HAVANA1. A CAB DRIVER: On the way in from the airport to Cafeteria La Rampa (because it was 4 a.m., too early to get a room in a casa), the driver, a slightly portly latino, very polite, very articulate, asked where I'm from and then assured me he'd been very pleased by Carter's visit because not even an ex-president had ever come before.
He said it was too bad, though, that Carter had barely left the vicinity of his hotel and had met few ordinary Cubans. He did not know this himself, but this was what he had been told.
"But he went to a baseball game," I offered.
"Yes, of course. With Fidel." I had read somewhere that Carter had been followed around by dissidents. So I suggested he may have talked to the people he thought were important to talk to.
The cabbie said he had understood that, and then, trying to phrase it politely, trying not to sound critical of Carter's judgment, "But most Cubans are not in agreement with those people."
I told him I knew about the petition but few Americans believed that 98% would have signed it willingly or that 98% of any population would sign anything. He didn't get that, and when I told him only 50% vote in America, he seemed not to believe me. But when I assured him it was true, he got the point, and when I said it would have been easier to believe if Fidel had lied and said 80% signed, he laughed. But, he said, nobody would believe that in Cuba. He himself had believed that everyone signed.
"Why?" I asked, as if it were, after all, unlikely.
"Because I signed, and everyone I know signed."
"Why?" I asked in the same tone.
"Because we're Cubans here," he said, "and we're not afraid of Bush." But he told me again that Carter was very welcome; everyone thought he was a good man; and everyone was glad he came.
2. A GUARD: One of the security guards patrolling a place someone thought needed patrolling was a woman I'd met the year before. I already knew she was something of a dissident, so she wasn't really a random subject, but I decided to include her as an immediate contrast to the cab driver and because I knew she'd be interesting.
When she saw me, she sent me around the corner to a more secluded gate, where the other guards wouldn't overhear us. The first time I'd talked to her, we had to cross the street into the dark shade of a tree. Every Cuban dissident I've met has been theatrical.
She told me everyone signed the petition from fear of the government. Others would tell me different because they're afraid. She's the only one who will tell me the truth, she claimed. The others all secretly agree. Only we musn't be overheard talking by anyone.
"Why not" I started to ask, "if everyone agrees?" But I didn't get all that out, because whenever she senses resistance, she butts in. We'd had other talks like this.
"You're not Cuban," she always says, "so you don't understand."
This time, after we hugged, she said, "Look how skinny I've gotten since you saw me before. There's nothing to eat." She looked no different to me. She has a hard body with no fat, and her uniform is always too loose to show it, but her face was normally full. Hugging her, I'd felt no bones, either. Anyway, I'd seen more food in the street markets than the year before, just as cheap as in California, figuring pesos as equal to dollars. And Cubans start with enough for one meal a day on the ration, plus many are fed at work. I knew she was.
She claimed she had to sell the lunch they give her at work to buy food. Why not eat her lunch, I asked, and who does she sell it to if everyone is...
"You don't understand, because you aren't Cuban."
In fact, I've never seen any sign of general hunger in Cuba - absolutely never a hungry or unhealthy looking kid. I missed the depression of the early 90's, but before and after that, no. I've seen anorexia and people genetically thin, and I once saw a woman with a wasting disease in Cienfuegos, but those were exceptional cases, not systemic.
I've seen hunger in Central America, but whenever I've tried to tell her about those places, she's declared I can't bring that up, because she's never been there.
She said the newspapers and TV always tell how bad things happen in other places, like los estados unidos...
"And like Afghanistan," I said, because I'd just read Granma.
"Yes, but they never tell the bad things that happen in Cuba."
She said they never reported rapes or robberies in Havana. They always told her about black guys getting beat up by cops in Florida (she's black but, like other Cuban blacks, she doesn't seem to know it), but they never tell her about bad things that happen on streets she might have to walk on after dark.
"Then how do you know they happen at all?" Virtually all sources say Havana is an exceptionally safe large city, and she could cite no examples except second hand apocrypha, but she said she knows just because she's Cuban.
We did a number of these circles, and then she told me she had signed the petition to avoid being fired. I'd been told how hard it is to fire people. But she said she'd have been transfered so far she'd have to take 3 busses to get to work.
OK, I thought, that might be true. But maybe not, too. I like her because she's pretty and lively and talks in a funny, emphatic way, poking and hitting and squeezing as she carries on. But I talk to her to hear all her woes and what she says when I challenge her. Sometimes I agree with her. I don't think Cuban papers are at all dishonest, but there's not much in them.
