International Writers Magazine: Pencil
Sketch On A Boarding Pass (From our Archives)
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 Havanas
busiest pedestrian streets during the heat of the afternoon.
Notes on Cuba
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
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 citys status as a UNESCO World
And it goes on throughout
life, as the octogenarian in Camagüeys 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 ones
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 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.
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
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 ones 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 Havanas 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.
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 Cubas 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
© Natalie Neville September 2007
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