I will also give thee for a light to the
Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the
earth. (Isaiah, 49:6)
photograph © Hazel Kahan
La Bodeguita del Medio bar in Havana.
It's December 31st, 1999, the eve of the millennium,
and it's my first time. My companion and I are shamelessly excited
by seeing Havana posted on the departure board at Jamaica's
Montego Bay Airport. Excited, but also anxious at how close we
are to what is, for Americans, forbidden territory. Soon after
the Cuban Airlines plane lands at Jose Marti Airport, I ask the
official to stamp my notebook instead of my passport; he lifts
his eyes and acquiesces with an ineffable smile. I'm in Cuba!
As the taxi enters Havana, I imagine Fidel and
Che on their triumphant entry into the city forty years before,
riding on open trucks, intense and exhilarated, wearing dirty
uniforms, bearded and very young. Over the next days, I draw and
write and film my observations of the culture the Revolution created,
unaware that my acute and insightful impressions are actually
mundane, similar to those of many other first-time travelers to
Cuba. I do not know then that I am seeing only the first of the
faces Cuba presents.
Along with the one million tourists who came to
the country last year, I ogle the colorful ruins, the noble, poignant
decay of glorious buildings and sumptuous mansions one
Kodak moment piled onto another. It's a shame, my friend and I
say, shaking our heads in agreement, they really should start
restoring these things. They could sell them for millions, we
exult, dulled to just how much capitalism has fashioned the lens
through which we look. The famous old Detroit cars are all around
us, those capacious, indulgently chromed, tail-finned beauties.
We peer past their thickly painted, patched bodies into our own
orgasmic replay, courtesy of the silver screen, of the glamorous
Forties and cruising Fifties. Once the embargo is lifted, we divine
and opine, those babies will be worth a bloody fortune. And then,
we observe, as thousands have before us, how sexy the women are,
how friendly everyone is, how ubiquitous the music is and how
stupid the embargo is. We sneak in a bit of nationalist pride
about Hemingway, boxing, and baseball as, drinking mojitos
while puffing on Cuban cigars, we nod and confidently predict
the return of the Cubans who "had to leave" the casinos
and the sea-sun-sand, the cool island that we have been cool enough
to discover and select as the site from which we will enter the
twenty-first century. As for those Miami Cubans, we say, oh yes,
you can be sure they'll be back. No doubt they can't wait, we
say, pleased by our own political sagacity. Yes, they'll come
back as soon as Castro kicks the bucket and we, America, start
to do business here again. It's all just waiting to happen.
We stare at the fading revolutionary slogans,
the exhortations to continue la lucha, to hold fast to the
struggle; we smile as the beautiful, ubiquitous face of Che Guevara
reminds us that history is not always relegated to the past. As
the first onslaught of impressions subsides, we realize that the
slogans occupy the places where advertising billboards should be.
It begins to dawn on us that we have not seen or heard any advertising
for over a week, a disorienting visual silence, the absence of a
photograph © Hazel Kahan
Castro and Hemingway.
By January 3, 2000, the date of our departure,
the breathlessness of my first day has faded. Now I am confused,
seduced, distracted by the mystery of Cuba, by my sense of how
little I have really discovered. I look out of the plane window
and wonder what makes me so certain that Cuba will call me back.
Six months later, Havana has changed. The city's
tempo is different, the mood has shifted, a flow of foreign money
is starting to trickle through the city's veins. Scaffolding is
clothing the buildings, replacing decay with loving restoration;
small, shiny new cars are rubbing some of the luster off the de
Sotos and Chevvies. Prices are higher. As the United States continues
its prim enforcement of the embargo against Cuba, the Spanish
and the French, the Venezuelans and Canadians have stepped into
the breach, learning the country and steadily forging alliances.
Does this mean it is only a matter of time before Cuba becomes
just another victim of globalization, just another carefully marketed
Maybe not. The more time I spend in Cuba, the
more clearly I see that Cuba has a powerful, hidden weapon. Somehow,
Cubans have never forgotten what Cuba is, or what it means to
be a Cuban. Surprisingly, to an American, the Revolution lives
on, though many of its manifestations have been discredited.