But it's not true she's afraid of being overheard. In a Chinese restaurant the year before, I'd suggested an isolated table where we could talk privately, but she'd insisted on sitting in the midst of the crowd and then spoken freely in a tone anyone could hear.
I put her down as one who signed from fear of consequences - one of only 4 in 100 who would tell me that. She and the cab driver had both said everybody signed, the one thing Americans found hardest to believe.
3, 4, & 5. A SENIOR COP, A PURCHASING AGENT, AND A WOMAN WHO RENTS ROOMS IN HER HOME TO TOURISTS: This was a large 2nd floor apartment in a shady 1950's vintage neighborhood. The owner was one of a growing number of Cubans participating in the tourist sector, renting a room or two, paying taxes, responsible for costs of upkeep that meets standards, even employing housekeepers. They've become small-scale capitalists. But they don't necessarily think of themselves that way. This woman didn't. The cop was her boyfriend. The purchaser, a woman who traveled to other countries in her job, was a visiting friend.
I asked the cop why I saw no jineteros (hustlers) or chicas (hustlerettes) in the places they'd been very visible in '01. I was privately wondering if they'd been rounded up before Carter arrived. Someone had suggested the night before that "maybe they're taking job training." Cubans tend to sound like Republicans when they talk about their ne'er-do-wells.
The cop said that, after 9-11, tourism had slumped and the profits of hustling had dried up. He said they were starting to reappear, but slowly.
Hearing that the woman had traveled even as a child, because her father was a journalist, I told her of the complaints a friend of mine had about Granma's crime coverage.
She'd seen excessive crime reporting in Brazil and Mexico, she said, and she didn't agree. She understood wanting to know what dark streets to avoid in Brazil, but she didn't think there's that much crime in Cuba. The cop said things happen but not on "certain dark streets" and there isn't nearly as much crime as in other countries
He said Cubans aren't desperately poor and they're united by the revolution. I said Americans don't believe Cubans are so united that 98% had freely signed a petition to lock in socialism.
She started telling me about poverty in Brazil, pointing out that there's nothing like that in Cuba, and then they launched into a chorus of what they didn't believe about Americans.
How could Bush steal an election, break his own laws and world law, too, be unable to speak his own language, and still be president? (This probably hasn't occurred to many Americans but, since, in 2002 when this survey was taken, Fidel had been president for most of most Cubans' lives, THEY'd virtually never had a stupid president.) Why don't Americans know, they asked me, that the Miamistas (Cuban exiles) are Mafia, that most Latin Americans are exploited and miserable, that it's mostly the Americans themselves who exploit them, and that Cubans are fine because the Americans can't get at them?
Well, aside from that, I told them Americans heard of dissidents not being allowed to speak and...
"Not allowed to speak!" the purchaser exclaimed that I'd find Cubans very ready to speak (in fact I'd often found it hard to get a word in). The dissidents' problem, she said, was that they had no one to speak to. I'd find they were a very small group. "Nobody will agree with them here, so they talk to the ones who will."
The cop was telling me almost all the Cubans always voted, even during the depression of the early 90's, and everyone had signed the petition because Fidel had promised it meant capitalism would never return, and I think he had more to say, but when he took a breath, the woman of the house took the floor to wrap it up in her mind.
Counting off points on her fingers, she declared that, one, it was easy to sign, with so many tables ("It was like a party in the street," she said); two, they all think Bush is a monster, killing people with no respect for other countries; three, all Cubans much over 50 remember how capitalism was, and all know from TV how it still is in other places, and they know they don't want it; and four, everything is fine and they don't want to change it.
She said a friend of hers had gone to Florida and come right back when she saw how they treat blacks there and because Americans have to lock themselves in at night and are afraid to go outside.
Well, not everywhere, I started to say, when the cop asked why Americans didn't believe everyone signed when American tourists had seen it and wanted to sign, too. I'd read about that on the internet, and the irony did strike me that those tourists may have been afraid to speak freely in America.
But I asked if it would have been different with a choice of yes or no in secret. The purchaser pointed out they have secret votes all the time (which, of couse, they do) and, in spite of constant Miami propaganda to spoil their ballots, very few do that.
The cop said people in jail and seriously disabled mental patients were ineligible, but even people overseas and people away from home on the island had "sent" their signatures. With 100,000 CDR's (neighborhood committees) involved, the process had been thorough. All three said they thought that everyone had signed.
