I thought of expanding UTIC to include writers’ retreats at Rancho del Tesoro, its name a reference to Treasure Island, even though Robert Louis Stevenson never visited there. He should have—for a modest price the hotel’s tariff includes all the locally brewed beer one can drink.
Approximately midway between Havana and Santiago de Cuba is a truck stop famous for its soup. Even though I don’t eat meat, along with the others in the car, I sang the song, known by every Cuban traveler who celebrates the dish and by most other Cubans as well:“Fijese Don Quique, fijese Marina,con esta caldosa que bien se camina,que bien se camina, que bien se camina,con esta caldosa de Quique y Marina”Translated loosely, it encourages the patrons of Quique and Marina to enjoy the soup that makes highway traveling a pleasure. This vegetarian is aplatanado enough to be warmed by the song if not the soup. To shift to a macrocosmic view as quickly as Castro could in his speeches, I have no doubt that non-Cubans of a certain political stripe will certainly think me “bananas” when I say that the country’s relentless commitment to free education and free health care regardless of the cost to the state should be lauded and, indeed, copied internationally. It is here in Cuba, and increasingly here alone, that education, for instance, is a right, not a privilege. (Other Latin American countries drawn to the Cuban model are beginning to subscribe to this precept.) That my almost inconsequential company, UTIC, has contributed some modest funds to the implementation and maintenance of that principle is something of which I am proud. To share in the enactment of an enunciation of egalitarianism, however imperfectly it is achieved, I repeat, makes me proud to be aplatanado.
Chapter 4: Feliz Chavidad: Cuba in the 21st Century
For some reason, a good many Cubans mangle the pronunciation of my name. I would have thought that “Stan,” because it sounds like “estan,” the third person plural in the present tense of the verb estar, one of the two verbs meaning “to be” in Spanish, would have prepared them to master my name. Yet somehow I have been turned into “Stang,” a distortion perhaps, a skewed past tense of the singer, Sting, who is, of course, still alive and reunited with his group the Police. Indeed, he was prepared to do what none of the other so-called super groups, touring until they’re in the past tense, were prepared to do: play in that mecca of music, Cuba. A free concert was proposed because, on a 2006 visit to Havana, Sting either fell in love with the city or acquired some revolutionary zeal or both. Sure, Audioslave had given a free concert on the Malecón, bringing out every Cuban heavy metal kid–wearing his or her (audio)slavish t-shirt– you never thought existed; this turned out to be a considerable crowd.
Herbie Hancock, too, has appeared in Cuba, at the Havana Jazz Festival where many other American musicians have performed. Still, including Havana on the itinerary of a major grossing world tour would have been a first. Not even would-be progressive rockers, U2, added that stop to their schedule; nor has Madonna organized a Cuban Kabbalah moment on her recent world tour. Financial and technical matters, however, intervened to derail Sting’s Dec. ’07 date; nonetheless, his albeit aborted foray is one pop cultural sign of the failure of the U.S.’s attempt to isolate Cuba. Moreover, as Tariq Ali points out in Pirates of the Caribbean, with Evo Morales in power in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Cuba also now has a network of friends in high places, sympathetic world leaders from locales other thanPyongyang, North Korea, whose canned sardines I would see on sparsely populated grocery store shelves in the 1990s.
These geopolitical shifts have radically revised Cuba’s sense of itself and its place in the world; still, probably, I am uttering what might sound like an old Stalin-ist refrain with these following remarks. I refer, of course, not to the tyrannical, moustachioed Georgian, but to myself. In addition to hearing Stan turned into Stang, Stanley fell not only on the ears of Lidunka’s ex-husband as Stalin, not, I hope, because of any authoritarian bearing or inclination on my part. There is now a pet-grooming salon in Old Havana, surely a harbinger of a “de trop” Parisian style which has wary French pedestrians frequently checking the bottoms of their shoes for doggie deposits. As of 2009 I can email from the corner of 23 y L, the heart of the heart of the party in night-time Havana; indeed, the other half of my Blackberry has been operational for a couple of years there and throughout the rest of Cuba. I can call Toronto with ease even if my Canadian provider gouges me with a rate approaching $5 a minute. This compares to the early 1990s when access to one of the few phone lines out of the country involved a line-up of epic, which is to say Cuban, proportions at the Hotel Habana Libre. “El ultimo?” – who is the last in line – a frequently asked question throughout Cuba took on terrifying dimensions for foreigners used to immediate gratification and communication. Indeed, I once saw a grown man cry because he was unable to gain entry to an international phone booth without an interminable delay. Now, a growing number of Cubans are in intimate contact with their cell phones, aping what has become a universal gesture of unaccompanied pedestrians: staring at a mobile phone’s mute face for confirmation of one’s status or, less frequently, actually engaging in conversation.
One of my friends saw, in the transition from Fidel to Raul Castro that occurred officially in 2007, the coming commodification and commercialization, albeit in a modest way, of the country. He claims that Raul immediately shifted from a Lada to a BMW as his primary mode of transportation, something that signalled a looser application of Cuban communist principles. Certainly, hard currency stores and name brand goods are far more prevalent in Havana than they were just a few years ago. Many more cars are on the road, new or newish ones at that; pricey condos, of all things, have appeared on 5th Avenue in Playa as well as elsewhere in Havana. Tattoos top the cracks of trendy women’s asses and mural men’s biceps. I remember having to import ink fifteen years ago to allow a friend to allow a tattooist, an underground one, to mark him. Even if they’re knock-offs, Chanel sunglasses are perched on hipsters’ noses. Cuban kids, too, can now select “model” rather than “revolutionary soldier” as a career option; along 7th Avenue, also in Playa, fashion shows and boutique opticians now clamour for attention.
