simonbone.com Twilight of the Castros By Simon Bone, 2002
Twilight of the Castros
By Simon Bone, 2002
Way back when I was in college in Maryland, we would receive a Cuban government newspaper called Granma, printed on flimsy paper, and addressed to PRESIDENT OF STUDENT GOVT. The fact that there was no student government, nor as a result anyone presiding over it, meant that Granma usually traveled all the way from Havana just to land straight in the trash — unless, of course, I had been hanging around the mailroom.
Since Granma’s address label bore no ZIP code, I suspected that whoever had sent it was relying on intelligence-gathering that was a bit old. But what a treat it was to read. Each issue transported me to another world, one in which everything of import was uttered at great length by one man who still ranted, and dressed, like an angry adolescent. Would the Washington Post carry a headline like “Fidel Urges That Not One Single Minute Be Wasted in The Urgent Worldwide Struggle to Eradicate Dengue Fever”? Would the Baltimore Sun record every word of every speech George Bush delivered, without making fun of him? (And what if he were in the habit of speaking for seven straight hours?) But this was just a part of what made Granma special. Cuba was, thanks to the U.S. economic embargo, a forbidden territory. It would have been difficult, if not illegal, to pay for a Granma subscription, had I been so inclined. The three products advertised in it each time — Havana Club rum, Cohiba cigars, and Cuban grade A refined sugar — would be seized if I ever tried to order them. And visiting Cuba itself was next to impossible from the U.S., as there are no scheduled flights or ships between the two countries — even though they are only a short boat ride apart.
Even so, in the late 1980s, Fidel Castro began to realize that his country’s economy was based on the Soviet Union paying too much for sugar while asking too little for oil, and concluded, correctly, that this situation was unlikely to last. Cuba had little in the way of viable industry to offset this loss, but it did have warm weather, beautiful scenery, and beaches. Thus was born the Cuban mass tourism industry, Cuban communism’s last great hope.
In 2001, I was in possession of a generous travel budget from a German charitable foundation, and was given two choices: Either spend the remaining 2300 marks on “travel related to professional activities” by the end of May, or hand it back. The foundation had given me a temporary job of sorts in the German government, during which a faction in an election-losing ostensibly right-wing party had asked me to write their policy toward Russia for them, for free, but without being able to find me a desk from which to do so. After a few weeks of this, I decided it was time for a little vacation.
And so I had the cash, and a shaky justification to travel to Cuba. But Cuba has something of a reputation for gouging independent travelers for as much money as they can, knowing that many of them are wide-eyed supporters of the Revolution who are unlikely to complain, their cash going to a nebulous “good cause.” The Cuban tourist board had been willing enough to relieve a red-star-struck Polish colleague of mine of four thousand marks, for which she was able to attend the 1997 World Festival of Youth and Students for four days. Half of this ransom was shelled out by the pinko Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, owing to the festival’s focus on “anti-imperialist solidarity,” but in vain: As a mere sympathizer, Agnieszka wasn’t allowed to join in any of the earnest panel discussions, which were reserved for real, rather than wanna-be, communists. Instead, she spent her time drinking rum and dancing, which is what your average resort tourist does anyway. Solidarity, sister.
I wasn’t giving up so quickly, though. An eastern German website linked to the former communist party had a promising offer, a “solidarity tour.” Two weeks in Cuba to celebrate May Day, it read, but the details betrayed the motivation, written in that wearying style that certain politically correct German-speakers think is “non-sexist language”: She-participants and participants (Teilnehmerinnen und Teilnehmer) would be able to discuss Cuba’s economic problems with she-labor union officials and labor union officials; later the group would meet she-representatives and representatives of the government to discuss the anti-Cuban, big-business-driven US economic embargo; after that, they would visit a “milk collective,” sponsored by other idealistic Germans, where she-workers and workers would show the German she-comrades and comrades the effects of their anti-imperialist goodwill in promoting menial labor. And following three days of this, presumably long enough to assuage their internationalist consciences, the German anti-capitalists would spend the remainder of their vacation at a beach resort. This detail was explained in two words: Anschließend Badeurlaub.
Alas, it too cost four thousand marks. And I hate beaches.
So I tried the Berlin office of the national airline Cubana de Aviación, which is located not far from where I live. But Cubana wanted DM 1800 just for the plane ticket. And this was assuming that the plane would, in fact, arrive, as at least fifteen Cubana aircraft had dropped out of the sky over the preceding two decades. Cubana is, however, a treasure trove of Ilyushin-62s, Yakovlev-42s, and Tupolev-134s and 154s, worth a roll of the dice for a chance to fly on one of these wonderful airplanes (take it from me, landing in pitch darkness in a Tu-154 with engine trouble is not something one forgets quickly). Except, that is, if you’re flying from Europe, in which case you’re put on a boring old McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 that Cubana rented from a French airline. (Even so, Cubana managed to wreck one of these, in Guatemala in 1999.)
In desperation, I went to a travel agency with approximations of palm trees behind the counter and columns of last-minute offers to dreadful all-inclusive resorts pasted in the window. It turned out I could tour Cuba’s historic sites, without spending more than a few hours at a beach, for DM 2300, thereby solving my financial dilemma. A package tour it would be.
And so, forty years to the day after the Bay of Pigs invasion failed, my plane touched down at Varadero, filled with Düsseldorf-area vacationers. The customs inspection took place in a mirror-lined booth rather like the ones at Sheremetyevo airport. A bored-looking but menacing woman wearing a very tall cap with a metallic insignia inspected my passport, and my face, several times before planting a tiny stamp in the former and buzzing open the door to the rest of Cuba. Due to tourists’ problems with later visits to the United States, Cuban stamps don’t actually mention Cuba; mine was a little picture of a Soviet-looking airplane, the sort of thing I might have carved into potatoes in kindergarten.
But I was in Cuba and had passed the first hurdle of officialdom, and was now able to take in the vista that was the lobby of Varadero airport. Within moments I realized I was back in the Caribbean when a young man seized my sole piece of hand luggage, a small canvas bag containing a minimal amount of clothing, and quickly demanded payment of several dollars for the mighty task of carrying it ten meters to the car park. Pero no tengo de dólares, I protested, showing him the contents of my front pocket, an assortment of “foreign” coins that he promptly snapped up instead. From that point onward, I never let the bag touch the ground.
Before long I found my name being checked off a list, and I was official. There ensued a lot of toing and froing about which buses various tourists were supposed to be on. I took the opportunity to inspect some revolutionary billboards at the edge of the airport parking lot, which must have been placed there for tourists, as ordinary Cubans weren’t allowed anywhere near. There was also a row of classic cars, which on closer inspection proved to be dollar taxis. Among them were a De Soto – the Forward Look for ’59! – and a Morris Oxford.
Within a short time I had consumed most of the fluids I’d brought with me, so I returned to the correct bus and pointed as many air-conditioner vents at myself as possible. Being moved from one bus to another meant I had been downgraded from the window seat behind the driver to the aisle seat opposite the toilet.
