I have a friend at a non-profit in Hartford that does what is called international capacity-building work. This means that they help create systems meant to strengthen democracy – anti-corruption campaigns, electoral transparency, things like that. Last summer, they were putting the finishing touches on a book that outlines all the changes needed in current Cuban law to permit free, fair, multi-party elections (there are a lot of changes). The final step in the project was to send a Spanish-speaking lawyer to Cuba to meet with dissidents there and get their feedback on the book. Lucky for me, I am a Spanish-speaking lawyer and I had some vacation time, so I took a week-long, all-expenses-paid trip to Havana – with the blessing of the State Department, no less. What follows are some observations from that trip, and a pair of letters that I wrote to my wife but never got to send.


25 May, 2009

Anna,

I am in the air, somewhere. I don’t know how much longer until we land in Toronto because my cell phone is turned off. I usually scoff at the notion that cell phones interfere with planes’ navigational equipment, but this plane seems insignificant enough to make that a concern: twin propellers, seats for 36, one bathroom. When the flight attendant did his string of announcements over the P.A., he tucked himself into a little curtained booth as though he were on a much larger plane. I wanted to say, “Hey! We’re right here – all 16 of us! Just come out and talk to us directly!”

I was about to write that the geography below us is indistinct – the usual patchwork of towns, lakes, farms, and roads – but I just looked up and we are now flying parallel to the shore of some vast body of water – a Great Lake, I’d imagine. I am a little embarrassed to admit that my knowledge of Canadian geography is terrible, at least by my usual standards. Montreal and Toronto are east-ish, Vancouver is west, Windsor is across from Detroit, and Regina and Edmonton are out there in the middle somewhere. Basically, I don’t even know which Great Lake I’m beside, nor where I am at all. Far enough to miss you already, that’s for sure.

27 May, 2009

My contact here, an American from Nashville, is young, wealthy (by some lucky turn of events in the realm of software design), and impossibly serious. He finds the state of things in Cuba impressive for its intolerability, and speaks with a constant sense of urgency that doesn’t comport with the way people are actually living their lives all around him, which is to say, normally. It’s like he had his mind made up about what oppression was going to look like before he got here, and he’s not about to let firsthand observation change his assessment. It’s not that the oppression isn’t real – it is. But I somehow supposed that someone like him, well traveled in Latin America and born of very modest means, would be less urgently bothered by questions of privation, whether of resources or fundamental liberty. Then again, he may just be highly sensitive to injustice. He told me this story while we were walking in Habana Vieja:

“The other night when I was walking this way, probably around midnight, I found a tiny kitten right here. It couldn’t have been more than 24 hours old. So I was like, what do I do? [Me, internally: Um, nothing?] So I picked it up and brought it with me, but they wouldn’t let me bring it in the hotel, so I must have spent an hour walking around, trying to find some milk. Funny thing, when I finally found somewhere to buy milk at that hour,  I ended up near where I had found the kitten. So I took off my shirt, wrapped the kitten in it, and sat it down on the sidewalk with a little cup of milk, and started knocking on doors to get someone to take it.”

His story did not reveal, and I, diplomatically, did not inquire, whether he managed to find a Cuban family willing to shelter a kitten at one in the morning.

He is also very handsome. Yesterday, we were at a cafeteria on Avenida Italia, and there seemed to be some sort of commotion among the female waitstaff – they kept coming together in a busy, buzzing knot, some on each side of the window through which orders were delivered from the kitchen. His back was to them, but I noticed them watching us, and they noticed me noticing them. As is always the case when two parties are watching one another, there comes a point when any further attempt at nonchalance is absurd, so I finally smiled. The girl behind the kitchen window made a come-here gesture. “¿Yo?” I asked with an exaggerated thumb to the chest, moving my lips without speaking. “El,” she silently replied, pointing at my companion. I sent him over, and what ensued was something I would see several times during my trip: him, earnest, perplexed, struggling with Spanish. He returned shortly, unable to explain what was happening and utterly unmoved by their obvious romantic interest. I went over, stepping into the role I seem to have been born to: affable, in-the-know friend of swooned-over man. “Es que tu amigo,” our waitress said to me seriously, “es muy bello,” and when she said this, she imbued the word “muy” with such feeling, such carnal longing, that I was left somewhere between scandalized and deeply jealous.

