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The Isle of Youth

     Between two low, flat, green islands, or cayos, that lay along the close horizon, as straight as a hedge, a space seemed to have been neatly clipped out for the boat to pass through and also to frame the next blue horizon underlining the Island of Youth, three clumps of softly rounded marble hills.
    From the moment I decided to make my fifth visit to Cuba by sea, touching first at the smaller island off the south coast, the urge to start this book with a literary passage like that was irresistible.
     After all, La Isla de Juventud with its hills truly composed of marble is said to have inspired ¨Treasure Island,¨ and I was coming to Cuba, like Alan Breck in ¨Kidnapped,¨in defiance of a tyrant who had recently vowed to post agents in Canadian and Mexican airports and stop even private yachts at sea to catch any American daring to exercise his constitutional right to visit the island. So, I meant to come romantically under the radar by boat from Mexico.
     But, in fact, at least that year, no passenger boats were regularly going from Mexico to Cuba, except a crowded ferry that only went to Havana, and even that was more a a rumor than a fact. The only yachts I heard would provide lifts to the island were away on other adventures. I didn´t really fear the blustering of the barbarian in the White House enough to pay the prices required by the few merchant captains docked in the Yucatan who would have carried me as an extraordinary passenger. The most likely opportunist wanted me to stay with his island hopping boat long enough to take and pay for an entire course in diving leading to a certificate.
     Anyway, the Cancun airport staff knew of no spooks there, and none bothered me. So I have to admit that, after a week visiting friends in Tulum and asking around the ports of Cancun, Isla del Carmen, and Cozumel, I flew to Havana as usual, on a plane carrying a half dozen other Americans, confronting only a typically obtuse Latin American bureaucracy, which, though not as barbaric as Bush´s road agents might have been, was also annoyingly piratical.
     I had a ticket to Havana and a reservation to fly on to Caracas on a small plane that didn´t sell tickets in Mexico. So I had to get the ticket in Havana, a reasonable arrangement. But, at the airport, I was stopped by the Cuban bureaucracy, which forced me to buy a ticket I didn´t need back to Cancun because you couldn´t go to Cuba without a ¨physical¨ ticket to leave, because ¨that´s the rule.¨
    In Nicaragua in the 80's, the very walls cried out, ¨Revolucion, si!  Burucracia, no!¨   But graffiti is not allowed in Cuba.  Luckily the ticket was from Mexicana, which bought it back as soon as I´d jumped the hurdle. In ´02, I'd wasted time for weeks changing my Cuban imposed departure date with Cubana Airlines so I could extend my stay for 30 days.
     In Havana again, I ran into more Cuban bureaucracy, of the type that grows from the government´s split attitude toward tourists and tourism. They wanted tourists´dollars (in 2004; dollars would be defunct in Cuba the following year), but they didn´t really want the tourists (or they couldn´t decide if they did) and they didn´t want Cubans to have dollars or mix with the tourists. So, for as long as I knew of, they´d had a ridiculous (that´s objective) dollar apartheid system that didn´t work and a half enforced system of tourist apartheid that didn´t work either, which together were the source of most of their crime and social unrest.
     To make this worse (as if they subconsciously wanted to subvert themselves), they employed thousands of Cubans in a Club-Med type tourist sector, paying them in pesos but allowing them to accept tips in dollars, or licensing them to work or sell goods and services to tourists for dollars. Then, to get those dollars back and to get the dollars sent to Cubans by their relatives abroad, they´d opened dollar stores all over the country FOR Cubans, even in places where there are no tourists, thus encouraging other Cubans to seek dollars any way they could.
     Meanwhile, when tourists inevitably used pesos and the peso economy, they continued to fret, meddle, and muddle, maybe for good reason but hopelessly, to an extent that often amounted to harassment of tourists. So they had half surrendered their dollar-tourist taboos, while continuing to half enforce them in clumsy ways, often baffling and always irritating, not the kind of experiences likely to cause tourists to return.
     I am not indicting Cuban socialism here, by the way, or threatening their sovereignty by presuming to give them advice. I´m reporting factually that their bureaucracy that year was as bad as bureaucracy ever gets and in some ways even worse.
     Though I had to pass through Havana, a place I was learning to like, but not much yet, I still intended to start my Cuban adventure this time on the island of youth. The guide book believably claimed there were 4 boats a day and that tickets could be bought at the dock, which is on the south coast two hours away from Havana.  So I went to the street behind the bus depot where the collective cabs park and found an Austrian diver willing to share one.  But then we learned the ferry bureaucracy insisted there was only one boat a day, and it was really for Cubans, eith only 6 seats set aside for foreigners who had to reserve their tickets in Havana in advance, and all the foreign seats for that day were taken.
