Revolution in Cuba
By Turk Pipkin
OCTOBER 26, 1998: When the revolution begins in Cuba, I am sitting in a shiny Volvo tourist bus in the back streets of a city whose name translates into "One Hundred Fires." Here to play softball with Cuban journalists, we are a rag-tag group of American writers and adventurers, mostly middle-aged radical hippies still wondering if there is greater satisfaction than a life devoted to the pursuit of the all-American dollar.
Our Cuban counterparts, on the other hand, exhausted by a lifetime of shortages and hardship, have mostly lost their faith in socialism and devote much of their energy to simply acquiring enough money to feed their families. In other words, I'm playing ball with Americans who want to be socialists and Cubans who want to be capitalists. In the land of Fidel, nothing is what you expect.
The seeds of our current revolt were planted the evening before. Following a spirited, beer-fueled softball game in the 25,000-seat Cienfuegos stadium, half the American contingent took one look at the local sports hotel and decided to stay elsewhere. It's not that we don't like decaying dormitories with swarms of mosquitoes instead of air conditioning, locks on the doors, or running water -- it's just that we're spoiled.
Now the morning after -- and for no other reason than "It's Cuba, Jake," a refrain we will repeat a hundred times during this trip -- we are departing four hours late for our planned visit to Playa Giron, the site of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
"I don't know why we're so far behind schedule," announces our fearless leader Jeff Nightbyrd. "But we have to cancel the Bay of Pigs trip, and we're going to tour a Cuban day-care center instead."
"Nooo," my fellow travelers howl in unison before beginning to chant, "Playa Giron! Playa Giron!!"
With a coup imminent, Nightbyrd suggests a simple exercise in democracy -- we'll vote.
"Bay of Pigs?" he asks. A busload of hands shoot into the air. All hands, in fact, but those of a writer from California who, unable to let a dead dog lie, pushes to the microphone at the front of the bus.
"The reason our plan fell apart," he lectures us, "is that some of our group acted like elitist whiners and didn't want to stay in the people's hotel!"
Hearing this, the elitist whiners, myself included, begin shouting a collection of surprisingly rude profanities such as "Sit down, butt-face!" and "Why don't you shut your pie hole!"
Somewhat ashen-faced, he sits down.
Welcome to the revolution, mutherfugger! On to the Bay of Pigs!
Tell most Americans that you're headed to the land of Castro and their reaction will likely be either envy or spite. Polls in the States show that a majority of Americans feel we should ease or end the 38-year-old embargo of Cuba, but there are still plenty of Cuban exiles and staunch anti-communists like an old friend of mine, a former Navy jet-jock, who insisted I'd be a commie pawn if I supported that evil dictator Castro with my tourist dollars.
Others warned that I'd likely have my passport confiscated by the U.S. State Department upon my return and might very well spend the rest of my days rotting in a federal prison.
So much for opinion; how about the facts? Yes, it is a violation of the Trading With the Enemy Act for American citizens to travel to Cuba (though the State Department is currently in a pattern of offering new exemptions to the travel ban). Even before the Pope's cheerleading visit to the Island, the statute was rarely if ever enforced, partially because Cuban authorities do not stamp American passports, choosing instead to issue paper visas to any American willing to break the blockade. Since there are no direct flights, you have to travel through a third country and acquire a Cuban tourist card from a travel agent there, but after changing planes in Cancun, Mexico, I whisked through Havana's José Marti airport in less time than it takes to buy a bus token in New York City.
An hour later I'd already checked into the oceanside Hotel Deauville -- an art deco remnant from Havana's decadent Fifties -- and was strolling down the Prado, a broad and graceful boulevard lined by beautiful but decaying buildings and traversed by more vintage American cars than in all the museums in Detroit. Declining the offers of illicit sex and cheap cigars from the large number of jiniteras and jiniteros -- rough translation: young capitalists -- working the street, I made my first stop at the gracious Hotel Sevilla, one of the main settings of Graham Greene's novel, Our Man in Havana. Selecting a table with a view of the passing Cuban nightlife, I ordered the first of many mojitos -- an icy concoction of Havana Club rum, crushed mint, and ice -- and decided that I felt right at home. Jesse Helms be damned, my only regret was not coming years earlier.
When it comes to attitudes about Cuba or just about anything else, our guide Jeff Nightbyrd has got to be the anti-Jesse. The former czar of bizarre and occasionally successful enterprises such as low-power television and the nationwide sale of drug-free urine, three years ago Nightbyrd shucked it all to get in on the ground floor of slowly thawing Cuban-American relations.
This was the second of his Cuba-America friendship tours. Our plan was to get to know our Cuban hosts by playing lots of ball and by jointly staging music concerts with a Texas rockabilly band and whatever Cuban bands we could enlist in the cause. The best of our concerts was at Havana's spacious and modern National Theater, where tickets were distributed in exchange for donations to the upcoming International Summer Youth Camp.
