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January 19, 1999

CUBA: Fantasy Island

[In November the author of this article and several other Mobilians visited Cuba on a trip arranged by the Mobile-Havana Sister City organization. A US government embargo prohibits most travel to and other connections with Cuba by American citizens. Further tales of the journey will follow.]

by David Underhill

Cuba -- Castro. Linked so long they have become labels for each other. So a report on a voyage to Cuba must open with a disclaimer about Castro. I am the only person on earth who has ever defeated Fidel in an election. And I did this out of fascination verging on infatuation.

My senior year in high school nobody lusted for the student body presidency as fervidly as I did. Not enough to declare and run against me anyway. An election with only one candidate for the top office? That's like something they would do in Red Russia! Also borrrring.

To remedy this a small cabal plotted, with the cheerful arrogance of youth, to offer Fidel as a write-in opponent. What could be a better gambit for tweaking the hyper-patriotic, ferociously anti-commie elders or for expressing antic defiance of the instant death threat suspended over everybody? This was during the extended Cold War spasm, with escalating my-bomb-is-bigger-than-your- bomb tests splitting the sky; matching incendiary rhetoric; mole people digging backyard shelters; and absurd duck-under-the-desk drills to save your life when the nuclear flash outside vaporized the school building.

And besides that, Castro was magical. He and his bearded comrades had appeared from nowhere, it seemed, in the Cuban mountains and descended -- as if from Mt. Sinai -- to oust the old and embody the new. They were daring... visionary...adventurous...bold... dedicated...armed and dangerous...outnumbered...doomed...crafty...dogged...lucky... victorious. Commies or not, enemies of America or not, they could intoxicate adolescents just discovering adult potions.

Time pilfers and embroiders memory. I can't summon all we did to promote Fidel Castro for student body president. And some stunts we contrived were surely not as glorious in fact as in recollection.

But pictures in a school yearbook prove these memories aren't entirely a figment of dotage. Here's a motley rabble filling and spilling out of a convertible command car. Some wear helmets, fatigues, ammo belts, holsters. One wields a baseball bat. I'm standing in the front seat flourishing a plumber's plunger sword.

In another photo we've seized the school -- or gotten inside at least. By then all are in nearly matching guerrilla uniforms. (How did we manage that?) Several tote rifles. (From home probably, but how did we get them into the building? Try this now and you'll be expelled, arrested, or shot.) In the center El Comandante stands on a box brandishing a fist behind a cluster of microphones, exhorting invisible revolutionary multitudes.

And I remember the campaign assembly in the auditorium, where candidates for all the student offices prepared for grown-up politics by making promises they had no power to keep. As I finished my gaudy speech, banners blaring FIDEL FOR PRESIDENT unfurled from the balcony. The guerrillas burst in and swaggered down the aisles raising a giddy din for Castro. Or so I picture the scene now.

Pimply political theater. It likely amused and somewhat baffled the students, plus making the faculty fidget -- maybe quiver or seethe. My mind is mostly blank about the reactions.

On election day, confident of victory, I magnanimously wrote in Fidel Castro. Although others must have also, memory of the totals fails.

This elaborate prank was foolish fun for the perpetrators. But the chief culprits had a further purpose, understood only dimly then.

We were chicks with eyes barely open and just beginning to peep beyond our nests. We had noticed a parade of petty despots playing deadly musical chairs with presidential palaces, especially in Latin America. Castro and crew looked different.

They, too, would fight, kill, and die for their cause. But it wasn't simply seizing control, strutting around in a spangled uniform, and slipping away with suitcases of cash when the next batch of usurpers arrived.

The Fidelistas seemed -- even before they emerged from the mountains to send the money-laden dictator Batista fleeing and even after they got cozy with the Russian commies -- to have other aims. While we couldn't have specified much about what these were, our adolescent sense of the difference was accurate.

We never imagined that by the end of the century Castro would still be ruling Cuba. Nor that his presence there could still provoke here the curiosity and combustible passions that we toyed with in a high school election.

Early November, 1998. The windowless main hall of a generic mall. Christmas glitter is already being hung with care to set visions of sugar plums dancing in shoppers' heads. The same scene repeats all across America, but this must be Mobile, Alabama, because that's where I've lived for many years.

Among the jostling unknown faces, one smiles. It belongs to a fellow who used to work, after his university class hours, at the radio station where I host a jabbertalky show. We slip aside from the flow to chat, and a young woman comes with him.

I reveal that I'm raiding the mall for a last grab of necessities to depart for Cuba soon. His eyes widen in surprise, but he's curious to hear more. I'm gushing an explanation as he introduces me to his companion. I reach to shake her hand -- and she flinches.

She doesn't want me to touch her. She'd been strolling the safe, sealed mall on an ordinary evening and suddenly is face to face with somebody who actually desires to visit the Cuban remnant of the Evil Empire, who even hopes to meet the archfiend Fidel. Therefore, I must be the local franchise fiend. What sort of demonology had she been steeped and pickled in?

Or so I assessed her shrinking away from me. But maybe there was just a static nip in my fingertip.

The demonizing has certainly seeped into others, then spread outward from them. The Sister City organization in Mobile began by arranging a marriage with Malaga, Spain. This link sparked local rejoicing, although Spain was then in the grip of the dictator Franco, who'd ruled since the 1930s, when he slew the elected -- but leftist -- government. Later connections with cities in the rightist, military-dominated countries of Honduras and Taiwan were also well received.

Then a pairing with the Russian city of Rostov caused a civic stroke. This was before the Soviet Union receded into history. "They're communists!" gasped some Mobile officials (as if various American-Soviet cultural exchanges had not been happening for decades during lulls in the Cold War, as if Soviet cargo ships didn't dock occasionally just a few blocks from city hall). They refused to welcome a visiting delegation from Rostov. Wouldn't even shake hands.

Later the Sister City group wooed and wed Havana. What a coup! Not New Orleans, Atlanta, New York, or Washington but middling Mobile had somehow landed THE metropolis of Cuba. Amid the usual grumbles and rages about consorting with commies, a trickle of reciprocal visits began.

For a couple of years I followed these through news reports and finally surrendered. I tracked down the Sister Cityites and signed up for the next trip to Cuba. This was something I'd wanted to do since high school.

(to be continued)

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