An old man with a dignified cane
and a white suit, like an extra in a 50's musical, slow-walked across my
crowded view. I was at a table almost blocking the front door of Café Paris
(pahREES) watching a wide door-shaped slice of the colorful life of Habana
Vieja criss-crossing the intersection of Obispo and San Ignacio Streets.
The old man exited frame right, then reappeared on
the Obispo Street side of the Paris, which is an open trellis, as a black
and white flow of moving photographic dots, jerking along like an old time
news reel until he was met, engulfed, and passed by a swift montage of flickering
yellow and white diamonds going the other way.
This counter flood of color entered the door-framed
stage of the intersection as a healthy flock of white bloused, yellow mini-skirted
high school girls - maybe half their teenage air of impossible sophistication
temporarily abandoned to their vanilla ice cream cones.
Though a car or a bicitaxi or a coco-cab may for
no clear reason sometimes appear, San Ignacio and Obispo are both pedestrian
streets, and all kinds and colors of pedestrians filled my view - even some
clowns headed for the cathedral to pose with tourists for tips. But I saw
few fat people and no dirty or ragged people. A constant multi-fashion show
reflected the Cuban preoccupation with clothes and shoes, and the shoes parading
past (though they often made less sense) almost always looked newer and better
than my old huaraches or the scuffed tennies of the tourists bunched around
the high Infotur window on the corner diagonally across from my door.
A slender Che-bereted, apparently unarmed cop stood
in the middle of the swirl, watching (like me) an out-moded girl clicking
by in the ridiculously elevated shoes and fluttering silky miniskirt of 2002.
Modern, very '05 chicks wore subdued colors, flat shoes or sandals and hiphugger
pants to show off their trim hard bellies.
It was the last Wednesday of March, 2005, my plane
from Tuxtla Guttierez had arrived late the night before, and I was downtown
looking for a friend I was foolishly worried about, but I wasn't finding
Five months before, from Santiago, Chile, I'd mailed
downloaded copies of Chapter Six of this book to the Cuban bureaucrats in
Washington and Havana who'd needlessly complicated my '04 island visit, to
be sure they read my account of their bureaucratic blockheadedness and my
constructive criticism of Cuban press restrictions. I'd sent her a copy with
a cover letter to drop off at the letters-to-Fidel office on Plaza de la
Revoluciňn. Then, overreacting to the third world paranoia that pervades
South America but has nothing to do with Cuba, I'd regretted doing that.
At the Havana airport the night before, I'd been
kept waiting while my passport was taken someplace to be discussed with someone
- a Honduran border type experience new for me in Cuba. Now I'd learned my
friend no longer worked where she had, and the staff there didn't know where
she was, and I was over-reacting again. It was only a submerged nagging little
worry, but it was there.
Airport security, after all, may have been worried
that the lamination is broken loose next to the picture on my passport; and
nobody I knew was there that morning in the place where she'd worked before.
Neither was the cook at the Paris who knew her. So I walked east looking
for the main old-town bank to get in on the new money situation on my way
to Dos Hermanos, a breezy waterfront bar where we have other friends, including
a bathroom attendant someone once told me is an influential relative of Fidel's
(not wanting to spoil the legend, I've never asked her). If nobody there
knew where my friend had been transferred, I'd cut over on Luz Street to
the still unrestored south-side ruins where she lives and ask her mother.
But first I needed some new "convertible"
pesos. Neither the cab from the airport nor the woman who'd rented me my
room in Vedado nor the cashier at Cafeteria de La Rampa where I'd had my
morning coffee had wanted my outlander's money, and I was quickly exhausting
the few new pesos I'd traded some of my euros for at the airport.
There were still two money sectors in Cuba. Most
Cubans were still earning and spending the same old pesos - moneda nacional
- the national money. But tourists who had been required to spend dollars
before now had to use a new kind of money called convertible pesos, which
they had to buy in the bank. Actually, the money wasn't new. Convertible
pesos had been around for awhile, but they had suddenly been empowered.
I can never remember if the bank is on San Ignacio
or Mercaderes or maybe neither. A lot of colonial buildings in Habana Vieja
look like banks. In other Latin American countries, I'd look for military
looking cops in front with AK's. But Cuba's not like that. You see cops with
machine guns outside banks only when an armored car comes and goes. The place
I wanted has showy stairs and big doors and looks bankish, but there's a
building like that on the same corner of both streets, and I always seem
to try the wrong street first.
So I broken-field walked slowly in the morning heat
through a diminishing flow of jaunty, dressed up Cubans, as I left touristy
Obispo Street behind, looking up and down every cross street and dodging
a lot of dusty new construction scaffolding. Going south, I expected to encounter
more and more as-yet unsanded and unpainted decay, but it looked like the
ambitious old-town restoration project was racing up the street ahead of
In the bank, a guard pointed out the three windows
busily dispensing the new Cuban pesos and directed me to join a small crowd
in the closest chairs - some tourists but mostly Cubans who had dollars from
outside relatives or from working in the tourist sector. They had been as
free as the tourists to spend their artificial wealth in dollar venues, but
now they too had to first change their dollars to convertible pesos.
I asked, "El ultimo?" ("Who's last
in line?") A woman raised her hand and I told her I was after her and
asked who she was after, just in case she left. The guy had gone somewhere,
she said, but he'd be back. So the line nobody stood in (one of the first
things you learn in Cuba) was longer than it looked, but there were three
A board on the wall listed the euro as 1.26 convertible
pesos and one dollar as one convertible peso, but with a 10% surcharge for
dollar transactions. So I thought I finally knew the score, but I didn't.
The surcharge would zoom up to 18% a week later.
But I knew more than I had in San Diego, where news
of Cuba is so sparse and warped, I'd been thinking I'd be spending only euros
just as I'd spent only dollars before, or I might be spending euros in the
street and dollars for my rent. So I'd arrived with 1,000 dollars and 1,000
euros (which had cost me $1,400 in San Diego) and then found out I could
only spend convertible pesos. Based on the bank's scoreboard that day, my
pocket calculator told me $2,400 U.S. dollars in my pocket would have been
worth exactly the same in convertible pesos as the combination I had - actually,
with some official looking extra decimals on the board that day figured in,
a little bit more. So the under-rating of the euro and the 1-to-1 rate for
the dollar before figuring the surcharge was all slight of hand.
The change in Cuban international exchange loyalty
from the dollar to the euro was not the story the outside press had pumped
it up to be. The real story was that tourists had to use Cuban money now
that was worth more than theirs - inflation for outsiders and for Cubans
with money from Miami, but not for most Cubans or for Cuba.
Prices had not gone up at all on the Cuban menus
and rate sheets for taxis, hotels, and stores, and prices in the mercados
had dropped from the year before. Inflation almost doesn't happen in Cuba.
