18. THE WAITER AT EL COLONIAL said he wasn't a capitalist. His boss was. He only earned tips. I asked if the difference between a capitalist and a socialist is in how much each one makes or in how he makes it. He said he thought it's in how much one cares. He didn't care.
"But you don't get a salary from the state. So you're not in the system."
"Yes I am," he insisted. He was still in school. But he said he would soon finish his education and qualify for a state job. He was only waiting tables because it was his family's house. He said the big house surrounding the patio where I was eating had been a restaurant before the revolution. So when the paladars were authorized, it re-opened.
"You're not only a capitalist," I declared,"you're living on inherited wealth."
But, he defended himself, his girlfriend had a state job, already, and when they married, the state would give them a house, and then they'd be regular socialists.
"Why should you be?"
"Because this is a socialist country and I live here."
He wasn't juventud, but he had revolutionary conciousness and, apparently forgetting that he lived in a pre-revolution upper-class home (though, if I'd asked, he'd have probably said he didn't care), he started listing the benefits of socialism just like the highschool girl in Havana.
He didn't sound like a born-again, because he was talking fact, not fantasy, and, though I'm tempted to compare consciencious Cuban youth to young Republicans, because there is similarity in manner, there is more dignity in socialist certainty than in the certainty you've got it made.
"So why don't you want to be a capitalist like your boss?" I assumed his boss was an older person in his family.
"I've never seen capitalism," he said, "and socialism works. So why change it? I don't believe in things I've never seen. Oh," he decided to add, "except God." Oh, well. So much for human credibility.
He said everyone in Baracoa signed the petition. I was only going to meet one person in Baracoa who knew different.
19 & 20. A TEACHER AND A COOK: I think that, in Baracoa, the word "everyone" means all Baracoans. Even in need of paint, it's a beautiful town (I'd like to live there) and a tourist attraction, so hustlers come from Guantanamo and Moa to pester the tourists, and locals think they don't properly respect the town's image, one small example of disunity among Cubans.
The cook told me I wouldn't see any hustlers downtown, as I had the year before, because the cops had cracked down. I'm calling her the cook because she cooked my breakfast. The teacher whose house I was in, like others offering rooms with breakfast, gave or shared the $2 breakfast franchise with a friend.
The cook seemed happy about the crackdown, so I asked if they'd all been in jail when the petition was signed (then they'd have been ineligible). She didn't know but assured me everybody (all Baracoans) signed, and the teacher agreed.
Perhaps worried about the impression I was getting, she also told me the hustlers weren't in jail; they were just staying away. Or being less noticeable. Then she told me if I brought a chica home, she'd have to show her carnet and register. The year before in Holguin, a casa owner had told us the same thing and that the cops used the repeated appearance of a girl's name on casa registers as proof she wasn't just falling in love with tourists.
Havana cops had told us it's not illegal to dress sexy and be out at night and a girl had to have done something flagrant to be arrested for hustling, and a Santiago chica had told us they spot checked carnets in front of the Casa de la Trova to see if a girl hung around alone frequently, and then she'd just get a lecture.
Now I learned something new. I told the teacher it surprised me she would accomodate people she considered unwelcome outsiders. She said Cubans believe everyone should be treated with dignity, but it is the law, at least in Baracoa (according to the Baracoa police chief I guessed), that once a chica has registered as a tourist's guest, she can come and go freely, but she is the only girl who can visit him after that. Wow! So a chica could be be a girlfriend but not an outright whore. I decided to call that the girlfriend law. She viewed it as protecting the girls from themselves. She knew it was different in other countries.
The teacher's son was studying at a university in Spain, so she said she knew what other countries were like. That's why she signed. To keep Cuba as a place where everyone had dignity. The cook told me she signed "for Fidel."
21 & 22. CHURCH BUILDERS: On the north side, half way to the old fort on the point, I found some men building a church. I asked what they were building because it looked like a church, and one, sternly polite, confirmed that.
I asked, foolishly, if it was OK to build churches in Cuba. He waved his hand around. It wasn't big, but you couldn't hide it.
"Can you be communists if you go to church?" I asked. There were only four workers and one, scowling in my direction once, kept working. The others took a break, and I talked for awhile with two of them.
They showed little interest in me except as someone interested in them. They told me they were not communists, because the communists are atheists. And what about the state, then, I asked.
"We owe our allegiance to God," one said.
I asked what that means, and they helped each other list the virtues of Christ that they owed it to God to emulate. But, I had to ask, when it comes to feeding the poor and clothing the naked in Cuba, "who does it most and better, you or the communists?"
They actually answered that right, pointing out, though, that they were few and the communists controlled the government. But they weren't or didn't want to appear critical of the government. They even conceded the historical failure of nominally Christian governments compared to the Cuban government. If we were debating, their side lost but they clung to their one buoy - that they were anti-communist because the communists were atheists.