Two sluggish hours elapsed before we arrived in Havana. Along the route were more revolutionary hoardings, possibly also meant to enlighten capitalist vermin such as myself: the ubiquitous Socialismo o muerte! (Try saying Islam or death! or indeed Capitalism or death! before you excuse this as a harmless metaphor); pictures boasting of Cuba’s reasonably good school system; a couple of Castro’s anodyne sayings that took too long to read while passing by (even when it comes to billboard sloganeering, succinctness is his weak point); further sayings from José Martí, the national hero, redacted to appear a harbinger of Fidel Castro Ruz; and the inescapable Che Guevara icon, a single, constipated-looking 1960 photograph-cum-tracing-exercise, repeated throughout the country much as Hello Kitty is across East Asia.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara is revolutionary Cuba’s real personality cult, although his personality consisted of blind egotism; but he offers the advantage of being dead (killed, indeed, by the CIA, sort of) and thus unlikely to have second thoughts about lifelong devotion to el Jefe. (It was not the CIA but Fidel himself who offed his revolutionary comrade and potential Gorbachev equivalent General Arnaldo Ochoa, who was shot in 1989, after being framed on drugs-smuggling charges as part of a broader crackdown a week after the Tiananmen Square massacre.) An Argentine medical student, his demagoguery acquired as a youth under the Peróns, Che saw the shocking poverty in Latin America to which the ruling classes seemed indifferent, and came to two conclusions: There was a clear root cause (not corruption, incompetence, or pointless nationalism, but imperialism, and the United States in particular); and a clear solution (himself). It helped that he did a convincing impersonation of Evita.
Apologists point to the supposed nobility of a man who gives up his middle-class ambitions to serve, and die for, an ideological cause; but if this is true for Che it is also true for Mohammad Atta. Che had merely found himself something much more exciting to do than be a country doctor for the rest of his days (and, let’s face it, saying you’re a revolutionary must be a great way to impress women). The incompetence he exhibited when he made himself minister for industries matters not at all; there is nothing empirical about a folk hero, and his quick dissociation of himself from the regime, to continue his ill-defined pursuit of “revolution,” leading to his death in Bolivia in 1967, left him untarnished by its misery. The assistance the Soviets gave to the Bolivians in finding Che, and Fidel’s certain knowledge of it, matter even less to those who would rather believe in a legend than examine the foibles of a mere human being.
But it was the billboard face of another great revolutionary, Jiang Zemin, who welcomed me to Havana. He had left the previous day, but the five-star flags were still out. Sucking up to the People’s Republic of China is a current Cuban foreign-policy stratagem, evinced by a new office building under construction by a Chinese state firm on the Plaza de la Revolución, although how this benefits China is not entirely clear. I had picked up the latest Granma at the airport, and alongside the usual articles by communist loonies from around the world (one of which described the London Eye — a Ferris wheel — as a sure sign of the inevitable collapse of capitalism), there was a sobbingly pro-Beijing piece about the Yanqui imperialists’ attack on a Chinese aircraft; however, as most people had by then figured out that a 1960s propeller plane cannot “attack” a modern jet fighter in any meaningful way, the story was embellished beyond the initial Chinese accounts: The American plane was now a KC-135 AWACS, essentially a Boeing 707, and the unfortunate Wang Wei was in command of merely “a small patrol aircraft.”
To my dismay, I was to stay at the beachside Hotel Comodoro, rather than the downtown Hotel Inglaterra, as I had expected. However, I perked up somewhat when I discovered that the Comodoro had been known until recently as the “Central Hotel of the Revolutionary Armed Forces,” as a little shrine in the lobby attested; it wasn’t exactly hard to imagine where all the hard-currency tourism receipts thus ended up.
There were numerous Canadians in evidence, and the ones next to me in the check-in queue were giveaways, engaged as they were in a conversation about buying a chesterfield with matching ottoman at The Bay or something. Others had the maple-leaf flag sticker on their luggage, as Canadians on holiday often do — as if they were likely to be mistaken for the gringos here. In fact, the only obvious American I saw in my entire time in Cuba stood before me in the lobby of the Comodoro, and she had even gone to the trouble of acquiring an official travel permit from Uncle Sam, a fax of which she waved at the receptionist. But since she spoke Spanish without a George W. Bush accent, she was probably one of the “Miami relatives” — and, I would imagine, somewhat analogous to the West German visitors of the 1970s and 80s, tolerated for the boxloads of discount groceries and downmarket clothes they would bring their misfortunate Iron Curtain family members when they came to stay and complain about how miserable everything was.
Apart from two harried desk clerks, the hotel staff had surrendered their attention to some Hollywood grot on one of the cable channels on the lobby television, a pleasure forbidden to lesser Cubans. In this case, it was something with Mel Gibson chasing bad guys amid the skyscrapers of New York, which the assorted maids and clerks stared at without motion. Our group’s guide occasionally paused from a hearty conversation he was having with a presumably long-lost colleague of his to answer our questions. When my chance came, I asked him about the possibility of squeezing the Che idolatry sites at Santa Clara onto our agenda, or if not, perhaps seeing Guantánamo Naval Base. He seemed to think this was pretty funny, but it turned out he had thought I wanted to actually tour the base, rather than simply view it from the propaganda-filled vista overlooking it. Either way, the answer was no.
The Comodoro was fairly pleasant, a combination of a rococo 1930s building with a 1979 slab hotel and some more recent suites, in one of which I would be staying. It was a cut above the concrete beach hotels in Sochi and Constanţa where the restaurant faces the road and the rooms face other hotels. In fact, I had never before stayed in a suite as large and comfy as the one at the Comodoro — at least, not on my own money.
Once I settled in, I switched on the television. Cuba’s two channels, Telerebelde and Cubavisión, announced themselves with synthesizer music and glinting logos reminiscent of American public TV in the 1970s. The former carried Fidel’s speech from the site of the Bay of Pigs at Playa Girón. I had apparently tuned in towards the end, since he spoke for only another hour. Fidel, like Osama bin Laden, wore a Casio digital watch; and his lip quivered as he spoke, a sign of Parkinson’s disease. Each punch line was followed by a choreographed waving of machine guns in the air; but these, it turned out, had been distributed under strict supervision, and were not loaded.
Also in attendance in Girón was General Raúl Castro, Supreme Commander of the Cuban People’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, at the age of 72, still every bit the sniveling younger brother. As Cuba’s second-in-command (there is no third-in-command) Raúl is reckoned to be less dogmatic than his brother, or at least less convinced of his own infallibility, although it is claimed that it was he who converted Fidel to communism in the first place. Raúl issued some sort of our-revolution-is-showing-the-imperialists sound bite and attention returned to what Fidel had said.
After the speech, Telerebelde began to alternate between boilerplate anti-Yanqui jingoism, delivered by an oleaginous man in a polyester suit, and classroom English lessons. By contrast, Cubavisión offered the only domestic programming that could hope to compete with American films: baseball. A game between two provincial teams, Granma and Pinar del Río, went on for several hours, and when it finally ended, was followed with lengthy post-game analysis. The ball-speed indicator was in “miles per hour,” an odd remnant of American backwardness.
Before dinner I went for a walk along the beachfront, arriving at a dollars-only grocery store, which I was prevented from entering because I was carrying a rucksack. The Comodoro was situated near the hideous Russian embassy, which looked like the watchtower at a prison camp, in the formerly bourgeois neighborhood of Miramar, which by now looked pretty much like a lot of suburbs in Florida might have done had there been a 40-year fatwa against paint. The Revolution had punished the exploiters who once lived here for their homeownership by partitioning their houses with plywood and allowing several poor families to live in each one, with predictable results; it is hard to imagine anyone’s standard of living thus being raised by much. I tried to peer in the windows as best I could, but many of these had long since been boarded up, the glass replaced with plastic bags and cardboard.
