LEARNING I was about to depart for Cuba my friend Serge thought he’d enlighten me. Serge was from Argentina, Che’s country of origin. Revolutions, Serge said, were a creation of middle-class dreamers. Serge was not a believer in the radical mantra that oppression casts an explosive light on the political darkness. In his view V.I.Lenin was, when all was said and done, a bourgeois hombre, a man of calculated self-interest. Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega, he added in the special tone of contempt reserved for ideological opponents, seem confident but they’re really quite stupid.
Serge was stocky, fair-haired, taller than he seemed, spoke English, French, Italian as well as Spanish. A darkness coloured his personality. From time to time he called himself Sergei, to honour, he said, his Russian roots. His main business, he one day confided, was hustling radar and missile systems for a Swiss conglomerate. So I could better understand, he passed on a copy of Jane’s and a Technovarland-mine catalogue. Technovar got right to the point: “Modern war tactics impose the need of using adequate means capable to delay the movements of the enemy forces. One of the most used approaches to achieve this scope is the dissemination of minefields.” No bloody limbs or lifeless bodies in the slick colour illustrations. Though the grammar of the pitch, a poor translation from the Italian, was imperfect, the message was clear.
Revolutions, Serge said, always end with the rule of the sergeants. The male offspring of the lesser classes, lapdog enforcers of revolutionary zeal who, put in uniform and given a little authority, become officious, overbearing and cruel. We spoke about doing a book on the subject. I proposed the title: “la hora de los sergentos”, the hour of the sergeants.
Serge was not a bigger fan of democracy. As he explained, it gave the masses too great a say in matters about which they were ignorant. Serge was very pleased when Yuri Andropov, former KGB chief, became USSR boss. The one-time KGB man knew things. Likewise George Bush, when Reagan appointed him US vice-president because he’d run the CIA.
Serge and an Angolan associate were delighted by the 1981 assassination of Anwar al-Sadat. They never explained. Serge said the Angolan, a French teacher at a local secondary school, had founded the army that drove the Portuguese out of Angola. I mentioned this to a former UN official who’d served dangerous time there. Which army, she asked me. Sitting in Serge’s living room, the Angolan mostly listened and smiled. At one point he wondered with a touch of anger at my naïveté. Didn’t I understand that grim times were just around the corner? Disillusioned with post-colonial politics, he had turned his attention to the African diamond trade…
In Serge’s latino Cold War consciousness the contempt for gringo America crossed the finish line ahead of his scorn for the Communist world. If and when push came to shove, he might have stood with Joe Stalin against Harry Truman.
Goldberg was Serge’s family name not the von something he had printed on his outsized business cards. He was much amused that an Egyptian neighbour in his apartment building thought he was a Mossad agent.
One day over lunch he told me how he remembered as a child the pounding in the middle of the night on the door of the family’s Buenos Aires home, how he had in terror observed his father, an aeronautical engineer born in Russia, being hauled off by Juan Peron’s secret police, how he never saw his father again, the unkindness of uncles and aunts. Serge was rarely lost for words. But as he told me this story words increasingly failed him. “I have poison in me,” he suddenly blurted out.
When a son was experiencing adolescent growing pains, Serge suggested I send him to live at his place for a while. There was a spare bedroom. You’ll straighten him out? I asked. I won’t straighten him out, Serge promised, wanting no part of the role of child disciplinarian.
What journalists refer to as Latin America, he said, is made up of three quite distinct cultures: white-Euro Argentina, black Brazil, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, and Amerindian-mestizo, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia.
I asked him to recommend some reading that would help me to better understand. The response was immediate - Pablo Neruda’s Confieso que he vivido - Memoirs. A surprise given that the Chilean poet was a high profile pinko. Read especially, Serge counseled, the account of the Russian soldier. At a table in the dining car of a train crossing Siberia, sits a Russian soldier, very drunk. He keeps ordering fresh eggs which he breaks on his plate. A river of yolk begins to flow over the edge of the plate onto the table and the down to the floor. The waiter calls in a huge, heavily armed military cop. The soldier pays no attention, goes on breaking eggs. Neruda anticipates an explosion of Slavic violence. What happens is that the Russian military cop sits down next to the soldier and begins speaking to him in a very soft and quiet voice, before gently leading him away and into the streets of a town where the train has stopped. I thought, said Neruda, of what would have happened to a poor drunken Indian if he had started breaking eggs on a trans-equatorial train. Alma de los rusos, the Russian soul, despised by the Anglo-Saxon mind, an animosity that Serge believed was the root cause of the Cold War.
