In the Merida airport in 1989, I found myself in a financial jam. I was a peso millionaire but had only 40 U.S. dollars that I didn't want to use in Cuba. I'd hoped to change Mexican pesos for Cuban in the airport, but the casa de cambio window sign said they didn't sell Cuban pesos and, anyway, they were closed, so I couldn't buy more dollars, either. It was almost flight time, so I headed for the gate with my $40, a ticket that included a hotel and daily breakfast package, and the hope that pesos could buy either pesos or dollars in Havana.
The Mexicana Airlines check-in desk pinned a tag on my shirt that would get me on a bus to the hotel in Cuba, an expense I hadn't thought of. So I wondered what else I hadn't thought of. I was only going to be there a week and, if I avoided all other expenses, I decided to think, I could surely survive on breakfast. My old notebook doesn't say why I was so close to broke, but it must have been related to my purpose.
I had carefully researched the Cuban Assets Control Act, the so-called Cuban travel law, and, setting aside my certainty it was unconstitutional, I intended to get a story on how hard it would be to visit Cuba legally within its provisions, i.e. without spending money, because in those days, as now, an American could go to Cuba OK (so said the dubious law), as long as he bought nothing he'd have to buy in order to go, like transport, food, lodging, etc.
I had already paid the Cuban Interests section in D.C. $25 for my visa, but since the point was not to channel dollars to Cuba, I'd decided if they spent my $25 in Washington it shouldn't count against the hypothetical tourist whose problem I meant to investigate. I'd bought my ticket from Mexicana, which must have had some kind of profit sharing deal with Cuba but which had its own expenses and didn't HAVE to share MY particular money with the forbidden island. I thought of claiming I'd bought it for pesos, but an obscure subclause in the law ruled that out. In fact, it ruled out spending my pesos in Cuba if I'd bought THEM with dollars, but I couldn't see how you'd wring a confession from the pesos about their origins.
My intention was to try not to spend dollars IN Cuba. A plausible way to get there, after all, could be found (maybe while I was there). As a journalist, I could spend pesos, dollars, rubles, pounds, or anything else I had. But if I found a tourist couldn't avoid spending dollars, my story would be that, besides being crookedly based on a national security risk that didn't exist, the law laid impossible restrictions on the exercise of unquestioned constitutional rights, such as the right to travel and associate.
I was flying for my own convenience because, as one going "to gather news," I could do that. The law in '89 "licensed" Americans "to gather news" in Cuba, spending what they needed to, without actually being issued the so-called license, a nonprocedure which was almost constitutional. Under the First Amendment, they couldn't hobble the press, so they didn't, but they couldn't presume to "license" freedom of the press, either, which they did, so they tried to obscure their crime by not requiring anyone to actually come by and pick up the "license."
As a last rite of departure, the Mexicans illegibly exit-stamped my passport and took 24,500 pesos, which was worth about $10 that year, my old notebook says. Like I said, I had plenty of pesos. The air time wasn't long, but I met my seat mate, Jose, of Belize, whose English was better than my Spanish and who told me he thought I could change Mexican pesos to Cuban pesos at a bank on a street he called La Linea in Havana. I would check that out.
Jose was almost a new doctor, one of many Latin Americans being trained virtually free in Cuba to be doctors in their own countries. He'd just been home on a vacation and was returning to finish his internship in the Cuban prison system. Though Belize was his home, he'd lived in Havana long enough to have become almost Cuban, too. He had a Cuban girlfriend and was living with her family. She'd already finished school and was about to be assigned a home which would also be her office as the family doctor of a neighborhood.
Of course I asked how he liked life in communist Cuba. Having just returned from outside, he said he liked the free economy to get more variety in goods, but, otherwise, life was OK, maybe better, not really different in most ways, in Cuba. His girlfriend's salary would be only 450 pesos a month (a peso was worth US $1.25 in 1989), but her rent would be nothing, and a lot of other things were subsidized, so they were very cheap, including most of the food they needed.
I asked about "freedom." Could people talk about the government? He said that in his family's CDR (neighborhood committee), it was accepted that "one must feel free to criticize one's country." That's the way he said it. Of course I asked about his experience in the prisons, and he said he didn't know if any prisoners he tended were political prisoners, but he'd never seen or heard anything to indicate they were abused physically or mentally. He asked me to visit his house, then said that, if I wanted, I could call him from my hotel and he and his girl would meet me that night.
Once off the plane in Havana, outsiders line up in several lines to pass one at a time through one of a row of enclosed immigration office stalls. Isolated inside one of the stalls, I stretched to peer over a high counter at a stern uniform behind a desk who looked disapprovingly at my papers, questioned me as if trying to read my mind, and resisted being joked with. On the ridiculous scale, it was below most borders and so quick I forgot to ask the man not to stamp my passport. I didn't care for myself, since I was there "to gather news" (my stance, self image, and purpose all clearly recorded in my notebook). But I needed that experience for my story.
On the other side, a guy from Cuba-Mex, the airline tour packager, met me and took my ticket - to keep it during my stay. He said he had to attach some sort of letter to it and I'd get it back when the bus came back to the airport. So I meekly cooperated and there I was not only almost broke but also without a ticket back to Mexico.
Going though baggage, then striding freely across the wide Cuban lobby, and emerging into the sunshine in front of Jose Marti terminal, I saw no police or military presence - surprising compared to my usual Latin American experience. I also saw that other foreigners weren't on package tours and were going off in taxis as they pleased, unlike in American myths about tourist control in communist countries.
As for me, thanks to the tag on my shirt, I was snatched by a tour minder and hurried over to the hotel bus, which, once filled with fellow travelers, rolled out across an unremarkable flat green landscape with no apparent tropical foliage toward Havana. An Intur woman with a mike talked us though the suburbs, but she didn't have my attention. Out the window, I was seeing a normal world, clean, no hovels, no graffiti, no fallen buildings. It was nothing like Managua, and nothing like Mexico City, either. I was caught by surprise to find that I clearly wasn't looking at the third world scene I'd expected; I was looking at the second world, of course, but the second world (the communist world) didn't look as it was supposed to, either.
Jose had said that life here was in most ways the same as in Belize, but I've been to Belize and Belize is Latin America. This wasn't. I could see that it might not be very different from life in San Diego. People walking, scattered and then thicker as our route became more urban, looked normal, even well-off. They weren't looking over their shoulders; they looked like they thought they were in California and the gathering city looked like it thought so, too. The hotel Capri, pronounced CAHPri, was a modern 17-story spike as ugly as any Ramada or Hilton highrise in Mission Valley. Inside, after the Intur guide made sure we'd all dutifully be back at the same curb at 1830 sharp 5 days later, 5 hours before take-off, the lobby we were whisked through was huge, bright, colorful, and sterile.