Of course, not all the houses in the area were quite so shabby. I thought I detected our guide’s sardonic side when, at dinner, he explained where we were. “Rich people used to live in Miramar — and after the revolution, many party members moved here instead,” he said.
The hotel food wasn’t bad, although I noticed the orange juice in the tropical paradise had been imported from Canada. I joined a trio from Düsseldorf for dinner, and discovered that one of them was a former Bundeswehr officer who had been involved in “democratizing” the remains of the East German National People’s Army after unification. The job had not been easy, as the biggest problems had involved not problems of different military procedures, but significantly undemocratic behavior, such as some East German soldiers’ pastime of beating up prostitutes from fraternal socialist countries. I doubted that there were any direct lessons to be drawn for a post-Castro Cuba.
The postprandial entertainment, on the beachfront, was a small dance troupe, which performed to piped-in music, half of it American and the other half the soundtrack to the film Buena Vista Social Club — I began to suspect that I was the only person who had not seen this. Their performance was elegant but perfunctory, and mostly ignored by the guests. Behind them on the horizon was a naval cruiser, its cannon visible from the shore, perhaps on the lookout for northward-bound rafts and dinghies.
At least the Cristal beer wasn’t bad — judging by the 355-ml can size it appeared to be the result of Canadian investment — and we received a free “greeting cocktail,” in my case something green, that livened things up a bit.
I walked back to my room, and a security guard smiled at me. Before long he was knocking on my door.
“Compañero, you want a woman?” he asked, in English.
“It’s no problem, ten dollars and I’ll wait outside.”
I had been warned about this. “Unfortunately, my wife would get mad at me,” I said. I was not married, was therefore not wearing a wedding ring, and was obviously the sole occupant of my room.
“Oh, sorry, man,” he said. “You won’t tell anyone?”
I laughed. “Of course not. Pero muchas gracias para la oferta.”
The following morning I arose to yet more Cubavisión. The Bay of Pigs had disappeared entirely from the news, to be replaced by pictures from the Quebec summit of the Organization of American States, to which Cuba, as a dictatorship, wasn’t invited. As was becoming tiresomely commonplace, the conference was marred by the arrival of thousands of thuggish “anti-globalization protesters” with no obvious agenda besides a glee for destroying other peoples’ things, property being theft, after all; and a hatred for all corporations except for those that manufacture cigarettes. Cubavisión praised these louts, a couple of whom bore the Che Guevara logo, as “the losers produced by U.S. capitalism,” which I thought was fairly well put. No Cubans, of course, had had the opportunity to travel to Canada to protest about anything.
I intended to ditch the tour group for good and head off to Havana. But here fate intervened; I had left my bag on the bus the previous night, and so I hurried up and got on board.
The route into the city is the Malecón, Havana’s manifestly lovely seaside roadway, constructed during the first American occupation a century ago. Its location at water’s edge means that even in good weather, drivers must take care to avoid tall waves crashing over them. Along the way one passes the Hotel Riviera, built in the late 1950s by the mafia, for the mafia; and the U.S. interests section, technically part of the Swiss embassy. Opposite this large building the Cuban government had famously erected a cartoon billboard that read “Dear imperialists: We’re not at all afraid of you,” which, of course, demonstrated the opposite.
The Plaza de la Revolución was the first stop. Although a perfect communist parade ground, oversized and surrounded with undistinguished ministries, it was built during the Batista reign. My attention was directed to the central José Martí Memorial, a 142-meter, slightly Buddhist-looking tower with a statue of the national hero at its base; the debt owed to it by the Tower of the Juche Idea in Pyongyang was striking. Facing Martí was the Ministry of the Interior, known elsewhere as the secret police, which was the term the guide used to describe it. Its facade was covered with a wrought-iron Che Guevara logo and His inevitable slogan “¡Hasta la victoria siempre!”(“Big Brother is watching you”). Behind Martí’s tower was the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, where Fidel Castro works, if “work” is the best term to describe what he does; guided tours were not an option.
On the northern edge of the square, vintage cars, all of them dollar taxis, waited for customers who were not forthcoming. Most of the island’s ancient American cars have enormous V-8 engines; with gasoline rationed to 30 liters per year for those unable to pay in dollars, they are too large to be useful as paperweights. And despite having been a Soviet client state, there’s no Metro. Havana’s solution to its transport problem is the “camel bus,” several of which were lined up at the square. These vehicles, named for their shape, are essentially modified trucks that can haul 300 or more passengers, as many as a Boeing 777. Claustrophobics can walk.
The next scheduled attraction, in La Habana Vieja, was a visit to an indoor market. This was distinguished mostly by its scraggliness, but if you will excuse the wire-service lingo, it was a veritable cornucopia when compared with the state-run stores, which seemed to stock only some sort of apricot juice concentrate, which too would have disappeared were it not for rationing. But without this minimal amount of economic liberty, there would be only apricot juice concentrate for lunch.
It was here while disembarking from the coach that I first noticed that children had lined up next to the door to beg for ballpoint pens and soap; this was made clear by their mimed lathering and air-writing. Other desired items were less suited to gesticulation, although the kids had figured out which words, such as crema, crossed the language barrier.
The guidebook Lonely Planet Cuba had the following to say about this phenomenon:
“The begging is caused entirely by ignorant tourists who think it’s fun to hand out candies, chewing gum, balloons, soap, pens, or whatever to the poor natives at random on the street, and they’ll probably continue doing so. (Unfortunately, such people don’t usually read Lonely Planet.)”
No, actually, the begging is caused entirely by the complete absence of soap and ballpoint pens in Cuba. Forewarned, I distributed two years’ worth of hotel soaps, a six-pack of Juicy Fruit, and all the pens I had collected at the Berlin electronics show among the appreciative whelps.
After taking in the market, I slipped away through central Havana in search of the Revolution’s holiest shrine, the good ship Granma, for which the newspaper, the province, and much else is named, and which itself was christened in honor of its former American owner’s grandmother.
The Granma was to be found in an annex to the Museo de la Revolución, the former presidential palace. The museum was closing early for some undeclared reason; and since there was only an hour left, the staff wouldn’t sell me an entrance ticket, even though an hour seemed adequate to take in the exhibits; perhaps it was not a sufficiently “respectful” length of time. Once the staff had lost interest, I skulked around the ground floor for a few minutes, admiring the displays about the evils of the Batista regime, as well as a large sign in the hallway that featured large caricatures of Batista, Bush the elder, and (if memory serves) Reagan. “You cretins!” it began, followed by a litany of predictable accusations.
Behind the main building, the Granma was ensconced in a glass enclosure that might have contained the swimming pool of a three-star hotel in less sunny climes. This was air-conditioned, and the outside was covered in condensation. Without a museum ticket, looking at the Granma from the sidewalk was my only option. It was an undistinguished vessel, unlikely to prove more interesting at closer range, precisely the sort of thing a semi-wealthy Florida executive might have named for his granma. Surrounding the case were a number of other vehicles used by the bearded ones in their revolutionary activities, all of which stood in direct sunlight and had been frequently repainted. What appeared to be an eternal flame, switched off, was kept off-limits to me by a languid soldier in dark sunglasses.
And this, it seemed, would be all I would get to see of the Museum of the Revolution. Pity, because despite plenty of exposure to Granma (the newspaper) and Radio Habana Cuba, I wanted to see what Fidel had to say for himself. Taken literally, “revolution” means to rotate around a fixed point until you return to the place you began; surely this is not precisely the appeal of Socialismo o muerte. But apart from the usual menacing abstractions (“dignity,” “truth,” “liberty”) most of the propaganda claims pertain to the Cuban health and education systems. Cuban schools are good and all children attend them, the visitor is constantly reminded. And life expectancy is supposedly at first-world levels.
