Today is Fidel Castro’s funeral. In my post a week ago, after his death, I described the evolution of my own views on the Cuban Revolution in an earlier phase of my life. I’ve never been to Cuba, though would love to visit the place. Un de ces jours, inshallah. Not too many Americans or Europeans saw Cuba before the 1990s, though plenty have since then, one being my cousin Sanjeen Payne-Kumar, who traveled there several times in the ’90s, not as a holiday-maker or revolutionary tourist on a package tour, but on business, as a young accounts manager with a large British company in the petroleum sector, which had a joint-venture operation in the country. Last weekend I asked Sanjeen—who, pour l’info, is British and lives in bucolic southwestern England, with his lovely wife and teenage children—if he could write about his impressions of Cuba, which he had told me about at the time. And so he did:
Mid 1990s. Landing in Havana I was rather pensive. The flight from Madrid had been an odd one with two fellow passengers, middle-aged Spanish men, having spent much of the journey poring over a book of photos of beautiful Cuban girls. It had transpired that they were selecting their company for a week’s vacation and, as the wine flowed, had become increasingly vocal on their options. I was not a virgin traveler, having been to over 50 countries—I was in my late 20s at the time—but their description of how a struggling economy was leading to rationing, desperation and increasing prostitution options was both despicable and, alas, realpolitik.
The following morning, having observed an angry Austrian businessman unsuccessfully try to get the hotel reception to remove the fact he had had temporary company in his room (an extra room charge was levied), I found myself at our company’s Cuban HQ. The first thing that struck me as I studied my itinerary was how every meal was to be spent at my hotel with pretty much all the staff and their families. My protest that I didn’t actually eat that much was met with a stoic smile and an explanation that with food rationing, many Cubans were struggling with hunger. The one place where there was plentiful food was at the international hotels, but unless accompanied by a US$-paying foreign guest, Cubans were banned from entering these hotels. Thus, over the following days, I would occasionally sit back at the dining table outside in the glorious sunshine, smoking a cigarette, while watching families eat as much as they could and secret away food from overflowing buffets for later. Seeing the smile on a 5-year-old face biting into an apple is an image I can’t forget.
My trip required a visit to Santiago de Cuba not far from Guantánamo. Visiting an oil company, I was struck mute by a huge photo in the GM’s office. The black and white image showed a young Fidel and Che in combat fatigues grinning unbelievingly as they stood in the entrance of the refinery following the revolution. My regret is that I didn’t buy this piece of history, but then again, such an offer would have been gauche. Even so…
In a bar one afternoon while in Santiago, I saw an incongruous sight; a beautiful young family – handsome husband, stunning wife and young toddler, accompanied by a middle-aged man from England. I knew he was English from his lack of sartorial elegance and his unmistakable Birmingham accent. A few days later, at the same bar, I saw the man, somewhat worse for wear, with just the wife this time. My curiosity was too much and I wandered over and began to chat to him. It turned out that he had an ordinary job and family back in Britain, but had some years before bought a house in this area. On a rotating basis, he would select couples to move in rent free and would take all of his vacations here, when the rent would be paid, in the form of conjugal rights with the wife. You couldn’t make this up.
The following weekend, I turned down the opportunity to visit Cuba’s tourist hub in Varadero, instead accepting a generous offer to queue for several hours for rice and to meet a colleague’s charming grandma. Grandma was stoic despite her undoubted suffering, saying things were hard, but they would improve. Her greatest fear was what would happen once Fidel died and those “cowards from Miami returned and life returned to pre-revolution days of Cuba as a plaything for the damned Yankees.”
The irony of Cuba was typified in my host’s meeting Fidel and Raúl at a business reception during my stay. I worked for a company called Castrol. Seeing his name badge with company name, Fidel said that when he died, Castrol would need to pay the state a large “tax”. Grinning at my host’s shocked expression, Fidel added “well, my name is everywhere in Cuba – just go paint an “L” at the end – very cheap and effective advertising for you!”
My final night in the country and I could not sleep. I wandered at midnight along the Malecón and eventually leaned on the wall watching the moon reflect on a serene sea. The previous night, I had been to dinner with a colleague and his wife and he had made the most unusual request. He had asked that when Fidel died, would my wife and I fly in to Havana? He would arrange for a quick pair of marriage ceremonies, my wife to him and me to his wife. Armed with marriage certificates, we would then quickly depart the country before the insanity ensued.
As I gazed at the sea, lost in my thoughts I was startled as a voice right by my side asked “what do you see?” I turned and saw a beautiful mulatta observing me. I took a deep breath and began to describe the myriad of my observations; the suffering, yet a pride in who Cubans knew they were. The ingenuity to make ends meet. The incomparable sense of humour – all exemplified by the serene sea and its unseen turbulence before us. Finally I asked what she saw. She smiled and after a minute pointed out to sea. “Miami is 90 miles that way. I see freedom.”
One interesting report from Cuba is by the freelance American journalist, Michael J. Totten, “The last communist city: A visit to the dystopian Havana that tourists never see,” in the spring 2014 issue of City Journal.
As long as I’m writing about Cuba, I should mention a Cuban film I saw last spring, whose title in Spanish is Conducta (in English: Behavior; in France: Chala, une enfance cubaine), by director Ernesto Daranas, and which was Cuba’s official submission to the Academy Awards in 2014. The story is about a 12-year-old boy named Chala, who lives in a Havana tenement with his drug addict, occasional prostitute mother. As she barely provides for him, he raises pigeons on the roof for sale, plus feeds fighting dogs owned by the man who may be his father, to get by. Chala is difficult at school and on the verge of being expelled and packed off to a re-education facility, but is saved by his heroic, elderly teacher, Carmela, as well by the girl, Yeni, whom he has a crush on. The film has a subtle critique of the system, with the dedicated Carmela, who has only the interest of the children at heart, going up against the hard-ass principal—incarnating the bureaucracy—who wants to push her into retirement. The theme is not totally original but it’s a good film nonetheless. I liked it. And French audiences downright loved it. Writer-blogger Eve Tushnet has a thumbs up review of the film in, of all places, The American Conservative. Trailer is here.