Democracy, liberalism, American consumer goods - five kinds of toilet paper - were for Serge all curses visited upon humanity by the Anglo-Saxon race. Chauffeured around town in a Jaguar, when he spoke the words Anglo-Saxon his face twisted in a grimace. Of his daughter he would say he’d rather she married an Italian than an Anglo-Saxon, meaning an American, and you know, he’d smile, my opinion of Italians. It was that Italians had brought chaos to Argentina and had ruined the country and any hope it might ever have had. A young Argentine acquaintance of his in conversation expressed a similar view, but the word chaos as he spoke it came out sounding cows. The Italians, he said, had brought their cows to Argentina. Cows? I probably looked at the guy like he was crazy. Cows, cows he repeated with a flash of irritation. Then I understood. It was chaos the Italians had brought to his country. There was little question in Serge’s mind that Gorbachev would bring the cows of liberalism to Europe, that America was itself in a state of disintegration and impending cows.What convinced him, he said, was an article in an American airline magazine that took a liberal view of incest. Cows coming home to roost…
In the Argentine cinema - Lucrecia Martel’s La Cienga (2001), The Swamp, Sandra Gugliotta’s Un Dia de Suerte (2002) A Lucky Dayand Lucho Beder’s Felicidades (2000) - the national personality is ruled by impulse and improvisation, by sudden lurches in direction…
I had been convinced that the case for right-wing ideology was generally made in screaming-manic Nazi lynchmobese. Serge on the other hand spoke calmly, almost convincingly. He believed terrible things would soon happen in the Americas and was preparing to decamp for Europe, for Paris. I didn’t know whether to believe him when he told me that there were more Nazis in Canada than there ever were in Argentina. It turned out to be true. A freelance American security investigator named Steve Rambam on a short visit across the border found them all in the white pages of Canadian telephone directories.
A woman he identified as a Cuban named Rita acted as his personal assistant. Their relationship wasn’t exactly clear. The three of us would occasionally go out together, for dinner, drinks, coffee. We talked about the book we were supposed to be working on. Serge made a point of explaining to Rita that I had come up with the title.
Sophie, Serge’s wife, told us Serge was a wonderful dancer, that he and a partner not her had won a salsa contest on a cruise ship. One evening I suggested we three, Rita, Serge and I, visit a local salsatheque. We got as far as the door. Then, just as we were about to enter, something didn’t seem quite right to him and we turned and left without any of us dancing a step….
The upstairs study in his home on the side of Mount Royal was a male preserve. I would be invited up there but Jeannie had to remain in the living room with Sophie. Women could never be trusted, he’d said quite seriously, and were not to be told anything. Serge asked me not to repeat anything we talked about to Jeannie. On one wall of the study was a photo of Serge and Nicolae Ceausescu posing a sofa. It was, Serge said, the Romanians who’d organized Nixon’s visit to Beijing, specifically a Romanian diplomat based in London, England.
There was the romance of commerce. Serge described his relationship with an Italian with whom he had done business: I like you Serge, I like you Tony. And so it went. However they begin, these relationships soon re-locate in the solar plexus, the nerve centre in mid body D.H.Lawrence called the seat of consciousness. An advertising executive told me the same thing. There is a big contract to hand out. Who do you to give it to? It will end up going to a pal, which is to say someone you relate to on a gut level. Outsiders call it cronyism. Maybe that’s what it is. But it’s how business has always been done. The bigger the contract the more certain it will have that fate. It was why big-time money deals often go off the rails. Add a zero, Serge said, and it changes everything, from one million to ten million, from ten million to 100 million to a billion. The human brain is incapable of dealing with these kinds of numbers. The numbers don’t have to be enormous. People just need to imagine they are. Once they do, the love affair begins, the gut takes over, scrupulous oversight heaved overboard…
Serge would often speak to me about friendship, about the value of friendship, about friends he’d known in Buenos Aires. Friends were neither lovers nor business associates which from an emotional standpoint were for him almost the same thing. Friendship was of as higher order.