Finding myself herded upstairs to a nearly top-floor orientation hall to be welcomed, I realized for the first time that my package, which I'd bought because it was cheap, was a fully guided tour. Was I going to be shown "what they wanted me to see"? Thinking about that, I got what I could from the all-around, near aerial view. Further east, the city looked dingier than what the bus had passed through. But in the other 4 directions: north to the nearby malecon, south across endless suburbs, westward along an over-developed coast, and straight down, it looked like anywhere.
Fixing my (in those days - over 28 years ago) still imperfect Spanish ear on the gushing welcomer, I got that we were being told our week's itinerary. So I found the Intur lady from the bus by the door and told her I had no interest in the Tropicana.
No problem. We put the tourist flock behind us, descended to the desk and turned me over to Inez, who found me in the register and turned me over to an actual bellboy, who escorted me way back up the elevator to a big, over-modern room and left me at last on my own in Cuba. It had been a lot easier than climbing over a wall.
I called Jose from my room and we set a time when he and his girl, another Inez, would meet me in the lobby. Then, clean and fresh, I went down, said "Hola" to the hotel's Inez again, and was introduced to himself by the hotel's Carlos, who, seeing I was cool, I guess, offered me 5 pesos per dollar. Why did he want to cheat himself? To accumulate dollars and eventually get out of Cuba, he told me. From that spot, looking around and out the big windows, Cuba looked OK. Carlos looked well fed, healthy, and relaxed, and his clothes were ridiculously sharp. I suspected his job was coveted by all his friends, and I had an image of him washing cars in Miami.
So I said I'd think about it and went out into the moist, hot sunshine. The crowded main street a block away looked as busy as Market Street in San Diego. I started south on 21st and immediately felt sweat running down my back. Besides looking a lot cooler than me, and besides being all colors yet equally well dressed and poised, the Cubans walking with me and past me looked normal. I kept looking for some sign of it, but I could not tell I was in a communist country. There were stores, restaurants, hotels, cars, people with clothes and shoes and haircuts, walking on two legs. There was no difference.
Except that it was a lot hotter than I'd expected. Streaming sweat, I escaped into the relatively cool interior of a place called La Roca, a 40's looking bar, where I met an old American expatriate named Mario working as a waiter, who looked and acted like a character in an Alan Ladd/William Bendix movie that you could tell was set in a tropical country because of the potted palms.
"I work here daytime. You need any help, you come and see me." He loved Cuba. "It ain't nothing like you heard, believe you me."
He'd been there a long time. My notes don't say how long or why. Besides being short of money, I had only two reporters' notebooks, and thought I had to conserve about 2 Bics. Maybe not. But I didn't know what to expect.
"It could be funny money," he guessed about Carlos' offer. "That happens a lot." Anyway he said I wouldn't find much use for pesos until I learned my way around. Then, sure, pesos would be better for quite a few things. But he told me tourists could officially buy only a few things for pesos. I'd be spending my $40. It sounded like some rumors I'd heard. This was in 1989, remember; if there was a Cuba tourist guide in those days, I hadn't seen it; and, to my knowledge, there was no internet. American newspapers then were just what they are now. I had to learn on the ground as I went along.
Somebody had gone to get Mario and bring him to meet me when they found I was an American. At first I'd been taken for Italian. I'd come into La Roca out of the sun as both the tourist who could not spend money there and as a news gatherer gaging the quality of the shade, the ambiance and the beer the tourist couldn't buy. And I discovered a surprisingly familiar scene.
There was a very well dressed Latin looking guy with tasseled loafers and a guayabera shirt with a glass of something clear on ice at the curved end of a normal looking bar, and there were three beautiful, even better dressed women of three different colors sitting together along the straight end with a row of pop cans and frosty glasses of ice and pop. They paid no attention to me until, camping on a stool in the open middle, I asked what kind of pop it was. Tropicola. The closest, a near champagne blonde, offered me a taste. It was nearly Coke and just as good. I remembered the song about rum and Co-CUH Co-LA, and without actually singing aloud could hear in my mind's ear that rum and Trop-EEE Co-LA would work as well.
The beer came in a plain brown bottle and was sweet. Having learned about such things from Hemingway, I'd asked for an Hatuey, but maybe I couldn't pronounce it, or maybe Hatuey (AHtwee) came in an unmarked bottle and was sweet. A labeled German beer I tried wasn't great, either. But since the bar had everything else: stools, beer that was wet, women and cool shade, as my time in Cuba went by, minute by minute, communism kept seeming to work.
The sky stayed up, the cars went by outside, the refrigerator worked, the people looked healthy. Money worked. I put down $5 for a beer, got $3 and 4 quarters change. No, they weren't quarters. The bartender explained they were Intur money, just for tourists, imitations size-wise of U.S. coins, because, I guessed, it was hard to stock up on change for dollars. But they worked just like 4 quarters for my second beer.
I hadn't forgotten I was gathering news about the problems of a tourist who couldn't buy beer. I wrote in my notebook that if a tourist swam, rowed, or sailed to Cuba and didn't pay docking fees, and friendly natives bunked and fed him, he'd be legal. I also wrote that if he bought a beer in La Roca, nobody in America would know it.
"Hey! Italiano?" It was the guy at the curve of the bar in the guayabera shirt.
"No habla italiano?" He said he spoke four languages but preferred Italian because he was an Italian living in Cuba. He didn't like Spanish but he liked Cuba.
"Las chicas. The girls." But not like I thought. He could explain in English, he said, but he didn't like English. He wasn't drunk but felt too good to talk seriously. Eventually he told me they took care of old people and kids and he wasn't a kid but he was getting old.
The three beautiful women of three different colors on my right had gone and been replaced by two men of two colors who spoke in a lilting way that made a song of the rhyming Spanish verb endings but obliterated accents, making it even harder for me to follow. One asked if I was really American and then went to the restaurant door and called in Mario. That's when I talked to Mario, the expatriate American waiter who told me to come back if I needed help and to watch out for "funny money."
I didn't trip over any on the way out or during my half-day hike zigging and zagging through a vast suburb past block after block of solid houses and apartment buildings shaded by a forest of large trees that often buckled the sidewalks. Some of the trees had multiple hanging trunks and huge central trunks apparently made of packed-together above-ground roots. I kept asking people what they were and, of course, just like in America, nobody I asked knew what they were called.
