Written in 1993 for Forbes-FYI magazine
Here’s a popular Cuban joke. A mother asks, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Her son answers, "A tourist."
Here’s another, concerning Pepito, an archetypal Havana boy. Fidel sends Pepito to the U.S. to report on the situation. He comes back and says, "Miami was remarkable, Fidel. Just like life here in Cuba. If you don’t have dollars, you can’t buy anything."
Having missed Berlin, having missed Moscow, I was determined to see Havana while it was still under Fidel—before it became both "legal" and chic for Americans to go. I was damned if I was going to wait for Washington to okay it; besides, no visitor’s ever been prosecuted. The secret is to go first to Mexico or Nassau, Jamaica or Canada. So I went via (pick one of the above).
Havana, with its long shoreline curving into an enormous harbor, is a revelation. The vast Old City, in terrible condition, is still exquisite, all columns and arches and balconies, baroque and lavish in its contours. No city in the Americas can equal its grandeur; I would put it, even in decay and disrepair, beside Paris as one of the most beautiful in the world, the ultimate triumph of architecture over politics.
My hotel, the Inglaterra, by the Parque Central and the elaborate icing of the Teatro Nacional, was built circa 1880: colonial lobby, rattan chairs, flowering tiles. Expecting the worst—I’ve come armored with soap and candles—I’m surprised to find my room equipped with a new a/c, telephone, and shiny bathroom with toilet paper, which few Cubans have had for years. A large Soviet TV is showing the National League playoffs live.
Walking the Prado I find the coffee-scented Centro Andaluz (1919). A few men in rocking chairs smoke fragrant cigars and ponder the warm afternoon light filtering through shutters. At tables in back, overweight old men in long many-pocketed shirts are playing dominos quietly. Rattle and click of the tiles.
Outside, hundreds stand in the soft dusk waiting hours for crowded red buses to take them home. Dollars-only taxis are the sole vehicles moving. As I admire a blue ’53 Dodge, a young man chortles, "That was brought over by Christopher Columbus."
To the Tropicana, while most of Havana endures its nightly four-hour power cut. My taxi hurries through darkened neighborhoods, a sad city of ghosts wandering on lampless, gearless bicycles.
"Ladies and gentlemen, damas y caballeros, welcome to the most fabulous nightclub in the world!" In a clearing of long tables and immense trees, on catwalks high up in the forest, it’s suddenly the 1950s again: swirls of light, pulsating staircases, imperious girls in sumptuous capes and spangled bikinis, backed by a hot big band with a shouting horn section. Long-legged, marauding Venuses, six feet tall, parade miles of fishnet mulatto flesh; black giantesses drip pearls, in garter belts and thigh-high boots, with lit-up chandeliers on their heads. The male crooners in white and gold suits are a soothing respite from the female onslaught, though the show is surprisingly proper.
At one a.m., when the Tropicana becomes an all-night disco, I find myself by a striking young woman with streaked brown hair. In a short, stylish dark dress, she’s standing, not suggestively dancing like the obviously available women. She guesses I’m a periodista, perhaps because every other foreigner in Havana these days seems a journalist. She’s twenty-five, a lab technician. Maria has only derisive remarks about the black girls in skin-tight spandex, bumping and grinding for foreign men. "Putas negras."
She introduces me to friends: Eduardo, an usher for the show, and Lydia, a pretty blonde law student. It seems possible that Eduardo’s offering me both Maria and Lydia, though no one’s dignity has yet been broken by the mention of money. They speak surprisingly frankly. They know, from Radio Martí, about the two Cuban air force pilots who defected in MIGs. They’re pretty free with criticism of Fidel. They never say his name, but pull on imaginary beards. A century from now, perhaps, the gesture will survive as signifying some huge difficulty one cannot identify.
Stories of deprivation here seem almost apocryphal. No cats because people are eating them; for that matter, few dogs either. And almost nothing to buy: never have I seen so few shops on such busy streets. (In the old days the Woolworth’s had a counter stacked with voodoo charms.) Shoes are for sale for, say, six months’ wages. Old pharmacies are apothecary museums, the shelves with only a few many-hued bottles. People buy their daily bread roll at a counter below arched windows and washing-festooned balconies, beneath plants in clay pots and women gossiping.