Still, they were emphatic that everyone in their church had signed the petition, and I believed them. Discussing why, I think they took my suggestion that they opposed the greed of capitalism. Greed is on the Christian list of sins. Given their stated goals, they should have been revolutionaries, but I think they had signed just because they'd been allowed to build their church.
23 & 24. FISHING FURNITURE FINISHERS: On an unimproved bayfront street a half block west of the new church, two men worked on an old veranda, stripping an old rocking chair. I'd met a furniture maker in Cienfuegos in 2000, who was an entrepreneur, so I asked if they were. Half. They were fishermen, father and son, but they did this when the fish weren't biting, because the work had been in their family for generations.
They were completely happy with the revolution. The family had rented this grand old house until 1959. After that their reduced rent had become payments, and now the house was theirs. And life had been good with Fidel, even during the depression.
I talked to them mostly about their work, which they said interested them more than getting rich would. Of course, they had signed, "como todo el mundo." They were only technically not militants.
25. AN ARTIST: I became good, bread-breaking friends with an artist who was almost conservative. He belonged to the Masons, who, when I met several, looked and behaved exactly like American Elks or Lions. They, like the church builders, helped their fellow men. But when they'd realized an old lady whose last relative had died was being forgotten, her house growing dirty, her kitchen bare because she was too weak to go for her ration, they'd notified the party, and were gratified that the CDR leaders had been made to hop.
The artist had not been enthused by the petition. He and his wife liked to put on mild intellectual airs, sipping chocolate at a table in the Chocolate House, meeting their artistic friends, hosting a philosophical foreigner who brought wine and bread to go with their pasta. Maybe they'd have liked more "freedom," whatever that is.
But he said he just hadn't liked the social pressure connected with the petition, the lack of time spent thinking about it before signing. He told me, absolutely, even though his own house needed a word like "funky" to dignify it, that he knew of nobody living on a dirt floor, nobody was really poor, and he was on a list for a better house.
Poor, in Cuba, means house-poor and is a matter of circumstance. If the population hadn't doubled in the 40 years of the revolution, or better, if it hadn't grown, there'd be no such thing. Housing in Cuba has been as heroically addressed as health and education.
"So why did you sign?" I asked. "Did you really have to?"
"Everybody signed," he said, "and rightly, but..." then, without the hand drama of my Havana girlfriend, he told me his fantasy. "Who knows? There are some militants who might like a reason to get tough. And maybe they don't like me. So some dark night, if they know I didn't sign, maybe I'd get hit and if I fought back, maybe the police would arrest me instead of them."
But, no, he didn't really believe that, and he said of course nobody would have been arrested or anything like that for not signing. I thought that almost nobody would have even thought of that.
He was also up for an international conference and been worried about the visa he'd need. I thought that might be a valid concern. So, he was the second person I had signing for fear of consequences.
26 & 27. ICE CREAM EATING FLIRTERS: Near the bluff kids jump off into the ocean just off the main recreational beach by the old south entrada, there's a park with an ugly statue of Columbus, a bust really, as if he were half buried standing up in the grass, and an icecream stand, and some shady benches, where a plump young woman and a slender one sat licking their cones (it was vanilla that day, chocolate the next) and watching me write.
The plump one asked me if I'd give her a dollar. I said, "Didn't your mother teach you not to ask strange men for money?"
She covered her face with both hands and giggled into her friend's shoulder. "I'm just joking," she said. I knew that, I said, and she asked why I didn't come over to their bench to talk.
We talked about this and that. The plump one was a nurse. Sometimes it seems half the people are nurses or med techs. She told me at first that the jineteros and chicas were indeed all in jail. She said Baracoa police are tough. Then she said that was a lie. They were still hustling but quieter.
These two both signed the petition because they thought it was the right thing to do. Everybody did.
"Everybody? How do you know? And why would they?"
"I want to ask you a question," said the slender one. "Why are you asking questions?"
I explained. OK. They knew because they were Cubans. I told them what the artist had said, without identifying him. "That's not true," the stout one said. They both assured me nobody had to sign and nobody would do anything bad to anyone who didn't. How did they know that? Just because they're Cubans, the plump girl said. But then she said she really didn't know. But she was pretty sure.
28. THE HOUSEKEEPER: Some casas that rent to tourists employ full time housekeepers. This was a big place, one of the prettiest houses in town, which had been awarded to a good worker, who, preferring a simpler place, had given it to his daughter. She shared her good fortune by employing two housekeepers. And one was a very smart militant.
I've already said if militants wore signs, I could have surveyed them from sign reading distance. But she was too interesting to stay that far from. She educated me every time I saw her. She seemed to know everything and everyone. I think she'd been on the citizen's tribunal she told me had given a young man in her neighborhood 5 years in jail for painting anti-revolutionary graffiti on walls.
She told me about this frankly with no doubts about it. He's out now, and he's OK. She said "only" 5 years, and she thought he'd been treated gently. "It's logical," she protested, when she sensed my dismay. "He was part of the community; the community did everything for him; and he attacked the community. It's logical."