I found La Linea and the bank that would buy Mexican pesos (at a 40% loss to me), guarded by the only two cops with AK's that I was going to see that week. And when I got back to the hotel, I found Jose, the Belizian med student/almost Cuban-trained doctor, waiting for me in the lobby with his Cuban girlfriend, the new Dr. Inez Hernandez.
In a nearby cafeteria where everyone looked Cuban, we spoke Spanish for Inez' sake, Jose only translating a few things I didn't get, which wasn't much, because he spoke carefully and, like most women, she spoke more clearly than most men. Since the place was nearly full, I told them that Americans thought Cubans couldn't talk freely with other people so close all around.
They said some Cubans thought that, too, due to the attitudes of some overzealous CDR leaders. It wasn't really true. Their friends said what they pleased. Not everyone liked to argue, so they considered it impolite to say things that upset people, but they thought it was important to be intelligently critical. Anyway, they'd talk about anything I wanted, and they were sure nobody around us cared.
They knew nothing about "funny money" but said some people would try to change pesos with me so they could buy things that could only be bought with dollars, not necessities, but things they wanted.
They told me everyone gets food, for instance rice, almost free, and enough, too, if they eat sparingly. But they could get more, for instance rice for 5 pesos a kilo, if they wanted. Extras cost more than on the ration, but they could be afforded.
Talking about this, that and etc. I learned that most people who'd lived in shanties before the revolution now lived in "edificios" (high-rise, institutional apartment buildings), or in flats cut from the big homes of the rich who fled to Miami. Inez' working family lived in such a flat, the top floor of what had been a two-story home. But some lived in former business buildings in the old city, in created apartments or, sometimes, they'd heard, just camping while waiting on a list for better homes to come. They were both sure the better homes WOULD come and seemed to think my question was just rhetorical.
Keep it in mind that you're reading about what I saw and heard in 1989, a couple of months after the supposed Tiananmen Square "massacre," several months before the opening of the Berlin Wall supposedly began the "fall of communism," and half a year before the 1990 Nicaraguan elections supposedly ended the Sandinista Revolution. If you're wondering about my use of the words supposed and supposedly, you should also keep it in mind that I am not one who believes what I read in the papers, as you may or may not be. Jumping ahead of myself, I'll tell you that Cuba has remained an unusually stable place over the years since 1989, but I would find some things significantly different when I returned for my second visit 11 years later.
I asked if a person could freely explore the island, and Jose said he'd ridden a bicycle to the east end. He'd been surprised to find mosquitos there. Mosquitos had been almost wiped out in Cuba and there was no malaria. He didn't know what they sprayed. I learned cars could be earned as prizes by hard workers, and Inez told me there was a strong awareness recently of population problems, and most Cuban women wanted only one or two children.
Was it true Cubans couldn't go to tourist places like the Tropicana? To me, it would be a blessing to be barred from the Tropicana, but I thought I should ask.
They could go in as guests of tourists, they said, but the Tropicana cost $30 a person. They'd been hoping I'd ask. Jose had enough from Belize to pay the mere $10 cover at a mini-Tropicana nearby if I'd like to host them. This sounded appalling but I figured it was for his first night back in town with his girl.
It was appalling: ostentatiously dark, with gaudily costumed girls strutting and dancing on fashion show runways and a pretentious m.c., like T.J. in the 50's, probably like Havana in the 50's.
It was in the hotel zone and meant for tourists. But it could be an example of things not needed but wanted by Cubans trading pesos for dollars. Jose and Inez apparently liked it. The darkness hid my relief that they'd had no intention of going past the minimum.
Outside, it was much, much better; the street was sociably full. People were mostly just walking, but it was warm, the music from a youth center - a performing arts school and rec hall - made the night festive, and nobody was in a hurry to go home.
At the bus stop, Jose and Inez could have gotten a tightly packed bus right away, but they preferred to hang around and talk until the next bus came, which they knew would have seats. I learned the bus number and we agreed I'd visit them the day after next, when they'd both be off. The hotel's Inez was at the same bus stop, looking prettier out of uniform. I flirted a bit and learned she had a husband and two kids.
Before turning in, I walked down La Rampa, which is really 23rd Street, to the Malecon, a wide boulevard, one side bordering the city, the other open to the sea. A few people were fishing off the sea wall, and I remembered a guy fishing in San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, who'd once visited San Diego, California, but hadn't liked it because of all the beggars.
I saw a drunk or two that night on La Rampa but not one single beggar. In the next 5 days, going all day every day, trying to see all I could of the city, I would see only one ragged person digging into a dumpster - one possible street person. Period.
There had to be some explanation for this. Why couldn't it be at least one success of communism? I'd still not seen anything I could identify as communism, remember, but clearly something was working well. The old guy from Beijing I met next a.m. at breakfast in the Capri's cellar banquet hall thought so, too. In fact, as an authority on the subject, as a Chinese communist touring Cuba, he liked everything, or said he did, even the Tropicana, where the guided folks had gone without me the night before. Were there such places in China? "It is very different from China," he told me. We spoke English with difficulty because he spoke no Spanish.
I'd risen to a view from my high window of early morning smog (Cuba has everything), and after filling up on the smorgasbord of every kind of tropical fruit, ham and eggs, and coffee included in my package, I was off into the streets to do my kind of non-package touring - walking and walking and talking and talking.
Every year, as my Spanish has improved, I've gotten better at this, but even in 1989, when my ear was still slow, I did OK, because being determined to speak Spanish got me a lot of sympathy and a lot of help. And I had been slowly improving in Baja, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, and especially Nicaragua since '84.
It's a long walk eastward up the malecon from the 1950's of Vedado, way, way back, over 400 years, to the 1500's of Habana Vieja. The morning was already hot and I stopped to watch big waves hitting the seawall, because the malecon is on the open sea and maybe with a curved telescope you could see Key West just over the horizon.
I thought it would be a trick pulling a fish over the boulders piled against the wall, but a fisherman who stood there gently pulling and reeling informed me he would catch a fish soon. His wife sat on her legs on the wall nearby looking patient. He was dressed casually for fishing of course, but since he was the first Cuban I'd seen not dressed as if for a date, I asked if he lived around there. He nodded east and said, "En Centro."
I asked if he had a house or an apartment and he told me it's "pure" apartments in Centro. I still thought Centro was downtown. Later that day I learned it's the sprawling graveyard of gray old buildings between Vedado and the historic zone called Habana Vieja. It's mostly residential, and a lot of people live there, much closer together than in suburban Vedado, as you'd expect in the old center of any city in the world.
I hiked east along the sea wall until a pedestrian tunnel took me under the malecon to a park on the city side, where a horseman on top of a pillar charged forever northeast, if my mental compass worked (toward Miami?).
