By Bill McClellan | [url=http://www.STLtoday.com]http://www.STLtoday.com[/url]
From a bench in the plaza across from the church, I could hear the children’s choir singing “Silent Night.” The high-pitched voices rang in the morning air. “Noche amor, Noche de paz.” I had been in the church earlier, my presence owing as much to curiosity as to devotion. Who would attend? Until recently, Christmas was not even a holiday in Cuba.
I had arrived in Havana five days before Christmas. My family and I were with a cultural exchange group. I had read a story a month or so earlier in U.S. News and World Report. The story said that our government was stopping these cultural exchange tours at the end of the year. I called the company mentioned in the story. “You have anything that would put us in Cuba for Christmas?” I asked. They did, and so here we were - my wife and kids, and my brother-in-law, Doug, and his wife, Graciela.
We spent the first part of our trip in Havana, which is beautiful but disintegrating. Buildings are falling down. The long-standing U.S. embargo is most noticeable on the streets - the American cars predate Fidel Castro’s victory in 1959. Watching the parade of bicycle taxis and Dodges and Chevrolets built five decades ago, I felt as if I had stepped into Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana.”
The government, of course, blames the embargo for the country’s problems, but I had the sense that the people aren’t quite so sure. Or maybe they’re just tired of being poor, and no longer care whose fault it is. They are smart and self-reliant - their mechanics must be the best in the world - and they are, I suspect, a very tough audience. Most seem to have televisions - little black and white reminders of the Soviet Union - and the programming is tightly monitored. We could not get Cuban television in our hotels, but I was told that the fare runs heavily to propaganda, and that a popular show is “Mesa Redonda,” a discussion show. Thinking of “Donnybrook,” I asked, Do the people argue? “What’s to argue? Everything is the fault of the U.S.” This was said with a mocking tone. But mocking whom? I could not be sure.
There was much of which I was unsure. Our guide, for instance. That he was smart and ambitious should go without saying. A tour guide has access to tips, which means he is better off financially than a surgeon. Our guide studied Russian in school and survived that particular train wreck. He was raised by his grandmother, not entirely unusual in a country where divorce is common. (That seems to be one of the results of the suppression of the church.)
At any rate, I thought about our guide as I sat in the plaza. We had left Havana on the morning of Christmas Eve and had driven to the colonial city of Trinidad, five hours away. I had stayed in the hotel that evening, but one member of our group had gone to a Christmas Eve service and had seen our guide. When asked about it the next morning, he had seemed embarrassed. “I went out of curiosity,” he said. “I actually found it rather boring.”
In a communist country, that is a politically correct thing to say, and political correctness means something in a dictatorship. Maybe our guide is a secret believer, I thought to myself. His grandmother would have come of age before the revolution. In all likelihood, she was a believer.
By the way, I had plenty of time to think about this. I myself had gone to church out of curiosity, and when the priest seemed to go on and on, I had thought, “This is a country where Castro can talk for five hours at a time, and who knows if this priest might try to match him?” and so I had slipped out into the plaza.
Later that day, I was approached by a Cuban. “Lobster dinners for eight dollars,” he said. I made arrangements to meet him on a road outside the hotel grounds. This was, actually, verging on the illegal. In fact, it was illegal. Cubans are allowed to operate private restaurants in their homes - these restaurants are called paladares - but the entrepreneurs can serve only rice, beans, chicken and fish. Only the state-owned restaurants can serve such delicacies as lobster, shrimp and beef.
Two Cubans were waiting for us in a 1952 Dodge at the appointed time. The driver opened the trunk, and his partner hopped in. The driver then shut the trunk. This seemed odd. The six of us piled in the car with the driver, and away we went, finally stopping on a dirt road outside a house that looked very unlike a restaurant. The driver liberated his companion from the trunk while the six of us gazed apprehensively at the little house. But its appearance was deceiving. Inside it was very much a restaurant. Our lobster dinners were terrific. By the way, the driver told us he makes $6 a month. It is not enough, he said. And so he works in the black market of illegal lobster dinners.
That night, our scheduled activity was a visit with a local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. The head of the committee was an older fellow. After a formal presentation, he and I chatted. He offered me some rum. I accepted. We have food, he said. I’m not hungry, I replied. We just had a very fine lobster dinner, I explained. At the hotel? Oh no, at one of your private restaurants, I said.
My sister-in-law, Graciela, gave me a sharp look.
I am, of course, capable of saying stupid things in English, and do so dismayingly often. I am even worse in Spanish. I’m so busy thinking of how to say things that I don’t think of what it is that I’m saying.
“What is the name of this paladar?” the jefe asked me. “Where is it?”
In Cuba, the word for snitch is chiva. When we were in Havana, we visited the Museum of the Revolution, and I saw the actual hand-written statement the rebels had read on the air after seizing the national radio station. Among other things, they asked the people for help in catching the chivas who had served the old government, the chivas who had tormented the people.
Now, almost 45 years later, the head of the local committee for the Defense of the Revolution wanted to know the name and location of the place where we had eaten lobster. I told him I didn’t remember. He looked at me, suspicious and disbelieving. Unhappy, too, and I thought that unhappiness is the fate of so many revolutionaries.
In the end, they become what they once despised.