November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Cuba/Politics

James Palombo Photo

As our readership is continuing to develop, here is a piece from San Miguel Allende, Mexico, that was forwarded in the context of my last article on Cuba. It’s not exactly a politically based article, but it does represent some of the substance of the Cuban culture, and I trust you’ll find it interesting, as did I. The piece is followed by a bit of prose-poetry that I did, which seemed to capture a bit of the varying social and political landscape of the country. The article originally appeared in the newspaper Atencion San Miguel.

— Jim Palombo, Politics Editor

Out of Cuba, 2007

By Lou Christine

The consensus is that the one-time architectural marvel called Havana is a decaying city coming apart at the seams. Havana is hot and humid. The place is a bit pricey and there’s hardly anything to buy. The food’s insipid but the music’s spicy. And the women do live up to their erotic reputation! From my perspective, after spending five days in Havana, all the above rings true. Yet my slant here is strictly a thumbnail sketch of Havana, and can’t be compared to the whole of the nation and its people.

The economic effects from the 40-some-year, U.S. embargo and Soviet pull out have both isolated and reduced Cuba into an impoverished existence. Havana’s past splendor is apparent, as is its present anemic condition. One could bray, “What the hell happened here? Who’s in charge?” Putting those negative aspects aside it’s the Cuban people and their unique spirit that makes the place fascinating.

I skipped the government provided tourist hotels deciding to rent a second-floor apartment (casa particular) in a run-down barrio of old Havana. The neighborhood could be compared to tenement sections of the South Bronx. Despite the rough surroundings I found Cubans friendly, accommodating and hospitable. Hardly anyone seemed serious, if anything most acted sophomoric other than the downtrodden that have been crushed by the system or bad fortune.

My landlords were Jesus and his wife Dora. The apartment wasn’t spiffy yet clean with essentials. The affable couple had me feeling welcome and comfortable as I began to experience a slice of life in old Havana. For some reason they both called me Louie.

“Louie! Louie!” was shouted by a voice in my direction as I bopped down the block the following day. It was Jesus. In Latino fashion he hand signaled me to hold up. Catching up he latched onto my elbow only saying another Louie while leading me into the back patio of a dingy bar. The TV blared. Some Cuban pretty boy was up on the screen singing his heart out. Jesus ordered two cold cans of Crystal and got down to business.

Jesus said, “Louie,” two more times. We were up to five Louies and I still didn’t know what was on his mind. Evidently, the night before, I mentioned an affinity for baseball when Jesus clicked on the apartment’s TV with a game in progress. Sipping his beer and moving his hands in a certain way, Jesus began to paint a vivid picture. It was in 1951, Yankee Stadium, the top of the ninth and the great, Boston Red Sock, Ted Williams, was at bat. The Yanks were ahead by a run, with one out, and a runner on third. Jesus’ uncle had promised the then nine-year-old a trip NYC. to see a big-league game and his favorite player, Yankee, Joe DiMaggio.

Jesus paused his story to elaborate how he revered DiMaggio and how jolting Joe was “El Mejor!” After the brief DiMaggio eulogy Jesus continued telling me how he was seated in the left-center-field bleachers. Williams launched a screaming line drive seemingly out of centerfielder DiMaggio’s reach, yet the Yankee Clipper got a good jump on the ball and made a spectacular run-saving catch. Jesus became more animated describing how the Red Sox runner on third tagged up and began to race home to tie the game. Gracefully, according to Jesus, DiMaggio maintained his wherewithal, retrieved the ball from his mitt, and rifled a bullet toward Yogi Berra, the Yankee catcher, to make the tag out and to win the game! Jesus then just slowly nodded his head and looked away for the moment as he savored the past.

Those are the indelible, first-hand memories the Cuban has of his hero, Yankee Stadium and his beloved baseball. Then Jesus extended his chest somewhat telling me how he went on to become a hard throwing pitcher and a pro prospect, saying he threw a number of no hitters. In 1958 he signed a $5,000 minor league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers but all changed with the revolution and his dream to become a big leaguer died.

From the looks of things, in present day Havana, many dreams died back in 1959. I am not qualified to judge if Uncle Fidel’s system is a travesty of justice, or a continuous-and-challenging socialist experiment with a severe case of spinning wheels disease. On the surface things don’t look all that prosperous. Yet discounting the obvious pitfalls, when ferreting a bit deeper, there’s something striking about the place.