It certainly wasn't like Nicaragua, where graffiti was part of the free press in the 80's. There's almost no graffiti in Cuba, and it's true the state does take care of the people. The context is not the same as it would be anywhere else. The tradition of free speech in the U.S. was established and is kept alive by leftists protesting an arrogantly pitiless establishment. In Cuba, the establishment is the left. Everyone is part of a real social contract, and attacking that isn't as excusable as attacking racism and militarism and entrenched privilege and wealth. Also, disruption is more serious in an organized system than in the jungle of free enterprise.
But the housekeeper thought I didn't understand the important thing because I'm not Cuban. "It wasn't about talking," she said, "People can talk. The young man did something different, something extreme, an anti-social act."
I asked her to explain to me again how the cafetero works. That's a coffee maker in which the water starts at the bottom, passes up through the grounds, and ends up as coffee on top. The other housekeeper just accepted it and couldn't explain it. The militant drew me a picture and made it clear. "It's logical," she said.
29 & 30. A PHILOSOPHER AND HIS FRIEND: There are some refreshment stands on a sidewalk running along the beach, where they had nothing but Crystal, but a blond guy who was asking, too, told me the Mayabe would show up in about an hour. He didn't like Crystal either. So I walked south to the hospital and its pharmacy to find out some things.
When I got back, the blond guy's prophecy had been fulfilled. I found some shade and drank a Mayabe, which is uneven but sometimes as good as Mexican beer and was supposedly named after a donkey with a funny story I never wrote down and have forgotten.
Walking back toward the center, I came on the same guy again sitting on the concrete floor of a front porch with another guy. He asked where I'm from and we talked, and I learned he's an enclavista. So was his friend, though less eloquently. They didn't consider themselves necessarily Cubans. They considered themselves to be just themselves - at peace with and willing to go along with the Cuban system, but no more really part of it than they had to be. I call that "enclavismo." It's my position, too, and I related to them easily on that point at least.
They told me that they, personally, didn't care if their quiet little lives were surrounded by Cuba or Florida. They wouldn't bother anyone and could take care of themselves. But the blond said socialism is a good idea for most people.
He asked me about life in the U.S. once a person has mastered English. I said he could probably achieve middle class there, but maybe not a better life. He said he probably would never go anywhere, since he was happy where he was. He kept his own life so simple he had no conflicts.
But his friend said there could be conflict in Cuba without socialism. I told him I, too, live a simple enclavista life, but I meet more resistance in the U.S., so maybe he would. In Florida, the gusanos might expect him to be uptight.
They both had relatives in Miami and the blond didn't want to call them gusanos. The other guy didn't care. "But people on both sides hate each other," the blond said. I said there's a difference between a communist hating a fascist and a fascist hating a communist. The other guy agreed, but the blond said he found being right difficult. I told him that's why so few people are right and why it's more significant when you are right.
The other guy, in spite of his independence, decided he'd signed the petition from consciousness, because other people needed socialism; the blond had signed it because he doesn't want anything to do with responsibility. In America, I told him, people are responsible for themselves. Well, he didn't mind being responsible for himself, but... "How can I know," he asked rhetorically, "Maybe I'd have a better life, but how do I know? It's better to stay here, where I know it's OK."
31. THE PRODUCER: The main street of Baracoa, from the triangular park in front of an old cathedral north to the Chocolate House is always busy, and at least once a week all the restaurant tables are moved out into the street along with some I think must be put out by housewives to turn the daily promenade into a fiesta.
Some mild drunkenness and hijinks by rowdy teenagers ensues, and in times not long gone by, hustlers had used the cover to befriend tourists. Since the producer was hustling me in a way, trying in English to get me to help make an audience in the theater we stood in front of for a dance show that didn't seem to be coming together, I asked him where the other hustlers were.
I told him I'd heard the local cops had gotten very tough.
"Mire (Look)," he told me, "nobody wants anything to happen to a tourist in Baracoa, especially an American." A teenage boy came up the steps to where we stood and told him somebody wasn't anywhere to be found. That was the third message like that he'd gotten that I knew of.
Free again, he told me the hustlers I'd probably seen before weren't from the town. Probably they were from Moa or Guantanamo, but they could be from Miami. He was sure I understood the police had to worry about someone deliberately causing an international incident.
I'd thought of that, and I'd also written in my notebook that the possibility was minor compared to the fact that tourists were already reporting home that their hustler friends had been harassed for trying to get in on the tourist-related capitalism that was the government's bad idea.
But I told him of my concern that hustlers may have been in jail when the petition was passed. I think that was the second time I'd voiced the idea, and self doubt instantly followed. Well, it would be serious in any case, but the hustlers were like beach litterers. They were a tiny fraction of the potential vote, but they made the biggest impression of anybody. Also, of course, they were breaking a couple of laws besides tax evasion.
He asked who I am. I told him and asked who he was. At the moment, he was a failed dance show producer, but he could assure me everybody eligible in Baracoa had signed, lncluding him. Of course, he was a militant.