The Cuban idea has transcended decades of political
isolation, material deprivation, faltered support from the Soviet
Union, and the "Special Period" that followed. Indisputably,
at this very moment, people are hungry in Cuba there is
simply not enough to eat. Medical care is free, but there is insufficient
medicine. Education is free, but there are too few books. Artists
receive state support, but they don't have enough paint and brushes.
The US trade embargo, along with the collapse
of the Soviet Union, has made it impossible for Cuba to import
the farm equipment, oil, and chemicals necessary for modern intensive
agriculture. By default, the country has become a world-class
example of organic farming, environmentally sound transportation
(bicycles!), solar energy, and pest management without pesticides.
Even if by necessity rather than choice, Cuban farmers are remembering
and applying the old ways.
Cubans are angry with Fidel but proud that he
has wiped out illiteracy, that money is not a barrier for getting
a university degree or a hospital bed. Cubans will tell you Fidel
is tiresome, loquacious and perhaps brutal too, but they also
insist he is not corrupt, that he does not take from the people
or build monuments to himself. His personal life is shrouded in
mystery, perhaps to the improvement of his image. He is not powered
by a public-relations machine.
Because the idea of Cuba remains vital, I now
see, Cuba might well resist the culture of consumption and the moral
crisis that seems to be overtaking it, a crisis manifested in demonstrations
in, among other places, Seattle, Washington, Prague, and the French
countryside. These demonstrations tell me I am not alone in resisting
the vortex into which the so-called developed nations are being
sucked by what is labeled, without irony, as "progress."
We denizens of the consumer culture must face the possibility that
we might have more to learn from Cuban culture than Cubans have
to learn from us.
photograph © Hazel Kahan
A santerîa ceremony on the
eve of the millennium.
Could this embattled island become, as Israel
from ancient days had hoped to be, a light unto the nations? Such
questions cannot be honestly answered without serious attention
to the full paradox of the Cuban dialectic. Always in the back
of my mind are images of Cubans who choose escape on inner-tube
rafts... images of bunched people in front of dimly lit government
centers waiting for their forlorn rations of eggs and pork and
soap. I cannot forget the desperate and only partly successful
attempts of the Cuban government to attract people from the cities
to work in the countryside. It is hard for any American to forget
the years of messages about human-rights violations we have heard
from journalists, politicians, and Cuban-American spokespersons.
Who could ignore the barricades around the Cuban UN mission in
New York City?
Against this background, I pose my recent
perceptions of Cuban life. In two visits to Cuba, I have seen that
it's a hungry country, yes, but one with enough compassion to send
a thousand medical professionals to Haiti! According to The CIA
Fact Book, it's a country where 96% of the people are able to read
and where three out of four are employed by the state. Eighty percent
of Cubans own their own homes, and the rest pay a highly subsidized
rent. Yet though a vigorous barter system and black market
circumvent some of the economy's gross inadequacy nothing
can diminish the sheer exhaustion that a daily struggle for survival
creates. Poverty, I have noticed, not ideology, gnaws at Cuban optimism
and hedonism, competing with the deep intimacy of Cubans' own history
and their conviction that the Revolution was against corruption
and greed. For older Cubans at least, history and faith bring a
certain patience they have waited so long for the next thing;
they can wait longer. What troubles their sleep is the question
whether the children will continue to remember and believe.
photograph © Hazel Kahan
One cannot deny the influence of the vociferous,
voluble, charismatic dictator, speaking endlessly about everything
a perpetual state-of-the-union message that also reminds
Cubans about their imperialist enemies a single uninterrupted
voice speaking over decades the unrelenting nature of which
has protected the message and prevented its disintegration. Talk
about branding! Fidel is a brilliant marketer. Yet it may not
have been he who sold Cubans their idea of themselves.