Always there are glorious glimpses into tiled hallways, up marble staircases. On O’Reilly Street a marmoreal building has National City Bank of New York engraved above stone columns; a small sign on the glass front door says: Banco Nacional de Cuba. Gleaming, immobile old Plymouths and Chevys, starved for fuel.
A ration shop, gloomy and empty, is dispensing plantains—"one bunch per customer," is scrawled on a chalkboard. Dutifully checked off from the ration book everyone carries. An old man explains the present schedule: four eggs a month, perhaps a chicken, a bottle of rum. No milk for adults. Rice, beans. No beef, ever.
On Obispo, in the Ambos Mundos Hotel I go up in a cage elevator, along white corridors, past 1930s ironwork furniture, to Room 511, Hemingway’s room for years. "As he left it," according to a twittering Carmen who accompanies me. A fake kitsch marlin head stares from one wall. For Whom the Bell Tolls in Spanish is on the dresser; he wrote much of it in this room. An expansive view of the city, plenty of sunlight. Carmen points out the low carved bed, probably Hemingway’s, and an ancient black typewriter that’s probably not, since it’d be worth as much as the hotel.
The Cinema Cervantes is showing Little Shop of Horrors.
In a wing of the Habana Libre (formerly the Havana Hilton) where tourist shops once flourished, there are now "easy shopping" dollar stores, where Cubans with legalized hard currency can buy Guy Laroche and Yves St. Laurent and the rest. Across the street a dollars bookstore sells yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, El Pais, and the Herald Tribune. And Spanish paperbacks, Asimov to Vidal, a literary selection. Graham Greene’s Batista-era Our Man In Havana is mysteriously banned, as is any serious criticism of the Cuban Revolution, and notably the novels of the exile G. Cabrera Infante, that portray with Joycean wordplay and Dickensian detail the magic and fervor of an un-castrated Havana.
Fidel’s strong literacy campaign resulted in a nation of people who could all read what little they were permitted. Now that some restrictions have been lifted (writers once persecuted and now dead are safely praised) the problem is how few people can afford books. It’s become difficult to get a copy of the daily official newspaper, and there’s been no Havana phone book since 1979. Unfortunately, many copies got used as toilet paper.
I find Maria’s apartment nearby without too much trouble. She is slowly paying off 34,000 pesos to a lawyer for the tiny flat, a bracket-shaped box carved out of a larger apartment next door. The bed folds into the wall; there’s a tiny kitchen and bathroom, a fridge, an ancient water heater that doesn’t work, one chair, an immense Soviet TV which nearly everyone has. She earns 320 pesos a month, under $5 and sinking. So the flat will cost Maria a decade’s salary. She says she’s lucky to have it.
Maria adds, "We haven’t had cooking oil, shampoo, soap, or detergent for months. The power’s off four, six hours a day. The water too." She smiles. "I lost twenty pounds when I moved to Havana."
She shows me her little red Communist Party book (she’s obliged to be a member) listing her monthly contribution: four pesos. It’s on the honor system; I point out that she hasn’t contributed since April. She promptly signs it five times.
She also shows me her master’s thesis, 200 bound pages of complex biological text and graphs. I leave her a little money, several candles and mosquito coils, and six bars of soap.
A trio sings at lunch in the bar of La Bodeguita del Medio (a half-century of patrons’ signatures on the venerable walls). The drummer is a local Queequeg, his dark bald skull dense with geometric tattoos, a feathered earring dangling. He clasps my hand and presses it to his brow. Over the bar, a framed note:
My mojito in La Bodeguita / My daiquiri in El Floridita
Cuba for Hem was fishing, drinking, and whoring, and he cared little about the island’s refined or folk art, much less his fellow writers here—greats like Alejo Carpentier, Jos Lezama Lima, Virgilio Pinera. Nor is there any sign he favored the revolution, though the government has made him a Cuban hero. His villa-estate near Havana, the popular Finca Vigia, mostly as he left it, is closed these days for restoration.
Ava Gardner used to swim naked in the pool.