Always show strength, Serge counseled. Meaning act tough. One may play a role, make things up, tell lies, but always remember the lies you tell...It’s okay to put others on, but don’t put yourself on…What distinguishes people from animals is craziness, behaving in ways that make no sense…
It was a time before the mobile phone. Serge kept his business phone in the bathroom beside the toilet. The equation didn’t need to be put into words. With a phone close by the toilet bowl one might rule a world larger than Alexander’s. On a night table beside the bed a cassette player and a handful of Chopin cassettes.
Among the men Serge most admired, were Samuel Zemurray, banana boss of the United Fruit Company, and Armand Hammer, who had controlled a multi-billion dollar oil empire and had made a fortune in Russian art and pharmaceuticals. Hammer’s father Julius, born in Odessa, a businessman devoted to the socialist cause, had met Lenin in Stuttgart in 1907 and was involved in various business dealings in support of the revolution. The Hammers lived for a time in Moscow. Father and brother Victor were KGB agents though they didn’t deliver very much information. In 1961, Hammer was urged by JFK to visit the USSR to conduct talks on expanding trade. Hammer met all the top people, including Nikita Khrushchev. A sight-seeing tour included a visit to a factory named after Sacco and Vanzetti. Hammer returned to the USA with 18 tins of black caviar he promised his Soviet hosts he would be able to sell at a profit.
What Serge liked about the Hammers was that their business dealings took them back and forth across the Iron Curtain. Business, Serge said, is conducted across all these boundaries.
Serge had some sort of relationship with Moroccan diplomats that brought him into the company of Lebanese hustlers. These people, he would say, have fantasy, but no imagination.
I made the mistake of giving Serge a copy of Vidia Naipaul’s essay on Eva Peron. A day or two later, the phone rang. A two-hour denunciation of “that son-of-a-bitch” followed, how we were going to put that “little brown rat” out of business.”
At one point Serge and I were involved in a deal to sell a million tons of wheat to the Syrian government through a Palestinian banker based in Damascus named Ibrahim. There were lunches, meetings over drinks. Serge referred to Ibrahim as the fellow. Wheat then went for roughly $200 a ton. Our commission would have been six percent split with the fellow and a Damascus associate. The fellow had a keen nose for Jews. He immediately recognized that Serge and I were Jewish, that the Four Seasons Hotel, venue of our initial meeting was owned by Jews.
The election of Carlos Menem in Argentina had done in Serge’s contacts in his wheat-producing homeland. The attempt to contact a major European grain operation run Serge said by the C.I.A. drew a blank. At one of our meetings over lunch Serge launched into an all out attack on the State of Israel and Holocaust survivors. Scum, he said emphatically, no decent person could have survived. I must have started to turn green. That evening he phoned. Look, he said, we have to get these things out of the way.
The last meeting was at his villa up on the side of Mount Royal Mountain. “There are,” he said to Ibrahim, “many men in the bars of Costa Rica who have this look; with a slightly different moustache you would look – Mexican.” Apparently an allusion to the Arab presence in Spain a dozen centuries earlier.
In August 1979, six months after the Iranian revolution, Vidia Naipaul visited Iran. His guide was a Persian communist subsequently murdered by the mullahs. This desert town, Naipaul said of the holy city of Qom, “with its blank walls that concealed sunken courtyards, its straight pavements lined with trees, its enclosed, thick-planted garden squares - was the pattern of small towns I had seen far away in Spanish America, from Yucatan in south-east Mexico to the pampas of Argentina. Spain had been the vehicle: conquered by the Arabs between AD 710 and 720, just eighty years after Persia, and incorporated into the great medieval Muslim world, the great universal civilization of the time. Spain, before it had spread to the Americas, had rejected that Muslim world, and gained vigour and its own fanaticism from that rejection. But here in Iran, five hundred years on, that world still existed, with vague ideas of its former greatness, but ignorant…of the contributions it had once made, and of the remote continent whose fate it had indirectly influenced.”
I’d read that patrons at a Washington D.C. adult-entertainment club were unable to say whether a fellow who had doused an employee with inflammable fluid and set him on fire was “Hispanic or Middle Eastern”.
Nothing came of the wheat deal. I learned from a broker that the wheat business only looked easy. For one thing, there are different kinds of wheat, something amateurs wouldn’t know. Besides, nobody in their right mind, he explained, did business with the Syrians. Venomous business partners, they only play straight with the Turks, who exploit the relationship. So even if Serge had come up with the wheat little would have come of it, definitely not the promised eight figure payoff. Narratology. I must have told the story a dozen times or more before the truth of it occurred to me.
