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Young lovers

It's strange what can bring folks together. We sat on the wall along the Malecon, enjoying the fact that we had no particular place to go. A rogue wave crashed against the rocks and soaked us and the young couple sitting next to us. Raciel supported my claim that I had taken the brunt of the wave, and we ended up spending the next two hours with him and his sweet but painfully shy girlfriend Arai.


They must have been in their early twenties and lived in Pinar del Rio, where they worked at a cultural center. Because of the shortage of housing, Raciel still lived with his family, and Arai lived in a sort of dormitory for young women. Arai had been sent to Havana to attend a conference, and Raciel had come along for the weekend so that they might, for once, have some privacy. 


"I really like to speak English," said Raciel." I learned it listening to the radio." And he spoke very well, with only the slightest accent, nearly faultless grammar, and an impressive command of American slang. Arai, on the other hand, barely uttered a word in English, but it was obvious that she understood us both. 


"I want to get out of this place," said Raciel. "there's no hope here." 


"So why don't you go?" Pat replied. "Are you kidding? Where have you been?" He was slightly indignant but not excessively so. He displayed the same youthful insolence that had once been a specialty of mine, and I had the feeling I was engaged in a conversation with a shadow character from my own past. "There are only three ways to get out," he continued. "Either you can marry a foreigner, or you can leave if you have an invitation from a sponsor -- like family. Or you can leave illegally, but I'll never do that. So I'm stuck here. But I'd leave in a minute if I could." 


Such brutal honesty was not, it turned out, all that unusual. The Cubans rarely seemed to worry about what they said, who might hear them, or who it was that they were talking to -- and that despite the fact that the police were everywhere, and there wasn't much doubt that some of the kind people we encountered were in the employ of the intelligence agencies. The most vivid denunciation came from an old man named Enrique whom we met in Guanabo. He bitterly cursed the government for seizing his family home in Havana. "It's some sort of embassy now, I think, but I never go there cause I don't want to see it." Enrique had lived for years in Philadelphia, but came back at some point, never to leave again. He said he was an artist (but, like so many others we met, an engineer in a former life), and seemed half mad -- but not so mad as to have lost touch with reality. 


"My family is Jewish," said Enrique, more or less out of the blue. "Many of them died in the war." Perhaps he correctly sensed that I was also Jewish, or perhaps it still weighed heavily on him. 


Raciel organized film programs at the cultural center in Pinar del Rio. "Have you seen American Beauty?" he asked. "It's a very beautiful film." I was amazed. It might well be a film exposing the emptiness and decadence of American suburbia, but it still seemed pretty risque for a police state. 


"Isn't it a problem showing a film like that?" I asked. 


"No -- I can show what I want to show," he said. 


"But can't you get in trouble if you show the wrong film?" 


"Well yes -- so I know what I can show. And if it might be a problem. And who I should tell about a film we will show. But nobody tells me what I should show." Contradictory, but somehow clear just the same.

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