THE BLOG
01/12/2015 09:30 am ET Updated Mar 14, 2015

Our Man in Havana: Part II

The only preparation we chose for this five-day trip to explore the Cuban Art Scene, was to rent the movie Our Man In Havana -- a pre-revolutionary "comedy" with Alec Guinness as a vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana who is recruited for the bumbling British secret service by an umbrella-bearing bureaucrat played by Noel Coward. The movie proved to be a better preparation than I anticipated, given the predictable rhetoric from politicians still frozen in postures dating back to the beginning of the embargo. The New York Times for the last Sunday of the year had photographs recording 2014 -- one tragedy after another all around the world, with a leading article "Shifting dynamics for Cuba's dissidents." And a disturbing piece of graffiti from the recent past: "In a plaza under siege, dissidence is treasonous." What happens when the siege is lifted?

Thinking about Cuba is like trying to sort through the bits and pieces thrown haphazardly together in a data junk yard. Everyone has an opinion about this morality play. Actually, it's more of a cartoon except for the deeply tragic element. Sometimes a sentence thrown into the conversation made sense for a while. "Listen! Havana is just like New Orleans only more run down."

The movie laid out the ambiguities of any political situation and undermined the cartoonish depictions of American foreign policy (or the foreign policy of any other country for that matter). Lewis Lapham, some years ago, when editor of Harpers Magazine, wrote, "Other countries are evil. America makes well-intentioned mistakes." Being in Havana -- with its faded glory, its decaying infra-structure, and defiant sense of optimism -- was like sitting in the middle of one of our well-intentioned mistakes. Our sins, (we believe) are not comparable with theirs. Like the bureaucrats in the movie, we all like to save face and rewrite history "with no regrets." I was blessed to be in the company of the best of America -- successful? Yes. Imaginative and intelligent? Yes. Generous and compassionate? Yes. So, in spite of my being critical I was also proud to be an American.

The trouble was the feeling that everyone's testimony was somehow tainted. Havana is littered with banners bearing slogans about the undying Revolution. It's as if slogans actually change reality. They make things happen. Slogans about brotherhood and solidarity. All echoes of 1789 or, more likely, 1794 -- freedom and terror in one package.

Cuba provides a microcosm of geo-politics and Cuban Art proved to be a perfect back-drop for struggling to interpret what's going on. It was the British artist, Eric Gill, who insisted that "all art is propaganda". It's about power. Who's in charge of the narrative and how does one live with endless interpretation, where no one has the last word?

One might begin by insisting that everything you've heard about Cuba is true! It's a political and economic nightmare. It is still a repressive police state. It's an artists' paradise. The people are poor but happy (some of them).

We relax after missing our U.S. toilet paper and wondering if we should drink the water. We hand over our dollars for the local currency with a 13 percent charge in the exchange. We enjoy the old 1950s cars and settle in for a drink at the Kilometro Zero Bar with its relentless exuberance. The Cuban-born organizer of the tour moved to New York when he was 6 years old. He's able to live in both worlds. His parents hate Castro and what has happened to Cuba. He has let it go and expects better times.

The Art Institute (Instituto Superior del Arte) in Havana is emblematic of Cuba's ambiguities. Once an exclusive country club (even Baptista couldn't get in), Castro turned it into a center for the arts. It is architecturally interesting but also a example of incompetence and impracticality. The architects designed a ballet school, which the ballet teacher found unacceptable because the rehearsal room was in the round. No good, evidently, for teaching ballet.

We moved on to Kcho's studio -- a celebrity artist who is also a member of the National Assembly. The art was impressive (mainly boats) but, as with much of the art here, it is undergirded with an immense capacity for self-dramatization. I thought of the false logic of terrorism: my suffering places me in a position of moral superiority. It silences you and justifies anything I do. This tendency to produce narratives where we always come out on top seems endemic. It will be interesting to see how the narrative changes about Cuba from both sides as the relations "improve". Just like Americans, Cubans will be free to be rich or sleep in a ditch.

Our guide -- a bright, articulate woman, told us about her parents -- dirt poor. They benefited from the Revolution and she did too, receiving an excellent education. Things were rough and goods were scarce. One tube of Russian toothpaste per month, per family -- the toothpaste being used as paint by artists who couldn't get materials. Housing conditions were appalling and the wages pitiful. Yet the guide was defensive: "They say they had nothing, but they had a place to live, with running water and electricity. That's not nothing!"

Another thing to consider about Cuba's peculiar revolution is its history before Castro from the Spanish Empire to the republic with slavery as the backbone of the economy well into the 1880s. It was chilling to read a Slave Register from that period. It is said of the existentialist philosopher Miguel Unamuno that he rejected the Left in theory and the Right in practice! You get a sense of what he meant in looking at the faded magnificence of this amazing city. The Left impose a version of Paradise. The Right hang onto what they think is exclusively theirs.

A visit to the great cemetery in Havana and a look at Hemingway's house sealed the circle of contradiction and ambiguity. The city seems smothered in slogans -- with the word Lenin and Engels showing up occasionally. Using slogans relentlessly enables one to believe one's own bunk. "The Revolution is Invincible!" This printed with a background of delightful little girls enjoying a ballet lesson. I couldn't help thinking of this banner when we saw the new year in at the Tropicana -- arriving there in a horn-honking 1954 Mercury convertible. I wonder how the fall-out from the embargo with play itself out? Up until now, it enabled the regime to sentimentalize and harden the Revolution. It gave it a romantic haze -- a defense against the imperialistic Americans. That aint gonna work anymore. But it's a two way street. May be Americans won't be able to get away with escaping into hysteria at the thought of "Socialism" and enable us to look squarely at the challenges to the social contract and to the urgent quest for justice. What do we owe each other? How are we going to live together?

And what about the Art. I was struck by three paintings in the national museum -- the history of Cuban Art from the 1930s to the 1990s, with varying attitudes and positions vis a vis the regime. The first by Carlos Enriquez called Campesinos Felices -- Happy Farmers -- three heads reminiscent of Edvard Munch's "The Scream." It drips with sarcasm and note the date -- 1938. Does revolution ever change anything -- a game of musical chairs with the powerful always coming out on top? Everything "saturated in contradiction."

The second painting was 'El Circo" by Tomas Sanchez -- 1974. Life is a circus with a passive crowd watching a colorful crucifixion and other Catholic entertainments in a circus atmosphere. Heavily cynical and critical -- keeping the people entertained and in their place. The third piece was by Carlos Alberto Estevez (1995). It was a model theater with interchangeable figures. You could choose any group to fabricate your picture of reality, your version of history: Lincoln, Lenin, Christ, Charlie Chaplin and several others. It depends who's in charge of the show. The tough part it that you can't get away with not playing. We are always choosing versions of history which, we think are literally true and where we feel vindicated.

So, my version? I was in the company of nearly 40 fellow Americans -- intelligent, generous, compassionate without naiveté. I came away with a deep sense of gratitude for the United States -- not without its struggles, faults and crimes -- but with a great moral vision, often soiled and betrayed, but still worth working for. It was good to set foot on American soil again --- Miami Airport where I heard no English spoken as we ate at Chiles. It was good to be home!