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The International Writers Magazine: Pencil Sketch On A Boarding Pass (From our Archives)

Some Notes on Cuba
Natalie Neville

Cuba is special. As the Oxford defines the term, special is exceptional in quality or degree, unusual, out of the ordinary, excelling in some positive quality, exceptionally good or talented. Cuba is indeed all of those and a great deal more.

Image: © N.Neville
Havana is intoxicating and inspiring and decrepit and soiled. It looks like a movie set and yet amazes with its everyday occurrences. Life teems in the streets, where a martial arts class takes place on a rooftop at sunset; in the halls of a collapsing colonial mansion, where neighbours congregate around an illegal television set after dark; and in the classroom, where children in red and white uniforms recite lessons over the bustle of one of Havana’s busiest pedestrian streets during the heat of the afternoon.

Santiago is sunny and sweltering and alive with the feel of the Caribbean. Its imposing fortress on the edge of town speaks to its past importance as the gateway to the Caribbean for ships carrying the booty looted from other islands and Indigenous empires. There is music everywhere in Santiago, spilling into its narrow frenetic streets. But there are also leafy and tranquil parks, where aging Cubans share their benches with the very young. The sweet smell of cigars is everywhere and somehow makes ones want to stand downstream from it. Trinidad is a feast of colour, with historic buildings restored to bright shades of blue, yellow and green, the restorations made possible in some part by the city’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Music and Cuba are synonymous. The rhythms are ubiquitous, blasting out of early morning coffee shops and roaring from the late (very late) night Casa de la Trova or Casa de la Mùsica – music bars - that can be found in almost any town. And where there is music, there is dance. Our guide assures us that 97% of Cubans can dance, and it does indeed seem as though some ten million people are able to shuffle a very decent salsa. It starts young - even the most awkward-looking group of teenagers in a Soroa bar seem to move with liquid ease across the dance floor.
And it goes on throughout life, as the octogenarian in Camagüey’s Casa de la Trova demonstrates his dance skills with his wife. Something about the rum perhaps that lubricates the hips. Hidden within seemingly ordinary people is some of the most amazing talent. The bicitaxi driver in Camagüey with heavy black army boots turns out to be a salsa dance instructor at night. The guy with long hair and a leather vest in Trinidad who looks like he might be a mechanic captures the imagination of the awestruck audience, as he dances up a storm in front of the main square music stage. He is not only technically perfect, he is having a rapturously good time showing off his moves. With electricity in the air like that, even the most stodgy of tourists cannot help but move to the rhythms in their chair.
Cuba is a land where transportation is one of the most time-consuming activities of the day. People congregate by the roadside, pesos aflutter in the wind, to indicate a willingness and ability to pay for a ride of any kind. Mules and horse-drawn carts carry people to work and children to school in small towns and the countryside, while tractors haul villagers along the smaller country roads.
There is also lots of leg power pedaling along on clunky Chinese bicycles. Huge multi-ton trucks, some of them from the 1950s, some of them Eastern-Bloc refurbs, stop at busy corners in major cities, with people rushing aboard, cramming in numbers beyond belief. The more "luxurious" trucks have an awning of sorts to protect the passengers from the savage mid-day tropical sun. For those fortunate enough to own a car, the vehicle is often old and belches black clouds of exhaust.

The streets of Havana and Santiago are a lesson in on-the-spot car repair, with people huddled over their vehicle engines, addressing the stalling problem with whatever expertise they or a passerby may have, or pushing a car in neutral to some less inconvenient spot than the intersection of two major boulevards. Taxis come in a wide variety of models – from the recent Mercedes, to the reconstructed 1954 Chev, to the stripped-down Lada with no inside door handles, much less seat belts, to bicycles that ferry two people on a covered back seat.

The major highways are nominally three lanes, but without any painted lines, vehicles simply travel down the centre of the road until a faster vehicle honks its horn as a message to move aside. As if tourists or Cubans needed a reminder that the nation is under siege, highways are lined with hulking spikes of rusting steel, every kilometre or so, to be used as a physical deterrent to aircraft that might use the straight stretches of highway as a landing strip. Driving at night is an extreme sport, as vehicles are forced to slow down or swerve to avoid the many commuters who get to where they must be, by donkey, by horse-drawn cart, or simply by foot, with candles in tin cans to light the way. And finding one’s way is a mission in itself, with almost no road signs anywhere along the highway to guide drivers.

Fiercely proud of their heritage, Cubans celebrate the spirit of independence and self-sufficiency they have displayed over centuries, from the mambisa revolts of the 19th century to their show of resilience in the post-Soviet era. Cuba is a country of heroes, mainly of the historical kind. Carlos Manuel de Cèspedes, known as the father of the homeland, declared his slaves to be free men and invited them to join in the fight against the Spanish, in the first but unsuccessful war of independence (known as the Ten Years War of 1868-1878). José Martí, the poet and philosopher who died in battle early in the War of Independence of 1895, has a place of special importance, having led the heroic struggle to throw off the Spanish colonial masters (with Cuban victory being snatched by the Americans in the end). Antonio Maceo, the mulatto general of the War of Independence, distinguished himself for his tactical expertise and bravery. Significantly, all these heroes shared the desire to liberate Cuba from imperialism, to create a national narrative that would be unique and home-grown.
But mostly, Cubans are proud of their Revolution. There is no mistaking the genuineness of enthusiasm exhibited by our guide at the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, describing as he does the moment-by-moment action around the ill-fated storming of the barracks by the Castro brothers and others in 1953. His tour leaves listeners convinced they have just read the screenplay of an action film.

