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The International Writers Magazine:Cuba Vacation

Finding Fidel
David Russell

You know how we’re forever spotting Elvis. Well, in Havana, when we were there in 2001, the game was to spot Fidel Castro. Because of his many look-alike/dress-alike doubles and his unnumbered safe houses; (supposedly he stayed in a different one every night) finding Fidel was a real challenge.

Yet, our group kept the hunt in focus. For example, we looked for him the night we visited El Morro Fortress for the Marche Militare depicting Cuba’s defending its harbor, with one single cannon salvo. But Fidel? He was a No show.

We were certain we’d see him at the Havana Museum of the Revolution, because the day we visited was a National Holiday. Especially with the museum displaying the actual yacht Granma which brought Fidel and his 80 Guerillas from Mexico to Cuba. Drat!! No luck.

We didn’t expect to see Fidel at the Casa De La Comminidad Hebrea De Cuba, where Adela Dworkin’s backroom drug dispensary was continually restocked by visiting U.S. tourists,
(To contribute: Contact: Adela dies for bagels, Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Lox).

Fidel’s never been there. Though we didn’t see Castro, we did see his influence during a schoolyard lunch break as we freely mingled with happy, well scrubbed, immaculately dressed, well-mannered youngsters. Latin roots are extremely strong. The kids reflected it.

Further evidence of Fidel was plainly visible at the Moncado Garrison, with revolutionary period bullet holes still in evidence, Another place he definitely was not, was San Juan Hill where we found only a smiling caretaker and his beautiful little straw-hatted son. We also found little evidence of Fidel at a small town medical facility where two elderly nurses shared care for a village of 600 families. Medicine was always in short supply, but if gravely ill, or surgery was required, you were quickly transferred to a Havana hospital.

Another place where Fidel was not in evidence was during our chat with a university professor who shared with us that only a special few kids actually get to attend university because the process and competition is too fierce. First, there’s 6 years of elementary school, then 3 years of high school, followed by 3 years of college before university, with elimination tests all along the way. What isn’t spoken of, is that few jobs await those who successfully complete the full 16 year process. But, hey! It’s all free.

The professor also told that of the 6000 pre-Castro doctors 3,000 had left Cuba. It’s easy to understand why. One night we rode in a cab with an English speaking driver, who told us he was also a licensed gynecologist. But, his government medical pay was just $30 US dollars monthly. As a cabdriver he made that in a day. But, to give Fidel his due, he did open 26 new hospitals, establish an annual cancer screening program as well as No Smoking and Safe Sex campaigns.

Divorce rates, however, are very high due to too many early age marriages among school drop-outs. Attending a Santeria ceremony (the "Way Of The Saints", one of more than a dozen off-shoot religions), we chatted with four High School English Teachers. Each divorced. They all believed in Urub Shango, god of lightning, passion and dance. But, confessed they were there mainly to check out the musician’s.

I guess it’s obvious, we learned a lot about the wonderful, warm Cuban people, including a family home visit where we shared the national juice – rum. The husband, a restaurant chef, earned U.S. dollars. so they lived well, even having a new color TV. When we asked the kids what they liked to watch best, the answer was Saturday morning cartoons from Miami. One kid told us this joke. A mother asks her son what he wants to be when he grows up. The answer: "A Tourist". Only he wasn’t kldding.

Sorry to say, we never did find Fidel. Not in the sugar, rice, coffee, black bean or banana fields, nor in any of cigar rolling factories or the hotel lobby counters where a cigar was hand rolled for $4.00, And certainly not among the thousands of beautifully-restored 1950’s cars and taxis, all without sufficient fuel or parts to run properly. Nor in open markets showing appetizing fruits, vegetables and meats, And, definitively not while enjoying a Mojito at the Hotel Nacional, where in pre-Castro l950’s George Raft hosted and young Frank Sinatra sang. But we did see his positive hand evident in Government supported world traveling dance companies which earn hard currency for Cuba, And, in spectacular Cuban Art in the world class Museo Nactional de Bellas Artes.

On our very last day, we really thought we finally had him spotted at Jose Marta Airport. But, it turned out to be a well known Republican Senator puffing on a big, fat Cohiba.

© David Russell

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