One often hears talk of a generational divide pitting Revolution achievers and believers against youth drawn to putatively less socialist forms of pop culture, to reggaeton, a version of hip-hop to which one can dance more rhythmically; the former see in the latter’s choice a downward spiral which pulls the younger generation towards commodification and self-indulgence, not to mention bad grammar, a blight on Cuba’s proud educational system. There is the illusory sense, yet again, that the revolutionary frame of reference is being eroded, one that has a more political edge than the universal censorious remark that “the youth of today…blah, blah, blah.” Certainly, Fidel’s voice has weakened and he appears frail in the rare televised sightings one gets of him, a Cuban national team tracksuit hanging off his once sturdy frame. He may even have shifted media these days, to print—he is a frequent contributor to Granma–instead of that infamous oratory being his chosen weapon. He has, in one sense, faded from public view, but this seems more to be a conscious choice, a graceful withdrawal from his plenipotentiary position, a recognition the public good can best be served by a seamless transfer of power. It is reassuring to many Cubans that no jarring or cataclysmic change has occurred with this shift, this despite American cheerleading and meddling, and despite the sense abroad that the Cuban Revolution is linked inexorably with Fidel’s personality and presence. The U.S. embargo continues; no product with Cuban nickel can make it into American nickels or any other of its manufactured goods for fear proximity to that metal will sap its citizens’ capitalist mettle. In an even pettier gesture, no American learned journal, rooted in universities that trumpet academic freedom, is permitted to publish articles by Cuban scholars.
Regardless of the continuing embargo, tweaked and exacerbated by George W. Bush’s bellicosity, the political reconfiguration of Latin America, the election of a good many leftist governments, has given added confidence to Cubans. Already tending towards assertiveness and flamboyance, their swagger and self-assurance were augmented by having their independent tack, their unwillingness to be bought off by the IMF, the CIA or any other tool in the alphabet soup of American imperialism, endorsed from abroad. One of my friends had once earnestly told me, in the early years of this decade on rumours of Fidel’s ill health at that time, to seek shelter immediately at the Canadian Embassy should word of Fidel’s death come down. He feared conflagrations and social disorder would immediately erupt. Now, he is more tranquil, seemingly unperturbed now that a transition has gone smoothly and that there is a more relaxed, less ideological cast to daily life. I got a sense of that shift at the May Day parade 2008 in Plaza de la Revolución, Havana. There was the usual throng – close to a million, bulked by a strong international, especially Venezuelan, presence, it was said, displaying traditional sectoral pride, energy and enthusiasm, workers from various institutions and professions transmitting unity and commitment. Last to march past the reviewing stage were the social workers bouncing rhythmically up and down, carrying large banners and displaying the revolutionary fervour that got them installed as cashiers in gas stations throughout the land to bring a halt to the siphoning off of both money and gasoline that was, at one point, occurring throughout the land. Patriotic chants, photos of Che, Fidel and Hugo Chavez, inspirational music, goodwill and zeal: all were in evidence, unforced, as they had been during previous May Day celebrations.
Raul, along with assorted dignitaries and other members of the central party, stood on the reviewing stand along with the head of Cuba’s national trade union. Instead of imitating his brother, who used to speak at length about the nobility of work and of the Revolution, as well as whatever crucial global issue was current – and then comment about the strength of the sun and the difficulty of enduring long speeches, Raul remained silent. He waved generously, but left the day’s peroration to the head of the trade unions who spoke crisply and realistically, in the space of fifteen or so minutes, about work to be done. The idealistic discourse outlining the Revolution and its virtues that still permeates Cuban life, saturating all media, was muted, at least on the podium, on that day. In many ways, though, the enunciation of the dream still functions as its enactment. It is still cause for celebration and affirmation by visionary leftists around the world; it has also impelled that impassioned sea change taking place in much of Latin America.
In Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, Tariq Ali captures this rapturous utopianism:
The Old Man [Fidel Castro] is reported to have jumped with joy like an adolescent at a baseball match when the results from La Paz [Bolivia] were confirmed in December, 2005. Banish adolescence and you banish dreams. He knows better than most, the big difference between revolutions and electoral victories. Revolutions begin with excess and immoderation. They dance to the rhythm of a utopian drumbeat that others cannot hear, and their leaders are always looking upwards and wondering when the rain of stars willbegin. It never does and then real life begins. Bolivar and Martí, Castro and Guevara, heard that sound. Che could never stop hearing it and went to Bolivia to carry on the dance. He was still dancing when they killed him.
It is tiring, though, to dance continuously for fifty years as valorous as the cause for the dance-a-thon might be. Cubans can still be mobilized at a moments’ notice – May Day, July 26 or whenever American intransigence and belligerence crystallize in an especially tyrannical act or edict. Yet, as the energetic but down-to-earth May Day 2008 parade indicates a more practical kind of recuperation can also be undertaken. Idealism has not been eradicated, but the focus of rallies and tribunals incorporates, if not emphasizes, quotidian concerns.