He had signed, of course, as one with revolutionary consciousness, as had the woman of the house. I put the purchaser down as a militant, since she had previously been in the Juventud. In Cuba, only members of the Communist Party and the Juventud (Young Communists) are called militants. Anyone who sounded militant but technically wasn't I decided I'd say signed from revolutionary consciousness. That's a well known term to anyone who was in Central America in the 80's. It means the person has really thought about economic issues and rationally and seriously favors socialist or communist revolution.
6. THE MOONLIGHTER: Inside the low planter-box walls that let in the air and hold back the hustlers, Sofia's is a large corner veranda with early breakfast, lunch, dinner, and live music most of the night, an all-day refuge from heat, traffic, and the crowded sidewalk, an all-night flame for all the moths on La Rampa.
The short redheaded waitress with glasses had remembered from the year before and the year before that my need for a double-size cup of just-plain-coffee, and I'd just bought a Trabajadores over the wall, so the cigar guy had spotted me and moved into the space the news vendor left. The part of him visible above the wall wore a neatly pressed pink shirt, an unlikely jacket (to have pockets for cigars probably), and a city slicker's hat.
Cubans don't wear rags, and I want readers to know that, but, in fact, I don't pay much attention to clothes because all I wear are Levi's and T's, and I'm thinking if I keep stressing the point, this survey will take forever, so, hereafter, anyone I forget to describe should be assumed to be well dressed and probably decked out.
I only noticed this guy because the flock of jineteros who'd been there struggling to catch my eye in '01 were gone and I was feeling less defensive.
"Is this your regular job?" I asked. I didn't know yet that a week later in Baracoa I'd meet a go-go dancer employed by the state.
He got the point and assured me he wasn't a jinetero. He was an oficinista (a bureaucrat). He just did this to get some dollars for some things he needed.
"Do you represent the factory?" I asked. He asked where I'm from. Then he told me I couldn't get Cuban cigars there. Guidebooks say cigars sold on the street might not be the real thing but I think all cigars are bad and I assumed his were really Cuban, whatever Cuban made them, but I don't smoke, so I told him that and asked why he needed dollars. "Are you hungry?"
"Nobody's hungry" he said, "except the ones who spend all their money on rum." Then he told me Cubans eat three times a day. This is a ritual claim I've heard repeatedly, often accompanied by pointing east, up, and west, while reciting, "Sun-up - breakfast; noon - lunch; sunset - dinner."
"So everything's fine in Cuba," I said. He said it wasn't good a few years ago, during the depression, but it was fine again, now. And what happened to the depression? "Everyone worked together. We got our instructions, and everyone did what they had to."
"And that's how socialism works?"
"I think yes," he said. "Also, there's more tourism."
He asked how I liked Cuba, so I asked how he liked it. He said he loved Cuba. He was born there and he would die there. Dissidents aren't the only Cubans who are theatrical.
"So you're not collecting dollars to go to America." He said I had the wrong idea about him. It's legal now to have dollars (keep it in mind that this was in 2002), and a lot of people have paladars (restaurants in their homes) or sell art for dollars, but they're all socialists.
It wasn't coincidence that he then told me about the petition and that he had signed it because things are OK and nothing needs changing. Bombs were falling in Afghanistan. The newspaper on my table had pictures. Cubans were alarmed by recent U.S. efforts to pin a terrorism connection on them, and it was only weeks since they'd signed the petition.
During the next month and a half, I'd see the memory fade, but at the start I was operating in the wake of the petition and the scare and the insult that brought it about. Anyway, five of six people, and maybe all six, I'd talked to in one day thought 100% had signed, and that was in Havana, where most dissidents are supposed to live.
7. THE LETTER WRITER: Next day, after an entire morning struggling with the Cubana Airline bureaucracy to fix a problem with my ticket back to Mexico, having finally connected with the only person in town who could help me and having gotten her vague assurances, though still no new ticket, I took my letter to Fidel to the Plaza de la Revolucion. After my 2000 visit I'd written a critique and delivered it in '01, hoping to net an interview, and after '01, I'd written another and was delivering it in '02.
At the corner of Paseo and a long drive that curves up around the Marti monument to Cuba's administrative headquarters is a guard hut where a line waits to deliver their letters to Fidel. In stark contrast to the exiles in Miami who think Fidel personally commits every separate atrocity they fantacize, islanders, even some conservatives, tend to think if anything goes wrong it's because Fidel doesn't know about it. And each person in the line expects Fidel to read his or her letter and do something.