Belted into an aging Cubana Airlines Tupolov, the take-off delayed, I find myself in a world of anxious Cuban cigarette smokers. The flight was supposed to be non-smoking, but who was paying attention? Not the flight attendants. Four Cubans, gloomy government types, boarded with large locked leather diplomatic pouches - valija diplomatica. They would not let the bags out of their grasp for the entire flight. What might have been in those bags that they couldn’t be trusted to Cuban baggage handlers?
I’d been invited to visit the University of Havana. A room was reserved for me at the Y-shaped 20-story Habana Riviera, the hotel-casino built by Myer Lansky and his associates on the Malecon, the Havana seafront, in 1957. Hotel guests had included George Raft, Frank Sinatra, and Ernest Hemingway.
It happened that the opening anticipated Fidel Castro’s triumphant entry into Havana by a mere year. The mob had reputedly written the Fulgencio Batista regime off and clandestinely offered Castro help with guns and money, on the assumption that when the revolution ended it would be business as usual. In October 1960, the Riviera became the property of the Cuban government. Fidel took over the hotel’s top three floors.
The hotel had acquired the look of an old Jewish guy’s retirement home gone to seed; the once futuristic Morris Lapidus pastel interior was marred by cracks and discolored spots. The casino space was an egg-shaped area off the lobby that had long since ceased operations.
A woman conducting a survey told me hotel guests were Italian, French, and Mexican, a few Spaniards, some Argentines. Any Cubans, I asked? Si, she said. She spoke little English, offered little information.
Cubans say they can readily distinguish a Venezuelan touristo from a Mexican. The Spanish spoken in Cuba and Venezuela is similar, different from Mexican Spanish, Nicaraguan Spanish, Guatemalan Spanish.
Cuba had become the revolution’s gift to Europe: cheap holidays on a sundrenched ideological island and pussy if you brought American dollars.
Through a deal with the Cuban broadcasting authority CNN, ESPN, and Disney came in by satellite. There on the TV screen in one’s Havana hotel room on Channel 7 images of Ronnie Reagan in the last days of his presidency, William Buckley Jr. hustling The National Review. No newspapers or magazines were available in the lobby other than Gramma, a Cuban government organ. At eight one morning I tuned into a CNN report about businessmen from Taiwan investing in California real estate, turning up to do business in very fluent Spanish.
For tourists at the hotel there was the pool, a mall, theatres, movie houses, restaurants, art galleries, medical and culture centres. The previous year the Cold War had officially ended. The Russians, who’d been in Cuba for a generation, pulled up stakes, leaving Fidel with an annual $365 million(US) revenue shortfall. Shortages, real hunger, despair followed. Public transportation had become dysfunctional, the simple act of getting from one place to another a daunting experience. At virtually every bus stop a long line of people waited. One saw hitchhikers who’d given up on the buses. Young women stood a better chance of getting a ride.
Driving along the seafront highway, the city seemed terribly banged up, partly the consequence of a hurricane a few months before. There was as well the socialist neglect, but no one mentioned that. And yet, it was not hard to see beneath the impairment the city’s great beauty. The music of Pablo Milanes danced out of car radios, as a retro other-worldly parade of cannibalized American vehicles cruised by...
Out in the streets a sour mood ruled. One afternoon Ana Marie, with the Ministry of Tourism, and Sandra, a professor of business, decided that they were going to take me for a walk. Sullen looks from adults and the kids playing hoops and baseball in the streets. After a bit, we stopped at a small restaurant for drinks. The stroll was perhaps intended to reinforce the notion of Cuba as a carefree tourist paradise. But it rang false. One could only gawk, intrude. Odd that the Hugo Boss organization would choose at that time to publish a large format magazine with photos of young black Cuban boxers in mended trunks along with images of much better dressed white Havana studs and their women friends, the photos decorated with quotes from Ernest Hemingway.
Fulgencio Batista, the defeated dictator, was a man of mixed race - African, Amerindian, Chinese, European. There were many blacks in the ranks of his police and army. The guerillas who drove Batista from power, Che and Fidel and his brother Raul were white men, the pure offspring of Spanish immigrants. It was mostly white Cubans who’d fled to Miami. Sixty-two percent of the island’s population was black. In Cuba’s post-Soviet “dollarized” economy, blacks suffered in other ways; they had fewer American relatives to send them Yankee dollars.