It is hard to assess how well the medical system works; the people seem healthy enough, although Pyongyang’s ban on cripples is a simpler way to achieve this. As for the schools, many Cubans speak English well, unlike some of their Florida relatives. But the same share of the Cuban workforce is engaged in miserable manual labor as in 1958, especially as sugar-cane-chopping machetistas, and staple foods are rationed luxuries. Remember that life expectancy was supposed to be at first-world levels in the third-world Soviet Union, and “plummeted” after it collapsed. All that plummeted, of course, was the ability to falsify statistics.
Eleven years before the Cuban revolution, in 1948, Costa Rica became the first country to abolish its army, spending the money on education and health instead. No richer than Cuba, it drastically reduced illiteracy through universal education and increased life expectancy to (demonstrably) among the highest in the world — but remained a largely democratic country that respected human rights (Costa Rica had also been one of the first countries to abolish the death penalty). But how many anti-globalization protesters have the likes of José Figueres on their T-shirts? Cuba’s foreign policy draws strength from its appeal to faraway intellectuals, if by “intellectuals” we mean dogmatists motivated by idiotic “theory” rather than idiotic religion, and who regard puerile anti-Americanism as sufficient reason to excuse torture cells. (For starting this we can perhaps blame Simone de Beauvoir, who, in one of history’s most ill-conceived pick-up lines, proclaimed that the scruffy Che was the “perfect man,” something that only fed his amour propre.)
Back to Havana. I wandered to the national theater, across from the Hotel Inglaterra, where a large group of men was engaged in what seemed to be a fairly aggressive discussion about baseball. I can think of few things less fun or interesting than watching team sports, let alone discussing them afterwards; one might as well have heated discussions about memorable dual-entry ledgers or favorite detergent brands. But as politics is a taboo topic in Cuba, baseball takes up some of the slack, and this crowd is a permanent fixture of the square. There may be little in the way of bread, but Cuba has its circuses.
Across from the former capitol building was an overly chilled grocery store, and I thought the overpriced bottle of Canadian malt vinegar I purchased after I began to be stared at was sufficient reward for ten minutes of simulated winter. When I emerged, I was approached by a young man who seemed intent that I should come with him to a back alley to “meet some friends” and it took some persuading, combined with my sudden recognition of, and immediate need to meet some faraway, apocryphal “friends” of my own, to be able to get away from him politely. It was hard to tell exactly what he wanted, as I made it clear I had no interest in buying cigars, but it’s not as if plain robbery is unheard of in Cuba either.
The hustlers, or jineteros, were hardly as obtrusive as in — say — Bangkok, where every two minutes someone would approach me with exactly the same pathetically false story (the nearby monument is closed today for a national holiday) with the same offer (to celebrate, there’s a sale on diamonds at a store I know) leading to the same scam (paying big money for worthless industrial diamonds). When this failed to lure me, they would inevitably default to a second tempting offer (come to my place for a meal), which would be followed by an identical scam (play a game of cards, lose big money). The downside to the Cuban jineteros is that on the rare occasion that you are able to meet people without being watched, the conversation is likely to be dominated by someone trying to take advantage of you. But apart from the occasional sales pitches (the three-peso coin, featuring Che, is a hot item), and requests for money (from car owners, for pictures taken), no one else bothered me, although this was one city where I did not, in any sense, blend in. Part of this was probably due to the uniformed police on every corner, and presumably to the non-uniformed forces as well; the CDR, or Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, had outposts just about everywhere.
If only as much effort were expended in maintaining the city as goes into defending the revolution. Havana’s decrepitude is so thorough that it is hard to imagine how the city will be rescued even if the Castro era were to end tomorrow morning. Here and there are signs announcing United Nations funding for the renovation of more noteworthy buildings, although this seemed to involve only a minimal amount of work to keep the edifices standing; and every time a storm hits Havana, or a large wave laps beyond the Malecón, a few more houses disappear. Its World Heritage Site status notwithstanding, the only buildings that appeared to be restored to modern standards were foreign embassies and dollar stores.
Dollar commerce was legalized in 1993 – dollars were in wide circulation before them, and the enemy currency’s illegality was another threat the government held against the populace, but the state of the Cuban economy forced Fidel’s hand. The new policy essentially codified Cuba’s class system, consisting of those who have family in Miami and those who do not. Those who do not must live off rationed apricot juice concentrate.
One building was adorned with a pre-revolutionary mosaic of the Philips logo, although it now sold clothes for pesos, and most of the merchandise was made in Venezuela. Much of the vast floor space was empty, the sales confined to a corner of the building, where there stood two wood-grain display cabinets displaying nothing, and four sparse racks of clothing in artificial fabrics. Across the street, however, was a store where Cubans could actually buy a Philips ghetto-blaster, or dozens of other electronic items, at inflated dollar prices.
I wandered through the streets — Havana’s old city seems built specifically for wandering — and managed to sneak into the museum of the city fortifications for free, a minor but nonetheless satisfying moral victory. Musicians and dancers performed nearby, for foreigners’ benefit. I am told that Havana’s nightlife, such as it is, also owes its existence to mass tourism; and that until the 1980s the city was exciting only by communist standards.
I came to an outdoor book market, which proved to be slightly more interesting than the infamous Moderna Poesia bookstore, itself turned into a sort of dollar shop, where the revolutionary tracts all seemed to have been printed in Australia. The outdoor market had a lot of Castro’s speeches, and to be polite I picked up a copy of the ubiquitous History Will Absolve Me (it didn’t). The seller, sensing political interest, explained to me his seditious theory about how General Ochoa was poised to rescue Cuba from Castro’s mess, and wanted to sell me the books to prove it (though the books in question, while probably now banned, were just mid-1980s hagiography).
I never found the bus back to the hotel, nor did it matter — instead I took a taxi, which turned out to be a 1955 Studebaker with a two-speed automatic transmission. The driver delightedly recited its performance statistics for me, though I wasn’t convinced that it retained the horsepower it had had 46 years earlier. It may have been one of those postcard moments, but for the few minutes of a sunset drive along the Malecón in a vintage automobile, dodging the waves, I was exquisitely happy.
When I returned to the Comodoro I learned that while I was being refused entry to the Museo de la Revolución, the rest of the package tourists had been taken to the Bodeguita, marketed as “Hemingway’s favorite bar,” where they were, so to speak, encouraged to drink “Hemingway’s favorite cocktail” at three dollars a serving.
Hemingway’s villa was on the following day’s agenda, though it could be inspected only through its windows; he was evidently an avid reader of National Geographic, Time, Field & Stream, and other publications now forbidden. I tend to find any tropical homes of wealthy exiles a little unreal (since I mention Bangkok, think: the Jim Thompson house), and I was able to spot a couple of anachronisms, such as (I believe) a Smith Corona typewriter that didn’t belong. Next door was a small display of children’s art with a Hemingway theme, though I assumed this did not mean they had read him; his boat (also on display) figured prominently in their drawings. Another pavilion, near the empty swimming pool, showcased the well-known photograph of Hemingway with a jovial Castro, taken at a fishing contest in 1960 initiated by the author, in which the dictator came second.
