I went to Cuba last January and I’ve had a long, sketchy history with the place. In the 1970s I hung out at the Center for Cuban Studies down in the Village, being interested in the woman who ran it. I managed to avoid being blown up by anti-Castro Cubans when they put a bomb outside its door one night I didn’t visit. And I had lunch with a Cuban UN representative at Jean and Leonard Boudin’s home on St. Luke’s Place, complete with armed bodyguards. Leonard was Cuba’s lawyer for a time back then. And, some years later, Cuba played a role in a novel I wrote called Criminal Tendencies.
But, like most Americans, I had never been there, till the Obama administration made travel less onerous, or illegal, and a number of publications began running “People to People” tours. I had never gone on a tour, fully escorted as they say, but I decided, Why not? I booked one sponsored by The Nation, a magazine I had written for over the years, but not lately. I could imagine the demographics: Old lefties wandering among the ruins. I wasn’t disappointed.
A picture was taken of most all of us in front of the U.S. Embassy, which is close by the esplanade, the Malecon, the picturesque road next to the water with a view of Old Havana. Barack Obama was still president, but just barely. Donald Trump was to be inaugurated in a couple of days, right before our departure. Out with old, in with the new. I couldn’t imagine Trump’s speech for the ceremony (and I didn’t hear it), since it seemed impossible for him to sound sincere or eloquent. I heard bits after my return. “American Carnage,” indeed.
Now, it appears, the embassy was the scene of unseen carnage, some sort of sci-fi attack, as it is described, rendering personnel there with hearing loss and other disturbing brain and behavior problems. I seem to have escaped unscathed. But, visiting Cuba was both sad and dispiriting. Our group stayed at a hotel near the Hotel Nacional, the Capri, allegedly the first hotel in Havana built by the Mob in the 1950s, newly reopened after it too was blown up by anti-Castro Cubans in the 1990s. One section, with bright red doors, was not in use, the large casino attached to the high rise. There was a pool and a nice bar on the roof, convivial with happy vacationers. It was all very Las Vegas in the ‘50s, if that’s your taste.
Our days were full of lectures and encounters with the “people,” a number taking place at the Hotel Nacional, just down the street. It is an impressive place, still capturing its aural of by-gone wealth and status, though in the same way as a number of England’s lesser castles display. It, like the rest of the country, has fallen on hard times. Our embargo and sanctions have been very successful, and the Cubans have suffered the blows of the fall of the Soviet Union and the cratering of Venezuela, both implicated mightily in the failing economics of the island. Tourism has taken over as a replacement and we spent a lot of time in new Chinese buses being taken here and there.
Many Cubans announced they want to expand the tourism sector. Given the crowded streets and roaming hordes, I couldn’t see how they could fit any more Chinese buses and ambulating foreigners anywhere. Havana seemed overstuffed. And, it appeared to be falling down. A shocking number of buildings do collapse each week, either 30 or 300, I can’t recall, though either figure is alarming. I wasn’t taking notes. Havana doesn’t resemble Key West, or the American Southwest, or anywhere else I’ve been. It looks, I imagine, like Spain, since Spaniards were its colonizers for centuries. And Old Havana seems to be a calendar of those years, ancient buildings, some semi-restored by those who get remittances from American relatives, others just in the process of falling down, though still occupied. The Lower East Side, where I lived in the late 1960s, was in far better shape back then, long before gentrification. Gentrification is a forlorn dream for Cuba’s glorious old city.
It was all very sad. The Cubans I met all seemed to be pleased with the Americans wandering around. We took a side trip to Vinales, a tobacco growing region’s small village busily building B&Bs. On the way we stopped at a teaching hospital (Latin American Medical School) and listened to a talk by a physician who was the dean of students. They send their graduates to under-served countries around the globe. She was a compelling figure, most likely in her fifties, and Fidel Castro, who had died a few months earlier, almost inadvertently was mentioned and she momentarily choked up, a show of emotion that surprised me. When we reached Vinales, after a tour of a tobacco farm, sitting at a very make-shift cantina, the local guide, responding to a question, also became emotional speaking of Fidel. So, high and low, they really seemed to love the man.
Unlike Vietnam, which, after our barbarous and useless war, has been brought into the American orbit, their former peasant economy being a source of cheap labor for Ralph Lauren, Nike, and other apparel and shoe manufacturers, Cuba remains an outlier and it shows. That’s what happens, I suppose, when you educate a whole population, make them literate and informed. They don’t want to become cheap labor. Though, in Cuba, professors and doctors seem willing to be taxi drivers and bartenders in order to work in the tourist world, where they can get their hands on the more lucrative cash side of the country’s idiotic two-currency system.
It’s sad in Cuba, and doubtless more so, since Hurricane Irma raked the countryside and flooded parts of Havana. More buildings will crumble. And America’s vengeance for losing the country and never killing the Castros (see the recent JFK assassination semi-dump) continues unabated and, post-Obama, redoubled.