As I arrived, a woman without proper ID had just given her letter to another woman to take in. "She thinks some agency is cheating her," the samaritan told me. Then the guard, a soldier, gave her back her papers and sent her up the drive, and took my passport and the cedula of a middle-aged man next to me.
"Do you think you'll do any good?" I asked. It was hot and there's no shade in that enormous plaza, yet he was wearing a tan jacket and a white tie.
"One can hope," he said. He had a problem, that he didn't want to explain, with the leaders of his CDR (his neighborhood organization), which he couldn't take up with them.
"Sometimes the system breaks down," I suggested.
"It's just certain people," he said.
He asked if I was Cuban, and I told him I'm not but I'm interested in how things go in Cuba. He said things went well "in the new century." He wanted me to understand he wasn't complaining about things generally. It was a specific thing only.
I asked if he was a member of the party. He said he'd never been a militant. Why not? He didn't seem to want to be too definite about that. That's subjective. What he said was that militants had to volunteer for everything. He said that as if he were amused by something.
"So what are you?" I asked. "You seem to believe in Fidel. Are you a socialist?" He said it worked. He had no complaints. I didn't laugh. I asked what he'd thought of Carter's visit.
"That it was very good," he said, "because a finger was pointed at Cuba, and that wasn't good." The finger of doom, I thought, and saw a parallel between childish American presidents and the children of Salem.
I asked if he thought it had been wise to pass the petition under those circumstances.
He said that for all Cubans to sign the petition "showed we have nothing to hide."
"Are you a socialist," I said.
"No. I signed the petition, but just to keep things as they are."
The soldier, who had been standing there listening, handed me my passport and started to tell me the way, but I said I knew and went up the drive.
8. THE HIGH SCHOOL GIRL: It's a long, hot walk from the Plaza to anywhere. I stopped to admire Anna Hyatt Huntington's statue of a fallen marathoner passing his torch to a rearing horseman in a criss-cross street mini-park, then went a way I hoped was east and got lost in an urban thicket that refused to yield a familiar sign.
Overtaken by two girls in white tops and yellow mini skirts, the high school uniform, I snapped their picture and said, "Hola."
One didn't like it. The other looked at her friend for a sign.
"Hey," I said, "I'm not so bad. Just a lost American looking for a pretty girl to tell me where I am."
The open one was interested enough to look at me instead of her friend, who loosened her folded arms a little, and they tacitly agreed to my walking speed and when I asked their age, the bolder one said they were 16, seniors.
I told them about the school structure in America. That American girls are in high school and not considered adults until they are 18 deepened the quiet girl's dimples and the other smiled at me. I told them the voting age is 18, and she told me they vote at 16.
"But what do you vote for?"
She knew and as she told me about municipal elections and special elections, not forgetting the petition, her friend nodded approval.
"She doesn't talk much," I said, "Is she shy?"
The shy one's cheeks flattened, but her friend said, "Her? No, she's not," as if that meant more than she'd tell, and the shy one smiled to herself, swung her hips a bit, and laughed, but all to herself.
"Not bad," I said, and she tried to look exasperated but couldn't help dimpling again.
I asked if they were 16 two and a half weeks ago when the petition was signed, and she rolled her eyes as the bold one said, "Cierto!"
"And did you sign?"
Now the talker looked as if I was an idiot and the other giggled. Everyone in their class signed, of course.
"I mean everyone 16 and up." High school, la segundaria, goes to 16, so some are 16 before they graduate, and some aren't. "But what if you didn't want to?"
"Well, you didn't have to. Everyone knew that. But everyone did."
"So tell me why." And she ticked off the reasons like a clock. The free health system, free education as far as a person could go, good homes with modern appliances for everyone, basic food and clothing needs met, dignity and respect for all races and religions...
"Where did you sign?" I asked, because I pictured the class marching to a table. I'd seen smartly marching school girls in Parque Marti in Cienfuegos in 2000.
"I signed where I live," she said.
They were turning right and I asked which way went downtown. Then the shy one broke her silence and gave me exact directions that contradicted my instincts.
It was too hot to walk the wrong direction, and going back the way I'd come felt wrong, so when I came to a busy street, I looked for a taxi.
9. ANOTHER CAB DRIVER: This guy was a member of the party and, learning my nationality, he brought up Carter and the petition. Obviously, he signed because he's militant. I remember disagreeing when he based the 98% estimate on a population of 11 million, the 1990 count in my atlas. I'm sure he repeated things the purchaser and the cop said, but my mind wasn't on the conversation.