28 May, 2009

Walking in Habana Centro, a shirtless kid, maybe eight, comes our way, flipping a ball off the wall of the building next to him and catching it in a lefty’s glove that he is using on the wrong hand. Just as he passes me, he catches the ball, sweeps the glove across his body, and lays a light tag on my knee, then grabs the ball in his right hand and cocks his arm, as if to throw on to first to complete the double play.

28 May, 2009

Anna,

I am drunk. My contact here has gone back to the States, so I met with two dissidents on my own today. Since I am stubborn / stingy / a firm believer in getting to know places by walking them, I walked about five miles from the first meeting to the second, then about seven to get to a fancy hotel with pay-by-the-hour internet access. Then I went back to my modest hotel, ate chocolate and leftover fish, and lay on my bed for a while, listening to street sounds and thinking about nothing. Then I came down to the hotel bar.

For the first three drinks, I sat alone, recording recollections from my meetings in my journal. For the next two drinks, I sat with a guitar player who would be playing for tips if there were any foreigners here (other than me), the bartender, and an old santero bus driver, dressed smartly in all white, who treated me to a coffee and much good conversation. (The usual things, mostly: women, baseball, philosophy.)

The meetings I am having are giving me a new perspective on this place. Like most of the left-leaning young Latinos in the Latin-American Studies department with me in college, I was always sort of a booster of the revolution. After all, a study of Latin American history and politics is largely an unflattering examination of two centuries of U.S. foreign policy, so to see a little nation to stand up for itself was heartening, and the concrete societal improvements (literacy, public health, racial equality) seemed to bolster the case. And of course, the Cubans are a beguiling people – welcoming, well-educated, gregarious.

But for all the openness here, the easy camaraderie, there is tremendous, pervasive repression too, so well executed and for so long that its victims have become its most reliable propagators. It is a strange thing to see a people that is, at once, carefree and ruled by fear. The genius of the system here is that there is just enough freedom for most people to be content: People with a little hustle can, it seems, scrounge the money to outfit their Ladas and aged Chevys with gaudy knick-knacks, customized horns that make video game sounds, and stereos that boom reggaeton (if you closed your eyes in my hotel room and listened to the street, you could think you were in Brooklyn or San Juan). Young people can gather on the sidewalks after work, sip cheap rum, play dominoes, flirt, couple, break up, and generally carry on as young people do. Arguments can be carried on with equal openness whether the topic is baseball or international politics, provided a modicum of self-censoring restraint that seems to come frighteningly naturally to people who otherwise don’t hesitate to speak their minds.

But the people who test the limits of that freedom are punished: I spent the afternoon chatting with one of this country’s best-known dissident lawyers – a constitutional scholar. He received me in a modest second-floor apartment in Vedado, a shady neighborhood of mid-rise buildings in the mid-century Miami bourgeois style. From what I could tell, he shares this apartment with his brother’s extended family. He had the gruff, knowledgable manner of a law professor – accustomed to being listened to, and we sat in a pair of rocking chairs in the living room and talked about the law, the regime, the sorts of things a pair of lawyers might discuss on a lazy afternoon. But then we talked about him: disbarred without a hearing after he supported a referendum to change the constitution – a process that is allowed by current Cuban law. He has lost his faculty position and can’t take a case without the permission of the Minister of the Interior. He has been denied permission to leave the country and lives, as he put it, “off miracles.”

The sad thing is that there is a strange sort of liberty within the protective bubble of repression: where enterprise, avarice, and any other transgression are so thoroughly prohibited, humanity finds its only outlet in conviviality, generosity, and easy, earnest friendship. When economic and political control are gone, some of this uniquely Cuban kindness will surely perish.