Up to the point with Jesus I was having a love-hate relationship with the city. I almost wanted to leave after fifteen minutes. There were waiting lines at immigration and customs and longer lines for everything else. But regardless I could also sense there’s a special feeling, being in the mix with the multi-racial Cuban people that had me feeling so alive!

In Jesus’ case, most of our conversations covered the golden age of baseball. He doesn’t think much of today’s big leaguers. We searched our brains making a list Major-League 500 home-run hitters, those with 3000-hits and 300-game winners over their careers. Once back home I checked. Jesus and I nailed about 90% of the 60-some baseball playing icons. I seemed to be the called-for soundboard to talk the about the sport we both love.

I was living mostly a one-block existence. Fellow sanmiguelense, Jeffery Brown, was my neighbor. We shared shots of Vodka with some men, out of the trunk of a ‘54 Plymouth resting on its axles. There was Yasser, mid-twenties, strong and handsome. He inquired about gyms and weight-lifting equipment in the States. He hates his name. Seems he was born on the day Yasser Arafat visited Cuba and therefore stuck with the moniker. One of the men, Manuel, Jesus’ brother-in-law wanted to know about present day cars. He frowned some when I told him today’s autos are all about computers and that back yard tune-ups are out of the question. He and his cronies were then installing a clutch into a ‘49 Hudson. The men had us feeling at ease and the Vodka helped. We took more swigs and posed for buddy-buddy photos. I asked about the Soviet influence. Were they still around? Manuel said the Russians never really fit in, that they built decent roads but ugly buildings, along with bad running cars, motorcycles and tractors, then the Ruskies left them in a lurch. All and all the men agreed that the Russians presence meant little one way or another, other than the introduction of Vodka.

After a day and a half  “Louie! Louie!” peppered my ears from various directions each time I took to the street. I smiled. They smiled back. Take in part, it’s their block, and residents on such close-quartered blocks don’t miss a blink. Ironically I was residing on Calle San Miguel, the length of your average street here in San Miguel. The row homes were three-storied, with six-to-eight apartments in each. Most were occupied with Havanans, yet I observed tourists with luggage exiting taxis then disappearing behind doors.

To appreciate Cuba one has to seek out the silver linings from what seems like a hopeless situation. The system offers Cubans little incentive, so goes a desire to upkeep buildings and infrastructure. The streets are teeming with life 24/7. That memorable, far-out alien bar depicted in the film Star Wars seems pale compared to the outlandish street scenes in Havana. There’s big-time stoop life primarily because of the stifling heat and humidity; kids play baseball and grab ass using home-made baseballs fashioned from rolled up white tape and broom sticks and sticks of all kinds are swung bats. A parked, banged up ‘55 Chevy might be first base, and broken manhole cover second, a curbside third, while home plate might be a cutout portion of a cardboard box. Some kids just play catch or handball. With the ’50ish cars and street baseball alike, boyhood memories flashed in my mind’s eye. I could have been any one of those kids. I saw some sun-baked basketball courts, mostly deserted, marred with potholes and lopsided backboards, minus baskets. Kids played soccer with makeshift balls and even tin cans.

The plethora of street scenes are both poignant and heart breaking; men get haircuts in the street, transmissions from vintage American cars, now jalopies, are yanked out with brute strength and then jury-rigged as to get them back on the road. The shelves of the few available tiendas are bare, except for nine or ten items; people look disheveled and beat, except for the exquisite smiles they dole out toward neighbor and stranger alike; the pulsating beat of Latin music pours out of barred windows and open doorways. One day I went out to the avenue and bought eight pork sandwiches. Problem number one: The sandwich maker didn’t have a bag. I think I’m resourceful and tried to buy a bag but didn’t possess the right currency, but a kind lady gave me one. Then I was in search for mayonnaise or mustard. I would have been better off seeking out the Holy Grail. None was to be found, but low and behold in the basement of a foreign investment market I found mayonnaise. Voila! But didn’t you know the computerized cash register system crashed and there would be no more sales that day, mmmmm, dried pork sandwiches.