In Cuba, now, there is more food, an abundance even, in the agramercados scattered throughout the country. (With three hurricanes hitting the island in 2008, fruits and vegetables were, for a time, scarcer commodities.)Yet a visit to the home of a slim, animated friend of mine, Misleidys, reveals a bit of the persistent and widespread decay in structure and infrastructure still plaguing Cuba. The edifice in question is crumbling; fashioned out of wood, it gives in to insistent rain and contains mattresses worn as thin as matzoh. It is a house, not atypical in Havana’s sprawl, which confirms the urgent need of restoration if not demolition. Eusebio Leal, the “historiador” of Havana, the one charged with its restoration, knows it is a gargantuan task, one augmented by the designation, historian, which ties the work to Havana’s history. Nonetheless, a walk along the Malecón reveals successes, some dazzling architecturally. During the depths of the special period a coat of paint on a building might have been regarded suspiciously. Surely a rich Miami relative had bankrolled what had to have been a black market negotiation for the paint. Now, smart facades on public buildings, but also some residences, along the Malecón signal a broader rehabilitation. Walk a block away from the water, to San Lazaro, a street running parallel to the Malecón, however, and one is perhaps taken aback, the task seeming truly formidable. Yet even here, progress has come: a restaurant, La Gitana, complete with a fashionable glassed-in kitchen—smacking of nouvelle cuisinish Toronto–and sommelier, has opened. Moreover, the desire for a collective response to the difficulties of the special period is still palpable. There is no sense as there is in, say, Moscow, that rapacity, discrepancies between rich and poor, as well as the distortion of social relations, are propelling change. Misleidys, though, remains hard to impress since the roof of her house still leaks and the kitchen has no contemporary cachet whatsoever. Also, she frets that her recently installed denture destroys a more personal stylishness she would like to resuscitate, but this allies her to the majority of people world-wide who can’t afford implants. At least free dental care is universal in Cuba.
Regardless of some obstacles, the Cuban version of transformation, “otro mundo es posible,” is playing loudly now on international fronts, most notably in Venezuela. ISA, to give one example I know of personally, has been given a vital role in this mission. With Hugo Chavez justifiably suspicious of the bourgeois character of Venezuelan post-secondary institutions, this small Cuban university has, under the aegis of the Chavistas’ “mision cultura,” begun to implement courses and provide graduate supervision to Venezuelans, excluded in many ways by race and class, from receiving a university education. In August of 2007, I accompanied a few ISA professors to Caracas for one of their initial planning and organizational meetings that are run by Venezuela’s Ministry of Culture. ISA does not receive remuneration for its participation (though individual professors get a per diem amount that seems like a fortune). The professional assistance for oil equation propels this as well as many other Cuba-Venezuela collaborations. The fervour of the “mision cultura” people to transmit the values of egalitarian, anti-capitalist education and culture was visible and profound; plans were developed to send teachers into factories and community centers. One of the ISA professors said it reminded him of the early days of the Cuban Revolution. It is no coincidence that the political party created to frame Hugo Chavez’s socialist goals, PSUV, Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, appropriated a name and initials reminiscent of PURS, Partido Unido de la Revolución Socialista, the pre-communist party Fidel Castro formed in the early 1960s to provide an organizational framework for, as well as propel, his vision and ideology.
There, in Venezuela, Cuba as a signifier is the most potent and polarizing force in Venezuelan media, not to mention among its citizens. Cuban doctors, trainers and teachers may be there in large numbers, performing vital cataract operations and eradicating illiteracy as they have done in their own country as well as other parts of the world, but ideologically Cuba looms even larger. On July 26, 2007, Cuba’s rather than Venezuela’s national holiday, Chavez went on television to announce the launch of one of the many socialist cooperatives springing up throughout the country. Invoking Fidel in his speech, he stressed the connection and continuity stretching from Simon Bolívar, the symbol of Latin and South American liberationist movements, to Jose Martí, the father of Cuban nationalism, to Fidel… and was not dismissive of someone in the audience shouting that he, Chavez, was the inheritor of that mantle. “Viva Fidel” and “Viva la revolución cubana” were included, without apology, in his peroration.
A Canadian comedian, Rick Mercer, in one of his not infrequent anti-American riffs, suggested the creation of Canuba, a magical kingdom comprised of Canada and Cuba surrounding the imperial power, the USA, and reducing it to the equivalent of the hole in a donut. More likely, though, is an equally alien concept for what Tariq Ali calls WC, the Washington Consensus, Venezuba, or, perhaps, Cubazuela. Often, in both countries at variousceremonies, a hybrid flag is on display. This has especially traumatized non-governmental Venezuelan media and the country’s bourgeoisie, lured, some of them, to Miami by ads featuring American properties for sale in bolivares, the Venezuelan currency. The privately owned newspapers and television stations are full of vitriol towards Chavez, caricaturing him as baldly as American media do him and Castro, and replete with alarmist readings of Cuba’s influence. After a poor performance by Venezuelan athletes at the 2007 Pan-American Games in Brazil, soul-searching at El Universal went so far as to blame Chavez for what it called “la crisis deportiva del pais” [the sports crisis in the country]. Why? According to the columnist it was because he brought in Cuban trainers to prepare Venezuela’s athletes and boost its medal count. That Cuba with said coaches produced its expected outstanding results was not factored into the diatribe.
From the same newspaper: another columnist wrote a wry article entitled “¡Viva Fidel!” It extolled the qualities of a purportedly principled leader, one committed, so it was written, to democracy and human rights – of course, for El Universal the Fidel lauded was not Castro. Playing on upper and middle class readers’ horror, the article’s punch-line touted Fidel Ramos. This leader responsible according to the paper for producing a political “thrilla” in Manila is not the Cuban bogeyman who is, those in that sector of the Venezuelan media think, partly responsible for the ruckus in Caracas. For the consumers of such a point-of-view, Chavez is not only a stand-in for Castro, but he also is subject to distortion, manufactured with the aid and in the manner of one-note mainstream American media, disputing his intelligence. Chavez quoted Antonio Gramsci on his weekly show “Alo Presidente” during my time in Caracas; regardless, he is reduced by right-wing journalists to the left’s version of George W. Bush.