Fragrance of the streets: mingled scents of boiling sugar, urine, coffee, a vanilla breeze, and dusty tedium of afternoon.
This city like a hot, fierce tropical dream of Spain. The women’s lazy, flaunting walk. Skin like different kinds of honey.
In the modern city the strangest building is undoubtedly the U.S. Interests Section, seaside on the Malecon like a giant, run-down a/c unit. From a facing billboard a cartoon Uncle Sam growls ("Grrr!") across the water at an island guerrilla who proclaims: "Imperialist gentlemen! We have absolutely no fear of you!"
I ask a young man who drives an illegal taxi if there’s much resentment still for those Cubans who’d gone to Miami. "They did the right thing," he says. "Good for them. I would have, too."
A couple of blocks away, in the Partagas cigar factory, Canadians and Europeans line up to buy box after bargain box of Cochibas, Monte Cristos, holy smokes. In the inner sanctum, a man reads aloud (newspaper in the morning, novel in the afternoon) to while away the hours for the patient rollers of tobacco leaves.
An evening daiquiri at the Floridita, the bar that invented it: ice, lemon juice, sugar, a little maraschino liqueur, and a light Cuban rum. A bar of carved mahogany with gold columns flank a painting of 18th century Havana. White stools, red half-moon tables; an art deco feel and Cuba’s strongest air conditioning; an ugly bust of Hemingway. The secret to a daiquiri, the waiter explains, is the ice: "Must be absolutely frapp
I ask a fellow outside what he thinks of the $6 Floridita daiquiri. He shrugs. "This makes people very angry. I can’t go out and get a drink, because all the best places are only for tourists or tourist money. So I feel degraded in my own country."
Anyone reading up on Cuba is deluged with statistics. I’ve been keeping my own. Greene wrote that Havana "turned out human beauty on a conveyor-belt"; I’ve decided that every second woman is pretty, every third woman is gorgeous, every fourth woman is available, already even approaching you. In this the Revolution failed, for the idea was to eliminate the exploitation of women. It’s more than machismo, or an impossible economic situation; the erotic impulse here is simply as overwhelming as the architecture.
Not surprisingly, men come to Cuba to find beautiful wives. A successful, dapper Mexican businessman has been trying for months to get his eighteen-year-old wife out. "You can’t imagine how complicated it is marrying a Cuban girl. To call her you have to buy her a cellular phone. Then you end up providing money for the entire family to buy groceries on the black market. Plus, these people have no Catholicism anymore. Instead they have this weird Santeria business. Cuban voodoo. My wife actually thinks I have a dead man inside me just because some Santeria priestess told her so. And of course you must pay the government so your wife can leave. They make you suffer. First it’s $1,000 for her passport. Then it’s ‘Oh, there’s one more thing, it might take a month or two. Maybe we can speed up the process, but that’ll cost another $400.’ They always come up with something. If they only said at the start, ‘Give us $3,000 and she can leave tomorrow morning,’ it would be more humane. Still, it’s worth it. I figure, by helping a beautiful girl leave Cuba I’m guaranteed an entry into Heaven."
The 18th-century Plaza de Cathedral is compact, magnificent; by the time I arrive mass is already over, but many are still within, like the young teak-colored man in his best clothes intoning a prayer softly to himself. In the plaza an orchestra begins to play program music. Artists in the narrow streets sell paintings: Chagall, West Africa, and Picasso, in mambo tones.
The glorious Casa de la Obrapia (stone arches, a fading yellow courtyard) has two rooms dedicated to Alejo Carpentier. They have his desk from Paris, his raincoat, his books, photos of him and his wife, photocopies of several manuscript pages. They also have, in its own room, his blue Volkswagen Bug, brought from France with license plates intact, and the car papers, framed.
After several magnificent museums devoted to the splendors of colonial-era Havana, a glimpse into the Museo de la Revolucion—formerly the Presidential Palace. The Granma (the boat that beached Fidel & Co. in the Historic Landing) can be seen outside in a glass showroom. Upstairs, a wax model of "El Che," as 20th Century Fox called him, strides heroically through the jungle. Past him are too many rooms of knives, guns, ammo, blood-soaked uniforms, radios, photos of Fidel, his dinner menus, even the typewriter to which his famous "History Will Absolve Me" was dictated. History may look kindly upon years of improved social conditions, but it doesn’t forgive eight-hour speeches.
