Cuba Then & Now: An LA Writer Reflects
by William Alexander Yankes
“Si me atrevo a mentir, que se desmorone la iglesia!” (If I dare to lie, may the church crumble down to pieces!), declared the Cuban stoutly. In December 2000, I attended an interpreters’ seminar in Cuba. Fidel Castro was still in power and George W. Bush was the U.S. President. We arrived in Havana as evening fell. The grim landscape appeared symbolic of a culture made dark by, according to some, Castro’s harsh policies as well as what many others would identify as the stifling choke-hold of the American embargo.
As I disembarked in Havana, a semi-circle of armed soldiers stood before us. It would be my first indelible memory of Cuba. For some odd reason, I worried that someone would follow me and watch me. I wondered if agents would observe me buying what might be considered literature of dissent or counter-revolutionary opposition to the regime or they were listening to the kinds of questions I began asking people about their lives under a distinctly Cuban brand of socialism. Any of these things, I feared, could culminate in my imprisonment and the confiscation of my American passport.
It may be that my fear was a little unreasonable. But nevertheless, I decided to conduct myself with the kind of hyper-alertness that would befit any protagonist in a Robert Ludlum thriller. I asked people sensitive questions, though carefully couched. Unsurprisingly, I found both a private and a public persona coexisting within many of the Cubans I encountered. My political barometer was the Cuban voice, their intonations often revealing contradictory feelings. To me, their expressions and verbal play, their turns of phrase, the apparent irony and sarcasm constituted orally drawn political cartoons with bite. Their vowels and aspirations were linguistic footprints leading to their southern Spain and Canary Island ancestry—as well as to their Afro-indigenous spiritual and musical roots. As a whole, this abbreviated survey revealed, for me, a lively and opinionated culture brimming with energy.
Language seemed to be at the forefront of Cubans’ most significant expressions of freedom, disguised and ornamented as it was with innuendo and evasion. Using wit as a weapon by which they vented their emotions and their longings, these exchanges, some veiled, but others candid, enabled me and my hosts to recognize a shared humanity.
The court witness—and other island-reared folk I spoke with—seemed incapable of giving straight answers. I suspected that their almost code-like dialect, developed over the fifty-plus years they've lived under an insular communist regime, was an effort to avoid government surveillance and punishment. From that perspective, what could be observed and experienced in Cuba fifteen years ago, maybe less so today, was an odd confluence of clashing political ideologies with the vintage Communist Party-led government on one side and the ever–looming free market economy that continues to threaten the tiny nation with a return to the excesses of the capitalist system, the one Castro and his followers fought against when they overthrew the Bautista dictatorship, at the other.
“It’s tough,” came the furtive reply of one waiter who looked over his shoulder when I asked him about his life as a Cuban working in a hotel for tourists. “This is a great job, sure. But all of us Cubans have to struggle, cut corners, find creative ways.”
A handsome and expensively-groomed woman in her mid-forties sat at a little corner table in the lobby to assist hotel guests with planned tours. When I asked about a cultural tour, she mentioned Ernest Hemingway’s estate. Unable to travel abroad herself, she said she enjoyed foreign accents. I asked about Cuban writers. Her eyes brightened, and she began to talk passionately about Nicolás Guillén and Reinaldo Arenas. She gave me a list of authors she thought I should read.
It just happened that she had a doctorate in literature from the University of Havana, but couldn’t find employment in her field. The way things are, she said, there is no way to feel affection for what is written. She spoke in a quiet voice of the decenio negro of the 1970s as the decade of censorship, and of the período especial, the extreme economic crisis that came when the Soviet Union ended its direct support for Cuba.
In downtown Havana, I stepped into the Capitolio, modeled after the Washington, D.C. original. I was astounded at its magnificence. The impressive fifty-foot bronze figure of Cuba’s Indian maiden meets the visitor in front of the architectural masterpiece. Even though most Taíno Indians were slaughtered during the Spanish Conquest, she represents the Republic of Cuba--erect, noble posture and all--as the Statue of Liberty does for the United States. The building, by the way, now houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology.
A Capitolio guide named Nubia, told me that “after it was inaugurated in 1929, the Great Depression in the United States caused other expensive projects of this magnitude to come to a halt. And here’s the Salón de Los pasos perdidos,” she added, motioning to the “Hall of Lost Steps” with intricate floor symbols evoking the novel by legendary Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier. Nubia’s voice turned a bit melancholy, as if reading from the novel, a tale of disappointment as well as departures stretching across time and continents. My guide seemed to be searching for something with her answer. She replied in a tone that spoke secretly to a hidden longing among the Cuban people; lost steps, indeed.
“Do you feel free or imprisoned in Cuba?” I asked her, point blank. At first hesitant, her own bottled up reservations led her to vent. “I’m sure that for those in power, with every benefit accessible only to them, communism feels the same as capitalism.”
Because I couldn’t tolerate the superficiality of the seminar I was actually there to attend, I decided to play hooky and explore Cuba solo. Along the way, I met a number of engaged and articulate people, among them an ice cream vendor, a cab driver and more. Though they were barely able to eke out a living in these jobs, they were all extremely well-educated.