Venezuela’s bourgeoisie, needless to say, don’t warm to references to Gramsci (if they know of him), much less Fidel. One day, while wandering with Mario through one of Caracas’s richer districts, we happened to encounter a small, noisy anti-Chavez demonstration, this one (there are many) directed at the non-renewal of a licence for a private television station. The station had not only actively supported the early twenty-first century coup against the democratically elected Chavez, but it had also falsified news in its coverage of that event. This, of course, bothered the U.S.’s coup backers about as much as it did the station’s local supporters. I began chanting “Fidel, seguro, a los yanquis dale duro,” one of my favourite slogans from the Cuban Revolution. Mario whisked me into the subway before anyone in the rabid crowd could make out what I was saying. I, thus, thankfully avoided instant “guerrillero heroico” status.
Sympathizers, and I am obviously one, with the Cuban Revolution should be more than familiar with the glut of so-called first word/free press characterizations of Chavez and, over the years, of Fidel that are, for the most part, crude representations. One of the reasons why a book such as Isaac Saney’s Cuba: A Revolution in Motion might puzzle and/or astonish a Canadian or American reader raised on so-called first world media is because of the calm, reasoned prose that paints a picture of a calm, reasoned political system. Saney writes that “Cuba has arguably the fairest and most efficient criminal justice system in Latin America and the Caribbean.” His sense is that Cuba also has participatory democracy; it is “replete with almost daily assemblies, meetings and gatherings of various organizations to discuss and examine particular issues, in conjunction with the participation of government officials.” Moreover, he writes that his book’s central thesis is that “the Cuban experience offers significant insight into not only a different paradigm, but a paradigm that has been largely successful – especially given the objective limitations of a small, poor, underdeveloped island nation – in utilizing the country’s resources and wealth for the public good.”
That The Economist in various issues of the magazine describes the United States as the world’s greatest democracy, and this without even quotation marks to alert the reader that this might perhaps be a value judgement, shows the degree to which Western media skew their evaluations of Cuba and its polar opposite, the USA. In terms of women’s rights, for instance, not to mention procreative rights and employment and educational opportunities, Cuban women do not face the resistance of the fundamentalist religions so prevalent in the USA. Medicine, engineering and computer science are career options that are readily available to Cuban women; moreover, women practice those professions in percentages greater than in many “first world” countries. While gay and lesbian rights were ignored or trammelled upon for a good many years of the Cuban Revolution, recently these have been addressed. Spearheaded by Mariela Castro, Raul Castro’s daughter who also happens to be the head of the institute for the study of sexuality in Havana, a week in May 2008 was devoted to awareness of homosexuality and given considerable media attention in Cuba. Gay marriage was even debated and the week concluded with a television broadcast of Ang Lee’s film Brokeback Mountain. Discussions around adoption rights for gays and lesbians have also begun.
While giving the finger to Fidel or being seen to be a pawn of the American Interests Section in Havana would still generate a stern response, such acts of resistance don’t seem to be apparent above or even edgily below the surface; Cuba’s leaders and the Cuban system still appear to have the support and respect of most of the people I know. Occasionally, when I opt for more comfort than Mario’s house offers, I rent an apartment in a “casa particular,” a private rather than state-owned domicile, a few blocks away. It has a mattress that doesn’t sag and wasn’t fashioned before the Revolution began; it also has a view, happily restricted somewhat by barred windows, of Marina Hemingway’s canals as well as the ocean just beyond. The property used to be the garage of a larger house just beside it and an enterprising elderly man and his middle-aged daughter added a second storey above their own apartment so that they could earn some extra income. Papa rides his bicycle to the agramercado, reads Granma faithfully and listens respectfully and approvingly to Fidel and/or his acolytes when they appear on tv, as they often do. While aware of shortages and other quotidian limitations—repairs to his daughter’s modest Czech-built car took years to complete, “el dueño,” the landlord, has a balanced sense of the successes and failures of the system in which he lives.
His “casa particular” is legal which means that foreigners with tourist visas are permitted to reside there and, more importantly, taxes resulting from charges for lodgings are paid to the state. Illegal ones, usually accessed by responding to touts in Vedado or elsewhere whispering the availability of cigars, restaurants, taxis, hookers and rooms, all ranging from contraband to illicit, are abundantly available. Small-time black market activities are rife: some cigars, for instance, are siphoned off from Cohiba or Romeo y Julieta factories and sold for a fraction of the legitimate price; others are bogus through and through. Another example: on a train trip from Havana to Villa Clara, I sat beside a conductor who, entrusted with a few sacks of cheap watches to transport, calmly and brazenly took a few handfuls for himself and what would no doubt become his modest enterprise.
Rooms rented illegally can contribute to a more tenuous situation. Robbery, sometimes committed in collusion with the home owner, is more likely to occur; for the victim, legitimate recourse via the police is closed off because of the fraudulent rental. Also, Ministry of the Interior officers are on the hunt for those who offer places not registered as “casas particulares”and those who rent from them. Once, staying at Mario’s house without the required permit brought both him and me into the ambit of a guy with the benign sounding name, Amado Torres, the official charged with policing Santa Fe for domicile and visa irregularities. Mario and I once saw him catapulted from his motorcycle when he failed to negotiate a curve in the road; however, his pursuit of offenders was more professionally done. After an early morning visit to the house and request for the appropriate visa revealed a lack of compliance with the registration rules, he relieved me of my passport and gave both of us a summons to appear before a tribunal the next week.
That legal obligation found us in front of an imposing three person panel of Ministry of the Interior officers. Because of Mario’s presence in the community and the nation, as well as the realization that hard currency was not something he was after in evading the law, the tribunal ruled no fine – which could have been up to $1,000 US – would be levied. We were then directed to another Ministry of the Interior office, the one that handles, among other things, the awarding of the appropriate visa granted on the basis of a non-commercial relationship between the national and the foreigner. Usually this means scads of chicas and their aging paramours. Because of this vast pool of candidates, that Vedado venue, now relocated to Old Havana, drew line-ups well before its 8:30am opening. Enterprising place procurers are usually there first, selling privileged spots at the front of the line for $5. (Often, those further back get to recycle their hopes at a later date) With the help of the first line-up “professional,” Mario and I gained access to the proper official who recognized Mario from one of his television shows and sped us through the process. Sure enough, a few days later, Amado Torres, steady this time on his motorcycle, was at our door demanding to see the requisite visa.