Cuba Interior © N.Neville
And in the pantheon of heroes of course, there is Che. He is ever-present - in squares, on billboards, in monuments, on posters and ashtrays and wallets, even in the storefront of a ladies’ shoe store in Camagüey. He is a marketing opportunity, but he is also the hero of the Revolution, the figure to emulate and admire, for children saluting the flag – "May we be just like Che" - and for adults to imitate.
To even the most cynical and Revolution-weary Cuban, he is the ideal, the embodiment of all that was right about the Revolution – dedicated, defiant, driven. Che is etched in the memory of Cubans as every hero should be – dying young, apparently uncorrupted and impossibly handsome.

The Soviet legacy is difficult to gauge. Certainly, the legions of advisors have left the island. Though often a pawn in the Cold War drama that involved them for thirty years, Cuba was never a Stalinist outpost in the tropics. Perhaps because Cuba was too sensual, too sunny, too culturally proud, too nationalistic to have ever taken on the colour of Soviet gloom. Whatever the political influence, Soviet memorabilia lingers in the thousands of Ladas and Moskvas spewing black smoke in the streets of every Cuban town. It also scars the horizon of some cities, in the form of high-rises of a distinct concrete genre, the crowning piece being the Soviet, now Russian embassy in the Miramar suburb of Havana. No one so adroitly scarred a landscape as the Soviets. Significantly, there are few if any statues of Marx or Lenin, only a few namesake landmarks such as the Karl Marx Theatre and the Parque Lenin (not to be confused with the Parque John Lennon), both in Havana. Significant as a cultural relic are the names of so many young men, somewhere between 25 and 35 years of age – men with names like Vladimir, Alexi, Ivan, Yuri, Andrei. Are they of Russian heritage? "No, my mother, she was good Communist!" is most often their reply. Sometime back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was obviously no greater celebration of the spirit of the Revolution than naming one’s son after heroes of Communism. Nor is it rare to hear Cubans speaking fluent Russian, as witnessed by the pair of guides in one of Havana’s more upscale hotels, tending to a team of Russian filmmakers and journalists. Russian and English were the languages of choice for high-school students learning a second language, until the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Clearly, students who chose English must feel today that they made the right historical choice.

The periodo especial (Special Period) is recent and nothing less than traumatic in the minds of Cubans. It was indeed a time of crisis, a watershed that has made several generations of Cubans think of "before" and "after". There was a time before, when Soviet subsidies of oil and Eastern European manufactured goods made Cuban life one of relative ease. And there was a time after, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of all subsidies in the early 1990s, when Cuba skidded into deep economic difficulty. It was a time of hardship and scarcity, but also of ingenuity and solution.

Cuba turned to organic and sustainable farming, when fertilizers and pesticides became unavailable. Vacant urban lots became small gardens, providing fruit and vegetables to supplement the meagre food rations and promoting the use of botanical and medicinal herbs. "Mass transit" took on a whole new meaning with camello buses carrying up to three hundred people, and oxen returning to their role as beasts of burden in the fields. But Cuba’s return to the simplicity of the past may be a window into the future of many a Western nation. Their crisis of scarcity may have only predated the crisis of others nations.

Scarcity continues, and has made of Cuba the land of the jerry-rigged. Resolver y inventar – solve and invent. Everything has a solution, much of it ingenious: the toilet-flushing mechanism in the Cayo Levisa cottage which broke several visitors ago, but has been replaced by a plastic cord and the cap of a water bottle; or the one menu in the Santa Clara restaurant that gets passed around four tables, for lack of paper; or the curtain hooks fashioned out of hanger wire in the Santiago hotel room; or the hotel room that features a television set from Japan that works on 110V and an air conditioner from Europe that runs on 220V; or the waitress at the poolside bar who cleans the blender with a dash of white rum on her dishrag, since cleaning products are hard to find anyway. It speaks not so much to Cubans’ lack of attention to maintenance and repair, as it does to priority-setting in an economy where every choice must be carefully weighed.

What makes Cuba sometimes hard to assess are the contrasts, from the sophistication of their bio-tech industry currently working on AIDS and meningitis vaccines, to the sight of oxen transporting a generator across the beach in western Cuba. There is widespread poverty but the poor also have high literacy rates. There are food shortages but there are also health outcomes that mirror those of many Western nations.

