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October 5, 1999

Cuba: Countryside, Rumba Reception, Adios

(Last 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. This is the tenth and final tale of the journey. Click here for the previous episode.)

by David Underhill

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Roberto and his Soviet sedan.
I had just met Roberto and already he was my friend. Otherwise he'd have been my chauffeur for this dash across the countryside around Havana, and we'd both have been outlaws.

Cuba's share of the revenue from joint ventures with foreign companies goes to the government. It pays the Cuban employees of the venture and keeps any surplus for the national treasury. The cafes and other small businesses catering to tourists surrender to the taxman a huge slice of their income. By such methods the state tries to capture a generous portion of this bonanza from abroad and deploy it throughout the country, rather than leaving it in the grip of those few Cubans who happen to be cozy with the moneyed foreigners.

This rule is supposed to apply even to private cars that might be hired occasionally for a tour of the capital and vicinity. But if Roberto is my friend instead of my driver....Who could object, what law could intrude, if my friend offers to show me some of the country he loves and I give him a gift--in dollars?

It wasn't really much for what I got: a large swath of territory, several hours of his time, and a comfortable ride in his nicely designed, immaculately maintained Soviet sedan.

Whatever else The Revolution may have achieved toward reformulating people into new communist citizens, it hasn't deleted much of the legendary Latin driving style. In Cuba it retains many of the traditional traits, derived perhaps from bullfighting, the conquistadors, flamenco music, and the tango. The horn is an integral part of the drive train and the steering mechanism. In a honking, swerving flash Roberto deposited in the rearview mirror all of Havana that I'd surveyed by foot the previous days.

Now I was seeing things absent from downtown Havana but which had to be somewhere: Big, blank structures that must be some sort of factory or warehouse, without the names and corporate logos that would identify such places in the US. Bus barns and maintenance shops. Highrise housing. A vast sports tract with playing fields, stadiums, and light towers. A couple of military facilities. Patches of highly regimented plants, which I guessed (and later confirmed) were experimental plots for the effort to save money and improve nutrition by promoting micro- farming on balconies, rooftops, and vacant lots. (My close friend Roberto couldn't help much with queries about this because he was one of the few Cubans I met whose English was feebler than my Spanish.)

Then we squealed atilt around the entrance ramp to a highway much like American interstates, but built by the Russians, that runs along the spine of the island. End of resemblance.

The road had no discernible speed limit and no evident restrictions on who or what could use it. We careened, horn blaring, through a clutter of the usual motor vehicles, along with bicycles and horse carts, plus assorted pedestrians, two-footed and four. Included in the parade were busses, flatbed trucks, even dump trucks, stuffed with human cargo -- agricultural laborers shuttling from one work site to another. By American safety standards the highway was an impending disaster.

Oceanic expanses of the state farms' sugar cane flanked the road for long stretches. Smokestacks of the sugar mills rose here and there on the horizon. We passed large crop and livestock spreads also. But tucked among these government operations were a few apparent small family farms, some with magnificent and obviously pampered bulls.

We zoomed past the exit for one spot already on my mental map, an ecological tourist haven I'd heard of in Havana called Las Terrazas (The Terraces). I was curious to inspect what Cuba is offering this growing corps of global nature samplers. My alleged friend Roberto backed through the oncoming traffic to regain the turnoff.

The narrow road curled into hills clad in familiar forests -- startlingly spiked with tall palm trees. Ahead a valley opened holding a lake surrounded by rental bungalows and other amenities. On a slope behind stood an elegant and ecologically correct hotel. It had solar panels for hot water, circular openings in floors and ceilings so some spectacular trees could continue growing through it, and few patrons -- that day anyway.

We returned to Havana on back roads through fields and towns where nothing had been done with tourists in mind. The Revolution wasn't much in evidence either. Like the capital, these villages had no portraits of Fidel, no visible police state agents on patrol, no government buildings as imposing as a typical rural county courthouse in the US, and not even many revolutionary slogans daubed on walls.