By the end of my second visit to Cuba, I have
seen that it is actually a place where time is remembered, not
forgotten as Western journalists often propose. Cuba remembers
ancient values such as respect for elders, nurturing of children,
the grace of community and sharing, and the blessings of conviviality.
Tales of child abuse, guns in schools, teenage suicide are incomprehensible
to Cubans. Hearing that these horrors are present in so-called
developed nations like the United States reinforces the Cuban
people's belief in their own system. They spend a lot of time
talking to each other in cafés, in parks, at the beach,
and around the family dinner table. Far more than sporadic state-controlled
television broadcasts, these conversations shape the perceptions
of ordinary Cubans. Judging from my own conversations with shopkeepers
and park attendants, the ancient shared values are woven organically
within the Cuban culture's fabric. Cubans do not need synthetic
external exhortation for the renewal of these values. Because
Cuban self-knowledge runs so deep, I have come to see, post-embargo
Cubans are unlikely to embrace American values and consumer culture.
"We've been looking at America from ninety miles away for
years now. We know what it is," a Cuban writer told me.
The arts are vibrantly alive in Cuba. Music and
dancing are an integral part of daily life. Perhaps these expressions
of the human spirit have not yielded to despair and bitterness because
they have not been stained by money. Perhaps survival through cooperation
creates a spiritual resilience that survival through competition
will never achieve. Then again, perhaps I am a hopelessly naive
romantic to believe that money can be taught to flow differently
in Cuba than it does in the United States, along channels unique
to Cuba's spiritual topography, in a place where revolution may,
after all, fulfill a promise, even if it diverges from the vision
of the barbudas, the bearded ones.
photograph © Hazel Kahan
It's three months now since I returned home from
my second trip to Cuba. I continue to have these questions: When
Cuba is returned to a legitimate place among the nations, can
it and will it become an exemplar by remembering its purpose and
by holding intact an idea of itself that does not create false
needs through advertising? Is Cuba evolving an utterly new and
enlightened hybrid of socialism and capitalism? Will the increasingly
hard-hearted "developed" economies be reminded how people
are meant to live among each other and how families are meant
to treat their children and elders?
Or do such utopian expectations place too great
a burden on Cuba? Here are some other questions that imply a grimmer
scenario: When last year's million visitors double and triple,
will Cuba's people be strong enough to resist what the sheer volume
of tourism can do? Will the now-intact idea of Cuba crumble as
Cuba becomes just another country pummeled by the monster we call
progress? Change is coming, and it's coming fast: I have
seen it in the distracted response of the hotel receptionist and
in the glazed eyes of the elevator attendant as they spend more
of their time now with tourists than with their families. Will
the Miami Cubans, by now so "American," return to Cuba,
and, if they do, will they replace the organic farms with chemical
agribusiness? Will they tear down Havana's old buildings so casinos
and resorts can sprawl in their stead?
Maybe. But I'm betting that Cuba will not
forget its idea of itself. I'm betting it will use its hard-earned
learning to become the first truly enlightened nation of this millennium.
photograph © Hazel Kahan
In front of a Salvador Gonzalez mural in Calle Hamel, Havana.
BOOKS OF INTEREST
John Blackthorn, I Che Guevara: A Novel, William Morrow &
Co, January, 2000, 352 pages, $24.00.
Christopher P. Baker, Havana Handbook, Moon Travel Handbooks,
2000, 368 pages, $16.95.
Oscar Hijuelos, Empress of the Splendid Season, Harper Perennial,
1999, 342 pages, $13.00.
Christopher Hunt, Waiting for Fidel, Houghton Mifflin, 1998,
259 pages, $13.00.
Patrick Symmes, Chasing Che, Vintage Departures, 2000, 302
Zoe Valdes, I gave you all I had, 320 pages, Arcade Publishing;
Pico Iyer, Cuba and the Night, Knopf, 1995, 234 pages, $22.00.
CIA Fact Book: Cuba
The Center for Cuban
The Cuban Government's site
Live Cuban music