But for tourists, the dollar sign now meant convertible pesos, and the new
convertible peso was worth a bit more than $1.11 or 79 euro cents when I
got there. I'd paid the airport cab a twenty, as usual. The only difference
to the cabdriver was what he called the money. He was paid a salary in moneda
nacional, anyway. But the new twenty convertible peso note had cost me
15.87 euros, i.e. $22.22. My room had still been 25 in a private home, but
that was now 25 convertible pesos that I'd had to buy for 19.82 euros ($27.75).
By the time I left a month later, the convertible peso would be worth a bit
less than $1.22, almost as much as moneda nacional had been worth
in 1989, when they'd pegged the old peso supposedly permanently at $1.25.
When I got to the window and traded $300 for 270
convertible pesos and 70 euros for 87.50 (the 50 centavos in the fake looking
tourist change that imitates American change in size), the teller gave me
a precise computer produced receipt for those two transactions. But when
I handed her back one convertible peso and asked for one peso pieces in moneda
nacional to use older public telephones and buy peanut cones, she gave
me 25 of the beautiful old coins with no paper work at all, as if they didn't
But they did. As I continued my hike in the sun through
the freshly restored, sanded, and newly painted facades of that part of Old
Havana, still on my way to Dos Hermanos, I checked my coins to make sure
some of them had stars on one side. Only the star pesos work in the old street
phones, and one of those old star pesos, though supposedly worth only four
U.S. or convertible peso cents, had bought me a phone call to Havana from
the Isle of Youth the year before. I supposed it still would.
Striding toward the malecon and the docks across
Plaza San Francisco, now bordered on its landward sides by smoothly restored
facades all done up in ice cream colors, their ground floors divided into
shops and cafes and services as neatly as an airport lobby, I wondered for
the umpteenth time if that's where the Pearl of San Francisco Café supposedly
was. But I couldn't even imagine meeting Harry Morgan striding the other
way past any bums drinking out of the fountain on his way to the first gunbattle
scene in To Have and Have Not. The fountain was there, but no bums
- just a peanut vendor I gave three old pesos without stars for three peanut
cones. Walking on past the stone lions spitting up water I'm sure I wouldn't
drink, living high munching peanuts in the peso economy, I thought they should
now just burn all the paper moneda nacional (keeping the old coins)
and start paying Cuban salaries with convertible pesos.
When I suggested that in Dos Hermanos, the young
bartendress I used to tease because her panties were longer than her skirt,
but whom I now found, when I leaned over the historic old bar to look, wearing
a petite new blue pants-suit, assumed a pose, gave me her same-old cocked-head
crooked smile, and said, "Ojala!" which means, "Don't I wish!"
But her long-faced partner told me with a fair appearance
of confidence that by '06 Cuba will finally take my suggestion and have only
one money. His confidence quickly wilted and he recast that as a rumor, but
the bartendress, who has curly black hair over a pale Greek face and a laconic
smile and always turns her little Greek head dramatically, whirled a surprised
look at him and wanted to know if they'd all have convertible pesos then
instead of moneda nacional . She hoped they would.
Laboriously digging all my peanuts out of their tight
paper cones onto a plate, to munch them more easily with a Bucanero beer,
I told her it doesn't matter. All money is a fantasy - an arbitrary medium
of exchange. Work and products are the real things, and the money they use
in '06, whether it's new pesos or old pesos, will be worth what the state
says it's worth for busses or rent or pants-suits or peanuts. What I wondered
was: if every Cuban could afford to buy peanut cones as fast as the tourists
do, could Cuba produce that many peanuts? I'd already learned that the '03
and '04 drought hadn't ended.
The woman mopping the floor said Cubans don't live
in the streets the way tourists do. I said, "Hola," because she
was only letting me know she remembered me, but she was right, and my comment
about peanuts wasn't mathematically logical, anyway.
If Cuban salaries in '06 are in respectable pesos
again, as they were in '89, and if prices stay the same both above and below
the line, Cubans will pay the same proportion of their salaries as always
for most things they regularly buy with moneda nacional now, gaining
nothing in the vegetable market, for instance. But, simultaneously, their
pesos will be the same as tourists' pesos in what used to be called dollar
stores and even in Dos Hermanos, if they can ever spare a peso to go there.
Meanwhile, there won't be any cheap pesos anymore for tourists to buy and
then pay (to them) 8/10 of a cent to ride a camel bus or 4 cents for a peanut
cone. So there will be inflation for tourists but a combination of stability
for necessities and dramatic deflation for luxuries for Cubans. If that's
what happens, it'll underscore what's obvious anyway, that Cuba is one place
where the government takes care of the people.
But, I reflected, one of the expensive convertible
pesos for a peanut cone will be too much. Some of the prices right on the
line will need adjusting. Writing this back in California, I realize I've
never noticed if Cubans pay a peso for peanuts. There's often a difference,
and a peso with or without a star is the same as $1 to them now in terms
of vegetables or movie tickets or ice cream. But if they do, since I know
for a fact that peanut vendors, working between the peso economy and the
tourist trade, make four or five times as much as other Cubans do, if the
bartender's rumor comes true, I'm going to suggest that peanut cones be pegged
at 20 convertible cents, the same as city-busfare will presumably be.
Sometimes my suggestions are taken. The summer before,
I'd found new flower boxes blocking most of Dos Hermanos's friendly open
front, barricading insiders away from the open malecon and the bay, courtesy
I assumed of the same mentality that had made Plaza San Francisco look like
a California shopping mall. But after the third time I told them I'd never
come back until they removed the boxes, they'd removed them, so I could again
sit at a table half in, half out in the breezy sunshine, nearly mixed with
the waterfront sidewalkers, where I've met so many Cubans on these pages.
I may have been seconded by Italian, Spanish, and
Mexican Cubaphiles who like the place, too. Probably also by some Miamistas
who regularly play bigshot there for their island relatives. La Floridita
(where they now have a statue of Hemingway sitting stiff and hard as a mummy
on one of the stools) is, by contrast, buried in traffic at the top of Obispo
Street, a dozen blocks from the waterfront in any of three directions, and
looks inside like a stuffy hotel bar. Maybe it was better when Papa was on
that stool in the flesh. La Terraza, his favorite water hole in Cojimar,
better have been different in 1936, when poor fishermen in The Old Man
and the Sea supposedly drank Hatuey there. Though it still hangs right
over the bay, the diners all come to La Terraza in taxis now and there are
white cloths and expensive menus on the tables. But Dos Hermanos, one of
the two best places to drink and talk in Cuba, the other being Palatino's
in Cienfuegos, is real and democratic, full of ancient tiles and fresh salty
air and wide open to the waterfront.