Hemingway is frequently hailed as a hero to the Cubans, an American who visited the island and was kind to it; he was well traveled, hardly the kind of “ugly American” who regards the entire outside world as frighteningly exotic, and who abroad might whinge endlessly about the lack of Cap’n Crunch cereal. The implication that this open-mindedness might be a rare phenomenon among Americans serves the government’s purposes; and Hemingway’s later doubts about Castro’s fitness to govern were, of course, absent.
After Havana, the sightseeing continued to Pinar del Río, on the western edge of the island, where a cigar factory was the main source of interest. Quite what propaganda purpose this served was unknown, as the contrast between the cost of the Cohiba cigars, some $20 or more apiece, and the measly cents-a-day wages of the workers was straight out of Marx. Inside, the employees were seated in rows under buzzing fluorescent lights and whirling ceiling fans, rolling hundreds of cigars per diem. Our visit prompted begging for money, especially for those visitors who peered too closely to find out how exactly a cigar is assembled, or who took photographs. Several cigar-makers had American quarters glued to their workspaces, which they pointed to emphatically. I spared a thought for those luckless Cubans who work in non-showcase factories.
Our visit lasted, I think, three minutes. Outside the factory door was a small display that reminded the employees of their role in securing the vital goals of the revolution; I recognized it immediately as a condensed version of the wall newspapers of the USSR, except that Brezhnev was never referred to as “Leonid.” Our own opportunity to help build socialism came shortly thereafter, in the gift shop (air conditioned, of course), where a full array of cigars was on display. One of the few things that Germany has in common with Cuba, apart from a demanding bureaucracy, is its citizens’ desperate addiction to tobacco, although this is worsened in Germany by the government’s total surrender to the tobacco industry (the high schools in Brandenburg are required by law to provide smoking lounges for students). Unusually, however, out of 40 there were only three smokers, and thus few sales, though quite a bit of curious peering into the humidor window. One man seemed genuinely astonished that our guide — a Cuban! — didn’t smoke either. The guide pointed out that Castro, too, had long since quit.
I would have been content to dwell in Pinar del Río; it seemed a charming colonial town amid lush foliage, but it appeared that there was a tourist agenda that took precedence over bourgeois individual whim. We were off to the Cueva de los Indios, a lake-filled cave, which as the name implies, was once inhabited by Indians.
The scenery in Viñales is extraordinary, and the prospect of a huge cavern among what was clearly a lot of geological wackiness excited me. Che Guevara had supposedly moved his command headquarters to a cave in the area during the Cuban Missile Crisis, thus ensuring that even if he caused the rest of Cuba to be nuked, the New Man himself would survive.
The entrance to the Cueva de los Indios was in a dark vale. I imagined what it must have been like not long ago, squeezing through crevices, carrying only an oil lamp, leaving markers every few paces to find the way back out, and finally being rewarded by the cool serenity of the vast, still water, while setting eyes on the wall etchings of a noble civilization long gone.
In the few seconds it took me to flesh out this scenario, I found myself walking along a concrete path that led to the lake’s boarding point. Motor boats had been installed to increase throughput, and I was whisked onto one, which brummed through the waters while a daydreamy woman recited the salient points of the lake, consisting of unimaginative names given to the outcroppings and stalactites (“horse,” “face”), in Spanish and approximate English; and in five minutes the experience was behind me.
Lunch took place a bit further down the road, at a restaurant in what was probably a very pretty valley before someone had the notion of turning one of the hillsides into a giant painting. Though its audacity, at least, appealed to me — and to be fair, it was probably no more kitschy than Mount Rushmore — El Mural de la Prehistoria had been carried out in the early 1960s, and its topic, like everything else back then, was The Progress of Man, in this case, humanity’s evolution from a snail that looked like the emblem of the Slovakian national railway (which itself has always struck me as a rather odd oversight — but I digress), into a dinosaur, and subsequently into a couple of other abstract creatures that are not actually our ancestors.
But I couldn’t complain about the food, and tucked into a large, tasty pile of yucca and boiled potatoes; most of the others ate enormous portions of roast pork that seemed to make them happy. A band played the usual Buena Vista Social Club hits, and afterwards pestered us to buy their CD.
The only scenery we were expected to enjoy after lunch was that of the gift shop, and since the previously ubiquitous “Free Elian” T-shirts had been discontinued, this held no interest for me. We were to be hustled back to Havana because several people wanted to see the Tropicana show, and had paid $85 for the privilege.
I had no desire to part with $85, mainly because I had $80 with me, so I decided to walk up to the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabana — the big castle on the hill — to see the sunset cannon-firing ceremony. No surprises here, it was loud, especially from my front-row view, as I had had the good sense to get there before the tour buses did.
Here, too, was the Ernesto “Che” Guevara Museum, housed in the part of the castle he had appropriated for himself after abolishing private property for everyone else. A series of display cases represented his achievements in the most florid hagiography, absent only his birth augured by birds and heralded by a double rainbow. Guevara, brought up by parents who became extreme leftists after losing much of their family fortune, was presented as a child of hardship, suffering from severe asthma — which offered him a bully’s sense of victimhood — who nonetheless became a top athlete, leading him to certain conclusions about willpower.
He had sat behind an enormous, elaborate wooden desk, where he signed more than three thousand death warrants, an enthusiasm surpassed only by his pleasure he took in watching the executions, some of which took place in the courtyard nearby. First to go were the Cuban army leadership, undefeated in battle; then the “Trotskyites” real or imagined; then everyone else Che had taken a dislike to; finally anyone who had resisted, and, more than likely, anyone who had witnessed what had really occurred during his glorious military victories. He was, after all, the Perfect Man, and his whim became the highest moral censure.
Much of human misery has been caused by such self-adoring, amoral, power-hungry men. Guevara’s writings may have been little more than derivative paraphrases of Stalinist orthodoxy, but as a closed mind he was at least consistent in his beliefs, and the koranesque snippets posted throughout the museum managed to make this look more like steadfastness and self-confidence. Each self-proclaimed Great Leader, Prophet, or Revolutionary has fancied himself a military genius as well, of course, and Che’s fictional heroism in the largely imaginary battles of the Revolution covered the museum’s walls. Most of these battles happened only in the pages of the New York Times — “yellow journalism” works both ways. Fawning coverage by the NYT’s Herbert Matthews turned Castro, the bumbling faux-rebel who couldn’t read a map, into “far and away the greatest figure in the nation-wide opposition to President Fulgencio Batista…. No figure has attained this stature in Cuba since the struggle for independence against Spain.” And, lamentably, much of the establishment fell into line behind the “newspaper of record.”
The Castro-Guevara strategy was very clever, even if it had little to do with military ability. The rebels waited in the Sierra Maestra, granted exclusive interviews to eager journalists, recruited bored thugs, through occasional skirmishes created the impression of continuous revolutionary struggle against the Batista regime, waited for popular discontent to erupt, and then marched “victorious” into Havana, after bribing arriving soldiers to not fight at the “Battle” of Santa Clara. Much the same strategy had worked for the Bolsheviks, after all.
A little bit of cynicism might have been expected after taking over the country; like the Castros, Guevara seized himself a villa, and could have continued to live the life of luxury that most absolute rulers and their henchmen enjoy. But Che craved power, adoration, and revenge; and he believed his own press releases. (And as the Castros’ third wheel, the brothers were happy to accommodate his recklessness, as long as it was far from Cuban soil.) Yes, indeed, he was a messiah, a socialist man of a new type, delivered to this earth to free the third world, and a military genius! He thus wrote a tome called On Guerilla Warfare, based on who knows what, and set off for Africa to liberate it, an experience that led to quick and humiliating defeat in the Congo, from which he learned nothing. His arrival in Bolivia — a second Simon de Bolivar! — was greeted with apathy, and his failure to connect with the left-wing workers and peasants, who had already won land reform and universal suffrage in their 1951 revolution (and who probably saw him for the coddled, joyless teacher’s pet that he was) was a fatal error. With his gun loaded, and the genuine soldiers under his command still putting up a fight, Che put his hands up when surrounded, begging “I’m Che! I’m worth more to you alive than dead!”