32. A SHY WAITRESS: I was with another person in the restaurant in the north point fort, talking about my survey among other things, and the waitress was too shy to interrupt. But she was listening, and when my companion went to the restroom, she excused herself and said she wanted me to know that she had signed the petition because she owed it to her country, which had done everything for her, and that everyone she knew had, too.
33 & 34: THE PEDALER AND THE PEDDLER: Baracoa isn't big enough to get lost for long. Maybe it's a mile long and never more than 6 short blocks wide between the jungle slope and the breezy sea. But late at night after circumstances had left me on an unfamiliar corner, before I got my bearings, a bici-taxista who already had a passenger stopped for me.
On the coastal shelf, the streets are level, except for one block at the north end where the road drops out of the center and heads for the airport, and there, passengers get out and walk the block if they're being pedaled the uphill direction. Where I was, it was "pure" level, as the taxista assured me when I said 2 men might be too heavy for him.
So we rolled along through dark streets having a rolling conversation. The other passenger had some kind of handicraft things in the bag he wanted to sell at the street fair. He showed the stuff to me, but it made no lasting impression. The pedaler asked if, as an American, I would mind if he criticized my president. I told him that in America, we realized Cubans were getting impatient waiting for us to rescue them from their totalitarian dictator. He turned and wagged his finger at me, and the passenger asked what "totalitarian" means. I told him it means well organized. He admitted he couldn't call my president that name.
At the street fair, we took a table together, because I didn't have a dollar bill to pay for the ride and I hoped to get some change by buying us a round of Mayabe. The taxista already knew me by sight, and he told me a certain muchacha had been looking for me earlier. He described her and I knew it was a go-go dancer I'd talked to the night before. I'll go back to her in a minute.
But the other guy expressed some surprising bitterness that the beautiful mulata girls chased white tourists because they thought they were rich. I pointed out the blonde girls from Europe all chased black Cuban men because they thought they were good dancers. They were both black, but the pedaler laughed and told me the peddler was a famous dancer.
The street was packed, we had more than one round, and the interview was unscientific and largely irrelevant, though they did hit on Bush a lot. I was commisioned to invite him to visit them in their homes, so they could take him around and he could try telling all their neighbors about Fidel.
At some point, they told me they signed the petition from conscience.
35. THE GO-GO DANCER: The 485 Club, next to the Casa de la Trova was closing, but I had very quickly become a friend of the house there, and they insisted on serving me a limonada, since I needed it, so we re-erected just one table on their inner patio, and that's why the girl who wandered in a little later sat with me.
The manager or waiter (I don't know which) introduced her as company for me, though I was busy with my notes. This guy took a lot of interest in my theoretical love life, offering advice constantly, like, "Senor, in Cuba we have a saying it is cheaper to pay a puta than to have a girlfriend. Girl friends cost more."
This girl wore the long, slinky gown and platform shoes we had learned to consider the uniform the year before, and after amiably pumping me about who and what I am, she asked me if I had a Cuban girlfriend. I asked her if she worked. She told me she was a go-go dancer in one of the two clubs across the street. Around the church park, there are 4 places with music. Where we sat, the Trova next door, and 2 places on the other side, though one is usually just a big veranda/soda fountain, where people rest after dancing at the Trova.
She worked in the 4th place, where the music is loudest, though the same versatile musicians play all the places.
"Who pays you?" I asked.
"El estado," she said. So she was the Baracoa version of the Tropicana girls in Havana. She got 200 pesos a month, go-going part time, because after la prepa (job school or pre-university) she'd found no job near home in her field.
"Aren't you from Guantanamo or Moa?" I asked. But she was from Baracoa. She asked again if I had a Cuban girlfriend. "How old are you?" I asked.
She claimed she was 18 and showed me her carnet, but she looked 14. I told her that, and she insisted she was older, but I told her it didn't matter; if she looked too young for me, she was too young for me.
We talked longer than necessary about that, and she insisted she wasn't a chica; she just liked older men with beards and thought she could learn a lot if she had a foreign boyfriend.
The sentiment didn't seem to match the girl and her clothes, and neither did her claim to have signed the petition because "all Cubans owed that to their government." I asked if she'd been in the same highschool class with the waitress on the point. That didn't phase her, and apparently neither did my resistence to her suit, if, as the bici-taxista said, she was looking for me the next night. Actually, I saw her several more times and she never gave up.
36. A WOMAN IN BUSINESS: Her assets consisted of one bici-taxi which she didn't drive herself, because she was employed by the state as an artist. A chofer worked for her and she didn't trust him. They split the take 50-50, but she didn't know what the take was. Also, she knew he carried tourists for a dollar instead of a peso ($2 vs. 2 pesos at night), and one of the perversities of the tourist sector, which is Cuba's main cash crop now, is that the bici-taxis are technically for Cubans and tourists are supposed to use taxis. Everyone knows that doesn't happen, but there is an elaborate system of subterfuge that supposedly confuses the cops, because Cubans are always theatrical about everything.