This is where Harry Morgan should have met his shady
clients and ducked bullets, but Hemingway, whose taste in bars was not as
good as his writing, never even mentioned the place. It was supposedly Garcia
Lorca's hang out, but Lorca wasn't in Cuba much more than a week. In any
case, it's been my favorite Havana hang out since I had my first and last
nose numbing daiquiri there way back at the turn of the century.
El Muelle de La Luz (The Light Street Pier) is across
the malecon 100 yards south, a good place for Harry Morgan to have tied up
his boat, except it's the ferry terminal, where you pay almost nothing to
putter slowly across the harbor to either Regla or Casablanca on a low, light-weight
flatboat with no seats, pointy-ended but barely more than a float, slippery
when wet, handy for bicyclers, romantic for lovers holding each other up,
adventurous for kids trying to stand swaying with no hands, fun for tourists,
but a bit tricky for off-balance old folks and high-heeled women hanging
on to scarce rails and stanchions.
From my table, I could see a small crowd waiting
down there in the sun by a small snack stand just off the malecon pavement,
obviously lightly dressed for the heat and not supplied for a trip to Miami,
I noted to myself. But they'd be accompanied on their short voyage across
the bay by a cop now, I also thought, with a large, visible pistol - a rarity
in Cuba and a bitter reminder of a day two years before when a gang of 11
totally useless assholes, one with a gun, several holding knives to the necks
of woman tourists, insanely forced one of the tiny water busses out onto
the stormy sea, where they threatened to kill all 40 passengers when a police
boat caught them miles off the coast, puttering in the direction of Florida
but with only enough gas to go out too far and probably sink.
To the whistles and cheers of a lot of civilized
people who've ridden that ferry, including me, Cuba expeditiously tried and
convicted the creeps (they were arrested at the scene of the crime and there
were plenty of witnesses, both cops and ferry passengers) and promptly shot
only the three worst offenders - the first use of Cuba's legal death penalty
in many years. The quick justice was hypocritically condemned by American
media, which were at that very time (April '03) whistling and cheering for
the "smart" bombing without a trial of nobody knows how many innocent
Iraqis in retaliation for a similarly vicious and mindless hijacking no Iraqi
had anything to do with.
You know every word of the last paragraph is accurate.
You didn't know what the ferries are like or about what actually happened
until I told you. And the following also comes from "the gaping hole
in the main stream news" this website is helping to fill.
The executions abruptly stopped a string of boat
and plane hijackings terrorizing the Cuban people, "masterminded"
in Miami to smear the revolution and encouraged by Florida officials who
freed the hijackers and kept, sold, or gave away the Cuban boats and planes.
These incidents followed a lot of bluster from the White House barbarian
who owes his presidency to Florida and has Cuba high on the list of 50 countries
he's boasted he'll "end." And they coincided with the arrival in
Cuba of a new U.S. rep (one James Cason) sent by the barbarian with orders
to misuse his diplomatic immunity to go around meeting with internal dissidents
and to actively encourage them to revolt.
Also exactly then, your "free" media did
tell you Cuba arrested 75 dissident "journalists" and sent them
to prison. But they didn't tell you that, unlike hundreds of Arab-Americans
snatched without charges or warrants in '01 and hundreds of other people
snatched in Afghanistan and stuck in Guantanamo cages for years without charges,
the Cuban "journalists" were indicted, tried, and convicted with
plenty of evidence for having been recruited, trained, directed, supplied,
and paid - in a time of ongoing low level war - by the agents of self declared
foreign enemies in Washington and Miami to subvert the Cuban revolution.
The San Francisco Chronicle slipped up and printed one article (April 23,
'03, A10) about the evidence presented in the first of a series of world
press conferences in Havana. Then maybe somebody called and told the Chronicle
to get in line or maybe the AP reporter stopped covering the story or maybe
I didn't see the subsequent stories, but I was looking and I think there
was that one story and then the usual cover-up.
A few silly international leftists just generically
against the death penalty let western media use them to color Cuba's defensive
actions as human rights abuses before other leftists (unreported to Americans
but well known elsewhere), especially top South American novelist Mario Benedetti
of Uruguay, very rightly blasted them for their pious asininity, and some
of them woke up and changed their minds but not on any U.S. front pages.
As the boat arrived and the embarking and disembarking
passengers crossed paths, several wheeling away on their bikes, I also remembered
a vacationing red-headed nurse from Cienfuegos, who once decided to watch
for the boat to Casablanca from Dos Hermanos's shade instead of standing
in the sun and volunteered herself and her little girl to be interviewed
at my sidewalk work table. She told me they were staying with relatives in
Casablanca and they were worn out from walking around Havana for hours. Since
I thought I was drinking Cuba's Soroa white wine on special, I bought a glass
for her and a tuKola for her daughter.
After she'd missed several boats, we decided to suspend
the interview while she saw the kid home. By the time she got back three
boats later, I'd learned the bar had run out of Soroa (from nearby Pinar
del Rio), and I'd been paying for an expensive import, so I was a bit pissed.
It didn't help that she brought her cousin back with her, a handicapped girl
with one short leg who'd never researched Havana by night before. Then at
Café Paris, where the band was hot and the dancing was free, the nurse, after
putting on a great show dancing with a California valley girl, got pissed
because I was interviewing her cousin (whose freshness intrigued me) too
deeply in her opinion, and then two English women I knew from Baracoa came
in and while I was interviewing them, the nurse and her cousin both got pissed
and left. I woke up later realizing I'd forgotten the Paris' bill and made
a friend for life next day when I went back, found the same waiter there,
and paid it.
Of course it cost me an extra cab fare from Vedado
to do that. It's because of the unexpected twists and turns my research takes
that my expenses can't rationally be limited and specified by inexperienced
rightwing hacks in their musty Washington offices faking up quasi-legal guidelines
for journalistic activities in Cuba. Just before he died, Hemingway thought
the CIA was spying on him, too, due to similar officious nosiness about his
fabled friendship with Fidel, whom he actually only met once.
Nobody at Dos Hermanos knew where my friend was working,
so I turned south out the door and on the next corner, not Luz Street yet
but the short dead-end Santa Clara Street, which, like Dos Hermanos, is between
Sol and Luz (Sun and Light) Streets, I encountered a cop with a police dog
curled up asleep at his feet.
"Que cosa!" I barked, waking up the dog.
"What's going on? I've never seen anything like this in Cuba!"
The German shepherd cast its eyes up at me sheepishly.
The cop claimed they'd had police dogs in Havana
for two years, which I didn't believe but which dated them and the bigger,
more visible pistols I was seeing on cops (when they had pistols at all)
back to that same series of terrorist hijackings in the winter of '02 and
'03. So the U.S. encouraged terrorism had not only smeared Cuba, it had bluffed
them into smearing themselves.