    But Cubans trying to snag boarders for their relatives on the island told us there were two boats a day, seats were reserved only for the second one and if we got going and got there early we could probably get on the early one that day by showing our reservations for the second one the next day.
     So we signed up for the next day and took off in the collectivo, which was probably unlicensed (one of the pitfalls of half-yes, half-no supposedly-for-tourists-only-but-not-really imitation capitalism).
     Two hours later, at the dock, we learned the private Cubans were right, but an arrogantly hard-nosed dockmaster wanted to punish us for presuming the rules could be bent.
     So we had to sleep over in the port town, Surgidero de Batabano, which I had been prepared to do, since the guidebook says it is picturesque and has a neat old hotel and that some casas rent rooms.  ¨Picturesque¨ turned out to be a euphemism, the hotel, though neat looking I guess, was defunct, and there were no legally approved casas.  Rather than sleep on a bench or return to Havana, as one angry tourist who arrived in a cab after us did, we had to illegally rent a room in a casa particular (a private house) unlicensed to rent rooms and to kill the late evening in another private home illegally operating without a license as a paladar (a private restaurant).
    We had already illegally eaten in the illegal casa, and I had maybe illegally bought some pesos (this is extremely unclear) and illegally used them to buy us a loaf of bread at the bakery and some butter at the creamery for breakfast.  I had also toured the town and talked to several people other than the very loud gang of drunks on the porch of the defunct hotel and discovered, what was obvious to the eye, that the town was depressing enough to explain the loud drunks and a generally bellicose air that seemed pervasive.
    Next day, we were again at the mercy of the dockmaster who alternated between informing us that he had no obligation to us other than to honor our reservations for the late boat and barking at us that he would tell us what to do, and we must just sit there and wait for him to give us our orders.
    Finally, when the early boat was there and mostly loaded, and a ticket woman told us it was time for us to go to the guy's office, he became so abusive that I stopped him and told him off, which alarmed the Austrian (who'd never been in Latin America before).  Later yet, when the last possible Cuban had boarded (the boat's departure was already an hour late) and there were still clearly a lot of seats, the rules turned out to be bendable and we were allowed to get on.
    Getting on was slow, too, as, due to a series of recent terrorist acts by dissidents, passengers and baggage had to be checked and X-rayed. Pointy things were collected in plastic bags with name tags, to be returned on the other side.
    Though the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington were singularly horrible, Cuba has endured far more terrorism, often U.S. based, than has America. So it impressed me that the security check getting on the boat was sensible and courteous.
    I've been on the Havana bay ferries several times, and I considered the swift trials and execution of the three certainly guilty creeps who savagely terrorized the passengers of one of them more precisely just and necessary than the retaliation bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq, and though I generally don't like cops anytime, anywhere, the presence on the boat of relatively amiable cops with the biggest pistols I've ever seen in Cuba was quietly sensible, too.
    Since getting on the early boat meant we arrived in daylight and saw the scene described at the start of the chapter, the fact that the boat named Mexico, famous, we learned on the way, for its slowness, took 6 hours instead of the scheduled three to cross was nothing to complain about.  Bureaucracy is unbearable.  Slow boats are life.  It was a lot quicker than coming from Bristol.  And I did come at least to the smaller island by sea and the literary passage referred to above is true.
    But what I'm writing here isn't Stevenson's kind of literature, and I have no purple prose to offer in reference to La Isla's black and white beaches made of marble sand, or its south-side jungles filled with musical birds and sinister cocodrillos, or the transparent depths that lure divers to its coastal waters.  My interest in Cuba, as I had declared in my application for a journalist's visa (which was still lost as I approached the island in a tangle of bureaucratic Cuban ministries), is in how it fares as a functioning communist state.
    I'd have loved to come to the island in a sailing ship when there was nobody there but Ben Gunn. But it was better, when I finally said "So long" (not "Goodby" it would turn out) to the Mexico, to find an island town that is as surely a triumph of the revolution as the neglected little port we'd left behind us had appeared to be a failure.
    Inside the mangrove thicketed coast of the island, which flattened as the hills slid apart, Jim Hawkins wouldn't have recognized the bay, more like a wide, lazy river, which introduced itself with a towering crane and a rusting hull, a shipyard, telephone poles and distant Russian style edificios, prominent because they stick up.  Once ashore, though, the mostly one-story town of Nueva Gerona turned out to be as pretty as Bartacoa, a welcome contrast to Surgidero de Batabano, which I had decided must be the ugliest town in Cuba, easily taking the title from Moa.
    "Don't think you're the only one who thinks that," several islanders, proud of the beauty of their own town, told me, "Cubans think so, too."