That bureaucratic measure is not necessary at the upscale and legal case particular mentioned above that comes complete with air conditioning and even toilet paper (!), although not a toilet seat. Incidentally, the availability of toilet paper is probably one of the most reliable indicators of Cuba’s emergence from the worst of the special period. While it is still only available at hard currency stores, its prevalence in private houses and public places has increased exponentially in the last few years. The flood of cars on Havana streets, even producing modest traffic jams at times, is another indicator of a less severe situation and a less stricken populace. So, too, is the growing number of completed or undertaken construction sites, many of which had ceased to be developed in the early 1990s the result of the disappearance of almost all hard goods and the gasoline to transport them. Admirably, public services in institutions, such as those related to education and medical care, which despite stringent shortages, hadn’t experienced a perceptible deterioration in quality, have recently been gaining even more contemporary goods and instruments.
Blackouts, except those caused by weather emergencies, have all but disappeared; more and more roads have been paved. Sleek new Chinese-made, Yotung busses have improved public transportation considerably; they have replaced vehicles, old when they were delivered, from well-meaning countries such as Canada and Italy. I used to see busses, still outfitted with Ottawa, Ontario signage; this reminded me of my high school days in that city. Papito, the proprietor of my particular casa particular, who says he doesn’t get involved in politics, affirms that conditions are improving substantially. Even before , this inveterate watcher of the national evening news, broadcast daily at 8pm would, when I joined him on occasion, make approving comments on announced social improvements, this despite the hardships that have only lately been ameliorated. Papito, incidentally, is a diminutive appellation, one which might seem an inappropriate label for someone over sixty years of age; however, “-ito” is affixed affectionately to many Cubans regardless of age, Mario being referred to most often as Mayito. (Perhaps, though, it wouldn’t do to speak of a certain Fidelito.) There’s even “ciaoito,” representing a modest goodbye for those departures not likely to be longstanding–adios for goodbye is rarely used by Cubans–ciao, like the ubiquitous Cuban version of pizza in the realm of cuisine, signifying an Italian triumph of sorts, a benign form of colonization.
More malign, it seems – and this I’ve culled from conversations with a few beautiful Cuban women – is the effect jealous if generous Italian men have had on them. One of the first women to habituate me to the refrain about the difficulties of Cuban life in the 1990s, Saraí, would say “no es facile” whenever she would curl up with me in various rooms I’d rented. A lithe mulata, a single mother, she for a time simply smiled at me as she scooted by me perched on the back of a scooter, behind her handsome Italian lover. I was happy for her, less so than she was for herself because, nestled once again by my side, with the most radiant of smiles still intact, she told me how her boyfriend’s obsessive jealousy drove her crazy. Despite long-term goals he had articulated for them, she opted for some short term interaction with me. The story was repeated by another stunner I met at the cafe beside the Hotel Inglaterra that serves inexpensive pastries and is stocked with human sweets calculated to draw the attention of yumas settling onto the more upscale and visibly policed hotel patio next door. Janet, foxy enough in her orange coloured sheath to make anyone feign longing for one of the cafe’s rather ordinary “pasteles de guayaba” [guava pastries], told me of a ride she hitched with another Italian beau that took her as far as Bari, Italy. There, she swears, she was more or less a prisoner to his distrust; a three month stint shrank to a week and Janet hoofed it back to Havana despite the “no es facile” formulation she, too, often uttered about life in Cuba. Her take on foreigners is that they should provide dinner and other embellishments that are available locally or are imported. She was even sceptical of the offer of a drive to my casa particular in Santa Fe at the opposite end of the city from the Inglaterra, but fortunately that obstacle was overcome.
Not that every Cuban stunner’s departure abroad is reversed so rudely, though one of my frequent visits to the Cuban consular office in Toronto has prepared me to think otherwise. While operating UTIC, I was required to arrange for student visas that, initiated by ISA, had to be picked up at that particular venue. I was usually there surrounded by middle-aged guys arranging either for their marriages to Cuban women or for visas to transport them to Canada. They shared photos and smirks, one guy remarking to another on learning the latter’s bride-to-be was 24 years old, “gee, you like them older, eh?” Around the corner from my casa particular in Santa Fe, a block or two inland where the style shifts precipitously from urban to rural and pigs and chickens wander, are some modest, concrete, motel-style residences. Aleida lives in one. Statuesque, with a model’s cheekbones, she dresses in tank tops, short skirts and high heels, which belie her years and which turned my head as she was hitching a ride along Fifth Avenue, fortuitously just in front of my casa particular. Jumping into my car, as if I were going somewhere, I took her to Vedado…and there began our relationship. As with most Cubans, she was bereft of hard currency, but kept her two adult children fed and close to her. One, female, was her double from twenty-plus years ago. That profile was enough to snare a young Swiss air traffic controller who had been in Cuba on vacation. Soon married, she moved to Switzerland and, with a job at an international airport, quickly mastered English, German and French as well as a smattering of Portuguese and Italian. When last I visited Aleida’s house, she was back for a month’s vacation, revelling in her urbane life, but also enjoying a sojourn in Cuba’s climate, informality and geniality; she found, she said, Swiss lifestyles to be colder andmore purposeful than those at home. She had her brother-in-law in tow, a guy eager to remain in Cuba forever, and asking me for contacts at NGOs, even volunteering to work on brigades cutting sugar cane, though that commitment would last until, a la Bill Brent, he had to piss on his hands or until he whacked his leg with an inept swipe of his machete.