Revolution Square where Fidel harangued Cuban citizens was little more than an unshaded parking lot. There it sat in the sweltering mid-day Caribbean sun. I asked if I could go up to the rostrum for a Fidel’s-eye photo of the square, a picture of what el commandantesaw looking down at the captive crowd. Absolutely not, I was told. Ana and Sandra pointed to the guards posted on the platform. All the key government people, they explained, are housed in a bunker under the rostrum. No one is allowed up there.
Billboards, though not that many, none new, urged dedication, sacrifice, la lucha. Some carried the familiar image of Che that originated in the cropped photo taken by Alberto Korda in 1960 at a protest rally. Fidel’s enemies had succeeded in blowing up a Belgian freighter unloading arms at a Havana dock. Over a hundred dock workers were killed. Korda, who was on a photo assignment, happened to capture what years later he described as the look of rage and grief on Guevara’s face. It is an image that continues to find its way onto millions of posters, t-shirts, bikinis, key chains, cigarette lighters, coffee mugs, sneakers, beach towels even condoms. From Bangkok: “…you see a lot of Che Guevara t-shirts in Bangkok, a lot of Thais wear them. I don’t think they know who Che Guevara was. I think people just like the picture. I asked a Japanese kid in my building about his Che Guevara t-shirt, he had no idea who Che was or what he stood for. A few days later I saw him wearing a Terminator t-shirt.”
In their October 1967 story about Che’s murder in Bolivia The New York Times included a photo of Che shaking the hand of Chairman Mao in Beijing. The Times didn’t say that the meeting had occurred in 1960, that in 1966 there had been a falling out, that Fidel, in hock to the USSR, had publicly and enthusiastically denounced Chinese comrades for betraying the Cuban people’s good faith.
In February 1903 America had obtained a permanent lease on Guantanamo Bay. The Cuban government continues to receive rent cheques which the Castro brothers do not cash. Fidel told Oliver Stone that Khrushchev, as part of the deal with Jack Kennedy, should have demanded Guantanamo be returned to Cuban control.
For Ana Marie there was, she explained to me over a drink at the hotel one evening, the sad feeling of no longer being in love, of no longer being a couple strolling the Malecon. The lover was some married guy who dropped the affair. Things that are only told to strangers. Ana Marie was 26 years old, pretty, very bright. She was in charge of the Ministry of Tourism’s English language program for employees. She had a brother who was a member of a Communist Youth organization. Sandra had a teenage son who wanted to become an engineer, a brother who worked in TV as a sound–mixer. The post-Soviet diet had turned Sandra into a thin shadow of her original self. I remember seeing her a few years later after she’d married a university man and moved to Canada. I barely recognized her. She seemed to have ballooned to twice the size.
Everybody calls Fidel Fidel, the way Che is Che. Fidel is only Castro to people who don’t like him. Before Fidel, the best known Cuban in America was Chano Pozo if it wasn’t Desi Arnez or Xavier Cugat, America’s rumba king. A Lebanese woman told me she’d heard that Fidel’s mother was Palestinian. Fidel’s daughter Alina Fernadez claimed descent from a Turkish Jew on his mother’s side. Fidel has acknowledged Marrano ancestry.
One evening Fidel appeared on TV, Channel 8. Always in military uniform, except when he met the Pope. A charismatic, animated orator, slick of delivery, Fidel speaks in a low-key, partly hazerik voice, bearing down on the opposition, leaning forward, raising his eyebrows and stabbing the air below his chin with an index finger to make a point. There is, he declared, a health crisis, an epidemic in the Cuban countryside, large numbers of people have suddenly fallen ill…Scientists from all over the world are coming to Cuba to study the phenomenon, clearly the work of the C.I.A....In fact, the illness was the result of hunger due to food shortages. Fidel must have known that. It was common knowledge. One makes do: the inevitable food crisis could serve a propaganda purpose. Everything in the service of the revolution.
Isabel, a language teacher at the University of Havana, described to me the two difficulties of life in Havana: transportation and food. There was little to buy in the stores, rice and beans were now the Cuban diet staples.