Beyond there, the time drift of old, grey buildings started and the walkway was narrow to nonexistent. Traffic on the wide malecon was light but fast, and a bici-taxista offered to pedal me the rest of the way for a dollar (but it looked to me like a human rights abuse). I'd later be told by one (just one) person (I had to go on what I had to go on) that the bicitaxis, biycle rickshas, were private enterprises, which most Americans certainly wouldn't consider a human rights abuse and which I couldn't fit into my concept of communism.
I trudged along a low line of old apartment buildings that led to a brief open space and a modern hotel. Past there, as the coast and the wide street swung a little northward before turning south into the bay, a high, 4 or 5-block-long rank of ancient fronts (an historical treasure maybe), stood like the crumbling ruins of Atlantis risen from the sea, bleached yellow by the sun. They were multi-purpose piles, with empty old businesses gaping out from the ground floor but peopled windows and balconies above.
I met a pair of guys standing between two tall Greek columns, maybe on their front porch. They wanted to change money with me, and I told them I had all I needed. I could see a big abandoned business foyer behind them that looked like a bank and wondered if they had a good apartment above or were just camped, as Jose had suggested. I could have asked and probably been invited in to see, but on the second day of my first visit, I wasn't as comfortable with Cubans as I am now.
Unoffended by my refusal to buy pesos from them, they walked along with me to talk about U.S. baseball, which I knew little about, and then about the movie, "Born In East L.A.," which everybody was seeing at the biggest Havana movie palace. They wanted to know if racism in America is as bad as the movie showed. Not having seen it, I could only guess it was probably close to true. Objectively speaking, there is, after all, racism in America, something I'd seen absolutely no sign of since I'd landed in Cuba the day before, though I'd seen a thoroughly scrambled rainbow of people everywhere.
We came to the Prado, Habana Vieja's main street, a beautiful divided avenue. Its wide, park-like center, with shade trees, benches, and room to play or stroll, leads 8 or 10 blocks to the central park and an amazingly American looking capitol dome.
Turning the corner, we met two cops. So far, I'd been looking at an apparently unarmed country, with no military presence at all, and including a cop in front of the hotel and two by a bank, these were the 4th and 5th armed men I'd seen, and their holstered pistols were tiny.
But they arrested the two guys I was walking with, right in front of me and with no concern for me. I was stunned, but it was all very civilized. They never touched the guys. Their guns and batons stayed on their belts. They didn't seem to have any handcuffs. Maybe most surprising, they were both slender, and they acted slender; I mean gracefully and politely.
While I stood there not yet thinking of my camera, they quietly told the men to empty their pockets on the sidewalk. Apparently finding what they'd expected, they gathered it up, said, "Vamos," and then, without pausing to slap myself in the head, I got one picture of them walking away up a side street all together as if they were friends.
People had collected on the Prado's park-like center strip to watch. A young guy told me, "That was my brother. They arrested him just for talking to you and they'll put him inside for a week."
"That's not true, senor," an older man told me. "Don't believe him. The police knew those guys already."
"No," the young guy insisted. "They don't want young men to talk to tourists from capitalist countries."
"You're talking to me," I said. "You don't look worried." I don't believe everything I'm told, especially when it doesn't fit the facts, such as the fact that nobody seemed shy about talking to me.
"He hasn't got anything on him," the older guy said.
"Have you?" I asked him, because the cops had clearly found something.
"I don't have anything," he said and shrugged as if he thought I wanted to know. He walked away looking disgusted.
The older guy, who seemed almost formally dressed because he was wearing a hat - a casual hat with a flashy band - seemed determined to instruct me. "When the police saw those two with you, they knew they'd have some counterfeit money in their pockets, so they took advantage of the situation."
If so, Mario's warning about "funny money" may have been right. Actually, I really didn't know who was telling the truth. The two guys I'd been walking with had offered me a suspiciously good deal on pesos. And they'd also seemed OK as people. But so had the cops. Immediately after I got home in '89, I saw two huge, fat San Diego beach cops on dune trikes, bristling with arms and other stuff, like a pair of human tanks, make an "attitude arrest" of a street person, meaning he did nothing but try to salvage his dignity when they rudely poked him for sleeping on the seawall, so they handcuffed him and violently shoved him into the squad car that came to their aid. By contrast, the Cuban cops were on foot, lightly armed, slender and civilized. And, presumably (according to one witness, not the other), a real crime had been committed.
I saw only a few cops in Havana in '89, only in tourist zones and with rifles only in front of a bank, always on foot, usually alone, and nobody seemed afraid of them. Strangely, though, a man I talked to a little later, in front of what looked like the main colonial cathedral, after assuring me Cubans have nothing to fear, got very nervous when I asked to take his picture and walked away fast. Maybe I would have, too, if some tourist accosted me with a camera in my home town.
Latin Americans usually love to be photographed, though, and it was hard to believe that the flashy dressers I kept seeing on the deep gray Streets of Habana Vieja that day, like butterfies in a dump, didn't want attention. Cubans seem to be born zoot-suiters. They really dress. So I went around happily shooting them and, of course, the old city.
Arriving in Vedado the day before, I'd been shocked to find Cuba looking modern and middle class, not like I'd been told communism would be. But, even setting aside the arrest I'd witnessed, exploring Habana Vieja, the historic ruin that everyone thinks is Cuba, because it's almost all they see - in person or in pictures - changed at least my immediate feelings about the island. I didn't translate the unpainted decay of the ancient buildings into the failure of communism. It was too old for that. And I wasn't dismayed by NOT seeing what the politically correct left somehow always see, i.e. the ancient streets filled with music, dancing, santeria, dominoes, and people "so friendly" in spite of their suffering. In fact, I saw no ostentatious displays of happiness and no apparent suffering either and, really, nothing I could tell was communism.
But I didn't feel as good about Cuba as I had the day before. When I was on a street newly sanded and painted to look like any old European spa, I found it easy to imagine European poverty peering out at the glitter from the crevices. And on the more numerous unrestored old streets, feeling the similarity to blighted old center cities I've seen in America and elsewhere, I admit I couldn't help assuming that, just as in those other places, poverty and misery and oppression were hiding there. I can easily imagine less logical visitors blurring together the surface ugliness really there (in one small part of Havana, remember) with the propaganda they bring with them, winding up claiming they actually SAW poverty and hunger, even if they didn't, and, if they happened to see something really amiss (since Havana is a city), failing to put it into context. In fact I didn't SEE ANYTHING wrong except the old run-down appearance of the place, But I admit that, on first sight, Habana Vieja made me doubt all I'd seen the day before.