Before the concert, I spent an hour out front with Rogelio Santana, Cuba's Minister of Foreign Affairs. As we distributed extra tickets to late arrivers, Santana tried to enlighten me about the Cuban perspective of why problems continue between his country and mine.
"We do not accept threats," Santana told me, "but we do accept friendship. If the people of the United States could only see this, then our countries could find many more things to exchange than simply music."
Few of the Cuban teens at the concert had ever heard country music, but when Santana and I joined them inside, the crowd was doing its best to clap along with the retro rockabilly of San Antonio's Two Tons of Steel (formerly the Dead Crickets, wouldn't you know?).
Accustomed to the staccato rhythms of Cuban salsa, two girls in the back of the theater told me they didn't have any idea how to dance to this music, which did not prevent them from screaming loudly and whipping their long hair in dark lustrous circles as the lead guitar player ripped through some Lubbock-style guitar solos.
In search of a cold beer, I wandered backstage and instead found a second theatre, where a four-piece experimental percussion ensemble backed by the 40 voices of the Cuban National Choir were sending out some of the most ethereal sounds I've ever heard. The new compositions of Cuban composer Jorge Sarraute were silky smooth, but the best was a spaced-out version of McCoy Tyner's "Blues on the Corner." At both these concerts, at the Cuban National Ballet's extraordinary Swan Lake, and at a partially nude experimental theater and movement show which revolved around modern sexual dynamics with a text adapted from Herman Hesse, I found that, despite dire shortages of medicine and food in Cuba, the arts continue to thrive.
Determined to find some kick-ass Cuban salsa, one evening three of us hopped into a private cab -- a cherry '54 Chevy to be precise -- and headed to an outdoor nightclub called the Salón Rosada la Tropical de Benny Moré (a man known as the father of Cuban salsa).
Paying three bucks to get in, we made our way down to the main floor where five or six hundred seriously funky Cubans were drinking beer and rum (both homemade on the premise) and jiving to a killer 16-piece Afro-Salsa band called Los Felin. Beneath a glorious moon, we danced with whoever was nearby, happily quaffed large quantities of jungle juice (at 16¢ a glass) and let the power of the music wash over us like a giant tidal wave. Back at my hotel at some ungodly hour, with the noise of the daytime traffic replaced by the hypnotic "whoosh" of the waves surging onto the Malecon, the images of Havana drifted through my mind like a silent film as envisioned by Fellini: The glistening Havana Harbor, sparkling blue on the surface and polluted beyond all reason below; Risita, a 74-year-old clown performing for Cuban kids on the street; teens playing Four Corners, the Cuban version of stickball with four street corners serving as the bases; an 80-year-old man playing checkers with a boy of four, the floating undulations of the Black Swan as the Sorceror pulls her away from her true love.
Wherever I went in Cuba, my experiences were exhilarating: touring an ancient and still functioning steam-powered sugar mill in the provinces, then having lunch with the mayor and local party head, who gave me an enthusiastic update of the agricultural targets of the revolution; smoking a cigar and talking fishing with 100-year-old Gregorio Fuentes, Ernest Hemingway's best friend in Cuba and the capitan of Hemingway's boat Pillar, or searching out the Havana waterfront Bar Los Hermanos, where Garcia Lorca once hung his hat and exercised his pen. At every turn, the incredible history of Cuba was all around me.
In fact, Cuba seemed more clearly defined by its history than any place I've visited. The fabulous hotels and casinos built by gangster Meyer Lansky and his cronies during the late Forties and Fifties are being restored to support a burgeoning tourist trade that is beginning to dent the shortages caused by the U.S. embargo and Castro's "special period" of hardships which began with the fall of Cuba's benefactor, the Soviet Union.
And believe me, the shortages are severe. A lack of medicine has prompted many doctors to abandon their practices in favor of more productive and profitable work (like driving cabs) and the lack of sufficient protein is a particularly worrisome problem for children throughout the country.
One day in Havana, I noticed an older man who was taking a chicken on a leash for a walk.
"How come," I asked him, "you have a chicken instead of a dog?"
The man looked me in the eye and said, "Dogs don't lay eggs."
With that simple answer came a great deal of understanding.
One of the most interesting buildings in Havana is the former Presidential Palace, which was stormed by Castro's forces in 1959 to effectively win the revolution. Now known as the Museum of the Revolution, I stood for long minutes before the infamous 1949 photo of a U.S. Marine perched high atop a statue of José Martí (the "father" of Cuba). The marine, by the way, is pissing on Martí's head, a public insult akin to a Soviet soldier during the Cold War era relieving himself on the Lincoln Memorial. Not far away, an old woman stood silently before a display of thumbscrews and other torture devices used by the security forces of American-supported dictator Fulgencia Batista to keep the Cuban people in line during the Forties and Fifties when Cuba was essentially looted by Batista and his American cronies.