So she had two more problems, one that she didn't think the chofer told her how many of his fares were paid in dollars, and the other, if the chofer was caught (by a ridiculously gung-ho cop) carrying tourists, HER bici-taxi would supposedly be
impounded. I've been flatly told by several bici-taxistas that it won't happen.
But the best of it was the solution she yearned for: "If Fidel knew about it, things wouldn't be done this way."
When I told her about all the people who left letters for Fidel in Havana, instead of being discouraged, she was even surer of her point. Unlike me, she was sure he read them all.
"So what are you going to do?" I asked.
She'd already done it. She'd impounded her own bici-taxi. It didn't seem like the kind of situation that could have been sudden, so I didn't get it.
Her husband had already told me she signed the petition, so I suggested she must have signed because she was swearing off of capitalism. She didn't think the bici-taxi business was capitalism, though, because, she said, Fidel had thought of it. Anyway, she signed because she believes in socialism.
37. THE ROOF GARDENER: Since Baracoa is the end of the line for busses, and I intended to continue up the coast to Moa, which is the end of another bus line, I walked to the airport one day to talk to the car rental people. That's out of town and across the bay.
Just before the bridge over the river that runs into the bay, there's a house with a garden on the roof planted in old tires. I was trying to figure the best angle to shoot it from, when the woman of the house came out to boast.
She called it her little onion garden and put up a ladder so we could visit it. It wasn't a little garden of onions. It was a garden of little onions. Cebollin. Green onions. She dug her fingers into the dirt to show me it was wet. "It's watered by the rain, and it keeps the house cool."
I took her proud picture, and it came out OK of her, but you can't tell we're on a roof. I guess National Geographic would have shot it from a helicopter.
It was cool inside her house, where I declined a cup of coffee and she told me she sold the onions. Cuban critics are always blubbering through their crocodile tears that life is bleak unless the Cubans have the "right" to start their own businesses, but small businesses like hers abound.
Of course, she sells very few onions. The cigarette lighter rebuilder I met a few blocks away wasn't making a killing, either. And a neighbor of a woman who told me she painted her house by selling little cakes on her porch claimed Miami relatives who preach self reliance gave her the money.
The onion rancher, like other cottage industrialists I met, saw nothing unsocialistic about it. She, like "everybody in Baracoa," had signed the petition. I had to explain why I asked, what if she hadn't. Then she frowned because she was afraid I misunderstood her and her neighbors. Republicans who piously brag about their patriotism ought to understand.
38. A FACTORY PR LADY: I took a wrong turn and stopped for directions at an information booth by a colorful sign for an artisania. A blue-eyed blonde named Marilyn (actually spelled and pronounced Marilyn) told me to go back to a fork in the road and turn left and then invited me for a tour.
She took me through two bungalow work shops, stopping at each work station to introduce me to people who would stop me later when I passed their homes to remind me we'd met and invite me in.
It was a series of assembly lines where they made the mementos tourists buy, fairly quiet with most work done by hand or small electric machines, but buzzing with table to table conversation, like the cigar rolling shed I visited outside Pinar del Rio or a clothing factory in another part of Baracoa where the seamstresses laughed at my concern the boss might catch them flirting with me, because she was right there flirting with me the most.
The artisania was surrounded by sunny green tropics, but was built to maximize shade, light, and air, so it was a pleasant place to work. A man shaping a figurine torso on a small lathe was very pleased that an American had come to meet the Cubans. It turned out later his wife was a housekeeper I knew and I visited their home.
Marilyn showed me a small store where I declined to buy anything but we talked a little about Baracoa, which we agreed is a very nice place to live, which is why everybody signed the petition to keep anything from changing. She herself, she told me, is a person with consciencia.
In a revolutionary country, that means a lot more than just being patriotic. In Cuba, it is like Sandinismo in Nicaragua. It means the daily commitment throughout primary school to try to be "like Che" had a formative effect.
39. A "MILITANT" BICI-TAXISTA: Most of greater Baracoa itself is like a 50's housing tract in California, with separate houses and yards and full-grown shade, but beyond the bay, I walked in hot, open sun past small "edificios," apartment buildings, that from the outside look like college housing but are laid out like homes inside and can be as nice as individual tenants make them. Of course, as people with beautiful places always tell me, hay que sacrificiar.
Trudging to Hotel Porto Santo, where the rent-a-cars are, and back, I kept getting ride offers. A girl on a bicycle offered to carry me to Duaba Beach with her. She told me it's as pretty as Maguana and I ought to go. The militant housekeeper had told me it's isolated and a bad idea for tourists. The bici-taxista who stopped next told me it's OK but there's nothing there but a few houses. It's where everyone historically important landed.
I talked a long time to the pedal cab guy, because he wanted to talk. He asked if I'd get in trouble for visiting Cuba, and I explained the First Amendment and our talk became political.