    "But why is it it like that?"
    "Don't think those fishermen don't have any money.  They just like to live that way, en sus casas destruidas."  I translated that as "falling apart."  In Batabano, the word had been "atrasadas," "backward," or maybe "going backward."  To me, the old wooden row houses, black with age, had looked to be going back to nature, disintegrating into the also disintegrating streets, where waste water ran purple and green in the gutters and elsewhere.  It looked like my perhaps mistaken image of Haiti, and I decided to try to find out why on my way back.
    Some cheerful philosophers and some unhappy cynics in Batabano had already explained to me that, since the state's priorities were always with other places where storm damage required emergency attention, they were "waiting for the cyclone."
    On the way back a week later, though, I found that the shabby, swampy area that depressed me so much is mainly the old downtown next to the sea, and the worst looking rows are boarded up, waiting the bulldozer.  The rest of the town is mostly OK.  Some streets are almost pretty, and others are at least picturesque.  There is a new thicket of small, still unlandscaped edificios across a swampy street from one boarded-up shackrow, a hopeful sign something is happening.  The relative smallness of the remaining pockets of squalor in Cuba, whether in Havana or in Batabano, is important to consider.
    But the part of Batabano I'd found shabby and depressing WAS - IS shabby and depressing and people live there and have been living there for a long time.  After talking to an old man born in the town and still living, 45 years after the revolution, at the end of the finally condemned worst-case shackrows, I thought the wait had been inexcusably long.
    That stock market and other data published daily by American papers, purporting to show how the economy is doing, really show how things are going for some people is understandable, because in a competitive system, the losers and others who don't really play the game don't count.
    But in a socialist system seriously on the road to communism, signs of how well things are going in one community aren't enough.  Everyone in a socialist system must count, and the economy is doing well only if everyone is in on it or definitely going to be in on it as soon as possible.  Nueva Gerona's success is not neutralized, but it is qualified by the visible failure of a significant chunk of Surgidero de Batabano.
    There are, after all, a significant number of justifiably unhappy people in Batabano - more, it seemed to me, than in anyplace else I'd been in Cuba.  Some told me civic leaders weren't well enough organized to get back from the state what the community put into the state.  Some with good houses (who were naturally the ones wishing they were in Miami) claimed the old fishermen liked their old houses.  I was told most often that, having given up on the government's interest in any house not knocked down by a storm, they were all "waiting for the cyclone."
    In Nueva Gerona, they said the people of Batabano were waiting for all they needed to rain down on them out of the sky.  The near universal explanation in Cuba for the poor showing (or the misfortune maybe) of others is that "they don't want to work."  But men I encountered actually building new houses in Nueva Gerona each said that they, too, had been able to get materials from the state only after a storm had rendered their old houses unacceptable, and the very few people living in shanties were also "waiting for the cyclone."
    The word "shanty," by the way, doesn't mean what it does in Nicaragua.  Poor Cuban homes are of boards, not of sticks and plastic; they have floors, electricity, and plumbing, and some of them weren't so bad when they were younger.
    Everybody acknowledged what I had learned in other visits, that anyone in a substandard house is on a list for a better house, "pero se va poco a poco."  Things go slowly. The magic touch of the cyclone was a short cut.
    Yet, in Nueva Gerona, something beyond fortuitous cyclones had worked and was working.  I picked a street at random and walked from 39th (Main Street) all the way to the end, the steep base of a marble mountain, turned right and followed that street along the edge of a near vertical wilderness until it ended, turned right again and walked back to the center.
    I dodged bicycles and bicitaxis and occasional, fast trotting horse carts along well paved streets close in and then neatly graded streets further out that bustled with life and were lined with little to medium size houses not at all like what you think.  These were real houses, presenting a very pretty picture all together, like 40's or 50's houses in California, except that they were mostly of block, rarely of wood, because wooden houses don't hold up as well in the tropics.  Most were one-floor, sometimes two, most had trees and shrubs, some had gardens.  They were remarkably varied in their design, as if every family had followed its own architectural drummer.
    I talked to a man who may have been tone deaf, since the new walls he was erecting were clearly crooked and the rooms he was framing were too small.  I asked if the state provided expert advice along with the building material, and he said he didn't want to wait.  He was learning by doing.  The next builder I met was doing a master's job, but he said it was only because this was the second house he had built.  But my hostess, pointing from her second floor porch at seven houses built by the state on her block alone said the advice or help of albaniles (building trades experts) was certainly part of the help the state offered.
