Cuban Intermezzo




“Just the other day Mr. Castro announced a new law.” Eduardo, our
package-tour-all-included guide is excited. First of all, he’s making good
money. His employer, HavanaTur, is a thriving joint-venture, just one of
the legion of new foreign-currency siphons making the most of Mr. Castro’s
fading memory of Marxism. “This law,’ Eduardo explains, “will for the first
time allow the foreign investment in Cuban companies of 100% ownership.”

Our entourage is unimpressed. The two North Americans are listening, but
Eduardo is also facing a pair of wealthy Jamaicans eager to party and an
Algerian couple from the Rhone Valley in the fourth month of their first
pregnancy. But Eduardo, whose Ph.D. in History could have landed him a post
at Havana State, if it paid anything, remains undeterred. “Then just the
other day too, Mr. Castro has allowed the first private restaurants to
open.”

To Eduardo, and Mr. Castro’s friends around the world who are eager to pry
open a virgin market of ten million, these are good signs–much more
reassuring than those that cry, “Socialismo O Muerte!” But as we pass the
faded Che billboards and head into Havana Viejo, Old Havana, where the
400-year-old colonial homes cannot hide their age, Eduardo’s breathless
narration takes an elegiac turn. “You’ll find every kind of car in the
world here,” he says. “You know all about the old North American ones. But
Sotomayar, our great long-jumper, has brought a new Lamborghini to the
island. And naturally, we have plenty of Russian cars.”

What you see, however, are Chinese bicycles–two or three riders to a
frame–flooding the streets and weaving between massive Camellos, the
hunchbacked buses that squeeze in 300. For despite the reforms, the Cubans
are hurting. Eduardo’s island remains a prison with a moat that stretches
to the horizon. With the end of the cold war, Cuba is no longer anchored
between Miami and Moscow, but drifting indefinitely somewhere between
communism and capitalism.

In Havana’s current limbo, you often feel trapped between two worlds. You
sit at the hotel bar and order two Cokes–one made in Mexico, the other in
Canada. At the newsstand you pick up the Herald Trib and a copy of The
Untold Secrets of the CIA’s War in Latin America. You sit in an
air-conditioned hotel room watching Bosnians waiting for bread on CNN,
while a block away, in the alabaster ruins of a 16th century villa, lean
men carry home buckets of water up five flights of marble stairs.

It is a strange intermezzo. The Cubans may not have water, but Cuba still
has mystique. Visit the Museo de la Revolucion and see the remains of a U2
spy plane shot down in ’62 right next to the planes that fended off CIA
warriors at the Bay of Pigs. More than a museum of relics, Cuba is
communism’s last safe haven, a Galapagos of the cold war. Here are the Red
Army vets who retired in the sun after annual campaigns in the jungles of
Angola. Here are the CIA operatives who went sour and south. Here too are
hobnobbing old shysters like Robert Vesco–unmasked long ago, yet still on
the lam even under house arrest in his Caribbean idyll.

Like it or not, Cuba appeals to American tastes. Whether you’re Ted Turner
or Angela Davis, it seduces you. Cuba is fat cigars and gleaming ’57
Oldsmobiles, the post-war sandlot of Duponts and Rockefellers, Hemingway’s
Elba. Now, as if suddenly thawed from history, Havana’s bohemian bars and
cabaret clubs are back in swing. Varadero, the heavily-touted 20-mile
stretch of white sand and high-rise hotels, may draw the Europeans. But
it’s Havana that Americans will relish.



It is a city where spandexed Lolitas and their t-shirted troubadours pose
proudly in gleaming convertibles. They’re quite happy just to sit there for
the night, what with so few cars and gas at $4 a gallon and no real place
to go anyhow. You cruise the Malecon at night in a ’52 Dodge and pass
alongside a stream of young suitors–a bottle of rum in one hand, a girl in
the other. You cross into Miramar, home to Havana’s elite who occupy the
nationalized villas of the pre-revolutionary gentry, scions of fortunes
made in sugar and tobacco, exiled or executed long ago.

