A Letter From Cuba

Feature by Basia Gordon

“Y tus queridas recuerdos de las vacaciones inolvidables en Cuba.”

It’s easy to be the starry-eyed observer. How quaint everything is in Havana, frozen in time, ironically a living museum of disappeared America; the swinging adverts for Alaskan beer, the patched up Chevys and Dodges, the fading grandeur of the colonial buildings. And the street life! Neighbours have time to chat and laugh, young boys play with tattered footballs expertly avoiding the potholes, old men play with dominos and families actually spend time together. All this social interaction is helped by the absence of the internet and mobile phones and harks back to a more leisurely and innocent era. School children are smartly dressed in their maroon uniforms and pressed white shirts. People don’t look oppressed or afraid; they look as if they enjoy life. This seems a far cry from the dour look and paranoia in other Socialist regimes- or what’s left of them. As the taxi driver from Ernest Hemingway’s house eloquently explained: “The police are here for our protection; they are not oppressive. This is a safe place, there is very little crime. What is there to steal?? But has Cuba really changed, become freer?” He holds up his finger and forefinger tightly pressed together. “”This much.” He indicates nothing at all.” Yes they have relaxed some laws, but let’s face it, this country is fucked! Even the money is worthless!“ He becomes pensive.” My sister lives in Miami, she keeps telling me that I should come over, but I don’t want to become another poor Cubano living in Little Havana. Here I am someone, I earn a good wage, I live in a beautiful place. I’m staying where I am. Fidel may have got a lot of things wrong, but at least we still have our pride as a people.”

I asked a 14 year old pupil living in Scotland whose mother is Cuban married to a Scottish man. Her response was less romantic. “Castro! That bastard! The sooner he is dead the better! The youth of Cuba need to get in there and change things!”

And therein lies the paradox. The socialist revolution of 1959 might have ended up a glorious failure, the idealistic youth turned into corrupted old men clinging onto power, incarcerating the population on a tropical island that cannot feed itself or provide any material delights. No-one can leave. Any criticism of the government is a criminal offence. And yet no-one can deny that some of the initial promises of the betterment of society have seen the light of the day: the sharing of the wealth of the landowners, the best health care and education systems in the world. More importantly, who would have thought that a small, insignificant island could manage to defiantly stick two fingers up at the U.S., its mighty neighbour, chuck out the Mafia and survive -just- after many years of punishing embargo? In 1898 the Cubans managed to throw out the colonial power of Spain only to become America’s playground, to the extent of securing Guantanamo Bay when Cuba wasn’t looking, slyly slipping it into the new republic’s constitution. America – only 90 miles away- slowly strangled and boycotted every step towards a free and unfettered economy. So when the taxi driver talked about the Cubans regaining their pride as a people after being the perpetual under-dog, you realise just what an amazing feat this is.

Anyway, I don’t need to bore you with a history lesson. We had a wonderful, funny time. The background makes it even more fascinating simply because we are unfettered by any personal connection. We didn’t really know what to expect, did we?

I loved the revolutionary museum, full of carefully maintained bullet holes and bloodied uniforms, the huge mural of Castro looking like Ayatollah Khomeini, the ubiquitous cigars, the cult of iconic, uber-trendy sentimentalised Che, who never became old and tarnished, the machismo and posturing, exemplified by the slogan “Todo Cubano no solomente debe tirar pero tirar bien.”

I loved that we got into a daily rhythm: breakfast on the veranda, some touristy thing, zip to Diego’s in Casa del Ron where our mojitos were lined up, back to Jesus and Marias to snooze, down to O’Reilly’s for some music and Ropa Vieja, a wee stroll down Ospispo and then off to scrounge for some food…….

For as we know in the land of plenty there is empty. There is nothing with which to repair the roads and buildings. Plastic bags forlornly take the place of glass in the windows. Even the once mighty Capitolio is a crumbling ruin. Looking over the Havana skyline from the Bacardi building I am secretly glad that despite its years of neglect, the old buildings have not been demolished and replaced by shiny skyscrapers. The lauded Cuban ballet has no leaflets to vaunt the upcoming attractions. Tourism is tightly packed onto strips of beautiful coastline faraway from prying Cuban eyes. Tourism, after all, is strictly for the hard cash and not promotion of Cuban culture.

It was interesting to venture to the waterfall in the middle of the country. No-one told us that it would be a good idea to come prepared with bottles of water for the arduous three hour slog through lush tropical forest and searing heat. Certainly it wasn’t flip-flop terrain.

How curious to be surrounded by coconuts and yet have bland mush served up to us in restaurants, even if the surroundings appear luxurious with a bed parked invitingly in a corner of a grand house full of chandeliers. Or turning up our nose at the flan-flinger’s offerings? To discover that the best food is “Ropa Vieja” – old clothes or rather a humble stew. Imagine having to pigeonhole food into edible and inedible in a tropical paradise and find that the latter is the winner? No thought about the aesthetics or taste sensations required for the sophisticated European palate. Or maybe in a land where there is no competitive market, it doesn’t much matter…For us,t he lack of flavour became obsessional….

Cuba must be a special place for us to transcend our quest for decent grub and luckily we fell in love with our mojitos, our barista Diego, the turquoise of the Carribean, the sun and warmth, the Sorollas and wonderful art in Havana, the most vigorous massage I have ever had in my life in Trinidad, the welcome we received by Maria and Jesus (despite there being no room at the inn on our first night) but most of all we loved the music and the sheer vibrancy of the people.

The music infused joy everywhere we went. It is the lifeblood of the country. The musicians are first-class and the people truly have rhythm in their souls. Do you remember the loony lady street sweeper with fake fruit on her head who sashayed her way down the narrow streets? And how annoyed I was to have missed the old lady displaying her melons at the request of the trumpet-player? How refreshing that Cubans have little modesty but a lot of exuberance! And such a pity that the CDs do not do justice to all the music we heard live….

And didn’t you love Hemingway’s house, another testament to bygone America? Can you imagine a naked Ava Gardner jumping into the pool and the maestro himself standing up and furiously typing away on his typewriter? Hemingway, too loved Cuba and the Cubans joie de vivre, and like us loved the drink and the music.

But perhaps the most moving moment of all which sums up all the contradictions of Cuba was our last night listening to the band of old-timers (one was over 80 years old, he had witnessed Cuba pre and nearly post Castro)

Y tu querida presencia

Commandante Che Guavara.

The hairs at the back of my neck stand up as I invoke the captivating sound in my head, the rousing call to arms affecting every single person around us. For a second I am there again, reliving it. Café Royale, Havana April 12th 2012.