AmaZe Magazine, Anniversary Issue 2006
Cuba is a modern parenthesis.
I am just back from a writer’s jaunt to Cuba. The first ever Cuban American Writer’s Conference sponsored jointly by the Cuban Writers and Artists Union, an elite literary organization sanctioned by the government, and the Writer’s of the Americas group out of New York.
I wandered wrapped in reverie watching the 1950 Dodges or razor finned 55’ Chevys -- pristine or jacked up -- spitting fumes, picking up passengers; I licked the salt spray from my lips as waves leaped upon the sea wall of the famed Malecon at the base of Havana. I ogled yellow stone, Spanish beauties -- some crumbling towards the sea. I marveled that the Untied Nations had begun the renovation process to preserve the official Habana Viejo, the downtown historic district, from total ruin.
But really, all of Cuba could be an historic monument. I looked at hotels built in the forties and fifties as playgrounds for alleged Mafia mobsters who ferried across the sea for weekends filled with fun, either seamy or solid. Enter the Hotel Capri, and the strains of Volare virtually ooze from every crevice in the lobby. Steadfast citizens sweep steps and sidewalks in the midst of piles of rubble. Using brooms that would be found on Friday trash night discarded on loading docks in trendy TriBeCa, these men and woman toiled way. Time has stopped and progressed in a strange way and I wondered, is Cuba the only Third World country that used to be a First World country?
Despite what we think about Castro or communism, the role of the United States in the embargo, or whether Elian should have been returned, it is indisputable that Cuba has been a force moving to keep up with the modern world. There were sugar refining factories, boulevards, nightclubs and an infrastructure.
Yes, there was a dictator and jails filled with folks who had stumbled; there was prostitution and worker unrest.
The conference classes were housed in the sumptuous headquarters of UNEAC. The writer’s union, UNEAC has headquarters that are a fine mansion surrounded by a high wrought iron fence and a gate, which is supposedly now open to all. This scrubbed ochre house was formerly the abode of a Spanish banker. His initials J. C. are scrolled in ironwork over the front door. It has marble halls and a floor-to-ceiling Tiffany glass window where calla lilies and purple grapes spray out into the sunlight.
The director’s office is on the second floor of the mansion and often we held our classes on a balcony outside his office. After finishing an afternoon session fueled by the Cuban soft drink, Tu Kola, I sought a bathroom. After my Donde Esta prompted the secretary to offer the director’s bathroom, I found the place where Cuba lives between two worlds. I had traveled and lived enough in the Third World and used NYC park bathrooms, so I knew to have paper handy. I was ushered into a bathroom where there was a real toilet, a marble bath filled with water, there was a metal drum holding gasoline and next to the tub were the remains of arroz and black beans waiting on a hot plate, by the tub was an orange bucket. After using the toilet and taking in the room, I flushed. Nothing happened. I eyed the bucket, filled it from the tub and physics did the rest. Now all I had to figure out was cooking in the bathroom. The gas I understood.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1962 the Special Period began. Since 1993, Cuba has rationed gas as well as food and electricity. On a joint Cuban American writers outing to the beach outside Havana one Sunday, we passed many people driving next to the highway in horse drawn carts. One man had two oxen, larger than car beasts, pulling him in a wooden carriage. He called them by name and they stopped on a dime and waited untethered until he returned. The companero went into a roadside stand and bought a made-in-Mexico Coca Cola. He took the signature, shapely bottle back to the cart and with a word to the oxen he continued on his journey. No marketing maven or advertising guru could conjure an image so perfect to describe this country bracketed by time.
Cuba has a power and a draw like a wonderful faded beauty. Her streets house buildings that recall a time when flourish, detail and color dotted the landscape. Beaches hug every angle of Cuba’s coast. On occasion I locked gazes with old woman, probably themselves great beauties in their heyday. These Women were in search of illusive tomatoes, or waiting in line for rationed round brown rolls. They found my gaze and seemed to inquire if their entire struggle was worth the full population in school, the high number of doctors educated and working in crumbling hospitals without medicines to prescribe because pharmaceuticals and building supplies are embargoed.
And although the official position of the United States government is that travel to Cuba is illegal, there are tours from the Caribbean, Canada and Mexico allow Americans to glimpse this secret place. For me it was a space between winter and summer, between taking care and looking.