Havana, Cuba 9-7-2006/9-10- 2006
This, my second visit to Havana was more illustrative and unsettling than the first, a vacation with my daughters in 2004; perhaps because the city was on ‘lockdown’ in preparation for the meeting of the 116 members of the Non-Aligned Movement; an organization that lobbies for freer and more equitable world trade, and includes such exemplary free-thinking ‘independent’ states as Zimbabwe, Congo, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea; perhaps because I was traveling with a Superstar Reggaeton DJ, whose perceptions and observations were constructed upon the firm foundation of an understanding both language and the culture; and certainly because Fidel Castro has become little more than a delusional tyrant who betrays the intelligence, ingenuity, pride, hope and dreams of his people 24/7/365
Our first experience of ‘lockdown‘ came minutes after we touched down on Cuban soil, when agents of the Interior Ministry, armed with Russian guns and power by proxy, approached us the customs area, separated us from the masses and then each other, and then played 20-questions. How and why had I accumulated so many stamps in my passport in such a short time? What was the purpose of my various visits to Turkey, Singapore, and in particular Israel? Why was I carrying so much cash (try using a credit card drawn on a US bank in Cuba)? They seemed to have half a notion that we were enemy agents with plans to embarrass Castro in front of his global cronies - as if any help were needed.
I told the first agent, and then a second, and then another more senior, plain-clothed big-dog that our visit was to celebrate the Superstar Reggaeton DJ’s birthday as well as experience Reggaeton, Cuban style. It took repetition for my shtick to stick; the big-dog just couldn’t quite belive that we could be interested in a street culture that the state, clinging to antiquity as if it were precious rather than dusty and irrelevant, forces underground.
By the time the big-dog handed us back our passports, apparently now comfortable that we offered no clear, or present, or rational danger to the glorious republic, the youngest of the agents, a baby-faced thug with huge damp patches under his armpits and over his chest, had engaged the superstar Reggaeton DJ in passionate cultural conversation – how did we think the local favorites Gente d’ Zona, stacked up against Reggaeton superstars like, Don Omar, Tego Calderon, Daddy Yankee, Wisn y Yandel and Ivy Queen?
The road from the airport to Havana is pot-holed and bellied, badly lit, and eerily devoid of commercial outdoors advertising. However, posters of Fidel and Che Guevara – the only pop star of revolution with truly global reach – abound. At major intersections, the headlights of matchbox-sized Soviet-era cop cars, peered inquisitively into a night otherwise backlit by a braggadocios, two-dimensional, golden, full moon. A light rain wandered onto the windshield where it was smeared by worn wiper blades, partially obscuring the psychedelic horizon and a pyrotechnic electrical storm.
Closing in on the city centre, we were flagged to a stop by a gaggle of cops with thick ticket-pads and sneering lop-sided snarls. Their contempt is inbred; like many absolute monarchs, Castro employs the sons and daughters of impoverished peasants to keep the lid on his cities, which they do enthusiastically, having no vested interest in the welfare of the people they police. According to the cops our driver had turned left without indicating. The cabbie explained that the bulb in the indicator light had blown and the dealer had not had a replacement part in stock. The cop shrugged his indifference to the cabbie and his excuse and wrote the ticket regardless, demanding that the $30 fine be paid on the spot.
The cabbie became dangerously indignant, pointing out loudly/virulently that many of the historic whips for which Havana is famous, pre-date indicators or require bulbs that are no longer manufactured or imported. We settled the matter by donating the fine, which seemed only fair, as a cabbie working for the state earns rice, beans, chicken, pork (no beef) milk, healthcare (provided by Venezuelans as the more experienced Cuban doctors are pimped to richer nations for hard currency, abroad), an education, housing of sorts, and around $7 bucks a week.
The next morning, in wet 33 degree heat, I led the Superstar Reggaeton DJ up El Malecon, a magnificent thoroughfare that skirts the Atlantic Ocean, from historic Havana (a massive restoration project waiting on regime change to gain real momentum) to Miramar, a wealthy, could be anywhere, enclave where Castro’s cronies live in Robb Report luxury, and fun loving foreigners with $250,000 or more burning a hole in their pockets, buy condos and over-populate near-chic restaurants and bars, where they ponder the miniscule differences between privilege in Cuba and privilege back home.
Wandering back to nowhere in particular and in absolutely no hurry at all, we window-shopped barren stores and gangster-posed next to a fabulous dark green Packard Super 8 in the late stages of a loving restoration. The Superstar Reggaeton DJ made much of being humbled; he had so much (we are talking S65AMG’s, Breitlings, and all things bling) and was unquestionably on the fast track to more, while they had so little – materially speaking. One could tell that the observation made him feel all warm and fuzzy inside, as one does when one has the protection of privilege against the ravages of the cruel world.
