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August 31, 1999

Cuba: Havana Meanders

(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 relations with Cuba by American citizens. This is the eighth episode. Further tales of the journey will follow. Click here for the previous episode.)

by David Underhill

Liberation from the touristy Havana Libre hotel and its ruinous prices! The cheap sleep space I'd discovered at a Baptist church was adequate, despite the cold-water shower, which served as a bracing reminder that you don't really need standard American comforts to survive. And the Libre was just a short walk away, so its lobby could still be an informal rendezvous for the Mobile flock.

We'd played our role as the US delegation at the solidarity confab without diplomatic mishap. Now we were free to prowl. A few vanished into the countryside and weren't seen for days. But lounge in the lobby awhile struggling to make sense of the Cuban communist party newspaper, classifying the tourist hordes, or studying the alluring tactics of the discreet rental friends, and eventually somebody from Mobile would appear by plan or accident. Off we'd go, usually with some destination in mind--and then whatever might flow from there.

One jaunt took us to a (perhaps the) synagogue. The president of the congregation, Castroite or not, was a fervent Cuban patriot. He denounced the US embargo as the latest version of Uncle Sam's persistent itch to control Cuba and snatched history books off his shelves to prove it.

Although his establishment wasn't lavish, neither was it meager. But a walk from there to one of Havana's blood banks was a journey into the Third World.

Donors crowded the small, drab building. The director said The Revolution has made people more generous than before. It must have made them trusting too. Americans accustomed to medical procedures in bright, shiny, apparently antiseptic surroundings might not have felt comfortable having a needle stuck in their arm and their blood drained away in these quarters.

Most of the equipment looked terribly old and weary. Some of the furniture was literally falling apart. Records were pre-computer scrawls on paper. The director's office was tiny and shabby, and her pay made her a pauper compared to US doctors. But she said that she was honored and happy to be doing this job--while hoping and maneuvering always for better facilities.

A stroll to the Hotel Nacional entered yet another co-existing world. As the name boasts, this place intended from birth to be the country's prime retreat. Its design gracefully melds early 20th century highrise and Spanish colonial styles. Built on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean, it stands apart from the city, buffered by palm-studded, carefully tended grounds. In the lobby and courtyard roving musicians of great skill serenade the tourists and the platoons of foreign businessmen sniffing out deals. No Cubans of the sort thronging the streets a couple blocks away are visible at the Hotel Nacional.

Is this an embryo back-to-the-future scene? In a dining and drinking wing hangs a framed photo of the boyish Castro with a Spanish inscription saying, as best I could figure: Here in January, 1961 commander Fidel signed some of his first official documents in the same rooms where, just months before, Mafia leaders had directed their gambling and other illegal activities in Cuba and the United States.

The Mafia reference, at least, was unmistakable: "capos de la Mafia internacional..." So were the large panels dividing a neighboring wall into decades showing famous patrons of the hotel. The 1930s through the 50s pictured royalty like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor; stars like Errol Flynn, Betty Grable, Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Nat King Cole, Marlon Brando; boxers Dempsey and Marciano; also Churchill; and a rogues' gallery of top mobsters: Lansky, Traficante, Luciano, and their lieutenants. The personalities change abruptly when The Revolution arrives: Yuri Gagarin, the first Soviet astronaut, leftist authors Jean Paul Sartre and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, American exile singer Josephine Baker. By the 80s and 90s characters akin to the earlier ones creep back into the collages: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mohammed Ali, Pierre Cardin, Frances Ford Coppola.

But the memory of that old era remains an open wound. Ask almost any Cuban--from cab driver, to newspaper peddler, to engineer, to manager, to the mayor of Havana--whether the return of tourists and foreign business also means a return of the Mafia. They will erupt, with maybe more passion than conviction: No, no! The casinos, the gambling, the rackets, the prostitution, the corruption, the surrender of the country to thugs and thieves. No, no, NEVER!!!!

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The facade of one Committee for the Defense of the Revolution office displays murals of stalwart leaders from the revolt against Spain a century ago.
A long hike from the hotel zone down toward original Havana at the sheltered harbor was a descent through time. Streets narrowed, vehicular traffic diminished, residential buildings shrank and bore more age and carved-stone ornament. Much of life was lived on balconies, in the streets, and in parks or plazas.

Some ancient bronze heroes, like the Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar, stood on pedestals. I saw no statues of Fidel or his comrades. The facade of one Committee for the Defense of the Revolution office did display murals of stalwart leaders from the revolt against Spain a century ago and from Castro's uprising. Although a Museum of the Revolution beckoned, the day was waning and we didn't have time to do it justice.

Nearby loomed a structure plainly modeled after the US capitol; it may be a museum now rather than a seat of government. We passed occasional Catholic churches, plus an imposing cathedral. They may still function as places of worship but had about them the air of museums, if not mausoleums.

Equally striking on this walk and others were the omissions from the urban scenes familiar to Americans. Everybody seemed to have the essentials of existence--and often additional stuff--but it wasn't evident where they got these things. There were no obvious supermarkets or department stores, scarce smaller shops, and very few equivalents to the corner Circle Ks back home. The supply system operated in another manner, revealed by a cluster of women around an unmarked door opening into a no-frills space resembling a small warehouse more than a store. A truckload of eggs had just arrived and somehow they knew. Down the street would be a similar assembly for meat or beans.

I never did spot where clothes, shoes, utensils, household supplies, bicycles, or other ordinary items came from. But if these things break, even we aliens could have gotten them mended. Little home and yard fix-it shops abounded. I even saw a man with an old pedal- powered sewing machine repairing coats, purses, and shoes on the sidewalk. He appeared at the same place every day and had a large clientele.

Also absent was the techno and bio snooping now so normal in more advanced nations. Back in America surveillance cameras are becoming such common devices that life must be hellish for true paranoids. Even more balanced citizens on their daily routine could feel they are involuntary actors in a documentary being compiled about themselves by unknown persons for unknown reasons. And private security guards have multiplied so fast that they may outnumber the official police forces. In Havana, however, I saw not one surveillance camera and no security guards anywhere, except around the hotels and boutiques of the tourist tracts.

A few locals warned me that the city used to be a completely safe place--but no longer. The flood of foreigners, they said, toting supposed fortunes had spawned predators and scavengers hungry for a portion. Yet others swore such fears were mythical. Living in US cities attunes you to danger, and I didn't sense it in Havana.

Recklessly or not, I and some other Mobilians ventured widely on foot, even at night along dimly lit streets. There was no trouble. We drew a few curious glances and little more. But if we'd been harvested by urban hunter-gatherers, I wouldn't have returned to report that Havana seemed safe.

(to be continued)

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