He didn't agree that the tourist sector is subverting the system. He said it could but they were watching that, and it was necessary. I didn't agree and we actually argued about that. He said the revolution is going well, and he expected many improvements in the future. He and everyone had to sign the petition, he said, to keep and expand the benefits. He said it was because the revolution was so well organized that they had gotten through the depression, and he ran more comprehensively than anyone else through the list of revolutionary benefits everyone recites, an honest list, of course.
He agreed, after some debate, that he is a kind of small capitalist, but he said he spends all his money in state stores, so he's really working for the state. I said he's just moving the money around in an extra circle, but he said if the tourists hadn't ridden with him, they might have kept that money in their pockets.
I asked if he's militant, and he exained that only party and juventud members are called militants, but when I gave him my own definition of the term, learned perhaps in error (no one in Nicaragua ever told me it was wrong), he said, OK, under my definition, he was certainly a "militante."
40, 41, & 42. THREE MILITANT YOUNG WOMEN RESEARCHING A RESEARCHER: Not far past the house with the onion ranch on the roof, on my way back to town, there is a group of shady, 2-story edificios so lushly landscaped I'd missed it before. But I hadn't been missed. They had seen me go by. They had seen me visit the onion woman, and they had decided I would visit them, too. So they watched from an upstairs window and when I passed again, one was in front to stop me.
We talked, she learned what I was doing and she invited me up. She'd already known I'm American, somehow. It was a second story home large enough to call a condo. The floors were dark, polished tile. The furniture was impressive, the rooms spacious with big windows with lush green views. The place seemed small for 5 people, but it was much larger and better appointed than my apartment. Her two sisters were waiting for me inside. She was 20; they were 19 and 17. They were black and pretty and smartly got up. Their parents were both at work. They were all college students. And they were all 3 juventud, which meant I didn't need to ask if they'd signed the petition.
All that clarified, their research began. They all meant to participate in questioning the subject. So the youngest began.
"What do you think of George Bush?" In English, I usually take the floor at that point and proceed to anger people. In Spanish, for some reason, I'm a better conversationalist.
"What do you think of him?" I asked, and when they looked a bit confused by my tactic, I assured them I didn't care what they said.
So they took turns, almost like a chorus, very accurately listing all Bush's offenses against humanity. It wasn't exactly like Americans talking about Saddam Hussein, because it was accurate and articulate. It wasn't blather they got from an AM radio host. And it was in a real world context, not in the comic book terms Americans are fed by their media. Excuse me, but I'm trying to make this clear, and I'm telling it exactly right.
I listened until they stopped. Then I asked if they were afraid of the American president. "No," said the 19-year-old. Then the biggest sister started telling me about the island's defenses, not specifically but with clear understanding, because all Cubans, like all Swiss, are in the army, and the others were helping, but I interrupted.
"Perdoneme," (I've been told I use that wrong, but it always works), "No se puede tirar un avion casi en espacio con una pistola."
That stopped them, and I reminded them (all Cubans are aware of this) of the tactics being used in Afghanistan as we spoke, of the overwhelming force that no small country could hope to resist. This wasn't nice of me. Terrorism is in the threat as well as the act, and George Bush's idiotic verbal attacks on Cuba (excuse me, they ARE idiotic) are also terrorism when you know the bombs are dropping on other places he talks like that about with his school-yard bully face and voice.
Americans don't know this, because their near useless media didn't tell them, but Nicaraguans were again scared out of reelecting the Sandinistas in '02 by the U.S. embassy's near promise that they'd be bombed like Afghanistan if that happened.
They told me they still weren't afraid, and I kicked myself for my irrepressible honesty and assured them that Bush would be voted out after one term, just like his father, and American foreign policy would return to a less dangerous level of brutal arrogance.
I asked what they were studying, and they all told me, and the oldest told me she had seen me in the Casa de la Trova the night before, which was how she knew where I'm from. The corny m.c. always introduces all the foreigners. Then we talked about Cuban music, which was a pleasanter topic, for them actually.
43. AN UNHAPPY WOMAN: All my days in Cuba are busy. You're only getting it here because on that day I talked to a lot of people about the petition. Baracoa is a small city where, unlike in Havana, it's possible to establish more clearly whether or not nearly everybody did sign the petition. Virtually going from door to door for a short distance helps, too.
But the walk around the bay and back was long and I was probably visibly dragging when a woman of about 50 standing in her doorway asked me why I was walking in the sun. I told her it was because there was no shade to walk in. She said to come in and sit in the shade then.
This was an older kind of house of a style distantly descended from Spanish. The floor was bare concrete, painted red and polished. The paint on her walls was worn and faded. She had few pictures or other hangings. Things like crucifixes are not ubiquitous in Cuba. She had 4 large downstairs rooms that I could partly see, because everything was so open, and a concrete-floored patio, nearly part of the house, big enough for a dance, and roofed with vines. There was a primitive pila on the patio for washing clothes. I've only seen a few houses with washing machines in Cuba, though everybody seems to have everything else.