I asked my hosts about the daughter of Che Guevara, who like her father had become a doctor. I had seen a television news story about her. A chunky, jovial woman, she worked in a hospital where she cared for ordinary Cubans. Nobody could or would tell me where she worked or lived. I wanted to ask her whether she’d she ever heard Quebec chanteuse Renee Claude’s love song to her father, Guevarra:
Le monde n’est pas meilleur
Et de part, dans ton coeur
N’ayant rien faire et
En partant tu nous laisse
Le monde a changer…
In Quebec, Guevara was not the cold-blooded executioner he is now known to have been but the sexy latino cold warrior at odds with the gringo foe…
Jesus Alvarez, the director of Ana Marie’s language training unit, explained over dinner that Riviera guests were mostly Mexicans looking for a cheap all-you-can eat holiday. Who cared as long as the hotel delivered supplies of hard currency.
We were in the Riviera dining room. Most of the items on the menu were unavailable. After we’d given the waiter our orders I happened to say that I thought Fidel must be a terrific dancer. Why, Jesus asked, do you think so? I was surprised by the frown, the irritation in his voice and words. Look, I replied, how he moves when he speaks, as if he is hearing music. No, that’s not true, Jesus said, voice becoming sharper. Fidel, he insisted, is a terrible dancer. A devastatingly unflattering statement in macho Cuba where a man who could not dance was hardly a man. It was the only discussion of Fidel I had with any Cuban. Months later in a TV biography a former school-mate confirmed what Jesus had said, that no one had in fact ever seen Fidel dance.
What about the status of women in Cuba, issues of job security and pay equity? The topic of Fidel’s dancing deficiency past, Jesus was once more jovial, relaxed. No problem, he said cheerfully. Under his authority the older, plainer Ms.Jhones was replaced by the younger, prettier Ana Marie. Ana Marie wass certainly competent, very good with people, fast on her feet, resourceful. Jhones had more experience and a richer academic knowledge of the subject. In a conversation she made some comment to me about Ana Marie being pushy. Less that, I found, than ambitious and anxious to get done what needed to get done.
I taught Jesus the word cool. Dinner done he said: This was a cool dinner…Yes, I said, and we had a cool conversation… Be cool...Don’t sweat it…We laugh. And why not? Here we are, two great guys in Havana, who have just had a nice big dinner, who have transportation and are free to move about among the less mobile citizenry…
The dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages spoke a little Russian, but no English. The university continued offering courses in Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian and Czech, as well as English, German, French, Arabic, Japanese, and Spanish for tourists. Areas of specialized study included Mozambique, Angola, Mali, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, Cambodia and the English speaking Caribbean. Through an interpreter the dean made it clear that socialist rule was top-down, curriculum and pedagogy determined by the ministry. Criticism was unwise. One was best to avoid behaving in any way that might be interpreted as not being totally down with the Revolution.
Most female professors were heavy smokers. Sandra explained: As you can see food is not plentiful, but cigarettes are cheap and kill the appetite. The male and female professors received two meals per day. I found them anxious, uneasy which contributed to the smoking habit. They smoked everywhere…
At a poolside party, Roberto told me that Cuban hookers were mostly very young, worked very cheap, did things, as he put it, with their mouths, accepted only Yankee money, that the Hotel Panamerican where Ana Marie had organized a meeting for me with teachers was the top hooker spot in all Cuba. Roberto, an English teacher with the Ministry of Tourism, was in his late twenties. The people like Roberto employed by the ministry had it better than university faculty. Ample food and better transportation were available to government workers, party members, anybody in the military.
On Friday the telephone rang. It was a woman with an invitation to come over to her place. Fifteen minutes later she called back with an address and orders to get right over or she could meet me in the hotel lobby. When I mentioned the call to Roberto he said he thought a member of the hotel staff perhaps a relative gave her my room number. She would of course be happy to sleep with me. But that was not the purpose of the call. It was just to see someone different, relax over a drink, break the monotony…
That afternoon I was invited to meet a tourism ministry honcho at the Hotel Nacional. Ana Marie arranged for a car and driver and accompanied me to act as translator. Socialism or no socialism, Cuba remained a macho society. Ana’s male drivers acted like they were being gallant rather than taking orders from her. Perhaps they had a surveillance function. Nearing the hotel Ana Marie told me Lucky Luciano and Frank Sinatra stayed at the Hotel Nacional whenever they visited Havana. The hotel brochure had other celebrities in mind: “Since 1930, the Nacional de Cuba has been the symbol of elegance of Havana. In those days it was already the best and most luxurious hotel, which is why prominent persons such as Winston Churchill, Alexander Fleming, Marlon Brando and many others have chosen it.”