I asked the cop if he'd ever seen the Ali movie,
"When We Were Kings," and he actually had. But, when I reminded
him of the scene where George Foreman arrived in Africa with a dog just like
the one trying not to be noticed at our feet and lost all his fans because
the Africans equated police dogs with fascism, he protested that the dogs
were to better protect tourists.
Two smiling and gossiping young men were coming up
Santa Clara Street without shirts and he interrupted himself to point at
them and tell them to put some shirts on before they came out onto the malecon.
They turned around with no break in their private conversation and walked
back the way they'd come.
Then he cited an incident when an elderly tourist
had supposedly lost both her purse and a neck chain to a kid on the run that
a dog could have caught. But I told him (1) I couldn't picture the running
kid making the double grab, (2) we both knew a dog wouldn't have been on
the spot anyway, and (3) I considered the fabled crime less serious than
a police dog mauling a kid.
A guy I'd thought was with the shirtless men had
come out of the side street, stopped to listen, and asked me if there are
police dogs where I come from. "Sure," I said, "but this is
Cuba where people's dignity has to be respected."
"But I think there's more to it," he said
and asked if I was Italian. When I told him I'm from California, he said
he knew somebody in Los Angeles, which everybody in the world does, and I
let him change the subject, which gratified the cop but probably not his
dog, who was yawning and stretching the way dogs do to let you know they'd
like a pat.
I knew what the civilian had decided not to tell
me. I'd heard it before from Cubans who trust me. The dogs and the new big
pistols aren't to scare kids. They're to tell agents from Miami and their
stupid internal stooges that staging another international incident isn't
going to be easy. Before I went on to Luz Street, though, I asked the cop
to pass on my comments to his boss along with my urgent suggestion that the
dogs be sent the way of the Dos Hermanos flower boxes. He said he would,
and the other man said, "Ciao."
On Luz, a very long short-cut I always use through
the heart of what has always looked to me like a neglected neighborhood unlikely
ever to be reached by the restoration project, I saw that an energetic clean-up
was in fact going on, scaffolding was blossoming and some houses had been
painted. I asked two women watching from a doorway what they thought.
They told me their neighborhood was going to look
just as nice as the rest of Cuba. "So you won't have to move to Miramar,"
One of the two was more talkative than the other
and she told me she didn't want to move to Miramar. She asked if I didn't
like Habana Vieja, and I told her what I tell everyone - that they should
have leveled it in '59 and built a communist village city in its place.
She told me she was born in 1971 and had lived half
her life in Centro and the other half on Luz Street. The other woman looked
about the same age and had always lived on another street nearby. White flight
to Vedado and beyond had left the ancient center a typical old-town slum
before the revolution - before their time - so both had lived all their lives
in the shabby time-worn labyrinth that many internationals see as a romantic
musical movie set.
I'm not keen on that view, but, having just returned
from an eight-country South American odyssey that taught me to fear poor-looking
old ghettos, I was too freshly relieved on my first day back by the absence
of any such tension in Cuba to consider the neighborhood undesirable.
In fact, I can't overstate how much I was liking
it. Travelers who always stick to the safety of numbers, never daring to
try out solitary adventure, may not quite get it, but I go everywhere alone
- to meet more people and learn more. Within the previous nine months I'd
poked around alone in Caracas, Maracaibo, Medellin, Bogota, Quito, Guayaquil,
Lima, Cuzco, La Paz, Santiago, Valparaiso, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and
some rough enough smaller places, too. I'd been told everywhere, "Don't
go here! Don't go there! Stay close to the plaza where there are plenty of
cops and soldiers! Stay inside at night! And don't trust anyone!" I'd
learned the hard way to believe it, too, and I was experiencing an almost
sickening relief at being safe again in Havana where those rules don't apply
and the streets are not crawling with cops and soldiers scaring me
to death, either. Of course Havana is a big city where things can happen,
but the difference is extreme.
But to the Cubans, who've only heard of the
desperation of poverty and the menace of heavily armed police in capitalist
cities, it's something else. Habaneros see their city as San Franciscans
see theirs. To the Cuban women, more than to any devoted tourist, it was
special. Fidel, who'd been the president all their lives and whom they'd
grown up trusting as if he were the Wizard of Oz, had told them it would
be even more special, and the vision was now coming true in front of their
But just on the surface, I said, not necessarily
inside the buildings. The talkative one said some buildings had already been
renovated throughout while the tenants stayed with their families and then
moved back into a like-new building. She didn't say what is most special
about that, because she took it for granted. But I'll tell you, so if you
go to Havana and see this happening, you'll see it happening. The restoration
of Habana Vieja and Centro isn't gentrification - for lawyers and doctors
and artists' lofts. It's for the people who live there. The old city they
call home is being restored around them, presumably with no increase in anybody's
monthly house payment.
I could see past the talkative woman through her
door that her place already looked sharp due to her own energy, cleverness,
and (undoubtedly) thrift - way ahead of schedule and waiting for the general
renovation to catch up. But it was on the street. Interior homes, maybe sharp,
too (and maybe not), were and still are cheapened and disgraced by the dark
and dilapidated halls and stairs still waiting for the restoration miracle
I think will be a long time coming, maybe not before a number 9 earthquake
leaves all of old and central Havana knee-high. And I asked them if Fidel
will live long enough to keep his promises.
That was clearly on their minds, though the talker
assured me it's not just Fidel's project. But I told them I'd seen Fidel
looking very old on the malecon the previous May and June. "How is he
The other woman told me I'd see him on TV. "Only
on TV now," she said. And then she surprised me and earned a mild rebuke
from her friend by performing a short pantomime of the sagging old president
talking on TV. Her imitation looked alarmingly like my friend Marvin's recent
comic imitations of the pope at death's door. The talkative woman assured
me her friend was exaggerating, though. "Es viejo, si, pero - ya fuerte."
He's old, of course, but still very strong.
One of the most ridiculous lies about Cuba is that
people there are afraid to talk about "Castro." One too-slick travel
guide that looks like a Moony publication to me, filled with dishonest cheap
shots, claims Cubans just silently stroke their chins to suggest a beard
and to caution you to silence. In fact, Cubans talk freely and call Fidel
"Fidel," but I know that lie has been distributed to internal dissidents
because, talking to maybe a thousand Cubans, I've actually seen two people
do the chin stroking bit, both of them jineteros driving illegal taxis and
both times when I was sharing a ride with first-time, just arrived tourists
- and the drivers didn't realize yet that I wasn't that green.
Neither green nor young. Luz Street was long and
hot that day, and I remembered I'm only 10 years younger than Fidel as I
continued my hike. The preparatory clean-up was evident all the way to the
other side of Monserrate to my friend's house, where I knocked vainly. But
her mother was home next door and, probably still thinking of me as a prospect,
she came out into the street, reached way up to hug me and told me her daughter
was working in a place I'd passed about four blocks back.