Is it any wonder that Castro's revolution enjoyed such widespread support? Forty years later, despite his all-encompassing grasp on nearly every facet of Cuban life, Castro is more of an enigma than ever.
"The CIA has tried to kill him for so many years," a Cuban writer told me, "that people believe he has 50 houses. In each house, the story goes, they cook dinner for him every night, with no one knowing where he's going to sleep until he actually shows up."
In the face of this lovely urban myth, the simple truth seems almost as bizarre. When not at work preserving his revolution, Castro is most often found in the company of his old friend, Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with whom Castro apparently shares a love of chess, philosophy, deep-sea fishing, and scuba diving. How I would like to eavesdrop on their late-night conversations.
One of my most enjoyable days in Havana was spent in the company of a high school teacher named Felix who was freelancing as my translator. For $15 a day -- the same as he made in a month of teaching school -- Felix was willing to not only show me the sights but to speak candidly about life in Cuba.
"My mother, little sister, and I have to live on a combined income of $28 per month," he told me. "Ninety percent of that is spent on food, so like everybody else I take some chances to make some money on the side."
With nearly all the Cuban economy owned by the government, almost anything you make on the side is considered black market income. Whether it's driving an unlicensed cab, tending bar and scamming the government for part of the drinks, or selling your body on the street, the economic isolation of the country has forced Cubans into a life beyond the laws and morals of their own revolution.
"This country is hungry for consuming," Felix told me. "But if we make the changes too fast, we lose everything; we end up like Russia and Eastern Europe -- more drugs, crime, and poverty. We don't want to be like the U.S. -- we don't want more guns than people."
One of the country's main sources of foreign exchange is the Cuban cigar, and any visitor who enjoys the world's best stogies will want to take the $5 Partagas factory tour in old Havana. The factory is located just behind the Capitolio, a nearly exact reproduction of our own capital in Washington but with an empty building serving as an eerie reminder that all decisions of Cuban government are made out of sight of the people.
Across the street, the Partagas tour offers a first-hand look at every step in cigar making, from the sorting and deveining of the leaves to the application of the final Habanos SA and factory stamp on the bottom of the sealed box. The highlight is the rolling room, where row after row of men and women rollers turn out an average of 100 cigars a day each, stopping to bang their rolling knives together in a friendly greeting to visiting dignitaries (meaning anyone from another country).
There's also an excellent cigar store here, offering the best espresso in town and cigars at one-tenth the price you'd pay in the States for illegally imported Cuban stogies. And though Monte Christo #4s for $69 a box is a true bargain, I wanted to put the Cuban black market to the test of authenticity.
It is almost impossible to go out in Havana and not be offered black market cigars at nearly every turn. Supposedly these cigars are smuggled out of the factories beneath the skirts of the women rollers and in every other way imaginable, with official cigar bands, box labels, authenticating stickers and stamps also smuggled out by other employees. But there are also plenty of home-rolled cigars, many with inferior tobacco, some supposedly rolled with banana leaves. On the black market, you pay your money and take your chances. But with prices as low as $35 for a box of Cohiba Esplendidos that cost 10 times that in an official store and $1,000 overseas, chances will always be taken.
One afternoon, a Cuban sportswriter took me to meet his cousin, who supposedly knew a guy with inside connections at the Partagas factory. Setting a meeting at a public plaza, we soon met a young man who led us to the back room of a nearby house where we talked about cigars and prices in Spanish, Italian, and English. Why this black marketeer spoke better Italian than he did Spanish was never clear to me, but he did have the only cell phone I saw the whole time I was in Cuba.
A warning: This kind of transaction damages the island's cigar industry, and the Cuban government takes the black marketing of cigars very seriously. Anyone found to be taking cigars out of the country without an official receipt will likely have their smokes confiscated.
After opening and inspecting several boxes for freshness, aroma, and color consistency, I finally settled on a box of Monte Christo #4s and a second box of Romeo & Julietta Churchills. Total cost: $70, plus a $10 tip for my friend. In classic Cuban style, he declined the money five times then finally admitted that with the current food shortages on the island, $10 would mean a lot to his family.
Other than for the cigars, the main reason most tourists go to Cuba is for cheap sex, a situation that has earned the island the unfortunate reputation as the Bangkok of the Caribbean. Because of the desperate need for hard currency, the streets are filled with young, attractive prostitutes, both male and female. Though I enjoyed speaking occasionally with the girls on the street, I am both married and the father of two girls, and have a distinctly low tolerance for the idea of underaged girls being paid for sex.
