Two weeks in Cuba (April 2000)
I wanted to see Cuba before it changed, and so did Pat. The fact that it was also possessed of splendid weather, beaches renowned for their powdery white sand, all that great music, a culture infused with an aura of sexiness, and a rich colonial past -- these were also considerations. But for both of us, it was very much a question of seizing a moment that we knew would soon be gone.
So we went, and we were not disappointed. Two weeks, to be sure, is not enough time to see a whole lot, to come to much of an understanding of one of the world's most endearing anachronisms, or to build true and genuine trust and friendship. But it's enough time to be charmed and mystified, to marvel at how they make do with what they have, and to wonder about how it all went wrong.
Cuba is probably more tragic than any place I've ever visited. Indeed, if the characteristics of humans can be attributed to nations, then Cuba has become a tragic hero. This was a reasonably developed country at the time of the revolution, but one where, even more than in other places in Latin America, the wealth had been siphoned off by corrupt rulers, wealthy landowners, and mobsters. The revolution gave Cuba its dignity after far too many years of humiliation, and even a disproportionate prominence on the global stage. But, as in a tragedy, the nation has been brought to its knees by a convergence of circumstances that are partly of its own making (opting for ideology when pragmatism would be more appropriate, or repressing both dissent and political dynamism, to cite two examples), and partly beyond its control (Cold War politics, the antipathy of the Florida Cubans, the importance of Florida's electoral votes in American presidential elections, the collapse of the Soviet Union).
The question you ask yourself (and others asked me after I returned) is what will happen "after Fidel". But locals seem not to dare to contemplate. In fact, to judge by the reactions of Cubans across the spectrum -- Fidel's friends and supporters, his critics, and those who are simply trying to cope, the man is no mere mortal. "He may be old, but he's very strong," said Fernando, a former engineer who has left Havana behind and returned to the manage the family tobacco farm. Indeed, El Jefe hasn't lost his ability to drive a point home either. On the thirty-ninth anniversary of the "Defeat of US Imperialism" -- the defeat of invading Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, that is -- his voice was a constant drone in the background as we went through cocktails, dinner, and much conversation, and he was still droning on as we strolled through Havana three hours later.
Yes, Fidel is still a ubiquitous presence. Forty years after the revolution, Cuba remains a "revolutionary" society , with its Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and its propaganda apparatus imploring the people to keep up the struggle. The revolutionary billboards and murals are everywhere. So is Che. In atheist Cuba, they've made him into a kind of god-like figure, with that wry smile of his and his sparkling eyes staring down at you from billboards and walls, Che posters and memorabilia available at every tourist joint in the country, and even entire shops completely devoted to the cult of Che.
But all those images of Che, and all the revolutionary rhetoric in the world can't hide the fact that Cuba is crumbling, and even the moments of joy and beauty seem always tinged with sadness. An example: on a quiet residential street in the Cerro district of Havana, two men are leaning over the open hood of a mid-fifties Mercury. I walk over to have a look. And what do I see? They've replaced the original V-8 with a 4-cylinder engine from a Russian Volga. Marvelous ingenuity. But to keep a 45 year-old car running by cannibalizing Russian cars of slightly more recent vintage -- there's something sad about it as well.
I doubt that these photos and the little stories I've assembled in this site can adequately communicate this feeling, or the sense of exasperation that I often felt, wondering "Why does it have to be this way?" But hopefully they do convey something of Cuba's strange charm.