I have made a friend, a guy our age named Frank who works at a printing press specializing in art prints. He is due to meet me here any minute, and we will go to a party to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Havana School of Design (several of the employees at the press are also adjunct faculty there). Tonight will be my night out, then tomorrow a meeting with another lawyer, and then home the next day. I think I will put down this letter and have another beer before Frank arrives. I miss you.


29 May, 2009

Sitting at a bar, watching a pair of prostitutes try to decide whether to make a pitch to me or not. They are standing in the middle of the street, pointing and gesturing toward me without even an attempt at subtlety, and anyway, I am the only foreigner in a sidewalk bar full of Cubans, so I’m the only potential business around. They argue back and forth with some animation but sadly just out of earshot. I make eye contact, partly because it is fun to watch them vacillate, and partly because they are a spectacle that is hard not to watch. Finally, somehow, they decide I’m not worth it and totter off into the night. Don’t know whether to feel rejected or relieved.

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A native of Brooklyn, Josh was transplanted first to Boston and later to Central Connecticut, both times by dear love and cruel circumstance. For money, he works as a public defender in the Hartford Juvenile Court. For fun, he rides and tinkers with bicycles, wrestles and tickles his two small sons, and takes photographs of things. In addition to various and sundry legal writings of narrow appeal, he was for some time an editor and contributor at Bostonist.com, a news and culture website, and was briefly catapulted to moderate local fame and significant media coverage as a result of his attempt to photograph all of the front yard religious shrines in the city of Somerville, Mass. He moved away before he could complete the project.

12 responses to “Alone Abroad: Notes From a Working Trip to Cuba”

  1. Judy Prince says:

    You write brilliantly because you *think* brilliantly, Joshua—-a universal axiom, but since I made it up, it bears repeating (by me, natch, over and over again). Lucid, enlightening, thinkful and witful, your tour of Cubans near-thoroughly accommodated to free-repression makes me want to invite you to dinner, a kind of “My Dinner With Andre” only with just you talking, me getting you another glass of anything. If I don’t get regular writings by you, that 45th percentile edge of my mind will wither on its stalk. Now “deal with it”, as they say.

  2. Great story Joshua! So did you feel rejected or relieved in the end with those prostitutes?!

    • Josh says:

      Jessica –

      Relieved, I think, although if they had offered services, the dialogue that followed likely would have been rich: People in Cuba who are selling something tend to take the measure of foreigners, guess where they’re from, and say something in some approximation of the foreigners’ supposed native language. Being 6’5″ and light-skinned, I got some English, some French, and German once. Being fluent in Spanish, I would always respond with one or another very slangy variation on “What did you say?” or “Speak Spanish – I can’t understand you!” After that comes, “Ah! De donde tu ere’? Puerto Rico? Colombia?” to which I respond, feigning a Cuban accent as best as possible, “No, asere, soy de Nueba Yol” (roughly, “nah, son, I’m from New York”). I don’t know what two tipsy prostitutes would have made of that, but I bet it would have been entertaining, both for me and for the Cubans sitting around me at the bar. [sigh] Another opportunity squandered.

  3. Amanda says:

    When I spent a couple weeks in Cuba about five years ago, I was struck by the absence of toilet paper, the absence of eye-contact, and the absence of and chance a non-Cuban will ever be mistaken for a local.

    Most of all, I was struck by the plaques bolted to the walls outside the rooms in the “former” legislature in Havana. The use of past-tense when discussing the trappings and architecture of democracy: “Former Assembly Room of the House of Representatives” and so on. A testament to the fact that once, people had the vote; in our lifetime, no one has had a say.