Whoops. Not to the Castros, he wasn’t. Che should have been paying attention to what happened to his fellow revolutionaries Huber Matos (20 years in prison without trial after opposing Cuba’s shift towards the Soviet Union), Camilo Cienfuegos (killed in a mysterious plane crash after being sent to arrest Matos and concluding he was blameless), Humberto Sori Marin (shot in 1961 as a counterrevolutionary), and Mario Chanes de Armas (jailed the same year on the same imaginary charges), not to mention Che’s American ally William Morgan (shot, traitor to the revolution, etc.). Like the others, Che apparently was unable to peep behind the curtain; the premises of the revolution were as fake as its battles. From the beginning, it had been about power for Fidel, and nothing else.
Most people, the most blinkered communists excepted, might privately chuckle when reading about the genius and bravery of the likes of Enver Hoxha or Nicolae Ceausescu, while visiting the ponderous museums dedicated to them. But the visitors to the Che Guevara museum seemed to be taking it very seriously. Then again, I suspect we’d encounter the same solemnity in a Jim Morrison museum, if such were to exist.
Another Che logo, this time made of metal and with extensive backlighting, occupied one of the walls in the museum’s doorway. Standing before it, I had a revelation: Something was missing from El Mural de la Prehistoria, and it was this symbol. The Cuban government should clear a bit more hillside and paint in Fidel and Che as the ultimate realization of six billion years of evolution, the final perfection of nature, New Men as superior to all others as mere Homo sapiens was to the dinosaurs and snails. I’d even come back and ride on that boat again if they did.
We bade farewell to the Comodoro at 6:00 the following morning, but ended up waiting at the airport for a long time. The departure area was outside, several small huts with thatched roofs surrounded by a wooden fence, all of which was probably intended to generate a jolly Caribbean ambience amid the prop wash.
A forty-year-old Ilyushin-18 took us to Santiago. One of the advantages of Germans is that many of them are unapologetic transport geeks, and so my naive question about whether the plane was a former Interflug machine was quickly answered (nope, it wasn’t). The aircraft in question belonged to Aerocaribbean, which was Cubana in sheep’s clothing, as the interior decoration made clear (“75 años de Cubana”); presumably there is some advantage to an airline without “Cuba” in its name. Not that Aerocaribbean is any safer than Cubana; nine years earlier it had smacked another Il-18 into a mountain in the Dominican Republic.
But, two hours later, we arrived safely in Santiago. At the airport stood an American Airlines 767, behind which our Ilyushin parked; a commotion was well underway inside the terminal. It took a lot of pushing to get through the crowds waiting for their relatives from Florida to disembark. I could only wonder how the relatives were supposed to find one another.
We made a quick stop at the Castillo del Morro, which was rather too fabulously restored in the 1960s, much in the manner of the tourist-accessible parts of the Great Wall of China. Lunch took place at a seafront restaurant that had a glass case on the wall containing a plate and a fork. “Aquí estuvo Paul McCartney,” it proclaimed, although, inaccurately, the fork was placed where his right hand would have been. I ended up chatting with a couple who were nearing retirement age, a German woman with an Italian husband. As I recall, they couldn’t decide which whether they wanted to retire to Mönchengladbach or Tuscany, which seemed a pretty easy choice to me.
On the way back to the bus, I had a chance to chat with our guide. He had studied engineering in East Germany, twenty years ago. Such is the state of affairs in Cuba that a tour guide earns far more than an experienced, German-trained engineer. He was the only Afro-Cuban tour guide I had noticed (supposedly blacks are banned from working in most Cuban resorts, though I could think of no diplomatic way to ask about this policy). He had arrived in Leipzig in the middle of winter, and as such biographies inevitably begin, “It was the first time I had ever seen snow.” I did not come away with the impression that this had been an enjoyable time, though he knew eastern Germany to a level of detail that meant he must have shown a lot of interest, and he knew more about it than did most of the Düsseldorfers. But he was someone whose present job required him to keep his opinions to himself.
Onward to Santiago. To learn from the Soviet Union means to learn victory, or whatever, and sure enough Fidel had proclaimed Santiago Cuba’s “hero city” along the lines of Leningrad, Volgograd, Kiev, and the rest, although there was a significant difference in degree between the devastation at, for instance, Minsk, and that at Santiago.
But what better way to proclaim your own ipso facto heroism than to create a hero city for your own exploits. It was in Santiago that the revolution began, on 26 July 1953, with a Hitlerish putsch attempt at the Moncado barracks. On the way to the uprising, the guys with the armaments got lost, and Fidel crashed his car as he was driving to the barracks, and the rebels evidently had little military training, such as how to avoid being an easy target for machine guns. In the end, Castro was captured; he put on a performance at his trial, was given a puny 15-year sentence for being a pathetic middle-class fake revolutionary, and was out of jail in two years when Batista released all his political prisoners, under American pressure. When they tried again, the following year, the bearded ones – by now, Guevara had tagged along – came from Mexico aboard the Granma, landing in what was then part of Oriente province (it is now, inevitably, Granma province).
The barracks themselves have little to show for the attack, and the bullet holes in the walls were added after Castro came to power. This, it is claimed, is because the Batista regime quickly repaired the building, removing all traces, but anyone who has observed the scarred facades of public buildings in Berlin and Warsaw ought to treat this with circumspection. In the event, there are now lots of bullet holes, many of them perfect circles that only a drill can make, and history has not recorded the Castro gang launching an attack with weapons of this sort. Within the building is a museum within that purports to show some of the torture instruments applied to captured rebels, a policy the present government has by all accounts continued. Part of the building, at the rear, was famously turned into a school or kindergarten, as a bit of fatuous swords-into-ploughshares propagandizing. There appeared to be a painting class within.
Next on the agenda was Fidel Castro’s former Sierra Maestra headquarters building (since destroyed in a hurricane); it was a modest little white house with red trim, and was surrounded by coffee plants, which I found fascinating. As to its revolutionary aspects, its walls were lined with pictures of the heroes, with long typewritten descriptions of their feats, which was becoming just a bit tiresome.
Comic relief was provided by a stop at the nearby Valle de la Prehistoria, a sort of theme park unconnected to the mural of the same name, and which featured statues of troglodytes in unlikely poses hunting dinosaurs, and even more unlikely, wearing moon boots. Even so, it was somehow fun (and much better than the Flintstones park I had visited as a child in British Columbia, which was advertised every five minutes on Edmonton television, but which—as we discovered after I succeeded in forcing my parents to drive far out of our way—proved to contain only a handful of pissed-on figurines) and I was glad we’d visited it, despite the sudden appearance of drizzle and gale-force winds. “This was built by political prisoners,” the guide said.
After this we paid a visit to Cuba’s car museum, amid many a trenchant remark that Cuba is itself a car museum. There were a lot of fabulous American 1960 models – the last model year to be imported to Cuba – and subsequent scaled-down Eastern Bloc vehicles, such as a Skoda of the same vintage, and a Mavacura, a tiny Cuban-built car for one, sort of a kid’s play car with a real engine. While the vehicles were all outside in direct sunlight, sheltered only by a metal roof, an air-conditioned indoor area contained a display case full of small metal toys, labeled “Autos sovieticos.”