My next few days exploring other parts of town and walking up a string of beach suburbs cured me of that error permanently, though. I'm perfect at conceptual math. Little as I saw in 1989, by walking a lot and with the help of a map, I easily saw that the old city is not 1/20 of Havana or 1/50 of the metropolitan area, and all the rest that I saw looked from only somewhat poor (nothing like in Nicaragua) to OK to fine. I kept asking and kept being told that there's nothing else in Cuba like Habana Vieja.
That evening, looking out a top floor window of the Capri at a vast urban and suburban stretch that looked 1989 normal, after a day in the dark, narrow streets of the past, I thought that they should have leveled the old city in 1959. I'm not a fan of modern cities, but the streets of Habana Vieja had depressed me, while the broad, tree-lined streets of Vedado and the visible areas around it looked alive and cheerful in a picture I took from a window in the Bar Azul.
That's the Capri's sky-room, where, through underwater windows, a man finally drinking a clearly labeled Hatuey (which was the same too-sweet stuff I'd already had) could have watched women swimming in the hotel's roof pool, had there been any women in it. But I was the only tourist there, so I shared my conclusion about Habana Vieja with the bartender and a waiter with nobody to wait on, whose lilting Spanish had been baffling my ear.
Without irony, they agreed. The Latino bartender, who wore a bartender's costume, sang sagely, "Es muy vieja, Habana Vieja," and the tall black man dressed as a waiter harmonized, "Es de antes." "De antes," in Cuban Spanish, means "from before the revolution." So was the top of the Capri, which was satirized in the opening scenes of a black and white 1960's Russian musical titled something like "Cuba Speaks," about the decadent Bautista era and about how places like the Capri led to the revolution.
The Capri should have been leveled, too, and they should have never built another luxury hotel. My idea would have been to build nothing but solid, practical, modern, beautiful little houses for the Cubans, each including a hotel room, so tourists would always lodge in people's homes, as we did in Nicaragua in the 80's (except that we lodged in shanties still waiting the floors and walls of a future that would never come).
But that's pipe dreaming. I wasn't there in the 1950's to influence those who'd pipe-dreamed up the Cuban revolution. I was there 30 years later, and the results of their dream looked pretty good, but my '89 notes say tramping around Habana Vieja for most of a day didn't make me think so.
Even though it's a tiny enclave, the old city, when you're in it, physically and psychologically blocks your view. The streets are too deep and narrow, and its grey old walls loom too close. All the fashionably dressed, apparently healthy Cubans seem to be from some other time and place.
Once, looking up a crumbling side street, like a reverse telescope to the past, I saw a circus parade cross a distant intersection, with at least one lion in a cage on wheels. At a parkside bus stop, I took a picture full of sharp dressers looking as out of place in the city as a party of conventioneers. Peeking nosily into doors and windows, I saw a number of neat and well furnished homes inside the ugly, outside walls. I also saw some squalid ones, perhaps the homes of squalid individuals. I saw a building of many balconies, with most of the balconies propped up by thick, wooden posts. I saw inside a building with floors like one attic on top of another joined by rickety stairs where two old women sat as if forgotten by the revolution. I saw no graffiti anywhere.
Along what could only be called a mall, San Rafael Street, between rows of normal looking stores, including a department store, leading from the Prado iinto the heart of the crumbling Centro, well-dressed Cubans strolled like multi-colored Fashion Valley shoppers.
"Who owns the stores?" "El estado," the clerk in a book store told me. The books were priced in pesos and even at 1 to 1, they were cheap, 50 centavos for "The Old Man and the Sea." The store fronts and their signs were gaudy, but the faces of the floors above were worn and unpainted, and side streets were narrow grey canyons.
Back on the Prado and hungrier than I'd planned, I decided to try some pasta at the Italiano. But the door was locked. A pair talking on the curb told me, "You're after us."
"Why is the door locked?" "It's full," said someone else.
There were several parties scattered about, some in distant shady spots on the Prado's center strip, and each had a place in line. A single woman appeared and shouted something that ended with a question mark, and others pointed at me. She asked who I came after and, based on hearsay, I told her.
Each time the waiter unlocked the door, a party came out and a party went in. When my turn came, the single woman went in with me and the waiter put us at a table together. When we ordered and he figured it out, I could see his bureaucratic self-importance swelling and I put a pin in it by insisting it didn't matter. Either that ruined his day, or he was always glum. The woman apologized for using me but, she said, that waiter was always tight with tables for lone Cubans.
I wrote in my notebook that the Italiano had terrible food, good wine, very cheap prices, and bad public relations. When I wanted to leave, the waiter had to unlock the door to let me out. I'm not a capitalist, either, I wrote, but if I were going to imitate capitalism, I'd do it right.
Back outside, but still inside the glum labyrinth, I felt like I was wandering endlessly. It wasn't a labyrinth. The criss-cross streets were straight. It was their darkness and sameness that confused them and depressed me so much that I found myself talking to few of the many people always around.
But as I crossed a shaded side street, glancing sideways, I saw four beautiful girls, arm in arm, almost on top of me, swung my camera and snapped before they got too close. I had no time to adjust my settings, and the slide is dark and barely shows their four colors, a fair redhead, a latina, a mulata, and a black girl. Of course, with the confidence of better Spanish a few years later, I would have persuaded them to re-stage their approach, which had been full of feminine contrivance anyway.
They claimed to be cousins and sisters and asked me to walk with them. They'd show me the town. They led me to the Floridita, but it was only a slick bar, full of necktied staff and yuppie tourists living out their pre-1959-era Hemingway fantasies. So we sat on a small, inner square of benches in a big park on the Prado and talked.
"Which one of us do you think is the prettiest?" I refused to say. One asked if I'd brought an extra pair of Levi's and another if I'd like to buy her a shirt she knew was in the hotel store.
Learning that each was some kind of med tech, it made no sense. They were well dressed and the stuff in the hotel's store was no better than the clothes they wore. But if I brought the goods with me, either would meet me somewhere that night, or so they said, if I happened to know someone who'd loan me his house. I said the only person I knew was a waiter I'd barely met, I didn't know if he had a house, and it would be rude to ask.
"Oh, no!" one said. "He wouldn't mind, and he probably works at night." They didn't seem like pros. Not having a place to put out seemed really amateurish. Maybe, I thought, the lucky girl would have redeemed herself by going out the back window with her loot. I've been told that sex is the national sport in Cuba, and these girls acted more like they were playing a game than hustling. But then the one who wanted my extra Levi's explained that she was afraid to come to my room because the cops around the Capri knew her, and that put a different light on things.
