By MARY TANNEN | New York Times
We jumped at the opportunity to join a 10-day tour of Cuba last February. My husband, Mike, and I went legally as part of a study group flying by charter from New York. Shortly afterward, the American government announced that it would not approve any more such “people to people’’ educational visits, and soon it will be impossible for most American tour groups to go to Cuba.
Young Cubans at Casa del Caribe learn the old country dances.
Officially, our group was going to study art and architecture. But the subtext, we discovered, was always politics.
After arriving in Havana, we went southwest to Cienfuegos, at population 135,000 Cuba’s sixth largest city. Our group of 13 was seated in the band shell in the graceful late-19th-century main square, listening to the town historian, a chic woman whose blue eyes and blond hair marked her as a probable descendant of the French colonists who founded the city in 1818. Another well-dressed woman, whom we did not know, came and silently sat with us. The historian seemed to lose her train of thought; then she apologized, explaining, as her eyes filled with tears, that this was a friend whom she had not seen since they were girls and fled with her family to the United States. She rushed to embrace her. The lecture was cut short, as we were witness to a drama that illustrated a contemporary event: It is only recently that Cubans who fled to the United States after the revolution of 1959 have been allowed back for visits.
Exploring the square on our own, we met up with a local artist, Wyacon (Julian Espinoso Rebollido), a weathered character in a hand-painted straw hat and a black T-shirt with the message in stark white: “The boat sank. Get over it.” We followed him to the Maroya gallery to see his paintings, as well as the work of others. Later we trooped through his house, past laundry hanging on the roof, to look at more paintings and some droll shoebox-size wooden cows.
Our group collected art feverishly wherever we went; quality was high and prices low. Art was one of the few Cuban products U.S. Customs would allow us to bring back. We paid in dollars, as we paid for everything. Since 1993, when Cuba opened the economy to United States currency, those who earn dollars from tourists have been much better off than those who make only Cuban pesos. In this topsy-turvy situation, an osteopathic surgeon takes home less than a painter of wooden cows.
Paradoxically, much of the charm of Cuba for tourists is a result of the post-revolution economic decline, which prevented old structures from being torn down and replaced. On Avenida 54, the main pedestrian mall in Cienfuegos, we turned into a meagerly stocked plant store and mounted a grand, but derelict century-old staircase in one of the innumerable treasures crumbling from neglect. At the second floor were a pair of wooden spiral stairs ascending to turrets. We longed to climb them, but they were blocked off as unsafe.
Just under two miles from the center of town is Punta Gorda, a peninsula that seems to have fallen under a Scheherazade spell. Palacio de Valle, a Moorish-style private mansion, set the style in 1917. In emulation, neighboring prefab wooden houses from Sears in the 20’s and 30’s acquired gingerbread porches, Moorish screens, minarets and other fantasies. In the 50’s, Batista’s brother plopped the cement-block modern Hotel Jagua in the middle of this community. Without the revolution, the peninsula might now be rows of Hotel Jaguas.
In contrast to Cienfuegos, with its turn-of-the-century French flavor, Santiago de Cuba, on the eastern end of the island, has an older, earthier feel. In 1791, landowners fleeing the slave revolt in Haiti began developing coffee, cotton and sugar cane plantations, importing increasing numbers of slaves. As a result, the city, now the second largest in Cuba, has a high proportion of black and mulatto inhabitants among its 440,000 residents, and a rich African slave heritage.
In the harbor is a tiny island that used to be called Smith, but now is Granma, after the pleasure craft that Castro and his guerrillas used to invade Cuba in 1956. Instead of monuments to the revolution, however, there are only gorgeously weathered wooden cottages and fishing shacks from the early 20th century, whose vine-wrapped verandas cry out for festoons of fashion models from capitalist magazines.
In a country where neglect is the norm, at the Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia, the tomb of Jose MartÝ, the national hero who died in 1895 fighting for independence from Spain, stands out for its pristine condition. We witnessed a ceremony instituted by Castro. To a recording of the national anthem, three spit-and-polish soldiers descended the path in choreographed goose-step and relieved two guards at the door.
Politics pretty much determined where and what we ate. In the government-run restaurants, the food was uniform, bland and bureaucratic. The only time we had a meal better than mediocre was at one of the privately owned paladares. As paladares are restricted to no more than 12 seats, it was difficult to find one that would risk taking our whole group. Because both types of restaurants accept only dollars, they are beyond the means of most Cubans.
Everywhere we went - in the restaurants and in the streets - were musicians and dancers eager to teach tourists the Latin steps. Music is the Cuban heritage, but it is also a way of getting dollars into the economy. Bands stuck to classics from the 50’s, as if in tryouts for the Buena Vista Social Club. We itched to find the real thing, the Afro-Cuban forerunner of salsa (called son), which began in Santiago. Our local guide took us to the Casa de las Tradiciones in Tivoli, the old French section. The crowd in this narrow, dark and steamy house with a courtyard in back was mainly Cuban of all races and all ages. The band was hot. Before we knew it, we were dancing with locals who coached us on the steps. We, in turn, stood them to drinks at a dollar apiece. At last, we thought, we had discovered the real Cuba, off the usual tourist route. We were brought down the next day when our guide told us it was a government-run club. Only Cubans who were members were admitted.
Even romance was colored by politics. A single man in our group met a lovely young woman at the club, who joined us the next night for dinner. The morning of our departure she also joined us for breakfast. We said our goodbyes, boarded the bus and were horrified to see police coming to arrest the woman. Our guides jumped off the bus, and were able to persuade the authorities to release her. Thus we learned that in an effort to control prostitution, which has become rampant since tourist dollars started coming into the country, the government forbids Cubans who are not guides to stay in tourist hotels.
I had gone to Cuba expecting to see one of the few places in the world that has not been engulfed by American culture. While it is true that there are no McDonald’s and no Starbucks, our entire experience, from the food we ate to the friends we made, was shaped by Cuba’s relationship with its close, powerful and wealthy neighbor. Never was I more aware of my own country than when I was in Cuba.
MARY TANNEN is a novelist who lives in New York.