She told me she had 2 bedrooms upstairs where her husband and son were, the first disabled, the second so sick he avoided work. They lived on her husband's disability, which wasn't much, and another son who worked at hard, unskilled labor for "20 pesos a day," she put it, though my mental calculator made that 400 pesos a month.
But I sympathized, telling her I'd heard that the exiles said Cubans only eat one meal a day, and kids over 7 aren't allowed milk, and the cats and dogs have all been devoured.
Then she laughed and told me those were all lies and that everyone knew the exiles were all liars. "Todo va bien en Cuba," she said. It's OK in Cuba. "Es bien dificil, but it's OK." She said some of those Cubans in Miami didn't have it so good and maybe they wished they could come back. She herself had signed the petition because she's glad she's in Cuba, where the doctors at least take care of people who are sick.
But she wished she could tile her floor. It angered her that a neighbor with relatives in Miami who sent her money had everything she needed. Tiles, she said, cost too much. The militant housekeeper had told me they cost 2 pesos apiece on the street and only 20 centavos from the government, but the government is short because they're now building all new houses already tiled.
44. BOUTIQUE BLONDE: Still trying to straighten out the date of my changed ticket back to Mexico, I found the HavanaTur desk sharing space with a boutique across from the Chocolate House. Waiting for someone to appear at the desk, I told the girl in the boutique she was the 5th or 6th American looking blonde I'd met there, which contradicted the guide book.
She said almost everyone in Baracoa is mulato, even if they don't look it. I said, going from house to house talking to people, I didn't see that at all.
I thought a stout and stern looking man who was listening was going to criticize me for going from house to house or for talking about race, but he had a theory about what constituted a racial mix which he thought we should consider. I didn't understand it, and needed to use a bathroom.
The blonde led me out the back door and, because someone cleaning floors had left the concrete wet and I was wearing flaps, she held my elbow to keep me from skidding almost into the urinals, then waited outside to help me back.
The HavanaTur person still wasn't there, so the blonde, whom I had already told what I was doing, told me that, while certainly almost everyone in Baracoa signed the petition, a lot just signed with the crowd without knowing what it was.
She seemed just as sure of herself as the militant housekeeper. Then she surprised me by telling me she signed because she's a militant, though she's not a party or juventud member. She was part of a growing number of philosophical leftists I was meeting who aren't joiners. We talked about that until the travel agent got there, but she said she couldn't quite relate to enclavismo.
45. A CHICA, OR NOT? This is a hard question in Cuba. The Miami claims of a Cuban sex industry are as warped as all gusano fantasies. But there is amateurism. Even serious hookers on upper Obispo, or NOT around Sofia's on La Rampa anymore in '02, or outside the Casa de la Trova in Santiago are more amateur than pro, with no red light district or house and almost no pimps. They seldom score and may have no place to go but the John's room if they do, which may not work. They don't need to do it, and they wouldn't if an occasional greenback didn't artificially buy so many pesos. They're only in some heavy tourist concentration zones, and there may not be 200 on the island (I'm referring to serious hookers remember), not counting Varadero, which is off my screen.
Other chicas are even more amateur. The guidebooks say they're called jineteras, but I've seldom heard that. Most Cubans scorn jineteros, the male hustlers who pester tourists pretending to be guides and try to cut into restaurant and hotel bills and tell tourists any lie they want to hear about Cuba. Chicas are different. They're charming and inoffensive and traditional, and people are fond of them, which is why they're called chicas. I've heard "puta" used affectionately, but mostly it's "chica," which is ambiguous, because all girls are chicas, little girls are chicatitas, all sexy looking girls are chicas, all swinging party girls who like to go dancing and maybe get laid are chicas, all girls who flirt with tourists with either a tentative or actual hope of marrying one or at least having a romantic and lucrative adventure are chicas.
The last category are usually between the prepa and a job and having a fling. This was the case with the go-go dancer, and it was also true of a girl I'll call Yazmin. There are lots of Cubanas with J names converted to Y names. I'm told it's from the Russian influence. Yazmin was from Moa, a less romantic place than Baracoa to put it mildly. She had a degree in something and, not wanting to go anywhere else on the island, was staying with her aunt in Baracoa until a job in her field opened, her aunt being less watchful than her parents.
She went to the Casa de la Trova at night in her elevated shoes and slinky duds hoping to have fun and maybe more, just like girls who go to meat markets in California, but less repressed in a country with total health coverage, unpestered by bluenose Republicans or their god, with excellent and unblushing sex ed, no bureaucracy in the way of contraception, light tropical clothes, and a national pride in the home girls' flirting skills.
She wasn't hungry, she didn't have to feed any starving babies or buy shoes for her grandfather or pay any rent. When I took her to lunch at the Colonial, she was thrilled by the ceramic bell and the waiter coming when she rang it, but she only ordered salad and pushed all the cucumbers onto my plate.