Tourists are forced to buy a currency called CUC. It’s a government sponsored rip off regardless if cashing dollars, Mexican pesos or Euros. Ten to fifteen percent comes off the posted exchange. You’re getting a Cuban CUC for about a dollar-thirty. Prices in tourist joints are more expensive than here and food wise it’s mostly lousy, ill prepared with inferior ingredients. I ordered Chow Mein in a Chinese restaurant, only thing there were no noodles.

As earlier noted, countless old Fords, Chevy’s, Hudson’s and Studebakers rumble along Cuban boulevards as rusted hulks held together by who knows what? The state of public transportation is atrocious. People are crammed tight into deteriorating buses with no room for their guardian angel. With the heat, sweat and mass of humanity one can only gasp and say, “but for the grace of God.” Taxis are too expensive for most except for community cabs that are packed to full capacity, dropping some off and taking on others. Many hitch hike, standing in droves, off sidewalks, waving down anyone who might pick them up. As the pecking order goes the young and better looking chance to hitch a ride rather than the elderly or decrepit.

The men are forward and the women receptive. I eyeballed mostly women whose dress is alluring and enticing, dolled up in some tawdry chic that beckons with the hotties featuring enticing curves and plunging necklines, primarily, because in reality, that is all they have to show for themselves. In most other places chicks wiggling their behinds in such a way while planted in exaggerated high-heels and wearing short-shorts would be perceived more like cheap strumpets. Inside Havana that look is hardly out of the ordinary. The men’s dress on the most part was shabby and wrinkled. I suppose in the men’s case their well-defined bodies do the talking.

Love or lust is constantly in the air. Even the most unsightly tourist, fat, bald or snaggle-toothed can be seen as a desirable Romeo, that’s of course if he has fresh money in his pocket. That easy availability of women mostly arises out of hunger and need. Cuban women do show case a certain one-of-a-kind sensuality that seems inbred. Such overt actions later on might place a few extra staples on the family table. Horny men attracted to such vivacious women might just shrug their shoulders and sum, “When in Rome…” or those with conscious may ask themselves if they are taking advantage of an undeniable female commodity or participating in some sort of lurid exploitation? I don’t have the answers.

Under the surface breathes an oppressive state. Jesus warned me there are street-corner snitches and police everywhere. A woman just sharing a taxi or walking down the street with a foreigner can be whisked away by the police for doing either. Often consequences have females spending a couple of months in the slammer and a mark on her record to boot. Girls constantly talk and worry about the police.

The government is well aware of the prostitution yet for the hooker in Havana it’s a Catch-22 situation. They have to be tricky to procure tricks. Cuban women of any profession are discouraged from frequenting with tourists other than in the daytime in public places. Only female employees are allowed in hotels. Yet just outside on sidewalks of some tourist, oriented, boom-boom establishments, sanctioned by the government, the girls gather in bouquets and are permitted to enter if accompanied by a tourist. Then it seems the government turns a blind eye that makes the whole man-woman thing seem ambiguous at most. Many, in actuality, are not professional streetwalkers but country girls merely in search of a meal, some drinks, a nice time and pocket money. Yet the pocket money they receive for their charms often equals a month’s pay. For men, reciprocated affection offered by women is almost automatic; “You were nice to me so now I’ll be nice to you.”

Cuba does hold claim to the world’s lowest AIDS rate. Reason being: Random HIV tests. At first people infected with HIV were whisked off to a sanitarium, for life. In 1998, the government permitted patients who have been properly indoctrinated and treated to return home but under a state of house arrest.

Many young gals from the countryside apply and anxiously wait for coveted visas permitting them to stay in Havana up to two or three months. They apply for the get-away visas under the guise of schooling or to visit relatives. Yet on the most part, probably because of the wireless coconut, they know Havana has brighter lights and a slew of generous men from around the world who seek female company — their possible escape. Cubans do not have access to the Internet’s super highway. They can e-mail and telephone but are kept much in the dark about what is taking place in the outside world. They see only what the regime wants them to see, period!