I thought we were going the wrong way through a gray, dingy area I'd thought was "Centro," the south half of the old city, and I was looking for something familiar, but when I thought we were at a place I think they call "Cinco Esquinas" and I thought we should turn right, we turned left.
So, besides being hot and tired, and a little dismayed by what had struck me as glibness by the highschool girl, and also thinking one cab driver on my survey was enough, I was lost, which I hate, and I longed for a beer in the open air of the waterfront. Finally seeing the train station, which wrenched my perspective about 90° around and back into line with reality, I considered the now-closer beer more important.
But some of my mind was listening to the driver because, while my notes don't recount our conversation, at a breezy sidewalk table in Dos Hermanos, drinking Cristal (the Budweiser of Cuba), because they had no Mayabe, and wondering if anything made sense, I wrote in my notebook the guy's polite jab when I asked if he thought everyone who signed knew what they were signing.
He said, "Of course not everyone. Do all Americans know what they're voting for?"
So I also wrote that if there was a plebiscite in the U.S. On "democracy and freedom" (a vague concept compared to socialism) and it were promoted like the nationwide polio inoculation when I was a kid, 98% of Americans would probably affirm it. And they probably couldn't objectively explain why.
The highschool girl was reciting what she'd been taught, but almost everyone is taught what they think, what she'd been taught was objectively true, and she could recite it. So she more certainly knew why she'd signed the petition than any Republican who isn't rich knows why he votes for the party of the rich. All voting is smoke and mirrors. Most people are always conned. The difference between Cuba and the U.S. is that their conmen are trying to make socialism work for everyone, and our conmen are trying to make a profit.
However it seemed in genetically anti-communist America, on the scene in Cuba, I had no real doubt that something like 98% had signed for socialism.
10. THE POSSIBLE CHEF: I don't like Hemingway's bar choices; they're all like hotel bars. But Federico Garcia Lorca's favorite place, Dos Hermanos, one of at least 3 places in Havana alone where daquiris may or may not have been invented, but on the working waterfront, for sure, is a perfect spot for my tastes and purposes. It's open to the sidewalk, and a colorful array of passersby almost mix with the patrons. People walking by sometimes just decide to sit with me.
This guy was a fast talker and of course a flashy dresser. My memory has him in a checkered jacket, but maybe that was just his personality. He said he was the head chef at the Habana Libre, and maybe he was, but it soon turned out he wanted to borrow money to put gas in his '56 Chevi.
Los Van Van would be in the hotel's Sky Room that night and, as his good friend, I was invited. I could get in free just by mentioning his name. He'd pay me back when he saw me there.
I asked where his car was. It was on a nearby side street; did I like old cars? He knew there are old car clubs in America, but only to look at, not to drive.
I told him I'd like to drive one to Baracoa. He said I could share the cost of gas and go with him. He just happened to be going there soon. I guessed that meant I'd pay for the gas.
I wondered how the Sky Room could spare him while he drove to Baracoa. He said he could take a vacation; his boss liked him. He said he got along well with everyone. He also said he was lucky, for himself and for his friends. Except you're out of gas, I reminded him.
But I had the feeling I would wind up being lucky for him. I asked if he had met Carter and I think he considered saying he had but decided instead to regret that Carter hadn't dined with him.
Of course he had signed the petition because he was a militant.
"For the revolution?"
"For myself!" he said with a squinting grin. I "loaned" him $3.
11. A FIDELISTA: Crossing a small square on my way to Plaza de las Armas, a woman in a window catcalled me, so I stopped to call her bluff. It was the back of a restaurant where three women were working almost in the window, peeling and chopping and watching life in the street.
"Did you think that was for you?"
I said I did and she asked where I'm from and I asked where she was from. The other two laughed at her and she smiled. Her teeth were perfect. She might have been over 40 but she was young and trim even in her kichen uniform. My notes don't mention her color. After a few days in Cuba you forget to think about that. So, any time I don't say, the reader should forget it, too, or figure every third person is mulata or black and most of the rest mestizo.
I asked if she was married, and she asked if I was, and I asked why she wanted to know, and she asked if I had anything to offer besides my looks, and I told her I'm not rich but I'm smart.
"Ha!; And you asked me if I'm from Cuba!" I asked if she didn't know what a joke was and if she knew anybody else as smart as me.
"You're not as smart as Fidel," she said.
"Why not? It's possible. I might even be smarter."
"No!" she laughed emphatically, and the others laughed their agreement. "Nobody's smarter than Fidel." She wagged a free finger at me. They'd all kept peeling and chopping and rinsing as we talked.