She was just having fun. It thrilled her to be living la dolce vita with a jet set foreigner with an accent, and she hoped for trophies, but when she told me what kinds of things she'd like to be bought, it was another slinky gown, more elevated shoes, a pair of fashionable shorts to go with a shirt she had, and a flashy backpack they had at the Tienda Panamericana, the dollar store.
Yazmin was out to expoit a tourist. So naturally I questioned her on politics. It wasn't easy. She kept going back to the fashionable shorts. She had no coherent politics. She was anti-capitalist of course, like everyone else. Cubans are no more nor less conditioned (brainwashed? convinced?) to oppose capitalism than Americans are to oppose communism, and what they're told makes more sense. And maybe Yazmin at her best saw the sense. Anyway, when the petition was being passed, she did spend some time thinking about it, whatever the boutique blonde said, and she decided things are OK and she doesn't want them different, and she clearly understood that that was what signing meant.
I also asked if she'd ever had any trouble with Baracoa cops, since she was from Moa. She said there were disguised cops who watched everyone. I couldn't imagine disguised cops in a town where I was already well known. She said they'd never bothered her. I was sure she hadn't just gotten out of jail.
To lunch, she wore jeans cut down to hiphuggers with scissors, to make a lush fringe of white threads against her smooth tan, and a light white blouse that stopped way above her navel and somewhat below her shoulders, but all very simple. She looked great.
46. A FISHERMAN: Along the street by the bay there are some spaces between houses that open the narrow, slightly swampy beach to view, and on one I found a fisherman sitting on his boat smoking. "Today there's no fish," he said, "Maybe later."
I learned something new from him. When they passed the petition in Baracoa, a Spanish movie company had been filming "Treasure Island" there, and they had Cuban actors and technicians from Havana. He didn't think they could have signed so far from home.
He also told me American yachters docked there and had to pay the docking fees, which would put them in violation of the law. He said they lived on their boats and chased the local girls. He'd seen a lot of them, though none were there that day. I wondered how many were oil men from Texas.
He said everybody he knew signed the petition; he signed it because he remembered the time before the revolution. He didn't care how tough things got. He didn't want to go back to those days.
The Havana movie people were one more very small statistical problem, like the jineteros who might have been in jail. But thinking of both groups jogged my mind and I suddenly remembered something else. I'd learned the year before that there are people in Havana and Santiago who have left there legitimate homes and jobs to seek something in the city. They're called gypsies or flotantes. How many there are nobody knows, and they could have signed, but I needed to find out when I got back to Havana.
47. THE ALBAŅIL'S WOMAN: Two streets away from the water, I was stunned by a brightly painted house, also beautifully built. A display of pastries and candies for sale on the porch allowed me to stop without an invitation.
When she came out, I praised the house, and she told me her husband is an albaņil, a word I know because I employed albaņiles to modify my apartment when I lived in Mexico. Her husband was a building tradesman who could do everything. She said they had built the house themselves by making sacrifices, and she had paid for the paint by selling her very good pasteles y dulces.
I thought that was a lot of sacrifices. So I asked if she had connections in the government. She said she and her husband weren't political at all. They had signed the petition because they were content with things as they are.
A bici-taxista who pedaled me most of the way back to town (we had to get out and walk his machine up the final hill) told me the woman got money from relatives in Miami.
48. THE SHADOW: There are few lights after midnight in Baracoa and none away from the center. Picking my way by starlight along an outlying street, I was stopped at a crossstreet, peering around for a clue, when I saw a shadow, or another shadow, crossing the street toward me. I stood my ground, not to appear vulnerable.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, then close enough for very good eyes to see my strangeness, in English, "Hey, mon! Whair you frome?" That's the never varying jinetero salute to male marks.
And as soon a I heard it, I decided he looked like a jinetero, which was irrational, but, exactly like a jinetero, finding himself with an American, he became oppressively friendly, sharing my presumed disdain for a crummy country with no street lights, but in Spanish. He only had enough English for the salute.
"You don't like it here." I offered.
"All I need is some money," he said, "and I'm going somewhere."
"Where? Miami? Why?"
"For the opportunity. There's no opportunity in Cuba. You know what it's like in Cuba? The government takes everything. The people get nothing."
"So you don't like the system." I was thinking, my survey's close to 50, and, if this guy's number 50, and he didn't sign, according to Fidel's estimate, he's right on schedule.
"No, man," he said bitterly.
"Did you sign the petition?" I could see his eyes shifting around in the dark and he wagged a finger side to side. "You didn't sign?"
He looked all around as if we were in a crowd, before he said in a low voice that the guards he imagined couldn't hear, "No firme."
I made sure. I made him tell me about it. He said he left the house as if he were going to sign. Then he stood around in the crowd, and then he went back in as if he had signed.
"Because everyone else in your family disagrees with you?"
No. He told me everybody secretly agrees with him. Nobody likes the system or the government. But they are all afraid. He was the only one who wasn't afraid.