At one of many stands selling crude bootleg CDs, DVDs and games, I bought a Don Omar’s ‘King of Kings’ CD for $2. My plan was to bring it back to the RIAA as further proof that the global battle against piracy is lost, but as luck would have it we found ourselves walking in-step with 3 pretty, friendly, Don Omar fans who had more use for the CD than I.
We spent the rest of a glorious day with those girls in their world, drinking gently-mixed (rum, mint, lime, and sugar) Mojitos in a thin passageway decorated with magnificent if aging graffiti art, eating in Paladar, an illicit, unmarked, Casablanca styled and themed restaurant with Bogart-pics on the walls, where Cuban’s with black-market cash to spend may sample the 4-forbidden pleasures – lobster, beef, shrimp and privacy. 3 hours of rum and fun later, they took us home,
Home was on the fourth and top floor of a nondescript too-much-sand-in-the-mix, concrete building, sandwiched in between two glorious colonial buildings in sad disrepair. A tiny living room, furnished with a sagging twin bed and a worn couch, and decorated with offerings to various Santerian saints, led to a microscopic bedroom with fungus blackened damp concrete walls and a tiny picture window bragging a perfect view of the Malecon and the ocean beyond. To left of the bedroom was the only kitchen/bathroom combo I have ever seen anywhere. On the stove was a Castro pressure cooker; one of 100,000 distributed to Cubans every month, essential weapons in Castro's latest battle to reassert control over the nation's economy.
The distribution was designed to "do away with the rustic kitchen," Castro had told the Federation of Cuban Women, boasting that the new cookers would use half the energy of the homemade ones they’d replaced, thereby helping to lessen Cuba’s dependence on foreign oil. It went unsaid that the distribution would destroy the thriving business of manufacturing the cookers from imported molds, one of Cuba’s few successful and legal private enterprises.
Two of the three girls, Jessie, the pretty twin of a rare Eastern Panther, and Glevis lived in that apartment with their grandmother and a scrawny cat. The third, Uleisi, ‘the quiet one’ lived a couple of doors down.
The most important thing in the apartment, apart from these extraordinarily women, was the TV, which was hooked up to an illegal dish on the roof, and broadcast our news, our shows, our gossip, our commercials; our material dreams, in real time. And the girls were smitten, salivating to taste Sonic burgers, to try Big Macs, to ride Batman & Robin, to fall into the Gap, to wear Chanel, paint their nails and the town with Revlon, and listen to Reggaeton, the urban Latin soundtrack to post hip hop consumption.
Once upon a time, in states such the old Soviet Union and apartheid South Africa, the government did a pretty good job of isolating the people from the world. This is not the case in Cuba. Cubans see us and they see themselves through our eyes, and they cannot believe that we are so unsophisticated that we cannot understand that it is possible for them to be proud of their country and yet want to experience our material good fortune -without becoming obese (phat not fat). And while they do desperately want Castro to go, they aren’t quite ready to push him because they do still respect and revere his contribution to their unique identity and their pride, and because they have been babied to the point they are scared to face our seemingly unfreindly world without him.
The evening came and the boardwalk that runs along the Malecon, lit as it was by a full omnipresent moon, beckoned. I crossed the road first, then the Superstar Reggaeton DJ. The girls did not follow, instead they huddled together on the city-side of the road, Confused, I waved them over, hoping that we could all kick-it perched on the sea wall, but they stayed put, waving us to come back.
A few increasingly desperate gestures later, we jaywalked back across the Malecon, but they walked quickly away. We followed them for a few hundred yards, without making an impression on their lead. Finally, they turned right into dark a side street, stopped, and waited. As we approached we saw that worry had replaced joy on their faces, and that they looked a decade older. Jessie explained that it was dangerous for them to be seen in the street with us after dark, as they might be arrested as whores (for fraternizing with the enemy, perhaps). At that very moment a leering cop with black beads for eyes strode up to Jessie, demanding to see her papers… She flicked a warning gaze at us, to move us on, and on we went, disprited, the bitter after-taste of apartheid fizzing on our lips.
We’d walked about a mile when we stumbled a dusty store crammed with pre-owned washing machines and a mountain of their spare parts. A sign above the store read:
“We buy used Russian washing machines in bad condition.”We turned to each other and swapped the sardonic smiles of two people sharing the exact same irony; Castro had bought into some old discredited Soviet shit, repaired it, modified it, and improved on it with donated spare parts, such as buses from China, computers from France, power plants from Spain, and munitions from Russia. Only, it's lemon, it really doesn't work.