In the 80's in Nicaragua, popular wisdom had it that democratizing human dignity would end prostitution, and, even with most people still very poor, the theory seemed to work there until 1990, when the return of banana republicanism brought prostitution back. But 30 years into the Cuban revolution, which seemed to have bestowed universal dignity on the people, the theory may not have worked.
These chicas certainly hustled me in a dignified, playful, and charming way, and their price tags were childish, actually innocent. It's not easy to think of a girl who offers to hop into bed with you for your extra Levi's as a professional whore. I'd heard, though, that Levi's sold for up to $l00 in Russia in the 80's. I wondered if a lot of tourists had left their jeans at the Capri and if a girl could get rich selling them on the black market to Russians. That was just me wondering, by the way. Don't take it as straight dope.
I described my situation and declared that I couldn't justify them as a journalistic expense, which was a convenient lie, and continued my hike. In the next few days I was joined and accompanied by three more pairs of prowling girls who eventually asked for something, but never money and not in every case in exchange for sex. So I still didn't know if Fidel's claim that there was no prostitution in Cuba then was true or false. On that day, I chalked it up to Habana Vieja, which was making me tired, maybe just from walking in the stifling heat of the narrow streets, and, coming out into the open sun and air of the waterfront, I felt reluctant to re-enter the city and walk all the way back through Centro to my hotel.
So on the Plaza of San Francisco, where I had vainly hoped to find the Pearl of San Francisco Cafe, the opening scene in "To Have and Have Not," I asked a colorful family where to catch a bus. The guy, who was white, wore new orange gym shorts, which went oddly with his cigar; the woman and her two little girls, who were mulata, were dressed as if for a fiesta. She told me I was virtually at the bus stop. Talking loudly to penetrate my foreignness, he told me the same thing, pointing his cigar at a posted stop across the square. Then, not sure I understood I guess, he led me to it, his family trailing along behind like a parade.
There was no place to sit, so, even though there was also nobody to tell I was next in line, I did as the Cubans do and found another shadier park nearby with a bench. An old man on the same bench told me the condition of Habana Vieja had nothing to do with the revolution. He said its decline had begun in the earlier 50's with the same kind of white flight that has blighted many old American downtowns.
He said they were trying to restore it because it was a world historic monument, and the restoration was slow because Cuba has little petroleum, which, he said, is needed to make good paint, and also because there are other priorities. I took his word for it, but I had not come to the world's best loved communist state to see old forts and monuments left by the Spanish colonialists, or to live it up Roaring 20's style in nightclubs built by U.S. gangsters. So, after a long rest, I hiked back toward the distant Capri.
Neptuno, the street I was told to take, which is commercial in spots in a vaguely medieval way, goes straight as an arrow to the university, at the edge of Vedado, rising the last block as if coming up for air. But before I emerged, I stopped on Calzada Infanta, which is almost the boundary between the present and the past, to try one of the street stand pizzas that seemed to be the natives' favorite treat. Infanta is possibly the ugliest street in Cuba, picturesque with women hanging clothes on sagging balconies above ruined old store fronts. I took some fair pictures there and decided more emphatically than usual that San Diegans should never eat pizza away from home.
Obviously, in 1989, Habana Vieja depressed me, and it still does. Since then, part of it has become a much slicker tourist theme park, and I'm more used to it, and sometimes I live out my own Hemingway fantasies there. But I still don't like it.
In 1989, just walking around briefly, I saw nothing to criticize the system for, except that I could see no sign of the system and I thought a lot of tourists were bound to think the opposite. Also, I wrote in my notebook that I thought the use of old-time capitalist attractions to extract dollars from tourists was bound to have a subversive influence on the Cuban people.
The next day, I took the Diez de Octubre bus that Jose had told me to take to a neighborhood with the unlikely name of Vibora, getting off where an old lady got off who had heard me recite my stop to the driver and told me, ¨Cuando me quedo,¨ and pointed at her eye.
On foot again, on a street with trees, lawns, tidy porches, and block-shaped houses, not quite as nice as Vedado, I met a CDR (neighborhood committee) work crew of residents cleaning up the area. They called themselves volunteers, and one told me I could always judge a CDR by the looks of the neighborhood.
The street Jose and Inez lived on, somewhere southeast of the Capri´s high window view, could have been in a middle class residential part of L.A., except that some, maybe many, of the squarish town houses that had been white single family homes were now flats or apartments full of multi-colored workers.
Full is the right word. The day I visited Inez´extended family, I counted 10 people living in their second floor flat, which I figured to be about 1400 square feet. I don´t know if everyone was home. It wasn´t uncomfortable. A lot of American grandparents accommodate more than that on Thanksgiving weekends. And the flat was well set up. There were 5 bedrooms and a very normal bathroom on the sides, each bedroom with a balcony, while a single spacious room ran down the middle from a wide balcony porch in front to an open country kitchen in back. I think there was a pantry or storage room on a back porch. A long table with assorted chairs crowded the main room. They had a TV set, bookshelves full of worn books, a radio-cassette player, and numerous copied tapes. I saw no religious icons on the walls.
Jose and Inez arrived after I did, wearing gym shorts and T-shirts, and since her shirt said VOTE (pronounced vo-tay, the command form of votar, just what you thought), we talked about elections. In Cuba, municipal elections go on and on and on, they told me. Whether hotly contested or not, they draw an array of candidates everyone knows.
But I was interested in the national elections Cuba is famous for not having. They do have them, but in 1989, as in some American mayor elections, the only voters were other reps, themselves elected by yet other municipal and organizational reps. The system is complex and has changed since then; and this is sketchy out-of-date hearsay, with any note of cynicism being my own. Inez took it seriously.
I both guessed and gathered that the same inner circle always won, even if individuals didn´t, exactly as in America. And maybe they should. I was told with the kind of pride in the fortunes of stars that I never relate to that Fidel has to be elected regularly by a Santiago municipality to be eligible for inner circle elections. They didn´t consider that a scam, and maybe it´s not. If it is, American elections, which you have to know are scripted, directed, and delivered by the media on a plate, are a worse scam. I never expect elections to be credible.
I asked the stupid question all U.S. reporters think is brilliant: who could possibly replace Fidel? Not at all dismayed, Inez listed several people unheard of in America, and Jose pointed out that in a population of 11 million with universal literacy and a high rate of college graduation, there have to be many potential leaders, and furthermore, he told me, there is a very big bureaucracy with experienced people scattered across all its tops.
We also discussed CDR´s (what Joe McCarthy called cells) and how they compared to the CDS´s in Nicaragua that I knew something about. To Inez, the CDR was an organizational unit, responsible for all neighborhood concerns and for communications up and down the system, like labor unions, popular organizations, and municipal governments. That she considered those parallel groups may be so strange to American readers that they may not have noticed what they just read.