I queried some about their impression of foreign men and men in general. My sampling had some of the gals telling me they don’t like Italian men, especially those from the south. Women, even streetwalkers, have their dignity and the girls said Italian tourists were rude and presumptuous in a place where being presumptuous is a gimme. The French, Greeks and Spanish, in their view, act stodgy and above them. German and Scandinavian are said to be polite yet distant. When I asked about Mexicans or other Latinos the girls pointed to their elbows and patted them with their other hand, a sign that indicates cheapskates. “And they lie,” said Magalia, saying how they promise marriage faster than the rest. She likes American men, primarily because they are generous but they are loud and brag too much. As for Cuban men, Magalia made a face and extended her open hand and counted off her fingers one by one emphatically, “Uno, dos, tres, quatro novias, siempre… ellos el pejor!”

During multiple conversations with Havanans the men were more restrained about Cuba’s situation and I refrained from pushing the subject. Men of age wanted to speak about glory of the past. Taxi drivers openly spoke about long hours but the money was great. Only one cabbie tried to sell me that Cuba is a wonderful place where everybody is equal and it’s only getting better. There are devilish billboards showing Bush and Hitler as equals. Posted images of Che are everywhere yet there aren’t many images of Castro. Women looked to the future and were more expressive about the state of things. “Get me out of here!” shouted out from within them.

“Everybody’s afraid of the police,” one women told me in a low voice inside a tourist restaurant as two cruised outside. “They make us go to rallies.”  For bigger rallies thousands are bussed in from the countryside with a 48-hour pass to stay and party in the capital city but only after attending a mandatory rally. “We cheer real loud, because if we make the government happy maybe they will cut short the rally and we can go party.”

I find it ironic that the Marx’s and Engle’s utopia of socialism has failed worldwide and today that sort of none functioning lifestyle hardly survives other than in a few bastions of repression like Cuba. I find it just as amazing that a taxi driver or tour guide can make ten times the money compared to the government stipend trickled down to a trained doctor, engineer or scientist. The general population is rationed some rice, beans and few other staples on a monthly basis that lasts no longer than a week. That’s the reality of life in today’s Cuba.

Then, in spite of the failed dream, there is the elite who enjoy the status of privilege due to government appointed professions and housing. Cuba claims to have a 100% literacy rate and free medical for all. Cubans expressed to me that the bureaucratic hoops they have to jump through for health care isn’t worth the hassle unless there is an absolute emergency.     Havana’s embassy row is as stately as it gets, where upscale embassies bask along side botanical finery while facing a wide, sparkling thoroughfare.

Hotel Nacional is a first class hotel. Its staff is bilingual and sharp. Black, sleek, Mercedes’ taxis wait outside for tourists or big wigs in the government. Yet the gal tending the bar yakked on the phone and finished her smoke before waiting on us. There are a few square blocks, surrounding the capitol, impressively restored and pristine. Hotel Raquel glistens with marble floors and columns’ indicating a regentrification is in vogue yet out of the reach for the average Cuban. The Museum of the Revolution and Art Museum are well cared for as are a few other buildings and cathedrals in the vicinity. That’s about it.

Maybe I should have done more clubbing or drank where Hemingway once did, or maybe I should have delved more into the artsy social scene and ate at trendy tourist traps or rode around in a horse drawn carriage. Maybe next time. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the music. One has to be dead to not appreciate the hot Latin tunes along with the enticing lyrics and tight rumba rhythms. That part of Cuba’s soul can never be replaced or squashed by a warped system. It’s their national treasure. When Cubans play or sing music they appear as free as birds. But when I peer into the tired and worn down faces of Jesus, Dora and the all the others who have been denied the advancements of modern society, regardless of Capitalism’s own pitfalls, I can’t help but think about Cuba’s once glorious past, minus Batista, and what would have occurred if Cuba wasn’t so abused and neglected.

Perhaps my mind-set parallel’s Jesus’ the same way he pooh-poohed today’s spoiled and pampered Major League baseball players who he doesn’t think that much of. Just as Jesus wonders about what happened to his beloved baseball, I wonder about what happened to the first city of the new world which might have us both asking, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?”

* * *

Cubaism

Flat, spread into being
Two dimensional, cut-up, cut across
Located, dislocated
Ordered disorder
Contrasting, contradictory
Turning inward, turning away
Existential, god
Poorness without poverty’s soul
Hopeful despair
Tearing a smile
Redemption, dereliction
Ridiculous, sublime
Darkly lit canvas
Art-life, life-art
Still life
For all to see