Santa Fe now emanates tranquility. Riding on our bicycles there, though, back in the old days, the worst of the special period, Mario and I would cross a bridge linking Jaimanitas and Santa Fe that until recently still bore visible indentations around its foundations. He told me this was a legacy of the Bay of Pigs crisis when it was feared that a raid on the city might ensue; as a result, all bridges surrounding the city were mined and prepared for demolition to prevent the easy ingress of enemy troops to Havana city proper. No such dangers lurk currently for the operators of bicycle-taxis, rented by teens looking to earn a few national pesos and even fewer convertible ones; the vehicles are stationed outside the hard currency store across from Mario’s house ready to ferry people around the neighbourhood and beyond.
The polyclinic, a short distance from the house, opened in the early 1990s to fanfare but also to shortages of medicines, not to mention gasoline for the ambulance; it now serves the community ably and efficiently. When I went sprawling one day from a biking mishap, I was stitched up there in less time than it would take for me to get registered and assigned a number at the emergency ward of a Toronto hospital. Similar accounts of good and rapid care there and at the major hospitals for more acute care radiate throughout the district. Grumbling about the lack of material goods immediately stops when the issue of medical care and its triumphs is discussed. I even had a friend, a budding transsexual, who told me a story about doctors he knew because he was their English instructor, preparing them for service in South Africa which has been importing Cuban doctors and attempting to model its medical practices after Cuba’s. They would call him in for the surgery that would move him towards his re-gendered goal whenever they had time to spare.
This pride in Cuba’s achievements has continued to manifest itself despite whatever economic hardships the country encounters. In a conference I helped organize in the late 1990s on Cuban-Canadian cultural and political relations, Ana Fidelia Quirot, the Olympic gold medalist and burn survivor, as well as one of Cuba’s most famous athletes along with the boxer Teofilo Stevenson and the high jumper Javier Sotomayor, made an appearance. The conference room was immediately transformed into an arena of worship by the Cubans in attendance. When one of the North American conference goers, raised on the discourses of postmodernism and critical theory, tried to shift the focus of the session to issues of spectacle, specifically the Debordian danger of such mass indulgence and mass response, he was censured and scorned; then the perspective he articulated was quickly passed over. Quirot, one of the most articulate and fervent spokespersons for INDER, the Cuban National Sports Organization that itself has an esteemed reputation worldwide, spoke about Cuba’s methods for discovering, developing and training athletes; moreover, she emphasized the impossibility of duplicating this model in a capitalist context.
Dr. Fraser Mustard, a Canadian educator of stature and a co-founder of the McMaster University Medical School, spoke in 2008 about another Cuban triumph, this one educational instead of athletic, but nonetheless the result of its egalitarian, principle before cost, initiation and maintenance of programs. Cuba’s early childhood education which involves sending health practitioners and social workers to visit families with newborns twice weekly for two years is responsible, Mustard affirmed, for the exceedingly high levels of literacy and elementary school completion rates in the country. It also contributes, perhaps, a context of respect and community. While practice cannot match utopian rhetoric, of course, the general tenor of youth culture seems less abrasive, less distanced from adults than it does, say, in North America. Truancy certainly exists; however, listening to Cuban kids gathered at or near their grade schools or high schools, one hears many fewer expletives than one does overhearing North American kids whose lingua franca echoes with “fuck this” “fuck that” and “fuck you”; any aura of rebellion detectable appears less crude and confrontational than its North American counterpart.
The generational discrepancy in revolutionary fervour, though, certainly exists. One recent literature graduate from the University of Havana responded to my question, “What are your plans?” with an ample and irritated rejoinder regarding how she wanted to move out of her family home, move somewhere on her own. This obsessed her to the point at which she said she didn’t give a damn what transpired beyond that. What followed was a lecture on the impossibility of this goal and the frustrations of her generation. About Granma, which I read and love, she was disdainful, citing one article that examined young adults’ computer gaming obsessions. Access to the internet for Cubans is so limited and difficult, she averred, that she wished profoundly to be able to overindulge in such a passion, regardless of the problems that might trigger.
I met a woman whom I’ll call JV on one of my frequent visits to Cuba. She was, at her instigation, a welcoming present for me, nude and handcuffed to a living room support beam in a friend’s house. Her riotous laugh and appetite for sexual hi-jinks have outlasted that initial encounter. One of Cuba’s leading critics of contemporary youth culture, specifically video clips, she lectures at ISA and the International Film School in San Antonio de los Baños. In addition, she has a television show on Canal Educativo 2, a station which ups the intellectual quotient from a still very intelligent Canal Educativo, discussing the latest experiments in that field. Before amplifying on JV’s appetites and expertise, something should be said about Cuban television. In a hectic race towards stupidity that encompasses hundreds of channels in North America, there is something cleansing about Cuban television. The graphics introducing programs are as flashy as those anywhere in the world; they also enliven public service ads about good parenting or waste disposal or conserving electricity. Surely this medium as an advertising-free zone, bereft of commodity fetishism, deserves commendation for that alone. More than that, the five channels, Cubavisión, TeleRebelde, Canal Educativo, Canal Educativo2 and Multi- vision, are replete with, it can honestly be said, lucidity. Of course there are cartoons for children, though the animé programming aimed at youth is introduced with wit, insight and an eye for context by the ubiquitous Mayito. There are also movies, many introduced by a film critic. Censorship, of course, exists, though an originally banned song by the group Moneda Dura, whose lead singer, Nasiri, trains at the same gym I do in Abreu Fontan, was reinstated after his articulate plea before the committee charged with making such decisions. Nonetheless, if intelligence instead of vapidity is the measure by which television programming is judged, Cuban television merits more praise than a North American media critic might give it.