Based on my experience in Nicaragua, I asked if communication was as much up as down, and, again undismayed, Inez freely admitted it was more down than up but believed the ongoing revolution would change that. ¨But, also, different kinds of things go up than down,¨ Jose told me. It was OK with me. I´ve never been in any effective organization which wasn´t mostly centrally controlled, usually by the same people, with most direction coming down. I suspect that´s as necessary as gravity and inertia.
I told them Americans think the CDR'S´s are to watch the people and Inez laughed because, she said, the CDR´s are the people. But they told me that they were originally neighborhood watch groups because of the danger of subversion from Miami, and they could report people with dissident tendencies to the police, though that had never happened in their CDR. They saw nothing wrong with that. Neither, I presume, would Homeland Security.
I showed them how to make guacamole with huge, watery avocados that weren´t very good for it, mixing in only salt, lime, and a bottled sauce that was hot but not flavorful. Then I found out that Cubans don´t eat tortillas. We had to make bread sticks to use as chips. Inez´grandmother, the matriarch and boss of the kitchen, strove to convince me she was impressed.
There was much more to eat and I was invited to dinner. I don´t know if the dinner was special in my honor, it would have been impolite to ask. But it was ample.
Everyone told me at once with a lot of laughing that the large family´s advantage was that they shared the task of standing in lines, though I had not yet seen Cubans standing in any lines. The famous communist lines exist. Americans stand in plenty of lines, too. But, as at the Italiano, Cubans reserve their places in lines and then mill around freely or go somewhere else. When anyone arrives at a difficult bus stop, or popular pasteleria, or bureaucratic ordeal, he asks, ¨El ultimo?,¨ (who´s last?) and usually, who´s next to last, and then, after establishing that he is now el ultimo, sits down in the shade or, if the line is slow enough, goes on another errand.
The system in Inez´house must have worked, because we had a good dinner from several lines. In three courses, there was chicken, rice, potato soup, bread, meat loaf, cucumbers, ham, limonada, and Romanian and Cuban wine.
That was before the depression of the 90´s. Food, I´m told and told and told (including by U.S. liberals who, being pro-democracy now, also don´t know the Cuban depression is over), was scarce from 90 to 95. But there was apparently enough in 1989, and when I returned in 2000, I was destined to find there was plenty again.
Cubans are talkers, and 10 Cubans never stop. One sister was in pest control and verified that both mosquitos and malaria were almost gone, as Jose had told me. Actually, there are still mosquitoes now, but I´m always assured they are benign blood-suckers who don´t make you sick. Either a brother or a sister´s husband boasted that their type of TV antenna, a status symbol it seemed, could get U.S. stations, which they thought showed them life in America. Even truly universal education produces few realists.
The house was so crowded, I learned, because, trying to make sure everyone lived in good houses instead of the kind of makeshift shelter that does for most of the third world, something they were well aware of, people had been packed into all the good housing available. They´d built a lot of institutional apartment buildings, too - huge, vertical concrete blocks called edificios - but like all governments everywhere, I interpolated aloud, they´d been unexplainably blind to the fact that run-away population growth kept the problem ahead of the solution. The population of Cuba had nearly doubled since 1959.
Inez said that the government WAS aware of that in 1989 and women were encouraged then to have only one child and no more than two. If so, I thought, that put their government ahead of Washington.
In Cuba, one is always observing rapidly moving history. By 2004, (though I didn't know it in 1989), Cuba would almost stop growing, and, by 2005, the population would reportedly start dropping, and, due to population stability, construction, planning, whatever, I would not see any homes in the 00's as crowded as Inez's home was in 1989. Population counting in Cuba, by the way, is almost certainly accurate (unlike almost anywhere else in the world), because there are about 100,000 neighborhood organizations there, within which the persons responsible for reporting the population at census time definitely know everyone.
I heard for the first time from Inez's grandmother of the shanties that used to ring Havana and of how they'd torn them all down after the revolution. She remembered that well and told me with indignation and a few tears how the poor had lived. But in 1989, Inez and Jose´s home was certainly happy, healthy, talkative, well fed, and full.
And the next day, the flour-white beaches from Playa Santa Maria to Guanabo, were as full of sunbathers and the warm turquoise edge of the gulf as full of waders as if everybody had the day off. Sunbathing is an activity you´d think would draw mostly pale people who need it, but on an excursion out of the city, in a shared jitney to Santa Maria and onward on foot along the shore to Guanabo, I saw a full color range, including some Swedish looking blondes. Although this beach was for Cubans rather than tourists, maybe they were Swedish. I wasn't the only outsider even in 1989 who ignored the government´s supposed efforts to keep tourists and Cubans apart. I´ve never been sure those supposed efforts weren´t more myth than reality, by the way. I think it depended on what bureaucrat was present.
Skimpy Cuban swimwear doesn´t hide the skeletal frames of the starving, so I know I saw no underfed bodies among the thousand or so visible as I walked four miles or more of beachfront. In fact, I got a lot of pictures of some beautifully healthy bodies.
I had lunch in a bungalow beach restaurant near Guanabo where the mood was spoiled by another locked door arrangement, this time a gate with a padlocked chain. Another bureaucratic waiter at first told me foreigners couldn´t sit on the patio, urging me to go into the bar. But, being an arrogant individualist and, also, a compulsive teacher of individuals and of entire systems that need it, I insisted that he put me at a patio table. Being a stubborn bureaucrat, he got even. When he told a couple at the gate that there were no tables, which was a lie, and I told him they could share mine, he said they wanted to be inside, which was another lie. Eventually, he let them in and gave them a table on the far side of the patio.
I felt oppressed by the guy and so did the natives. When a crowd built up at the gate, a young man there got mad and organized a rebellion, which was just that they all left and were soon replaced by others. But then another youth at the gate, seeing empty tables, demanded to talk to the manager and was shown into some inner office. Though the place operated much the same as the Italiano, the Cubans didn´t seem used to it. And I wondered if it was just two stupid on-site managers. The Chinese restaurant I´d seen wasn´t run that way, nor was the popular cafeteria on La Rampa, nor an Italian place I´d looked into on Infanta, and there were snack shacks along the beach that operated just like their counterparts on California beaches.
Since this door locking system would be gone by my second trip to Cuba in 2000 (except in some bureaucratic situations like ticket offices), it only matters as an indication of a mind set that existed in 1989 that would change (I think) as Cuban socialism shook off a lot of Russian influence and found its own personality.