Though this opinion was shared by most of the radical political types on the Nightbyrd tour, we also had a few single men who were here for one big reason -- to get laid. Perhaps to their surprise, after just a week in Cuba two of these guys were seriously in love and happily engaged to Cuban girls who, like nearly everyone I met on the island, were eager for a ticket to the States.
"If you ask me," Austin filmmaker Chip Mosher told me one night over mojitos at the sidewalk cafe of the Inglaterra Hotel, "the true tale of Cuba is a love story."
Back in Austin, Chip had recently started dating Kim Krizan -- co-author of Richard Linklater's cinematic love story Until Sunrise -- and Krizan had given Chip a note and a gift to carry to the island.
"Please give these earrings," I read from the outside of her envelope, "to one of the 14-year-old girls that gets preyed upon by American guys. The gift is my way of apologizing to them for being made mere fodder for some rich adult's selfish need -- what a devastating way to enter adolescence. Tell them the earrings are from an American girl and that they are free, like her."
Inside the envelope was a beautiful pair of silver earrings.
"That's either the sweetest thing I've ever read," I told Chip, "or a clever way to make sure you don't screw around while you're in Cuba."
"Or both," Chip told me with a grin as we set off down the Prado, expecting to be mauled by the usual onslaught of teenage girls offering their bodies at a going rate of about 15 bucks. But much to our surprise, there wasn't a jinitera in sight. The cops had swept through the area not long before and, after an hour-long walk in search of an appropriate recipient of the gift, we finally gave up and went back to our hotel.
The following night, after he finally gave the earrings to a teenage girl named Donna, Chip tracked me down and reported that she'd been quite thrilled.
"And did she show some sense of international sisterhood with Kim?" I asked.
"To tell you the truth," Chip admitted reluctantly, "she looked like she was going to sell them."
After the quelling of our own revolution on the bus, the ride from Cienfuegos to the Bay of Pigs was enlivened by countless such stories of our time in Cuba. Unloading in front of the Museo Playa Giron, we filed into a small building exhibiting anti-aircraft weapons, portions of a downed plane, and lots of photos, propagandic in nature, but nonetheless real: dead women and children killed in the initial aerial bombardment, Fidel commanding his troops via headset, crying families and processions mourning Cuba's dead, Fidel back in Havana -- stronger and more popular than ever -- standing before a massive crowd.
"Not one of the CIA's prouder moments, was it?" commented one of our group as we stared at the photo of a wounded child in a hospital.
"I wasn't aware the CIA had any proud moments," someone responded.
Much has been made of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, how Kennedy failed to order in U.S. troops as backup, but the simple fact was that the whole operation was both poorly conceived and executed.
Faulty intelligence in three major areas practically guaranteed defeat at the hands of the committed Cuban defenders. First, the CIA foolishly believed that a popular uprising of the people would join the 1,300 invaders and strike Castro down. Second, the cuts through the nearly continuous coral reef that protects Playa Giron were indicated in the wrong spot on the landing party's maps, causing the boats to anchor offshore for 24 hours while access to the beach was located.
Finally, the invasion force thought there was no direct road to the Bay of Pigs, which had long been isolated from the rest of Cuba by a dense swampy wetlands. But Castro, either in a stroke of luck, foresight, or through an informant in the invasion force, had recently completed a direct road to Playa Giron, enabling 20,000 Cuban troops complete with tanks and heavy weapons to stream to the defense of their homeland.
Despite contrary opinion in the States, it was only after the Bay of Pigs invasion that Castro proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist and the revolution to be socialist.
Today, the beach at Playa Giron is home to a modest tourist hotel and is quite a wonderful place to swim. On the 36th anniversary of the invasion, I waded from the clear blue sea onto the sandy shore and stood near a pregnant Cuban woman who was watching her two young children splashing in the water.
"My uncle came to this place during the invasion," she told me. "He was a farmer and he brought his machete to defend Cuba."
"Was he hurt?" I asked, not wanting to say killed, not knowing the word for wounded.
"No," she laughed. "But he talks of it always."
The two of us lifted our gaze out to the blue horizon, both of us, I think, imagining ships of war and wondering why. After a minute I remembered a box of crayons that I had carried from the States, one of dozens of small gifts we'd all brought at Nightbyrd's urging.
"Would your children like these?" I asked her.
The mother looked at the crayons with a sad smile and said she could not afford them.
"No, it's a gift," I told her.
She thanked me, took the crayons, and thanked me again. For a moment I thought she was going to cry.
"I do not understand Americans," she said finally.
"Neither do I," I told her in English. "Neither do I."
Thirty-six years ago this week, the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. engaged in a little pas de deux known as The Cuban Missile Crisis.
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