By Yankee measures this countryside was poor. Nobody wore Hilfiger or Nike. Many streets were potholed and buildings decrepit. Vehicles were old and patched.

But by Latin American standards? I've seen pictures and I poked around Mexico for a couple months many years ago. In outlying areas the conditions often were simply primitive. Reports about NAFTA's wreckage of the small farm economy indicate that Mexico's peasantry has sunk ever further by now.

Would these rural Cubans trade places with the Mexicans? I doubt it. At least the Cubans have state-guaranteed access to education and medical care, to subsistence food and housing. Do the Mexicans? Lots more of them are defying laws and boundary barriers to flee to the US than Cubans are.

Could the ragged Mobile contingent's virtual diplomatic reception with the mayor of Havana and state dinner at the official guest villa have happened the same night? Despite the best intentions, my detailed diary from the opening days of the trip unraveled into hasty undated scribbles supplemented by memory and photos.

But on one of our last nights in Havana we assembled at a grand old mansion rumored to have been the pre-revolution mayor's residence. Communist mayors occupy more modest quarters, and the building now houses receptions and similar events.

Whether we went there as the US delegation to the solidarity conference or as the representatives of Havana's sister city Mobile (or both) I never knew. Whichever, the mayor (not his formal title but, nevertheless, his function) considered our appearance important enough to be waiting for us. And the first few arrivals would have been embarrassed if we'd been the only ones. But several stragglers soon entered, and he spent an hour or so with us.

Through a translator, or sometimes in his own English, the mayor addressed anything we asked about. There was no point in pestering him about whether Cuba has a totalitarian government. Like all well-versed Cubans he had a parry for every thrust: Yes, there is only one party, but it runs itself democratically. And no, you needn't be a communist to seek or hold public office. And candidates don't have to auction themselves to campaign financiers, unlike in America. So Cuba is actually more democratic. Etc., etc. is numbing particulars.

Instead we discussed the headaches of every urban official: garbage collection, sewers, housing, jobs, schools, and all the rest. Just to check his response, I asked if the Mafia would ever return and got the usual no, no, no, NEVER! Then he left to resume his chores.

We shifted to a dining room for a dinner hosted by the deputy mayor, the attorney general of Cuba (not his formal title but, nevertheless, his function), and other dignitaries. The food and company were excellent.

So was the band, reputedly one of the country's very best little dance and party combos. And they happily insisted on augmenting the band with diners -- not in any skill positions but just to lend a hand keeping the beat. At one point the rhythm section consisted of the deputy mayor of Havana (maracas), the attorney general of Cuba (bongos), and your humble scribe (tambourine).

For recovery from the exertions of this stint as a diplomat I didn't return to the Baptist barracks. To economize I'd invited myself to move into the nearby apartment of a Cuban I'd met only a few days before, and he graciously accepted.

But calling it his apartment is a misnomer. He was a TV actor with a Swiss girlfriend in residence. They had artsy associates of all varieties, Cuban and foreign, who wandered in at all hours. The building had no locked door on the street, and the door of his place was rarely even shut. Neighbors from down the hall, upstairs, down the block also entered in platoons. I was merely stirred into the mix and instantly acquired a batch of friends I'd have to bid good-bye as soon as the weather allowed our boat to leave.

Until then I hung out at the apartment or walked the streets soaking up sights and chatting with folks I'd gotten to know in the area. It was beginning to feel like my neighborhood.

Once I was wandering along a busy boulevard, and through the doppler bleat of a passing horn I saw a smile and a wave aimed my way. It was Roberto, perhaps an actual friend after all.

But the weather cleared and we had to go. It will be impossible to return to the same Cuba. Change is under way and accelerating, driven by mighty forces on both sides of the watery divide and the ideological rift between Cuba and the US.

Nobody knows for certain what this shift will produce. But Mobile will be somewhere near the center of the swirl of events, partly because of trips like this and ones to follow.

The Harbinger