    (PS: I live on the shore of a Great Lake, and can’t tell them apart from the air, either. heh heh)

  4. Brin says:

    I like a lot of the stuff here but the trouble is you provide little or no context of what came before, which of course is the glue and traction of why this system has endured in the hearts of so many people for so long as much as for all the sad accurate reasons you provide. It’s a pretty glaring omission given Kennedy always viewed Castro’s rise to power as a product of America’s sins against Cuba. Going back to the Spanish-American War, the US government was advocating assassinations and embargoes aimed at starving all of Cuba on the basis of targeting those arrogant enough to want to run their own country. With starvation disease. Complicity would soon follow. There are very breezy letters from top officials detailing this stuff. And there’s no way around Castro’s policies having drastically improved the situation of people in his country from the bottom up: literacy, health, education, equality for women, racial equality. Massive changes and progress that impacted a great many.

    I’ve been spending the last year doing nothing but reading Cuba’s history and it just gets more and more complicated.

    • Brin – You have taught me just about everything I need to know about Cuba.

      Your “Havana Zoo” piece will be published tomorrow, in Beatdom.

    • Josh Michtom says:

      Brin –

      Of course you’re right. My piece is but a snapshot (maybe a few of them) and hardly does justice to the breadth and complexity of what goes on in Cuba and why. What was interesting for me about this trip was that it came after many years of study (I was a Latin-American Studies major) and even more years of conversation with Cubans in the States, all of which had made me want to forgive the regime some of its faults. And I still do forgive it some faults, because I know that the unchecked economic freedom we have in the States, coming as it does with such a great possibility of unremedied and failure and inequity, is not so great a freedom as we sometimes like to think. I see, too, that life is much better there for most people than it is for the majority in a lot of other countries in Latin America. But to see the subtle effects of more than a generation of a dictatorship – albeit one that began with good intentions and did a world of good for its people – was eye-opening for me. I am not sure I would exchange the often cruel, unforgiving economic freedom of the States for the sustaining strictures of Cuba – and I have been poor in this country, so I’m conscious to some degree of the trade-offs involved. (I definitely would go for some benevolent Western European social democracy, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    Just as I was thinking ‘Has Josh met Brin?’ I see Brin’s commented.

    I liked this a lot, Josh – I’ve found your pieces to have a great sense of time and place to them (again, similar to Brin’s… maybe you guys are related, you just don’t know it…)

    “His story did not reveal, and I, diplomatically, did not inquire, whether he managed to find a Cuban family willing to shelter a kitten at one in the morning.”

    Shit, I hope he did.

    • I also saw the title and wondered if Brin had changed his name… That’s like someone else writing about Korea!

      But seriously, it’s nice to read another perspective on a place I really want to see.

  6. Erika Rae says:

    There is so much that fascinates me about Cuba – not least of which is those two prostitutes.

  7. Mary says:

    This is such an enjoyable read … I love it. I love when writers don’t try too hard to sound literary but rather just let their guard down and say what there is to say. You did it beautifully. It does raise more questions for me, of course, but I think that’s what good nonfiction should do. I really want to eavesdrop on some of those self-censored conversations. I want to know what they sound like when they stop just short of speaking their minds, and how the conversation flows around these obstructions of opinion.

  8. Helen says:

    “The sad thing is that there is a strange sort of liberty within the protective bubble of repression: where enterprise, avarice, and any other transgression are so thoroughly prohibited, humanity finds its only outlet in conviviality, generosity, and easy, earnest friendship. When economic and political control are gone, some of this uniquely Cuban kindness will surely perish.”

    Oh, God, please no! They is such UNIQUELY Cuban kindness, like nowhere else I have ever been – which is some 25 countries, even the children, brought up so well, in such a genuine manner, I can’t bear the thought that it would disappear under selfishness and inconsiderateness with political and economic freedoms. Surely, it wouldn’t all breakdown in a minute, would it? Wouldn’t it take a couple of generations? Wouldn’t the disaffected leave for NY anyway, leaving the core genuine ones to sculpt a powerfully Cuban but accessible and mindblowingly unique country – coming out of a 50+ year metamorphosis as a gorgeous butterfly bearing no resemblance to any other?

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