Miramar cannot hide the shifts in Cuba’s economic landscape. It remains the
diplomatic district, but it is also the bulwark of the new wave of foreign
investment. Scattered amidst the residences of Fidel’s off-shore
loyalists—the Palestinians, Iranians and Libyans–live the intrepid
foreigners who have come to seek their fortunes in the embargoed Cuba. The
list reads like a dialogue between Mr. Rourke and Tattoo: The Mexicans have
come to capture the island’s telecommunications market, the Canadians are
here to mine for nickel, the British to prospect for oil, the Israelis to
plant citrus groves and the Spanish to corner the hotel market—all are
abetted by fearful state bureaucrats counting their dollars.

Cuba may once again be open for business, but few Cubans expect to see
well-stocked supermarkets and skies open for travel any time soon. “You
people say that this will all change. But we are tired of waiting.” Walking
atop the remains of the ancient wall that once protected Havana, Guillermo
is talking about his future for the first time since he and Ivan offered to
shepherd us through the city’s long nights. Inseparable friends and black
black marketers, they are veterans skilled in the shadow economy. For
years, they have endured Cuban racism and shared a yearning to escape.

“We were together on that sea in an innertube for twenty-six hours,”
Guillermo says, relating their failed attempt to join last August’s exodus.
“But the storms came. I’m sure the sharks were there. We didn’t see them,
but a lot of people went under.”

Guillermo and Ivan had made it to the threshold of freedom, the sacred
twelve-mile mark from Havana’s shore, into the international waters where
US coast guard cutters had been rescuing rafters and escorting them to the
camps in Guantanamo. “But the waters were too rough,” he says. “The
Americans had disappeared. And the Cuban coast guard got us first.”

Havana may be in ruins, but the towns that lie in the countryside seem to
lag centuries behind. “The regime, you see, has a bit of a credibility
problem.” The caustic foreign correspondent is entertaining his guests at
an empty terrace bar on the far side of Havana Bay. The view offers the
full sweep of Havana. The parking lot has an attendant and the waiters wear
epaulets. The correspondent explains: it’s an Army establishment. No
wonder the beer is so good–and so hard to find anywhere else.

“Things here will change–no matter what happens to the embargo.” As he
speaks six tankers sit anchored in the bay, waiting for hard currency
transfers before they deliver their oil. “It’s very simple. Hundreds of
American businessmen have been here. They’re not fools. They know the place
is coming up for sale.”



For all the signs of the coming capitalist day of reckoning, everywhere you
head warnings of Fidel’s reach. “Be careful not to underestimate the
allegiance to Fidel.” The American writer, famous for his cold war
thrillers, is speaking sternly to his young compatriots in the pizzeria.
“Fidel after all is the last survivor. No one has ruled longer than him,”
he says, forgetting about King Hussein.

As for the loyalty, I’m not sure either. Fidel still has his diehards, but
to the 70-year-old secret policeman who pulled out his ID and his prized
.45 (a chrome-polished Soviet Makarov) the outlaw-in-chief was simply a
“puta.” Still, the American writer is right about one thing: “No one has
stuck in our craw quite like Fidel.”

But the old guerrilla prince has gone gray. And change, they say, is now
coming for sure. On my last day, I drove a half hour from Havana to the
humid pink bungalows of the Jose Marti Young Pioneers Camp. There I met the
teenaged reminders of the cost of the cold war: the irradiated children of
Chernobyl who wait month after month, some year after year, with
diminishing hopes for Fidel’s free cure. Yet whether stricken with cancer
or just hungry and poor, everyone here is waiting for a new sun to rise
over the coral blue sea. And everyone on this isle faces the same fear each
day, and the same long odds for survival.


Photographs by Jacqueline Mia Foster.
Portions of this article also appeared in a New York Times op-ed piece.


Here’s the latest soundbite from our readers’ responses, courtesy of Dave Daurelle (@p13.tpl1.nwrain.net):

“I would have liked more sideline discussions that were more relevant, such as the total dollars pouring into the island that are keeping Fidel in power. More discussions of who will be his follow on, when he is gone. Perhaps even some guesstimates of how the U.S. is going to open relations with Cuba when the new Communist reign is gone. Unlike Haiti, Cuba is not a black nation, and the U.S. will be very involved in follow on governments. Regardless of the benefit or lack thereof it would give to the island.”

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