Indeed, the rampant dumbing down of media worldwide, the shift to celebratory journalism, which has led Perry Anderson, for one, to declaim that media are moving inexorably “downscale” and are “sensationalist and consumerist,” has not to this point infected Cuban television, radio or newsprint. Measured, informative programming saturates media outlets; for that reason it appears dated to an observer of the CBC of a few years ago. The sense one gets from watching Cuban television is that attention spans haven’t shrunk dramatically, if at all, whereas, elsewhere, an accelerated, hyperreal postmodern pace appears to the norm.
But let us go back to the generational battle, an affectionate and respectful one between JV and her articulate mother. The former wouldn’t go see the Havana Film Festival presentation of The Motorcycle Diaries, this from someone who usually saw everything presented there, because she said a surfeit of Che imagery had dulled her palate for anything about that figure of mythic stature. Confirming this, she also refused to deposit her derrière in the theatre for Steven Soderbergh’s longish, eponymously named homage to Che. Mind you, JV has a contrarian, anti-iconic perspective that manifested itself on a visit she made to Toronto to deliver some lectures for me on new Cuban media. The first thing she said to me once she passed through customs and immigration at Toronto International Airport was that she had no interested in the CN Tower or any other tourist site; thankfully, she had never heard of the Hockey Hall of Fame. What she wanted to experience was the ambiance of swingers clubs, she-male venues and illegal booze cans, all of which she sampled with gusto and without inhibitions such that I required stand-ins to shepherd her through those rich sub-cultures.
Her mother, on the other hand, works proudly as an accountant at Palacio de las Convenciónes, the convention centre that hosts national and international conferences and has been the scene of many of Fidel’s major speeches. In the district of Cubanacán, nestled into a neighbourhood full of restored haute bourgeois estates now in the service of the government, the Palacio has state-of-the-art facilities, restaurants, boutiques as well as peerless translation equipment and amenities worthy of the United Nations. For the moment at any rate, it features goods for sale both in moneda nacional and hard currency; this situation exists throughout the country, though most impactfully in Havana, with two parallel economies, one dollar-based, the other subsidized. The direction, insofar as monetary policy is concerned, appears to be to expand the reach of hard currency outlets, while maintaining the legitimacy of the Cuban peso so that those dependent on it, through state employment or government subsidy, are able to buy necessities. On a tour of this sublime Palacio that JV’s mother gave me, her tone throughout was proud, almost reverential. The sense transmitted was one of national and revolutionary pride; great victories had been won by the Revolution and here, at the Palacio, issues of local regional, national and international importance were discussed and debated in ample and reasoned ways. Iconoclastic as she is, even her daughter listened sympathetically, regardless of whether the support she provided was more personal than political.
Those incisive lectures that JV gave in Toronto revealed a similar ambivalence. Acknowledgment of the cultural and educational richness of present day Cuba was mixed with a critical eye that jibed with the points of view in some of the samples of art and film produced by young Cubans unaffiliated with the communist party. In a seemingly innocuous video clip she showed which contained glimpses aplenty of boots and shoes, she drew attention to the military boots that, she averred, represented Fidel and, concomitantly, the militarization of Cuban society. Indeed, references to la lucha, la batalla and la revolución do appear repetitively in addresses spoken and announcements disseminated by the government. This tends to alienate some, or maybe even many, Cuban youth (lots of whom, ironically, are in the post-secondary institutions that nurture them).Another clip she presented was taken from Humberto Padron’s film Vídeo de Familia. Shown on Cuban television, to the surprise of many media observers, it is essentially the Cuban version of the famous 1970s North American sitcom, All in the Family. In this case, the father who knows best is committed to the ideals of the Revolution, while, the three children, one son living in Miami (and secretively gay until the events that that unfold during the film), another son a layabout with connections that allow the family access to black market goods, and a daughter who has a black boyfriend, all disappoint dad in some ways. There is also a subtle gibe at the shortages of the early 1990s with grandma gorging herself on birthday cake and requesting money and/or medicines from the grandson now living in the USA.That the film had public exposure was itself a commentary on relaxed responses from officials regarding cultural productions. Early in the 1960s, in an effort to mobilize art in the service of the revolution and the fledgling regime, anything not seen to be contributing to the social good as defined by the Revolution was banned. A band I once listened to was forced to resort to bicycle brake wires instead of guitar strings because the group fell out of favour for playing too much North American music. Others, of course, left the country out of frustration at the limitations imposed on them. Now, one might think unfortunately if one has been exposed to a glut of Much Music/MTV videos, Mariah Carey can be ogled as often as, say, troubadour Silvio Rodriquez is seen on television. Still, Rodriquez recently toured Cuban prisons in an effort to reach out to Cuba’s underclass, while Carey’s island visitations remain, thankfully, purely simulacral.
Cuba’s uniqueness, despite North American pop culture’s encroachment if not ubiquity, is still recognized and in many parts of the world relished. Burgui, Pain de Paris and El Rápido, modest Cuban food and drink outlets, don’t drive anti-globalization folk to gnash their teeth the way hegemonic Starbucks and McDonald’s do. There is still something “one off” about them even if that means, as was often the case with the Pain de Paris outlet I often relied on to buy bread, that the bread hadn’t been delivered that day or that a tortilla wasn’t possible because eggs were unavailable. Some of my favourite products, a Cuban talcum powder called, quirkily it seemed to me, Quatre Saisons, and a yogurt beverage called Yogurt Batido simply disappeared from shelves and store refrigerators. The island simply provides too small a market to support theproduction of many goods. In addition, wonderful juices made of 100% fruit, Cuban produce mostly, have begun to share space on store shelves with sugar-added products made by the same company, this a result, no doubt, of a desire to ape American tastes.