"So it's a good thing you're Cuban," I suggested. She agreed and the others nodded with her. She waved a free wet hand at her view and asked if it wasn't beautiful.
But what she was waving at isn't Cuba. Cuba IS beautiful, and most of its cities and towns are beautiful, and much of Havana is beautiful, but Habana Vieja (Old Havana), which isn't 1/20 even of Havana, is old and ugly except the restored parts. We were flirting in the heart of the restored part of Habana Vieja east of the Prado, to me a tourist theme park honoring the gold seekers who built it and the gangsters who defined it, which Cuba could do better without.
A couple of blocks from where we were is a small museum featuring a model of the old city, a maqueta, where the attendant points at what has been renovated and what's yet to be done. The guy I was with when I heard the spiel in '01 thought it looked like they were getting it ready for the mafia when they come back.
Each time a block is smoothed and painted, it looks as great as a technicolor costume movie, and the tourists love it. Each time the paint peels off, and everywhere it hasn't been painted yet, it looks like a high rise shanty town, and the tourists go home and tell their friends how ugly communism is.
Habana Vieja brings dollars to fuel the system that makes life good in Cuba, but it also subverts that system, gives tourists the wrong impression, provides ammunition for Cuba's enemies, and even misguides the Cubans about what they are and what they stand for.
But I assured the kitchen worker that the view from her window was beautiful. Obviously, she had signed the petition. And why? "For Fidel!" she declared and the others nodded their agreement.
12. THE BRASSY BLONDE: In O'Reilly's, they said they weren't serving upstairs, but I said I'd go up anyway and sit on a balcony because it was cooler. A woman I thought was a cleaning woman followed me up and asked what I wanted to drink. I asked if it was OK, and she said it was, so I asked for a Mayabe, but they only had Bucanero.
I'd meant to eat there, because, though it's a state restaurant, I think O'Reilly's is better than any Havana paladar I've tried. But I decided I'd already been pushy enough.
Two women, a hard blonde and a soft Italian looking brunette, came up the tight spiral metal stairs and sat at a table. A guy brought my beer and told me he thought the two women wanted to talk to me.
"Como no?" So he went over and spoke to them and they came over and sat with me, the blonde as sure of herself as if we'd had a business date. The guy waited, so I bought them a beer.
The brunette wore a kind of big girl's sailor suit. The blonde was smoking. She was in hiphugger jeans and a short blouse. She leaned back, legs crossed, her smoking elbow cupped in her other hand and asked where I'm from.
"La USA." I pronounced it as la Oosuh to see if she'd understand, because my Mexican friends say nobody does, and I tell them it's as common in Central America as la Seeeyuh (the CIA). Anyway, she understood, because she asked if I'd get in trouble for being there. The brunette smiled and asked my name.
She wanted me to spell it in my notebook and show it to her. Then she wrote her name and address and passed the notebook back to me. Her signature was self consciously elaborate, and I couldn't read her name, but she lived on O'Reilly Street. "Where?"
She pointed almost straight across the alley-wide street. We'd sat there the year before wondering what those apartments were like, barely a kiss-throw away from the restaurant balconies, and how it would be to live in one of them. I think Old Havana should have been leveled in '59, but of course it has a mystique like San Francisco and New Orleans combined, especially in Cuba where it is THE city, and to a city lover, an apartment right there would be irresistibly romantic.
I told them that, and of course the blonde invited me to see it. She hadn't offered her own address and I had the feeling she was helping her friend shop for a man. Whatever their intentions, I always accept invitations to see inside Cuban homes, so after we talked about this and that and finished the beer, we went over.
The street door and hall were, typically, like an indoor alley, and the stairs were dismal, but the landing was like any old city, and the apartment itself was fine and large, with comfortable chairs, passable rugs warming the floor, and long, white, transparent curtains in a street window room like a sun porch with no sun. Of course, she had all the basic appliances, including a phone.
There are thousands of people in New York whose homes aren't as nice.
While the brunette called somebody and told them to send somebody with a boy's name home, I looked out the window and saw the table we'd just left not straight across but not far away. Below me people milled around a small store front and a guy I'd talked to there waved at me. The blonde, hands on hips that neatly entered her low jeans with no pinch, asked "Que te parece?"
"It's very close to the music, isn't it?"
"Don't you like it?"
The groups at O'Reilly's are young and creatively dressed, but they play for tourists. "It's just that I've already memorized the songs from the movie," I told her. So she hummed a bit of "Chan Chan," standing close enough to be kissed and I thought of it.