I'd never noticed the building, but inside, completely
restored, was a very upscale tourist attraction from yesteryear, not my kind
of place at all, newly staffed with top notch people, waiting for the restoration
project and all the tourists to reach it. Nothing much was happening yet
but busy-work, though. My friend interrupted hers to sit with me in an adjacent
bar and was flattered that I'd been worried about her.
"No problem," she said, stroking my hand
as she talked. "A very fat man took everything out of the envelope and
shook it very hard," she demonstrated by shaking an invisible replica,
"to see if anything would fall out." I remembered the fat man shaking
papers and envelopes in the little office off the government's driveway tunnel
crowded with believers waiting to hand him their letters to Fidel, so he
could shake them, too.
"What was he expecting?" I asked. "It's
a very strange way to look for anthrax."
"They know," she said. "I don't."
A hustler dodged in from the street and interrupted
us to show me some contraband copies of Viagra pills he was selling for $4,
and I shooed him away. I'd seen those before. They don't make anything like
viagra in Cuba, but everybody knows about it.
I told her I'd seen Fidel fall down on TV in Argentina,
and about the Luz Street woman's imitation of him. "How is he?"
"You'll see him on TV," she said.
I went away to do more hiking in the sun and came
back at five, when we walked to her place after backtracking a block uptown,
dodging only Cubans on a drab south-side avenue that used to boom with commerce
and still draws shoppers to a line of state outlets - one a small, crowded
dry-goods store where she'd told me I could buy a lima (a wooden nail
file) and a needle. I was replacing the sharp metal things I'd left in my
car in Mexico to avoid checking my bag on the plane and had already found
a fair pair of scissors that morning in a similar place in Vedado. File boards,
cheap and excellent, were in a loose pile, but needles came in a sealed packet
with thread and a tiny pair of scissors I didn't want that looked like low
quality junk. But it was cheap and I bought it. Cubans often tell me that
state purchasing agents foolishly import cheap goods that won't last instead
of better quality stuff that would save money in the long run. That's the
kind of thing Cubans complain about by the way - not about the political
My friend's tiny apartment was open and active when
we got there, because her oldest daughter, though now ajuntada and
living with her boyfriend's family, was hanging around home. I gave her the
scissors and thread and most of the needles, including the slotted plastic
disk they came in - like a little silver sunburst. I only needed one, which
I'd stick in a spool of thread I had in my pack.
I toured up and down stairs to exclaim over how the
place had been finished since I described it at the end of Chapter Seven.
The new stairs had made it even smaller, but with new painted plaster on
the walls and the underside of the barbacoa, a raft-like divider that
makes a tall room into two stories, and the piles of building materials gone,
it was neat and presentable and comfortable enough for a 300 square foot
She told me she'd be off Friday, and the grown daughter
still didn't have a job, so we decided to go to the beach at Guanabo. Then
the older girl left, we parked her littler girl with a classmate's family
half a block away and told her mom about that, and walked to the big park
by the old capitol where all the bus routes crisscross looking for a tourist
cab to La Fuente, a garden patio restaurant in Vedado.
We purposely hailed a cab already bound west on Bolivar
(aka Reina), but I had to stop the driver from U-turning back down the Prado
toward the malecon, a 20-25 block scenic detour that tourists are counted
on to accept as the only way to go. I'm sure cab drivers are paid by the
month, but tips must go up with the fare. And a lot of cabbies are militants,
so maybe they're just hot to get more tourist money into the state coffers.
This one quickly surrendered the scam, though, and stayed the direct course.
We disappeared from the big green park into a 10-block crumbling trench alternately
posted as Simon Bolivar or as Reina through the worst of Centro, emerged
by a tall cathedral and a big open square really on the same straight west
bound street but renamed Salvador Allende. It became a broad, partly tree-lined
avenue for a dozen more relatively grand blocks, veered between an inner-city
fenced-in forest and a huge architectural pile identified on the map as both
a castle and a hospital, dodged past a Roman looking traffic island monument
and the west end of the university, and then marched straight north-westward
to the Gulf as Presidente, a spectacular divided Vedado boulevard, which
crosses 13th only a half block from La Fuente.
Later, after dinner, finding the usual no cabs on
Presidente, we had to walk to La Linea to catch a yellow and black taxi,
supposedly only for Cubans (but we were an ambiguous pair), back to a corner
of San Ignacio Street where taxis are allowed to penetrate the old town a
block from Club Paris. Going that way, it made sense to take the Malecon,
which didn't matter because, with my friend doing the talking, I paid with
I prefer Vedado with all its trees, lawns, detached
houses (many of the big ones subdivided by the revolution), and run-down
Maggie & Jiggs ambience - because it's much more authentically Cuba than
Habana Vieja, and I like La Fuente because it's a pleasant outdoor patio
with a sunken fountain pool where ducks waddle around the tables feeding
off the floor like vacuum cleaners. It's cheap and the food is good enough.
I have to tell cabbies where it is because the only tourists that go there
are walking from rooms in nearby houses and I've never been bothered by a
hustler there. My friend, who'd never been there before, wished we'd brought
her little girl, because of the ducks, but she was much more at home when
we got back to the more expensive Café Paris, because it's in her part of
"But," I told her, revisiting my pet peeve
while the band played As Time Goes By, "Estamos aqui en la Habana
de antes. Me comprendes?"
"Si," she said, but I don't know if she
did or not. She lives there. She's part of it - maybe too close to really
see it. But, in spite of all the restoration efforts, and maybe because of
them, my imagination X-rayed the walls and ceiling, conjuring up cramped
apartments literally hanging above and around us by the edges of their historic
tile floors off ruined stairways and dreary halls inside the rickety interiors
of the colonial buildings. La Habana Vieja, though they're trying to make
it a wholesome pastel Disney version, is still very much de antes, which
intrigues me and annoys me, maybe partly because the more I go there, the
more I like it, too.
The band played Chattanooga Choo-choo. A youth
who looked like the drummer and was probably his brother came in from the
street, stood by the drummer's elbow and told him something, then, leaving,
saw my friend and and broke into a smile. He ceremoniously faked a cheek
kiss and made ceremonial remarks, I was ceremonially introduced and he shook
my hand and said something, but the bumpity-bump sing-song that Cubans use
in that kind of ceremony escapes me even when it's not bumping into Chattanooga
Choo-choo. Of course he said, "Ciao," when he left. I could
read that off his lips because I expected it.
I'd played the same role in three other such ceremonies
in the street since the yellow and black had dropped us off a block away
on O'Reilly, meeting a waiter from around the corner, a cop, and an old guy
who looked like a neat and clean bohemian, and twice inside the Paris, meeting
the janitress, who sat alone at the table closest to the band listening to
the music, and the cook.