More profoundly, given the still idiosyncratic dimension to much of Cuba, a teacher of media studies at Ryerson University urged his aspiring documentary film-makers to grab a camera and head to the island to capture a way of life and a sensibility he felt were not to be seen elsewhere in the Americas. In addition, the aspiring documentary film makers, many of whom come from other Latin American countries, who study at Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television, located a half hour outside of Havana near San Antonio de los Baños, yearly undertake a similar pilgrimage. EICTV, itself, yields a sense of the enriched possibilities for education in communist Cuba. Cuba probably has more educational institutes per capita than any other country. Its commitment to make education accessible to everyone and as anti-elitist as possible is apparent in that irruption of intellectual centers. Casa de Cultura, Casa de las Americas, Instituto Periodismo, Jose Martí Institute: these are some of the most prominent locales for and cultivators of research and outreach activity. When I visited the university in Matanzas, la Universidad de Matanzas, each province having its own university seat as well as courses in other more peripheral sites, one of the university’s administrators proudly said that just as the world’s baseball prognosticators had underestimated Cuba’s chances at the first World Baseball Classic in 2007, similar attitudes towards the island’s readiness scrupulously to disseminate and analyze information were equally erroneous. He maintained that even during the heart of the heart of the special period, institutional frameworks remained solid and functioned efficiently.
EICTV was founded and partly endowed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez with monies Marquez won with his 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature award. While right-wing commentators abroad have carped about his closeness to Fidel, claiming it is a dangerous flirtation with power and a divagation from his writerly life, Marquez’s own calm, articulate commitment to aid a country devoted to educational ideas and ideals congruent with his was, he has averred, the principal motivation for his involvement in the creation of EICTV. The school draws students – budding directors, editors, sound technicians, etc.– from all over Latin America and a few from Europe as well. Some places, scholarship supported, are set aside for Cuban youth. The rest pay around $6,000 US which makes it a bargain among top-tier film schools worldwide. Creative, lively, mostly leftist kids whose credo appears to be “anything that’s not Hollywood” fill the place. When not discussing the craft of film or honing their specialized skills, they wait for rain to fall, then search the cow pastures nearby for magic mushrooms. They live and study in close proximity to one another since the school, with facilities which include a track, weight room, soccer field and swimming pool, offers a kind of isolated sanctuary.
Most importantly EICTV allows for the making and omnivorous devouring of films. One instructor who teaches film theory and aesthetics has a downloaded library of thousands of films. Fresh organic produce and fruits are grown on the grounds and the meals provided are healthy and plentiful. As it is at the Latin American School of Medicine and the International Sports Institute, EICTV’s international students realize that it is the Cuban Revolution that created the conditions for such a learning opportunity. EICTV is able to maintain a fitness instructor on staff, for instance, something that elsewhere would require Ivy League-level tuitions. The campus once offered homage to international cinema heavies in the form of life-like statues of, to name one visitor, Francis Ford Coppola. Thought recently to be too kitschy and hagiographical areference, sledgehammers are chained to a few of the statues, allowing those who feel their creativity might momentarily be blocked, an outlet, a release. Some of the other sculpted tributes have been shipped to the vegetable gardens to stand as scarecrows. Clearly, were the country to shift to a fiscally conservative framework, educational gems such as EICTV and ELAM, not to mention ISA, would disappear or turn into the etiolated consumer/student environments that are the norm now at most universities in North America.
One day not too long ago, while meandering through the streets of Vedado, I stopped to rest on a park bench on Avenida de los Presidentes. Soon, a woman, eyeing me for some minutes as she circled the bench, sat beside me, telling me first that she had been unsure I was a foreigner until my shoes, athletic shoes with the Caterpillar brand name, gave me away. Then, somewhat furtively, she began telling me that she was a dissident, that the Revolution wouldn’t compel her to silence and then, again somewhat covertly, handed me a piece of paper with her address, suggesting I should visit her in her home. I didn’t take her up on her offer, indeed, tossed the paper away as soon as I left the vicinity. Nor did I respond vituperatively to her. Although there are, of course, profound gaps between the rhetoric of the Revolution and its implementation, there are realities (institutional – ISA, ELAM, EICTV – as well as human—many individual lives fulfilled) lived palpably on the island in the belief that the Revolution’s principles are good and true, worthy of being enacted.
I didn’t confront her with my belief in these realities because in Cuba they are enunciated and embodied all around her. Sure, there are many who don’t see the social, cultural and political arenas of Cuba as anything but flawed; however, my reason for spending as much time as I do in Cuba and participating as fully as I can in those contexts is because the promise the country offers is still rich and redeeming. As Isaac Saney articulates it, “the Cuban nation has only two alternatives: through socialism it can maintain its independence and project of social justice, or it can renounce socialism…” and be absorbed or coerced, along with billions of others, in WC, in the Washington Consensus. Now, at least, with the political changes in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, Cuba doesn’t sounds as cranky or idiosyncratic as it might recently have seemed. Notwithstanding the geopolitical manoeuvres of larger countries which exert pressures on Cuba and often try to dictate to it, the country has a compelling cultural and social character, a distinctive one that deserves to exist and to reveal itself regardless of the hectoring, belligerent or cajoling voices, liberal and conservative, from eighty miles to the north and beyond.
On Fifth Avenue in Playa, near ISA, is a bar called El Pinguino, which I’ve never been in. Rarely does anyone else appear to frequent the place—I gaze into the mostly empty room whenever I pass by. Its art deco interior and exterior have recently undergone a spiffy restoration, but that hasn’t seemed to act as a drawing card. No matter—it is there to be discovered or not, regardless of what its “books” show. It might or might not become a hipsters’ scene. Anyone who has been compelled by reading this book to go to Havana should stop into El Pinguino; you can be sure the prices will be reasonable. I may or may not be there.