With the revolutionary shrines taken care of, I had a chance to go for a walk around Santiago. While moseying out of the city’s equally soporific equivalent of the Moderna Poesia, which seemed to purvey only a random selection of school books printed on toilet paper, a skinny, almost truly black-skinned young woman, aged somewhere between 14 and 35, with her hair in tight cornrows, gently grasped me by the chin and, staring into my eyes, said to me in English “You are so beautiful.” And then she walked off.
While this was evidently an invitation to a commercial transaction, I was naively chuffed by the encounter, grinning nuttily to myself for awhile (“Am I really so beautiful?”). One effect of this was to make my recollection of Cuba’s heroic second city rather dim, so that, without resorting to my notes or photographs, I can tell you that I was in the cathedral, and there was a balcony where Castro gave a speech upon taking over the city, and there was another ration store with fruit paste, and a 24-hour booze store that had only one kind of booze, and that’s it. Whatever the case, I wish cute strangers would grab my chin more often. Our accommodation was the Hotel Versalles, a 1950s motor hotel without any motorcars, which, unlike its rundown lost-highway equivalents in the States, was held to be one of Santiago’s finest hotels; its dining room had a wonderful Beat Generation ceiling of colored glass. The Versalles was surrounded by socialist prefabricated apartments, with only slight concessions to the local clime, in what I supposed was once a somewhat posh hillside area; kids played football in the street at a distance, but when I decided to say hello, they scattered. The hotel had a pool, which turned out to be inexplicably chilly, and a shop that, to my delight, sold three-dimensional postcards, displaying pictures of various local fauna, printed in North Korea. Granma, also available, had a somewhat tardy article that presented an insight about “bombing Belgrade back into the stone age”; although the store also sold shrink-wrapped boxes of Serbian candy, undermining Granma’s thesis.
The night’s entertainment would be the Tropicana show, the Santiago version being $40 cheaper than the original, although one alluring feature of the Santiago Tropicana is that it had been built for the Fourth Party Congress in 1991. This was held two months before the Soviet Union finally collapsed, and introduced a number of hope-inducing economic reforms, all since rescinded, but planned far enough in advance that triumphant buildings could be erected to coincide with it. It, and the Pan American Games that year, seemed to have been the last time anything had been built in Cuba, and apparently corrugated metal painted black was in vogue at the time.
Still not entirely sure there wouldn’t be something more worthwhile to spend my piddly amount of cash on later, I asked the guide what the big deal was, and he replied “Mädchen. Die Mädchen.” Which, I suppose, convinced me.
And, indeed, the Tropicana show was exactly as you would expect: lots of pretty girls dressed up as items of fruit, performing high kicks; and a guy in a tuxedo coming out towards the end to sing a plaintive and serious ballad. However, despite the performance—quite splendid, really—the atmosphere was somehow not quite right. It may have been the absence of stogie-chomping Mafiosi ordering complicated cocktails; or the fact that the audience was outnumbered by the performers; or that Tropicana Santiago is in a field far away from any other human endeavor. (Some of the entertainment was inadvertent: One of my tablemates seemed to be unfamiliar with the tradition that when a magician comes to you during the intermission and requests a dollar bill to use in a card trick, you don’t get it back.) But when the performance ended, there was near-silence, until a tour bus started its engine.
The following morning, there was some sort of breakfast buffet, during which my Bundeswehr companion lamented that he’d run out of lipstick and ballpoint pens. I had very little currency of any kind left, and no way to spend more, as my credit card was issued by a U.S. bank.
A visit to the Bacardi factory was scheduled, although this proved to be a bit of a washout, as we were not allowed to see anything connected with the production of rum— just the factory shop, where we were serenaded by a musical group as we shopped, or, in most cases, bemusedly stood about (it occurred to me later that they must have had greater sales success with previous German tourists who come for the beach resorts). Even so, I bought my brother a leaky bottle of Caney rum, as the product is now known, which will probably remain unopened for all eternity. Across the street, and along a freight railway, was the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, where much of the Bacardi family is elaborately entombed, and presumably turning over; as well as the flag-draped grave of José Martí, set in a marble crypt not unlike that of Napoleon’s, and a collective memorial to the martyrs of the 26th of July Movement.
And that was that for Santiago. The next stop was to be Camagüey, and it would take several hours on the bus to get there. Traffic along the road was confined to flat-bed trucks that were doing the Santiago-Havana route, their cargo people standing upright and packed tightly together. This was apparently cheaper and more reliable than the train, although riding a truck for 14 hours in the sun looked exhausting. Today, the sunburn was interspersed with heavy rain.
It was shortly after entering Granma Province—heralded by a large concrete sign—that our bus became stuck behind one of these vehicles. After a while, the driver decided to overtake it. I was sitting in a window seat on the right as I noticed that we were going slightly sideways, and as the trajectory tended more evidently toward the side of the road, I found myself reminiscing: about Drayton Valley, Alberta, around the time of our Flintstones trip, when our Dodge drifted off the road into a snow bank; Brandon, Manitoba, a few years later, when a bus I was traveling in spun off the highway on black ice; and wherever it was in Texas where, in a borrowed Toyota Supra Turbo, a means of transport utterly unsuited to inclement weather, I twice avoided head-on collisions with out-of-control vehicles by a matter of centimeters. Yet in not one of these instances was I, or another passenger, or the vehicle, so much as scratched. And now I was in a bus that was also heading off the side of the road. Without otherwise reacting, it rather urgently occurred to me that what was happening was the phenomenon of “my life flashing before my eyes.”
Shortly after this epiphany, I found myself airborne. Probably 30 seconds to two minutes are missing from my brain’s narrative at this point. It picks up again with me on the other side of the bus, which was now on its side. I was looking at my seat, which was now above me to my right; my head was at an odd angle to the rest of me. I heard the air escaping from my lungs, and there was nothing I could do about it. I had, as far as I was aware, regained consciousness to discover I was in my last few seconds alive. My thoughts were something along the lines of “So that’s it, then.” There was no religious sentiment, no tunnel with lights at its end, though I recall struggling to remember the date—Sunday 22 April 2001—to imagine my tombstone.
In fact, as the reader may have deduced, I was not actually dying. After about a minute I regained control over my lungs and was able to take some shallow breaths. What concerned me more was whether I could move my feet. I could not—but then suddenly I was able to twitch my toes. I felt an odd tingling sensation down the middle of my arms and along my back.
After a short interval, I was able to stand, my feet on the window, which was now resting on the ground. I realized I must have landed on one of the people across the aisle, so I apologized. Nothing was burning, the other passengers seemed to be all right, and it looked as if most had already left the bus—the emergency exit was the roof portal.
As I made my way to the front, I saw blood on the glass. The Italian man I had eaten lunch with was possibly suffering from concussion. He seemed to be bleeding from his forehead, and several times said something about people stealing his camcorder, which was in its case on the ground in front of him. But then I saw that his wife had been quite seriously injured.
An ambulance showed up almost immediately—something that would be hard to imagine happening in, say, the Dominican Republic—and doctors performed triage, with the serious group consisting of the couple, and possibly others; I do not remember. I was in the second group, and stood in a line to be examined. “You are very lucky,” the doctor told me, “considering you landed on your neck.” After prodding me in various places and listening intently to his stethoscope, he concluded I did not need to go to the hospital unless I wanted to. For some reason, I chose not to. I must have been delirious.