Much-needed fresh air along the Malecon, the broad arcing boulevard by the sea, famous for plainclothes cops, a view of El Morro fortress and amorous couples at all hours. ("The shortest line between two points is the curve of the Malecon."—G. Cabrera Infante.) A few men swim or fish from rocks below the sea-wall. Boys play baseball on a small stretch of grass. A long honor-guard of glorious buildings whose lower floors are all abandoned, the paint eroded by thirty-five years of sea-spray and neglect.
Here’s a final Cuban joke: What are the three greatest triumphs of the Revolution? Easy! Education, medicine, sports.
What are the three greatest disasters? Breakfast, lunch, dinner.
After sugar, tourism is the island’s largest source of hard currency. Many hotels have been renovated, like the Sevilla (much of Greene’s novel takes place in its bar) or the Nacional, sixty years old this year, which once boasted a grand casino and was the finest, largest hotel in the Caribbean. Past the royal palms the cannons still confront the Gulf of Mexico, a fountain plays, and the gardens are full of South American, European and Japanese businessmen, many steps ahead of all the hypothetical Americans who aren’t allowed by their own government to visit or invest.
Now that I’ve actually visited, talk in the U.S. press about "Fidel’s Last Days" (logic: first Eastern Europe, now Cuba) seems preposterous. Havana may percolate with dismay and fatigue, but hardly revolutionary discontent. After all, over half Cuba’s 10.4 millions are children of this once extremely popular revolution.
As a rare American, I’ve felt welcome. Though few Cubans I speak to put the blame for living conditions on U.S. shoulders, the economic blockade is still highly unpopular. Why should proud people in a country you’re doing your best to strangle want to do the bidding of the strangler? The best move politically for the U.S. would be to airdrop, say, 100,000 tubes of toothpaste into Cuba, cushioned in toilet paper. It would be a friendly gesture.
Esther worked in tourism; before, she was a university professor for five years. At thirty she’s refined, with a halo of dark hair and a lively, quick beauty. I neglect to tell her I’m a journalist. She agrees to lunch to practice her errorless and unbelievably accentless English, for she’s never been abroad.
Esther, her husband, and her son and daughter, share the old family apartment with her parents, her brother, and her sister. "We have no hope for our own home," she says, "no hope at all." She speaks with humor, an amused acceptance of the cards life has dealt. I find it hard to reconcile her amazing English with her literary tastes (Stephen King and Harold Robbins). It doesn’t seem to bother her that I’m spending a month’s wages on her meal: a dismal salad, beef in spicy tomato sauce, coffee like jet fuel. She earns 148 pesos a month ($2 now), plus about $20 in tips from tourists. As a professor there’d been no hope of hard currency.
I ask her if she’d leave if she could. "Two years ago we had a chance to go to Canada, if we really tried," she says. "And then perhaps to America. But the crime in the States worries us. And for the moment this still feels like our home. So we stay."
As we walk she speaks of how the dollar economy is about to swallow the peso economy—in six months, she predicts, there’ll only be hard currency. No one can imagine what happens then. How can it be, I ask, that Cuba can’t feed itself? And yet, though not an ideologue, she’s still in favor of the Revolution, and believes Fidel has good intentions but is surrounded by people who achieved their positions through politics, not expertise.
I give her a roll of toilet paper from the hotel, Friday’s International Herald Tribune, six bars of soap, $5 for her children—this takes a bit of arguing—and my copy of Our Man In Havana.
Over half a million tourists come to Cuba annually—more than twice as many as in the best years before Castro. The irony cannot be lost on Fidel that tourists and foreign currency are brought in by colonial-era Havana and the emblems of pre-Castro Cuba: the beaches, the women, the daiquiris, a vague scent of something illicit. With casinos the circle would be complete.
Before leaving Miami, I’d asked a Cuban friend what I could bring back from Havana for her. She reflected a moment, then smiled sadly. "The air, darling," she said. "Only the air."