Two homely but very bold girls, camped on the slope of a dune, insisted that I have a seat on their part of the sand and talk. They told me the beach houses we could see were available to vacationing Cuban families who waited long enough on a list. They said it might help to know someone. Eventually, they wanted me to host their excursion into a tourist facility (some kind of resort) so discreetly screened and separate I wouldn´t have noticed it if they hadn´t pointed it out. To get in, we had to cross a foot bridge, and a guard on the bridge wouldn´t let Cubans pass.
To me it seemed foolish to keep them out and foolish to want in. I didn´t want in. But to them it was the grass on the other side of the fence. I had no trouble figuring out that such places were for separating tourists from their dollars, not to give Cubans a taste of capitalism and that the bureaucrats had decided that If they were full of Cubans spending pesos, they´d be useless. This was another attitude I would find mostly gone in the 00's, but in '89, such places gave Cubans the smell of capitalism, and the smell was more enticing than the taste for my two friends.
These girls weren´t hustlers, but they considered me a find and wanted me to go home with them and maybe underwrite a party. Since I´d had a hard time getting to the beach, they decided to show me how to hitchhike. There was nothing to it. We all stood by the road with our right arms extended at 7 or 8 o´clock, palms down, and waggled our fingers. It didn´t work and we took the bus, the girls telling me about the passing scene. A thicket of tall edificios was Alamar; ¨mas por alla,¨ though I couldn´t see it, was Cojimar, the scene of ¨The Old Man and the Sea;¨ a busload of young people in green going the other way, the first military I had seen, were some kind of cadets going somewhere for training; a place that flickered by on the left just before we entered the ¨toonail¨ (which I understood meant tunnel only when we dived into it) was a lively peso cafe where tourists and Cubans could mix freely. I liked those two homely girls, but the $40 I´d come to Cuba with was scattering, and I couldn´t fulfill their expectations.
Hiking again up Neptuno, at a nameless corner where two dumpsters placed there for a project were being used for everything, I saw an extremely dirty and tattered, ageless man, digging carefully through the mess in search of something. One seldom asks such derelicts what they are doing and my Spanish was a good excuse not to. So, all I know is that, poor as that part of Havana looked, he was the only poorly dressed person, the only person who looked anything like a street person, that I saw in Cuba in 1989.
Nearing La Rampa and the Capri after another long hike through Centro, passing into Vedado on N Street, I came to a full scale wedding scene. A wedding chapel like a Greek temple climbed a knoll via elaborate stairways inside a wall that also contained the fantastic dripping root system of banyan-like trees. All the guests, approaching under the mural of roots, trailing up and down the stairs, filling the portico, were extravagantly decked out in suits and gowns. Taking pictures from a bus stop across the street, I asked a college age youth apparently waiting for a bus if they were Greek Catholics. He told me he often wondered too, but since most Cubans are atheists, ¨more than half,¨ he said, he thought they just liked the costumes, the ceremony, and the looks of the place.
To show off their shoes and clothes, Cubans, like Spaniards, walk the streets a lot. The nightly promenade in tropical Havana looks more like a party than it is. It´s mostly walking and meeting friends, and maybe it was just the inevitable musical accompaniment that made me think if I joined in on what I thought might be my last night in Havana, something romantic would happen.
I don´t remember the Coppelia ice cream park, and maybe it wasn´t there in ´89, but a crowd swarmed around the theater facing where Coppelia is now, at the corner of La Rampa and L, waiting to see ¨Born in East L.A.¨ Threading the edges, I found myself in step with two women of two colors, and I wondered aloud if everyone would get in. They told me not to worry. ¨Hay espacio por todo.¨ And then, since I didn´t really care, they asked who I was, where I was from, and where I was going. It very quickly developed that I was going with them, to an outdoor dancing and beer drinking place especially built for the 30th anniversary of the revolution.
These girls must have been in the kind of CDR Jose and Inez had implied was the wrong kind. Every time I said something critical, which is my nature, they shhh'd me dramatically. I don´t know if any impression I got from them was valid. I took them at least half seriously then. But I wouldn´t now.
According to them, I musn't speak English or flash any dollars. They were of a suspicious nature and wouldn´t believe I couldn´t understand everything they said. ¨If you speak Spanish, you can understand Spanish!¨ As a joke, they began speaking in mock deliberation, as if to a slow child, which was fine with me, but they continued to believe I was being somehow cunning, which I think they admired.
Supposedly, I shouldn´t have been there because the beer was sold for pesos, far too cheap for tourists, and after I'd run out of all the pesos I'd bought, each time I slipped another of my last dollars (which I'd decided I might as well dump) to one of them, she had to go out the gate and slyly change it to pesos in the street before buying another round. They were theatrical about everything, so it didn't surprise me that one wanted me to be present the next day for some kind of shady transaction in a Miramar apartment that required a tourist's or a foreigner's presence. I didn't try to understand it, because I knew I wasn't going to be there. What interested me more was that there was absolutely no difference in manner, personality, or self confidence between them that could be attributed to race. Nothing could have made it clearer that I was in a very special and different place. Anyway, we danced and etc. and had a good time.
And the tourist I'd started out pretending to be? Well, I'd lost interest in that tourist. Much later that night, I advised him via my notes that he could just as well be his own reporter as I, put out his own publication (a chain letter to friends and family would do), and be just as protected by the First Amendment as any other publisher. I'd found a much better story - a scoop, though it shouldn't have been - a story that required another trip to Cuba and a lot more research.
In less than a week in Havana, meeting nobody but healthy, well dressed, apparently middle-class working people, I'd easily seen the absence of any sign of the famous suffering the victims of communism were supposed to be doing - no sign of poverty, nobody starving.
It didn't make sense, but I couldn't escape it. Not only was somebody lying, a lot of people were constantly, cooperatively and thoroughly lying on an heroic scale. This place was only the famous 90 miles away, but there was a b.s. curtain hung purposely between - it had to be purposely - that was opaque. And it was either hung insidiously by a very big team of cynical liars who knew what they were doing, or instinctively and tacitly by a vast flock of disgustingly gullible dopes. Had I discovered why they didn't want Americans to come to Cuba? To keep them from finding out that communism (which I wasn't sure I was seeing) works?
Of course, there was more to see; I only saw a fraction of Havana in 1989, but if Cuba were the basket case U.S. politicians and media claimed, I wrote in my notebook, it should have been apparent at once; there should have been a nightmare plainly before me. There were cultural differences and some economic differences, sure, even some things that might have been sad if I were more into material possessions than I am, and some things I didn't like, but, in fact, all the Cubans I saw were clearly living a better life than most people in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, or East LA. Boy, wouldn't the U.S. papers be glad and excited to get this story?