My friend had previously worked right around the
corner in connection with another historic club where I'd met her, where
they play old Cuban music except when tourists want to hear the soundtrack
of "Buena Vista Social Club," which has become as obligatory in
Cuba as Guadalajara in Mexico. Anyway, that's why she knows everybody.
And I'm catching up. When we came in, the waiter I'd astounded in 2002, by
coming back next day to pay my neglected bill from the night before, smiled
largely and instinctively started raising his right hand sideways, and I
could have mirrored the move and we could have slapped our hands together
in a ceremonially fierce upside down hand shake - if I'd wanted to do that.
"The only immortality we have is in our redundancy,"
it says in one of my philosophical notebooks in a box piled with notebooks
all titled Notes to Nowhere, No One, No Avail, waiting for some illiterate
future fire. The band played Yesterday.
We talked about her long cherished wish that she
could live in Casablanca or in Santa Fe, and about my wish that I could draw
my pension in Cuba, so I could live in Baracoa. She said she'd like to visit
Baracoa sometime, but she'd want to take her daughters with her. On this
trip, I was only going to Cienfuegos, but I said that, when I come back to
the island again, maybe I'll take her to Baracoa. She said when she goes
to Baracoa, she'll take herself. The band played Mack the Knife.
It was dark on Obispo Street, though there were still
plenty of strolling people, and even darker going south on empty Bernaza
Street past rows of big, closed cottage-industry doors, where they work on
old cars or on furniture or on something else in the daytime. And, after
we'd found her little girl and her mother waiting up for her at her place
and said, "See you Friday," it was very dark as I walked along
a residential street, passing several groups of careless, talking shadows
and an occasional friendly lighted window toward the Prado.
It was dark in Fraternity Park, too, because what
street lights there are in Old Havana are dim and don't make it through the
trees. I had to watch out for myself crossing the wide intersection at Bolivar
where I could only see the cars by their headlights. I could barely see the
horses and bici-taxis by the noise they made, and it seemed safest to consider
myself invisible. On the sidewalk, waves of shadows that kept coming out
of the darkness became laughing murmuring men, women and children strolling
in their home town only just as we met. It's very strange in the center of
Old Havana in the dark, where it feels warm and friendly and safe though
the night is full of walking ghosts.
Too pleasantly tired to argue over routes, I walked
past the cabs parked in the deep shadows of the old capitol and Central Park
across the street, and past Hotel Inglaterra to catch a cab already pointing
into narrow Neptuno Street - a long one-way alley sized passage - not a tourist
route - but the closest way through Centro to the clean well-lighted French
bakery, Pain de Paris, at 25th and O, where I finished the night with coffee
and a croissant that had spent all day turning into just plain bread for
$1.10 (meaning 1.10 convertible pesos).
Late Thursday afternoon was hot, and I watched Fidel's
weekly speech from the same air conditioned bar stool in La Roca on 21st
Street where I'd made my first notes on Cuban beer, soda, and bar patrons
16 years before in 1989 (in Chapter One). At first, he looked a lot like
the Luz Street woman's imitation, though not like the pope. I'd seen the
dying pope on Mexican TV looking so much like a melting lump of yellow Jello
that I didn't believe he'd said even the few things they were claiming he'd
said. Fidel certainly spoke.
That was clearly the point. Fidel is famous for his
ability to speak for hours. Perhaps no other head of state - maybe Nelson
Mandela - but for sure no American president in my long life - has been as
spontaneously, intelligently articulate. That's obviously why all U.S. presidents
are protected from any face to face meeting with him. And the Cubans are
proud of his rare intelligence and oratory skills - and even that he speaks
for so long. It actually tickles them that, unlike George Bush, who, as many
Cubans and other Latin Americans have scornfully reminded me, can't even
memorize a 5-minute speech well enough to stay grammatical that long and
can't answer random questions because he can't memorize more than a few answers,
Fidel, once he starts, can't be stopped and can't be stumped.
So what I was watching was a demonstration - proof
to the anxious Cubans that their leader still had it. Nothing else justified
the sheer length of the Thursday night speech. I decided I'd never see him
on the malecon again, as I had the year before. I couldn't judge whether
he could safely climb the street platform steps, but he didn't look as if
he should try. He looked as if he had to be protected. He was safe sitting
behind the speakers' table in what may have been a board meeting room but looked big enough to be small theater full of loyal Cubans (apparently some of the bureaucrats who,
in fact, really run Cuba now) and he was visibly alive on TV to people like
the waiter who never carried his tray back into the bar or back out to the
restaurant without pausing long enough in the door to watch and listen to
Fidel. Obviously, for him, since he couldn't be following the speech, the
vision and the voice were the message.
Two women on the last stools around the curve of
the bar to my far left conversed constantly, seldom even glancing at the
TV screen high up on my far right. But the bartender, who had to attend to
them and to me and to his bar polishing, seemed to be keeping track. When
Fidel first brought up the laying pace of Cuban hens and I told him I'd read
that story in Granma nine or 10 months ago, he laughingly agreed and let
me know with his eyes that he was also amused over how long and precisely
Fidel went on about the exact number of eggs each Cuban hen could lay each
day and each year and he caught my eye each time the hens and their eggs
were re-introduced as the speech went on. But this wasn't mean spirited.
The theater audience on the screen were also responding to the repeated theme,
and if they found any hint of senility in it, they appeared more charmed
than bothered by it. I thought perhaps Fidel was changing from father to
grandfather of his country.
But, as he went on and on, he looked and sounded
better and better. I mean that. At first he'd sagged in his chair, constantly
feeling his right shoulder above the arm and wrist that had been fractured
by the fall, frequently pausing, as if to regain strength, overcome a breathing
problem, or endure some private pain, while the audience waited in tense
silence. But before I left, he was upright and speaking steadily and without
difficulty, occasionally arousing laughter or fierce applause. Remember that what you're reading is what I wrote in 2005.
I'd hoped to hear about currency changes that might
be planned for 2006, but when, instead, he started praising the pope, I lost
interest. A pope, to me, is a grotesquely inflated, artificial icon whose
unfortunate influence is a cruel imposition on the ignorant poor, and I was
pretty sure this one was the same one who'd insulted the Nicaraguan people
in 1983 when he refused to "bless" the bodies of soldiers killed
by the Contras and chastised the Sandinistas for taking up arms against the
economic oppression his god wanted the poor to endure.
Having endured enough of the bar's refrigerated air,
I went back out into the tropics. Like the waiter, I'd learned the important
thing, that Fidel was still very much alive and might or might not survive
another American president. It looked possible. It didn't look certain.