    Some people told me the neat, clean, well paved center, with its abundance of parks and mini-parks, one with all marble benches, another with snack shacks and shady tables, predates the revolution.  Miamistas like to claim everything good in Cuba was already there, but very few people lived on the Isla de Juventud before 1959, so most of Nueva Gerona has to be a triumph of the revolution.  There is even, across the corner from Parque Central, a Copelia's ice cream palace that rivals the one in Havana.

    Even the well scattered edificios there look better than they should because they are creatively painted with olive colored geometric designs.  They may also be more spacious than those I've visited in other towns.  I found out I couldn't guess how many families they housed when I counted 25 balconies on one side of an edificio and a resident sitting on a shady bench in a large area that formed the building's yard  told me there were only 20 homes there - that some were on two floors and others wider than I thought.  A flirtatious beauty wrote the number of her staircase on my hand in a pizzeria patio, and when I found it, her apartment, which she shared only with her mother, was twice as big as mine.
    I stayed on the island a week and walked many more of the pretty streets of Nueva Gerona and the nearby country roads.  There are some shanties there, always with floors, electricity, and plumbing, but so few I kept wondering why the government doesn't just come in and replace them all at once.  A fat woman at the press office claimed newcomers continually build shanties at the edges, but I walked along several edges and saw no such generality, though I often saw new houses that had kept their old shacks as cookhouses or sheds.
    Walking one edge, I met a brickmaker on the wild side of the street, who dried his bricks in a large brick kiln over a wood fire.  He told me his family had done this for generations, and he continued to do it so he could eat.  I asked if this was his only work.  No, but his salary wasn't enough.  But didn't he get at least rice and beans on the libreta?  He showed me a tiny space between two fingers and declared it wasn't enough for one day.
    In Cuba there are TV news helicopters and oxen pulling plows.  There are slick roadside restaurants with beautiful wooden tables and enough floor space to dance, with no more to eat than you can get at a Servi-Cupet gas station.  I'm describing a place by the freeway in Cabanas where the counter person went to a house next door to get me some scrambled eggs and toast and a cup of coffee.
    There are super modern hotels, and there are people living in squalid houses in a few places like Batabano, but there are NO legions of people living in the streets as there are in America.  In fact, there's virtually nobody living on the streets, and there's nobody really hungry.  The guy was lying.
    Cubans are theatrical and those who like to complain exaggerate, i.e. lie  In '02, I made long lists of food prices in free markets and state markets and found that, for the most part, basic foods cost the same or less in pesos as they cost in dollars in California.  In '04, I was finding the prices of many things had gone up.  The sellers told me so many different reasons for this, some going so far as to deny that prices were higher, that I suspected it was just greed and tacit price fixing, which I think can be traced back again to the impact of tourism.
    But having paid 5 pesos for a loaf of bread and seeing onions for 5 peros a pound and small, dry limes 3 for a peso, mangoes for 3 pesos apiece, and eggs for a peso each (although a Granma article boasted of an unprecedented quantity of eggs), and with Cubans complaining of these very prices as the more threatrical swore they were starving, I was becoming alarmed for the Cubans, until my hostess brought me down to earth.
    Seeing a large bowl of eggs in her kitchen, I asked how she could afford them.  "They're only 15 centavos each on the libreta (the ration)," she told me, "sometimes 10."  She told me bread is a peso a small loaf and every Cuban is entitled to a loaf a day at that price.  We don't live by bread alone, but that's a lot of dollar-store (peso-tienda) priced bread.  She told me clothing hasn't been on the ration for awhile, though cloth is, and I don't understand that, but obviously a good basic diet is subsidized.
    Furthermore, as I'd seen, in Nueva Gerona, there are quite a few private and community gardens, and numerous private fruit trees, a lot of roosters helped wake me up every 5 a.m., and their wives and children were as much under foot as the town's numerous dogs and cats.
    So I told the bricklayer I know each person gets 5 pounds of rice a month, and several pounds of beans to mix with the rice when he wants Moorish rice, plus enough chicken and pork on the ration and cheap and plentiful vegetables one way or another to make Chinese rice the rest of the month.  That's what I mainly eat at home, and I never consume 5 pounds of rice a month.  He said he could eat 5 pounds of rice for breakfast.
    I laughed and told him if he did that once, his hungry days would be over.  He surrendered, admitting that he wasn't hungry and neither is anyone else.  But he said with most people building with concrete now, things were tough for brickmakers.  One way or another, he was going to have a tough life to lament.  But my hostess later told me her beautiful house was made entirely of bricks, with the help of an albanil, and I couldn't tell because it was so neatly plastered and painted.
    Milagros, my hostess, was an invaluable source of information, and a thoroughly nice and honest person, who insisted on feeding me more breakfast than I needed every day, and she was seriously alarmed on my behalf when the authorities came to take me away early one morning.