While I was a bit uncomfortable with the idea of the Communist party’s less than subtle vigilance, a hovering reality that assigned the watchman-like duty to citizens in every section of the city, the breezy Cuban weather invited a walk. Soldiers, self-advertising prostitutes, tourists and regular folk all walked the same cobbled streets lined with elegantly designed early twentieth century buildings long-since fallen into tragic disrepair.
Impoverished dwellers used ornate balconies to hang their clothes and to gaze at people going by. Archways and columns hid the long, dark hallways leading to dank, poorly ventilated rooms where entire families resided. Tourism and communism crossed paths but did not walk down the literal and allegorical corridors together.
Before 1959, when the Cuban Revolution claimed victory at the zenith of Castro’s guerrilla war, the island was awash with resources and amentities, many of them openly funded by the Mafia. An easily reached weekend paradise for American movie stars and celebrities, Cuba was an island casino, enabling a significant percentage of Cubans to enjoy one of the highest standards of living in Latin America at the time. Historic hotels still announce these facts proudly with hold-over lobby photographs that show artists cavorting with a rouge's gallery of gangsters and mobsters.
After the Revolution, politics shifted radically. In 1961, following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion orchestrated by the CIA, the United States broke off diplomatic ties with Cuba and instituted the economically crippling embargo.
A fruit seller I happened upon spoke to aloud with sage understanding, “Qué embargo, ni qué revolucion, ni qué dolares! Que no jodan! Después de cuarenta años de ésta ya sabemos que no son más que juegos de poder. Es el terrorismo de Estados Unidos. Coño, no nos importa la etiqueta que se nos ponga, mientras se nos respete como seres humanos!” [They should stop screwing with our heads! After forty years of this we know too well that these political manipulations are no more than power games. It’s United States’ terrorism! Hell, we don’t care what label they put on us, as long as we’re treated with respect as human beings!]
The sun was setting gloriously on the malecón, the walkway where the ocean waters splash high on the rocks—launch pads for many a fragile raft intended to take desperate Cubans to an uncertain fate across treacherous waters. The evening sky reminded me of a phrase the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who held Fidel Castro’s revolutionary ideals in high esteem, once wrote, “Blue as a night in Cuba.” The vivid observation was repeated in the award-winning film Il Postino, where it was accompanied by fabulous musical composition.
Cuba has remained, on some levels, frozen in time. Its most glamorous vestiges are stylish, imported cars that glisten with anachronistic elegance, miraculously kept in pristine condition, while neoclassical mansions are eaten up by the tropical flora and the ocean air. It was hard to believe that such a sensual place could be also be home to more than a little political misery.
At the same time, the statue of José Martí, the nineteenth century poet and national hero, stands defiant facing the United States, holding a vulnerable child to his breast with one arm protectively and pointing an accusatory finger with the other at those who would turn their backs on those most in need. “Hey, compai!” a voice called out to me. No, it wasn’t Martí beckoning me from atop his stone pedestal. It was a smiling cabbie offering me a ride to the best Cuban music cabaret on the island. The first mojito, according to him, was always on the house.
I couldn’t resist. The charismatic Cubano next proceeded to chauffeur me toward my next unforgettable adventure in an almost unbelievable olive-green 1938 Plymouth Deluxe with an off-white convertible top. When we reached the club, he produced a saxophone from out of nowhere and played a few mesmerizing notes before taking the stage. While it may seem like a trite stereotype, Cubans can and will seduce you. I am a witness.
With the renewal of formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba at the behest of President Obama as well as the imminent end of trade embargo, a relic of the Cold War imposed on Cuba by the U.S. as a part of a strategy to bring Castro down, Cubans have a right to worry about the end of their autonomy and the destruction of their hard-earned and hard-fought way of life, a national cultural identity that draws much of its plucky chutzpah from the country's status as the tiny nation that stood up to a super-power neighbor and didn't back down, a ready-made David-and-Goliath narrative that gives many Cubans a sense of pride. In light of all this, the close of an era looms frighteningly real.
It is, as a result, quite reasonable to expect that unbridled capitalism could shatter the face of today’s placid and peaceful Cuba. Its almost ruggedly rural nature, its gentle and genuinely warm citizenry with their capacity for great joy and merriment, their language play and their stirring live music spilling into the amber-lit evenings across Old Havana might end overnight. Scarcity and a welcome dearth of material possessions or consumer goods could give way to gluttony and greed, two things I saw practically none of during my visit almost two decades ago.
While it is urgent that social freedoms be allowed to proliferate and resoundingly supported, that ecologically and aesthetically sound investments in the country's infrastructure be encouraged, I hope Cubans will not allow an aggressive flood of money to eradicate or diminish Cuba’s many beautiful and timelessly endearing qualities.
William Alexander Yankes works as a Spanish language interpreter in Los Angeles County courts. He is also working toward a PhD in Latin American literature at the University of California, Irvine. This is a small excerpt, a teaser, from the much longer chronicle of his experience in Cuba. Read the entire text on his webpage, www.WilliamAlexanderYankes.com