Next day, we took a camion, a small truck, to the
beach, catching it at the beginning of its route on a sidestreet off the
malecon north of the train station, so we all got sitting space on the bench
that surrounded the covered bed. I wasn't supposed to be on it and was ordered
not to speak, though I had to be the one to pay the speck of moneda nacional
it cost us, to enhance my image as the obvious head of a fair-sized Cuban
family. I don't think the guy I paid or the cop who got on and rode for awhile
were fooled. I don't think anyone cared. Sometimes some bureaucrat gets uptight
over such stuff, but not often in my experience. I think the girls and their
mom liked the drama of worrying about it. Cubans always love to be theatrical.
It was a long, round-about ride, because the truck
didn't use the tunnel under the harbor mouth. It circled the bay through
Guanabacoa. But it was comfortable for the seated passengers anyway and we
finally got out only a short walk from the beach very close to the old center
of Guanabo. I hadn't been in Guanabo for 5 years, and I was surprised at
the number of neat, new little beach cottages that had been built.
The sand was jammed and the shade under the few sea-side
palms was already taken. But we had a pup tent to dress in and to store our
clothes, lotions, bags, and the sodas and beers I bought at a beach-side
mini-mart out of the sun, and when I was thoroughly burnt I took refuge partly
in it and partly in its slight shadow.
The sand was blinding white and the sea bright transparent
turquoise. We did the same things and wasted time the same way as Californians
on the beach, except that we faced north and waves coming in from the Gulf
Stream were barely more than ripples. Of course, we explored the town and
returned to our camp and mainly watched other sun and surf bathers. There
were some knock-outs. I envied groups that had umbrellas.
Things went awry when we left because we left at
the same time as too many other people and tried to get on the first city-bound
bus, which too many other people were already on and too many more were trying
to get on. By the time I saw it was hopeless and that we should have waited
for the next bus or backtracked the route to its start, the girls had already
wormed their way in and out of sight, my friend had wedged herself like one
of the i's in the Cuban spelling of squiiiiiiiiiiiiiiize behind
the center post of the rear exit, and I had one hand on the same post and
the slippery tip of one sandal on the edge of the bus floor, my other sandal
mired and trying to twist off my foot in the crowd on the steps, which was
trying to push upward and inward to no avail. I had no leverage and anticipated
breaking a shin when my top foot slipped.
Somehow the door shut and the bus went and I was
trying to imagine surviving in that position during an hour-long ride to
the city (I've survived worse in Nicaragua), when a fat woman well inside
pulled the stop cord and yelled for a stop only about 10 or 12 blocks west,
near the edge of town. She was determined to push her way out, which was
her right (though I wondered why she hadn't walked that far), and the people
in her way were determined not to lose their grips. Suddenly she burst through
and everyone on the steps, including me, exploded outward. I somehow landed
on my feet, but, inexperienced since the 80's, I was the last to try to rebound
and found no opening to rebound into.
Others on the steps with no room themselves but laughing
about it were actually urging me to try when I realized my right hand was
covered with blood. Snagged by a rough edge either of the fat woman or the
bus or something else, my thumbnail was lifted like a lean-to - looking almost
detached - and was brightly framed in seeping and dripping blood. I'd learn
next day that my friend was as out of my sight as her daughters because she
had revolved smartly into part of the fat woman's abandoned vacuole.
I relayed my "Adios!" through the sympathetic
human wall filling the door, assuming it would eventually reach her, clamped
my thumbnail into its rightful place with my teeth, watched the bus roar
away, and wondered if I could find one of Cuba's numerous first aid centers
nearby. All the people at the bus-stop were from the city, so I headed for
a nearby café to ask, looking back once to see the small crowd easily entering
a half empty bus following the one that had ejected me. It may not have been
on the same route, but it would have probably worked.
In the clean café bathroom, a lot of cold water and
pressure later, I managed to bind my thumbnail down like a closed lid with
a tight napkin wrap fixed in place by some masking tape the café worker found
in a drawer. While testing it, I clumsily downed a shrimp dish and a Bucanero
with one hand, and told the café worker my tale, which needed no embroidery
to make him laugh. But when I added that I thought they should call the busses
hens instead of camels and the passengers eggs and Fidel could then boast
about how many eggs can be squeezed in and out of "la gran gallina,"
he laughed harder. So I figured I had an act to go with my wound, with which
I could gage Cuban reactions both to the island's worst hardship - public
transportation - and to Fidel's decline.
The blood soon seeped through my wrap job, but it
wasn't pouring. By the time a taxi came by slowly enough to hail, I'd finished
my lunch and reconstructed an improved version of the paper and tape cast
good enough to secure inside a tightly closed fist until I got to the alcohol
and bandages in my pack in Vedado. The cab was 15 convertible pesos and I
wished I'd splurged on it when we left the beach.
I tried my comic repartee on the driver, who was
predictably a militant and therefore patiently explained Cuba's petroleum
shortage to me, but he'd heard the speech the night before and his gently
laughing reaction to the redundant celebration of the heroic Cuban hens helped
convince me that the Cubans' view of their aging president has shifted from
awed respect to protective fondness. I'm repeating myself, but I think Fidel
has become the grandfather of the revolution.
The driver was also the first to tell me of a rumor
I'd hear again, that a Cuban oil reserve off the north coast is now supposedly
nearly certain. About the oil I don't know, but that its possibility is viewed
as a way to finally squelch the influence of the Miamistas on their weaker
minded Cuban relatives is certain. Naturally the militant taxista would view
such a potential windfall as a boost for Cuban socialism rather than as a
doorway for capitalism. I think his is the general view, and I also suspect
there are some potentially treacherous young lions in the government privately
cherishing the other view.
Using any such oil wealth merely as an open-ended
gift certificate from Mother Nature good for anything at the world store
for the foreseeable future might not change that potentially destructive
dichotomy. But using it to develop agricultural and manufacturing self sufficiency
for a reduced and stabilized island population would irrefutably reconfirm
Cuban socialism. I'm sure that both the wisdom and technical knowledge needed
to do that exist among Fidel's political heirs. I hope they prevail over
the stupid greed that I'm also sure exists. The continued success of tourism
may offer the same choices, but there are too many side effects that favor
I saved my nail, but my thumb swelled up so much
I have few notes or e-mails detailing the next three days before I took a
collectivo to Cienfuegos. By then, several things including an incredibly
hypocritical effort by Washington (considering what goes on in Guantanamo)
to get the UN to censure Cuba for human rights abuses, the bold arrival in
Florida of a terrorist who'd murdered a lot of Cubans, and the pope's death
- changed Fidel's Thursday TV appearances into a marathon of nightly speeches
(see "Viva y Habla Fidel" on this website - iammyownreporter.com
- under "Three April '05 Letters From Cuba" in the index).