I said I liked the apartment and asked how much the place cost. It was 10% of the brunette's salary, of course, which isn't in my notes, but if she made, say, 300 pesos, it was 30 pesos a month. I assumed the stove and refrigerator and water heater came with the deal, and TV's are distributed in Cuba. The next day I think, I read about a new shipment from China being distributed. Someone else had told me a phone cost 10 pesos and 6.50 a month, including long distance on the island.
One reason Americans think they know Cubans are impoverished is that the "exiles" constantly and deviously tell us a typical salary is $8 a month and our media constantly and gullibly (or deviously) repeat that lie. A salary of 300 pesos would be about $12 if you bought dollars with it, but to pay rent with, it's as good as $6,000 to $10,000, and most things a Cuban needs (vegetables and bus rides and movie tickets and ice-cream and etc.) cost the same there in pesos as they do here in dollars, so 300 pesos is worth $300, in a system and a climate where you don't need that much.
The blonde told me the brunette's husband had left her. I asked where she lived. If I wanted to see her place, they were having a party there, if I wanted to come.
A small boy dressed fashionably casual, hard to tell from an American kid his age, had come in and a debate about his being called home was in progress while I was agreeing to the party. Urged to come along, he looked bored and declined. So the brunette went next door or upstairs to ask a neighbor to watch out for him. Then we all wedged into a bici-taxi, the guy I knew at the store urged me to sit in the blonde's lap, the taxista assured me he could pull us, and the blonde declared it was not very far and all level and he was strong.
We actually creaked, groaned, and rumbled 8 or 10 blocks, mostly south, into the still unreclaimed area the woman at the maqueta had promised will soon be part of the theme park. Not yet, and the street level, one-step door we stopped at looked as uninviting as all the doors on the block. But the outside mood of deep, dark, neglected old streets, walled with unpainted and peeling old buildings was misleading.
Camera crews that come once every two or three years with TV talking heads think their shots of Havana's centuries-old streets prove the revolution (which, it doesn't occur to them, is only decades old) has failed, but they never look inside.
Not every Old Havana home is nice inside. Some are dismal because their occupants are slobs, and some may be dismal because the occupants are unlucky. There's more to know than can be seen through preconception lenses from a distance, but many Old Havana homes are nice inside.
The blonde's place was nicer inside than the brunette's, with shiny tiled floors, good furniture, and a modern kitchen and bathroom, but no sign of a party. There was a guy who didn't act like he lived there, two precocious kids, a boy and a girl I decided were the blonde's, and someone else that my notes leave blurred.
The guy politely asked me things about California; the precocious little girl said precocious things; I said this and that; someone else said this and that; the little boy managed to screw off the lens rim of my camera and lose it in the couch; everyone searched for it; and the blonde told me very closely and confidentially (so I kissed her after all) that we needed some beer and cokes.
All I had was a 50, and when she got back, she'd really gouged it, so we did some accounting, but everything went OK except I decided not to marry anyone.
Also, I'd already discussed the petition with the blonde at O'Reilly's, where she said she signed to keep the system as it is. She isn't political, but everyone knows things are getting better now, so why change it?
13. THE WAITER: I'd been having coffee and croissants each morning in Cafeteria La Rampa, so the waiter knew I was American and wanted to talk. He was a very serious young man, so I asked how he got his job.
After highschool, he went to prep school and studied "gastronomia." When he finished, he went to the state employment agency, where they looked at his profile and assigned him a job. He'd been lucky they had a job near his home. If not, he could have waited or accepted a job in his field in another town or taken a different kind of job.
Could he lose his job? He said one almost never loses a job except by being promoted. I told him I knew someone who signed the petition for fear she'd lose her job. He said it takes an almost impossible process to dismiss anyone, and then they get another job.
He said he signed because he's a militant. No, not in the party but the juventud (young communists). He said some signed just "for Fidel." Besides those and militants, he didn't know. Maybe some signed from fear. He didn't see the sense in it, but he didn't want to call my friend a liar.
He also said sick people signed, "because they wanted to." His grandfather was an active 88, but he'd been sick the weekend of the petition, in bed with a serious cold. His grandmother had gotten someone at a table to bring a petition in.
He told me about the tourists wanting to sign again. Like everyone I'd talked to so far, he thought everyone signed. He thought 98% on the whole island was easy to believe.
14. THE LAST CAB DRIVER: I swear. Cab drivers have a tendency to raise my subject for me and make themselves count. But this guy had to count because he was different.