Here in run-down, food-scarce Havana was this elegant five-star oasis. All the food and drink anyone might desire. The meeting takes place in a chic, paneled private room. Drinks are ordered. We wait. The honcho appears in a third world shirt-jacket, a guayabera. Can’t or won’t speak English. He invites me to organize a scheme to bring Canadian experts in for workshops in December. No money but the airfare, the hotel and the food will be comped. Most of the meeting involves him gassing away in Spanish - fidelissmus: they speak, you listen. In the revolution communication is strictly one-way. Not to say the Batista crowd were better listeners. I ask again about Che’s daughter. Next time, says the honcho dismissively with a wave of his hand…He has he says arranged for me to spend the whole next day at Varadero, the Cuban beach wonderland…
I decide not to go to Varadero. My hosts are flabbergasted. Why, they ask. Everybody loves it there, you would love it there. I say nothing. The truth was: no Che’s daughter, no Varadero. I don’t explain. Roberto thinks it’s because I want to meet the woman who phoned. He whispers instructions: Tell her this, don’t tell her that…
It was Saturday afternoon. I am in my hotel room trying to make out my scribbled notes when the phone rings. It’s a laundry room employee. “Your clothes are broken….” In other words, my half dozen pairs of Calvin Klein shorts were shredded in the hotel laundry machine…
At a farewell party that evening, I am introduced to the daughter of a Cuban woman and a Russian officer who is now back in Russia. Slavic-Hispanic features. A very pretty girl. Her boyfriend Carlos is a graphic designer, does videos. Her mother speaks a little English…There was rum, plates of food. Where would the food have come from?
Sunday, departure day: A hassle with the Riviera over a $74(US) charge for long distance calls. I’d left home without my Visa card, the only credit card accepted in Cuba. I’d made a number of calls to Visa. The card could not be delivered from the U S A. Visa finally agreed to courier me a new card from Madrid via Mexico City, and did. But the Cubans wouldn’t allow the card through customs. I explained to Ana Marie that I didn’t have seventy-four American dollars, that with the Visa card I could have paid the phone bill and bought a lot of stuff besides. I tell the hotel people to put me in jail. Ana Marie steps in to deal with the problem. While she is arguing with the guy at the desk, a young woman in a green blouse maybe sixteen has wandered into the lobby. Tall, very attractive. Intoxicated at eight in the morning. She moved slowly but deliberately in my direction. Wants to do me in the broom closet beside the checkout counter. Naturally for a sum of money, but not a very large sum. No one interferes or pays any attention. She approaches, takes my baseball cap off my head. Puts it on. Dances a few steps. Smiles. Places the cap back on my head. Motions again to the broom closet. Ana Marie is handling the hassle over the bill and doesn’t seem to notice the girl in the green blouse. Maybe she does.
The money problem resolved, I am swept out of the lobby into a car and we are off to the airport. Ana Marie seems pissed. I get the silent treatment.
Perhaps I’d chosen a bad time to visit Cuba. The Chilean novelist-diplomat Jorge Edwards, who’d spent a few months there in the early 1970s as chargé d'affaires of the Salvador Allende government, thought any time could be a bad time. The experience, described in his memoir Persona Non-Grata, is the record of a believer’s disenchantment. The book has the distinction, perhaps unique, of having been banned by both Fidel Castro and Augusto Pinochet.
Edwards learned that in the belt of land around Havana small-time Chinese farmer-merchants used to grow lettuce and other vegetables they sold in the city. The lettuce growers, judged to be capitalists strictly motivated by material incentives, soon had their activity terminated by the Castro government. With only moral incentives as a guide Cuban lettuce became a luxury item available only to the privileged…
The centrally planned revolutionary economy never delivered, sugar harvest projections unfailingly missed their quotas. There were difficulties obtaining credits and securing markets. International socialist allies who made great declarations of solidarity ignored it in business dealings. An anecdote circulated that the Czechs had exploited the inexperience of one of Che’s representatives to sell the fellow snow ploughs.