The gearing of the economy to tourism – mostly of the all-inclusive resort variety – has had mixed and paradoxical results. The influx of foreign exchange has saved the economy, but in the process, it has divided the Cuban population into those who have access to tips and (relatively) well-paying jobs and those who are forced to survive on their marginal state salaries, or rely on remittances from abroad. It has also sacrificed a generation of talented and educated people who can find no work in their field of expertise, and now have careers as guides and drivers. One guide, who spoke on behalf of himself and the driver (who spoke no English), laughed about how they were the "worst age". Both of them 37 years old, they had graduated as an electrical engineer and a lawyer respectively, and now made their living accompanying tourists to day-trip destinations. These jobs give them access to tips and decent wages, but there remains a lingering sense of squandered talent.

Cubans seem unguarded and willing to tell their stories, and not all of them follow the Party line, to say the least. They recount with simple nostalgia and some amusement their time in the escuela al campo (school in the fields), when high school students are required to spend from 30 to 45 days per year in camps, working in tobacco fields or other agricultural pursuits. In keeping with typical teenage behaviour everywhere, they describe the camps as a time of dancing and drinking and carousing rather than an effort of revolutionary rigour or dedicated agricultural production. As for military service, it is described as no more than a necessary step in their transition to adulthood. Our driver described his three years in Angola, from age 17 to 20, as "not so bad", since he did not see fighting but merely looked after logistics in Luanda.

Ironically, there seems to be little resentment towards the two million and more visitors who land on the island annually, despite the fact that these visitors have access to hotels which are mostly barred to Cubans, dine on food in quantities and varieties that most Cubans could only dream of, and have access to the internet (dial-up only) which is officially forbidden to their Cuban hosts. The streets remain safe and there is little in the way of violent crime. Sitting in the town square in Viñales at midnight, surrounded by mostly young men, it is striking to note that a visitor is more likely to be chatted up or asked for light, than to be swarmed or mugged, as might happen in the streets of other Caribbean or South American countries. Or driving through the ill-lit backstreets of the old quarter of Santiago in a taxi looking for the residence of a dance instructor, there are curious looks by the neighbourhood residents, but no sign of hostility at our presence there.

Outside of the resorts, the hotels are not always efficient and the level of service uneven. But a younger generation of hotel workers can be seen around lobbies promoting the use of surveys to track customer satisfaction, and certain restaurants feature menus in three languages, with sometimes amusing results ("Caramelized masses of pig" for pork loin with caramelized onions, "Chicken sprouts to the cheese" for chicken strips with cheese, and "Food pastes" for pasta). Cubans have access to certain hotels, but "not normal Cubans", as the hotel employee in Caibarien explained. Asked to define "not normal", he indicated that these Cubans fell into two categories: people who excelled at what they did – the best student, the best worker, the best teacher – thereby meriting a stay in such a hotel; or newlyweds treated to a few days for their honeymoon.
The Bloqueo (blockade) by the United States has caused untold hardships over the years and continues to be the source of much frustration and bitterness. It has severely punished Cubans for their socialist revolution, which has survived against all odds. But ironically, it has also served as a rallying point for Cubans. Cynics even argue that it has allowed Castro to remain in power, and created a convenient scapegoat for a poorly-run economy.

And what of Castro? No statues, no street signs, no monuments, no schools named after him, just the occasional roadside panel with his photo and a quote. But like a ghost, he haunts and swirls and hovers about in Cubans’ lives, the focus of anxiety or the object of criticism.
He is larger than life and ever-present, despite being dead. His speeches are legendary, not only for their length (one speech reputedly lasted eight hours) but also for their oratorical brilliance. Whether history does indeed absolve him, as he argued at his trial in 1953, history will not be able to argue his charisma and his hold over the imagination of Cubans and others around the world, for a whole half-century.
As indelible as are the images of Cuba, they are also of a pencil-like impermanence. For Cuba stands poised on the edge, on the verge of some tipping point. After Fidel, Cubans were simply offered Raùl, as though the leadership of the 75-year old brother were actually a long-term prospect, as though Cuba without a Castro leading it were a vision they could not yet conceive of. Mostly, Cubans seem tired. Not given to revolt, just weary of the scarcity and the line-ups and the restrictions imposed upon them. Some undoubtedly dream of a day when they will be ‘free’, whatever their personal visions of that entail, while others undoubtedly dread the return of angry Miami exiles and the disappearance of socialist ideals, whatever they may have become.
Sipping mojitos while sitting on oversized wicker sofas on the patio of the Hotel Nacional in Havana, made famous as the former home of some of the most notorious and ruthless gangsters who lived off gambling and vice, it seems cruel or ironic or patronising (or all of the above) to wish the Cubans well in salvaging the best of their socialist endeavour – the uniquely home-grown culture, the education, the health care, the armies of doctors, the "projet de société" founded on the ideals of equality and self-determination. As the Cuban flag gently flutters in the warm night-time breeze and the melodious sounds of Cuban music lull listeners into dream submission, one can only wonder which way the proverbial winds will blow when change really does come to town. Will sweat-shop maquiladoras replace the inefficient state-run factories? Will structural adjustment loans dictate changes in the social welfare system? Will Starbucks set up shop along the Malecón? Will a swoosh be painted over the Socialismo o muerte billboards? All these questions hover unanswered on the horizon. The future has yet to unfurl or perhaps be solved and invented by Cubans themselves. As Cubans have proven throughout most of their history, events in this country may surprise.

© Natalie Neville September 2007

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