One of those days, after a long, hot hike past several
mercados and ration centers, comparing explanations for the drop in onion
prices while beans still cost too much, I dropped into a breezy chair in
Dos Hermanos while the bartender and bartendress were watching a TV report
that the pope had died. Lots of people die every day. My only reaction was
regret that they'd probably replace him with another one and, when I'd rested
enough to look for a cab and found the malecon stuck on empty, I didn't even
make a connection.
But the continued emptiness of the street as I walked
north, hoping to meet a cab on my way to the plaza, began to seem unreal.
Then I encountered a multitude of gloomy people crossing the outer park between
the malecon and the cathedral plaza all in very un-Cuban dark suits, who,
since I still saw no taxis, seemed to have just arrived from the Twilight
The proposition that even one person would make a
show of going to church to ceremonially mourn an artificial pope-icon was
still off my philosophical screen. So, it was the existence of all those
dark suits in tropical Cuba, which were clearly there in front of my eyes,
that dismayed me - that, and a sense that their outrageous presence was somehow
to blame for the absence of taxis, since the two weird phenomena were simultaneous.
When I'd gone with the flow far enough to see there
were no taxis in the plaza parking lot, I tried to short-cut across the grass
back to rejoin the curving malecon further on and was stopped by another
(to me) new phenomenon - an unmistakable secret service agent. He also wore
a dark suit, so he blended in like a panther among penguins. I asked him
the most important question: "Where are all the cabs?"
Motioning as if he wanted me to follow the crowd,
he told me I'd probably find one in the center. "You mean way over by
La Floridita?" He shrugged sympathetically, being equally as offensive
and inoffensive as the police dog I'd met.
I about-faced and threaded my way through the dark
and spectral throng until I found myself among normally dressed and livelier
looking people watching the procession from the other side. There I was stopped
again by a small billboard bearing an anachronistic quote from another dead
person, which I decided, mistakenly, was the last straw.
"La patria a nadie debe;" it read,
" todos sus hijos la deben sus servicios." - Felix Varela
(1788 - 1853).
An onlooker wearing a light brown second cousin to
a Panama hat and a white shirt, smoking a cigar, transferred his curious
gaze from the swarm of suits funnelling in toward the cathedral to me, as
if I were momentarily more curious. "De donde viene?" he asked
"I'm from the central coast of California,"
I told him, "Where are you from?"
"Cuba, " he laughed, and to prove I could
dismiss the strange crowd of suits as easily as he, I asked if it was true
that Cubans were now prohibited from smoking in cafes and indoor workplaces.
He looked at his cigar and admitted that that is the new law. "But it's
for the good of everyone's health."
"Cierto! But also, all the taxistas are telling
me suddenly, this year for the first time, that everybody has to buckle his
seatbelt." He said maybe it was the same thing. "Maybe," I
said, "but the taxistas all say it's so they won't have to pay a fine."
Then I asked him what he thought of the quote. "Well, it's famous,"
"The fatherland doesn't owe anybody anything,"
I read. "All its children owe it their services." When I'd read
the same quote off a wall in Gibara and put it up to a passing citizen, he'd
turned out to be an executive member of the Municipal Assembly, unable to
defend the sanctified blather but apparently bound by his sense of official
responsibility not to question it.
Since this guy looked boldly unofficial, I told him
that when an American president had said almost the same thing I'd decided
the man was a fascist. "Why would people do anything for their country
if they didn't expect it to do anything for them?"
He squinted at the quotation on the little billboard
again and told me he saw my point, but then he put on an oratorical look
the way some Cubans do when they're going to imitate Fidel, transferring
his cigar to his left hand so he could use his right index finger.
"What it says here is what someone said; it
doesn't matter." He took a breath, which he would need. "Here in
Cuba, el estado does everything for the people - everything it can
- even when things are bad - but the truth is important. In the special period...
Do you know of the special period?" I nodded him on. "In the special
period, it is true, the people had to give their services to el estado
on credit, even though they knew very well it would be a little late paying
them back. But finally, little by little, everything was good again, and
now the people help el estado, and they help each other too - that's
very important - and el estado helps the people, as is right and normal
in Cuba." Habaneros with the right antennas learn about credit from
watching Miami TV commercials.
I clapped and told him that what he had said should
be put on the little billboard, which was probably put up by some minor bureaucrat
who didn't understand things so well. "Fidel probably doesn't know it's
He transferred his cigar back to his right hand and
then to his mouth and puffed, and I asked, "If I put this conversation
in a book, will they let me come back to Cuba?"
Except for the few internal dissidents, Cubans who
like to talk always instruct me that their constitution guarantees free speech,
and so did he. He assured me I could speak freely, too, even though I'm not
a Cuban, "and if you like to be here, you are always welcome, seńor."
I thought the seńor probably meant he thought
I was a balmy old man who should be humored, which seemed ironic with all
those empty dark suits still walking past us as if they were real.
A tour of the plaza's south edge and a zigzag block
and a bit further along my way, the waiters standing outside O'Reily's told
me the entire area had been closed to traffic because Fidel was going to
a mass for the pope. My jaw must have visibly dropped, because they told
me the same thing again. Another mile west, I found a lot of parked cabs
next to La Floridita, and the taxista whose cab I got into, being a militant,
assured me, "It's just protocol."
Fidel's brief statement on the front page of Granma
next day (Monday, April 4 according to my travel calendar, if you want to
punch it up on the internet) was clearly protocol. It read like an extended,
carefully secular sympathy card, maybe only diplomatically excessive in its
But in what I heard of his speech that night in Havana
and at the beginning of his speech the next night, which I watched at the
house on Punta Gorda that has become my home in Cienfuegos, Fidel was definitely
revising, building, and improving on the pope. The papers had been full of
the same stuff for days and, besides being fundamentally dishonest, it was
getting tedious. But when I said that to my hostess, a legitimate heroine
of the revolution and one of my best friends in Cuba, she assured me again
that it was "just protocol."
Of course he was using the occasion to underscore
the pope's support for Cuba against Washington, which was once again exasperating
the world by weeping crocodile tears at the UN over Cuba's fancied human
rights abuses. I pay little attention to what popes say, but I took it that
this one, in contradiction of his asinine attitude in Nicaragua in the 80's,
had said or could be interpreted as having said that Cuba's position is historically
and ethically superior to Washington's.
If any pope ever says anything that good, it can't
make up for all his regressive influence, but as that night's speech went
on, though Fidel continued to make too much of the pope, he redeemed himself
and proved he was still Fidel by declaring that, though the pope's support
was greatly appreciated (he made it sound cherished), Cuba is still fundamentally
unaffected by anyone else's approval or disapproval, it's not about to turn
religious, and the revolution won't be surrendered. At that, the audience
on the screen applauded fiercely, and so did we.
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