We had crashed in a small village named El Cencerro, near Santa Rita. Police of some description had arrived right away, and a crowd appeared, but even the small children kept their distance at first. As the injured were being taken away, I noticed the Italian had dropped a large, unopened package of cookies. I walked up to one of the villagers and told her “Para los niños.” This seemed to break the ice, and the kids gobbled them down, followed by whatever other snack foods people had available.
I ended up talking to some of the people who lived where our bus had landed. One of them was a charming young woman named Yeny, who was seven months pregnant. As it turned out, she spoke immaculate English, and had studied at university in the provinces. Now she lived in a hut made of cinderblocks with a metal roof, where she kept small black pigs. “I am so happy,” she told me.
I took down her address, and, after the luggage was extricated vertically from the bus, I handed her a bunch of ballpoint pens, realizing only later that she could probably have put my shortwave radio to better use than I.
The police were interviewing witnesses, to the extent there were any – the truck we had passed had continued on its way – and murmurs within the crowd suggested that the driver, an extremely likeable chap, would probably go to prison, regardless of his culpability. I believe I told them that he had been driving safely, and that the truck had swerved erratically, and had not stopped to assist us; I don’t know whether I pointed out the treadless condition of the bus’s tires, which was quite visible now that the bus was on its side. A couple of other people helpfully testified to the effect that “without our driver’s quick reaction, the accident would have been much worse.”
A replacement bus arrived after an hour or so. It was an older model than the first one, but thoughtfully contained an icebox filled with drinks. A beer was two dollars, and I treated myself to a Cristal, in a vain attempt to take the edge off my somber mood.
We headed for Bayamo, where the bus made a stop outside the hospital, but we were asked to remain on board. A sign above the emergency room read “Somos internacionalistas.” No information was forthcoming on the fate of the more seriously injured passengers. Nevertheless, the guide managed to arrange lunch, and it took place at a restaurant that was evidently not in the habit of serving tourists.
By now, I was unable to turn my head, I had a previously unknown taste in my mouth, and things seemed to be cast in blurry pastel colors. Which was a shame, because the humble pasta with tomato sauce dish the restaurant was able to whip up for our unscheduled visit was the best meal I had in my entire stay in Cuba. It was nothing fancy, but I am fond of the cuisine of the former East Germany for similar reasons, in which a single kind of mustard can be put to hundreds of uses, which reassuringly all taste the same. The guide announced sheepishly that drinks were free—sorry for almost killing you, but one per person, mind—and I think I had another beer.
As this was a restaurant for Cubans, or perhaps party members, it had a little table set up in the corner displaying the restaurant’s proud achievements in meeting quotas and providing superior service to what the plan called for, as well as a bust of José Martí and a framed quotation of his that had some indirect pertinence to foodservice merit. Pinned to the wall above this was a hand-drawn figure, the restaurant’s mascot. It took me a while before I realized it was Taco John, the former cartoon emblem of the Wyoming-based Mexican fast food chain. I tried to share this insight with my Rhineland tablemates, but it became too complicated to explain.
I was about to write that I had another mental blackout that afternoon, and I have no recollection as to what I did, but it occurs to me that, in fact, I fell asleep. Which was probably just as well. Camagüey was no longer on the agenda, and so the guide spent some time on the phone trying to make other arrangements. In the end we headed northwest.
Departing from the usual route meant we passed a chemical weapons factory and a prison for political prisoners, both of which the guide cheerfully pointed out. After our second stop he announced he had arranged for us to spend the night in Morón instead. Now, normally I would be delighted to stay at the Hotel Moron. But with my head locked to my torso and large black bruises percolating on my back, I didn’t care. One of the books I’d brought accurately foretold the “buzzing Soviet air conditioner” that graced my room – I wish the hotel I’d stayed in in Sochi had had one – and its noise did a fair job of masking the tourist-targeted drum music that was emanating from downstairs. I slept soundly.
The rest of our visit took place under a pall, and things I had looked forward to for years, in particular the exquisitely beautiful city of Trinidad, the splendid panorama of the Valle de los Ingenios, and the slave-observation tower at the Manaca Iznaga estate, suddenly seemed less appealing than my return to Düsseldorf, an entirely new sentiment for me. I’m not sure if it was the genuine splendor of the Sancti Spiritus countryside, or the blow to my cerebral cortex, that gave the entire visit a sort of psychedelic cast. I did note that Trinidad was in a much better state of repair than Havana had been, and that it contained lots of groups of giggly schoolgirls in uniform who reminded me a lot of those in South Korea.
That night was to be spent in a new beach resort between Trinidad and Cienfuegos, reached by a causeway. It was nearly empty; I had kind of hoped there would be some British tourists there to see if there was any truth to the old accusations of the Krauts rising at dawn to lay their towels on the deck chairs to ward off the Limeys. But there were none.
In any event, it was an all-inclusive resort, the first I had ever visited. I received a green plastic armband, which gave me license to sup booze and eat as many snacks as I wanted, at least until 22:00. So I was in agony, and the sky was overcast. But I was going to drink my cocktails on the beach, and I was going to enjoy it. Tiny crabs skedaddled from the boardwalk as I made my way to the water’s edge, mojito in hand (pero solo un poquito de ron), and into the water I went. I believe the simile I used to describe this experience at the time was that of having a power sander applied to my back, as I stiffly swam, or tried, in the Caribbean. My wounds sufficiently salted, I returned to dry land, wedged myself into a deck chair, and asked someone to take my picture. A similarly wimpy piña colada or two later, I went to bed.
And that was my trip to Cuba. The following morning, the road from the resort was covered with crabs, to such a degree that it was impossible to avoid driving over them. The driver was worried that one of them might puncture the tire, and they made a dramatic noise indeed as they were crushed into oblivion.
At Varadero, we departed, only to have the bus fill almost immediately with a replacement group of tourists; the guide was off before anyone had a chance to say thank you. I was given one of the middle seats aboard our A330, giving me a chance to drool on two total strangers as I slept. Although I’d planned to visit friends in Düsseldorf, I got on the train to Berlin, and when I arrived I went straight to a doctor. Once she put me through all sorts of ultrasound tests, she confirmed the initial Cuban diagnosis that I had been “very lucky,” and ordered me to stay in bed for a month. After that, I wrote a letter to the tour organizer, a big German company known by three initials, asking whether they would be so kind as to offer me a discount on my next trip in light of events. I received a reply from their insurance company telling me to get lost.
There was one thing left to do. I received a letter from Yeny, who wrote that the driver had not been sent to prison (though I wondered how she could have known this), and as I had promised, I put together a package to send to her consisting mostly of baby clothes, bottles, and the like. In the end it weighed 1998 grams, about as close to the two-kilo limit as I could make it.
At the post office, the clerk was about to accept payment, when he noticed “Cuba? Wait a minute.” He went into the back room and retrieved a heavy book of postal regulations. “Cuba, Cuba. Ach ja. You need a permit to send this.” He explained that the Cuban government required people sending goods to Cuban citizens to first acquire a license to do so. It cost around $50. Then, I would have to pay a shipment fee based on the cost of the goods. Following that, the recipient would have to pay import duty, in hard currency, to receive it, depending on the value of the goods as established by Cuban customs. “Unofficially,” the clerk said, “we’ve had reports that items usually go missing.”