The revolution’s disastrous economic theories led to the formation of an elaborate surveillance operation that identified and punished the disgruntled as agents of counter-revolution. On the other hand, genuine economic development was unwelcome, constrained in the interests of political control.
Unable to find a friend in Washington Fidel found one in Moscow. But, said Edwards, Fidel’s revolution was never a struggle of the Cuban working class against imperialism and capitalist exploitation but a battle against the “American way”, which is to say a battle to regain at least a small piece of the Americas lost to the gringos. It was the message the Nicaraguan poet, Felix Ruben Garcia Sarmiento a k a. Ruben Dario, addressed to Teddy Roosevelt in 1903 following the annexation of Columbian territory for the Panama Canal:
“You are the United States,
You are the future invader
Of the naïve America that has Indian blood,
that still prays to Jesus Christ and still speaks Spanish.
you men of Saxon eyes and barbarous soul…
Viva Spanish America…”
Che in a 1964 speech to the U N General Assembly said that North America had for many years “tried to convert Puerto Rico into a reflection of hybrid culture - the Spanish language with an English inflection, the Spanish language with hinges on its backbone, the better to bend before the United States soldier.”
Nobody I met in Cuba ever mentioned Che or the Bay Pigs episode or the missile crisis. Turns out America’s Joint Chiefs were totally wrong about the projected Cuban response to an anti-Castro military operation. During the 1962 crisis, the CIA claimed there were 10,000 Soviet troops stationed on the island; the actual number was 43,000. Also unknown to the Agency the Russian force was equipped with nuclear warheads for both short range and long range missiles. Their field commanders had been authorized to fire the nukes at will in the event of an American invasion, something else the CIA did not know and only learned 30 years later.
Back home I tell the Fidel-don’t-dance story to a cameraman preparing to go to Cuba to shoot a film about a food relief mission run by some American clergymen. When the cameraman got back he phoned. He said Fidel himself met the group at a reception. As the scene began to clear he aimed the camera at the ground and got a tight shot of the no-dance feet…
It began 500 years ago with the so-called discovery of the Americas - one word in Spanish America es una. Who would reign over thisnew world? The French, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the English? The Danes were there too in what is today the Virgin Islands. As the nineteenth century wound down, the USA, a rising industrial power was, along with Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia, anxious to acquire markets in Asia. The outposts of Spanish colonial rule across the Pacific, Guam and the Philippines, along with Spanish possessions in the Caribbean, appeared to some Americans, Teddy Roosevelt among them, to be easy pickings. Americans were encouraged to regard Spain as the home of a contemptible European people, neither French nor Anglo-Saxon, the Spanish passion for bullfighting, bloody and cruel, a primitive anachronistic activity compared to the game of baseball.
The Spanish-American War soon followed, enabling America to exploit the independence movements confronting the Spanish colonial authority in Cuba and the Philippines. Cubans refer to the 1898 American invasion of the island as the Intervention. The Treaty of Paris, concluded in February of the following year, ceded to the USA the remnants of the Spanish empire, the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cuba for the sum of $20 million. The forced annexation of the Hawaiian Islands soon followed. In Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the file on mad Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, holed up in Cambodia, lists a Harvard M.A. thesis in history - “The Phillipines(sic) Insurrection; American Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia, 1898-1905.”
On the eve of Fidel Castro’s Cuban triumph Emilio Aguinaldo, the Filipino general who fought the American occupation, joined the Cold War struggle on America’s side. The devil he now feared, he said, was Communist expansion in Asia. In a book published in 1957 entitled A Second Look at America Aguinaldo urged his countrymen to side with the USA.
It may appear that the Castro era is almost done, that ideological fervor is in decline, a Cuban glasnost looming. The five-storey Che illumination in the Plaza de la Revolution makes it clear that despite the talk of golf courses and the buying and selling of homes, little will change for the ordinary citizen. Genuine reform is not in the works. A self-interested military will continue to maintain a firm grip. There will be no revolution in the revolution.
Emilio Aguinaldo, A Second Look at America, Robert Speller & Sons, 1957.
José Azel, “The Illusion of Cuban Reform: Castro Strikes Out,” World Affairs, July, 2013.
Jorge Edwards, Persona Non Grata: a memoir of disenchantment with the Cuban Revolution, Paragon House, 1993.
Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Foreword by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Norton, 1999.
Brian McAllister Linn, The Philippine War, 1899 – 1902, University of Kansas Press, 2000.