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
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
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.