I'd meant to take the day off, since I was flying east next day, and had walked a long way west, into what the reporters always call the exclusive Miramar "enclave," ignoring or not knowing that the "enclave" keeps going through Playas and Siboney and the marina, and also south through enough other nice areas to make the "enclave" (all inhabited by Cubans) 10 to 20 times bigger than the Old Havana theme park they think is Cuba.
At a paladar on the beach, they'd given me what I asked for to make a shrimp cocktail right, and I got too full to walk back.
So this cabbie brought up Jimmy Carter, too, but he wasn't critical. Carter had the right to speak freely, he said, "even though he isn't Cuban."
That was just the blather of the day. This guy wasn't political at all, and I put him down as signing because everyone else did. But his explanation was unique.
"I don't like caprichos," he said. "Since everyone signed, it would have been capricious not to."
Of my 100 interviews, there would be 11 who signed because everyone signed - indicating a mild kind of social pressure, but very mild. This guy was not oppressed or afraid. He just didn't want to be different for no good reason.
15 & 16: A STOREKEEPER & A FASCINATING YOUNG WOMAN: Out late and wandering in the university area, I stopped in a pocket-sized cafeteria and junkfood store for a final beer before bed. They had Mayabe malt, so I tried it and regretted it while I talked to the old woman minding the store.
She still remembered the Batista era, when she'd been a young mother, not involved, not threatened, not suffering, but aware enough to sympathize with the revolution. Afterwards, she'd been able to finish school alongside her kids, and since then her grandkids had gone to the university, and now she had a great granddaughter in la primaria.
Some people had always had advantages, but now everyone did, and this made her content with the system. She didn't think anyone had to be coerced into signing to keep things as they are. She told me that people in hospitals had "sent" their signatures out to the tables that were everywhere.There had been a lot of enthusiasm, she said, like at a May Day fiesta.
As she talked, a young woman came in, took 2 canned colas out of the cold case and listened. When the old woman told her I was counting people who signed the petition, she said she wanted to be counted, and then asked who I was as if she had some official interest. She looked and talked like a Nicaraguan varona, the strong grown-up tomboy type typical of the Sandinistas.
I wondered if she was a CDR leader in the neighborhood. I remember a 15-year-old girl who was a de facto CDS leader in a Nicaraguan town where we built a scool in '86 who had the same toughness.
"Did you know your President Carter talked to some university students here?" she asked.
"Only that students in a group he talked to tried to explain some things he apparently didn't understand."
"They told him the truth and he ignored them," she said. "Why do you Americans think everyone should only do what you say, and listen only to you, when you listen to no one and understand nothing?"
I wondered if I could explain to her the connections between the Puritan Ethic, political correctness, and fascism. Maybe so. I wished I could try.
"Doesn't Mr. Carter know" she asked, "that Cuba had your kind of democracy before the revolution, and we know how it works, because all the Cuban presidents then were as bad as your President Bush, right?"
I told her I agreed but that Carter, to his credit, had apparently grasped the immediate situation and, to step on Bush's vicious and dangerous lie, had acted quickly and with unusual integrity for an American politician. It had been no small thing.
The old lady assured me that she appreciated what Carter had done. And the young woman told me she didn't just mean Carter - or me. "At least you're here, trying to speak Spanish and trying to learn," she said. Trying? That hurt.
But she had paid for her colas and told me, "Disculpe. I have to go," and left, leaving an empty space where she'd been, because, for the I-don't-know-how-manyeth time in my life, I'd fallen in love. All night and on the plane to Baracoa next day, I wondered if she had been real and if I'd ever see her again.
17. THE AIRPORT GORDITA: The Baracoa boarding area past the gate was a tropical patio, and all 4 women working there, the guardian of the tarmac gate, the bartender, the janitress, and the souvenir stand clerk, were fat. It was the first time I'd seen 4 fat women at once in Cuba.
I had time to write and mail a post-card to a friend who wanted a postcard from Cuba, and the clerk wanted me to buy one with a raised relief map of the island, but I wanted assurance it would actually go through, since it cost $2.50 and the stamp another 50¢.
"De donde viene?" she wanted to know, and then if I'd get in trouble for being there. Cubans are always sympathetic to Americans for having such a repressive government.
I asked her if Cubans could travel, and she assured me they could, but it is hard to get a visa because pesos aren't recognized abroad, so you have to have enough dollars or someone there to pay your way.
She signed as a militant, either a party member or juventud; my notes don't say which. She was the first person to tell me "almost" everyone signed.