by Johnny Hazard
Since the 1970s, I've had an ambivalent attitude about Cuba. Admiration for anyone who could build an alternative society just outside the reach of the United States, tempered with a criticism of what I perceived to be an unnecessary authoritarianism and cult of personality. I always wanted to go and see for myself, and I finally went in August on a one-week excursion.
Start with the little things that are missing, things we take for granted in the United States: car alarms, cell phone jingles, public displays of religiosity and other aspects of civilization and its discontents. Instead, you have things you never expected to see, like beautiful women hitchhiking.
stayed at the Hotel Lido in central Havana, in a relatively poor area where
people hung out in every doorway and you could smell sewage. Hot town, summer
in the city. Like a blaxploitation flick, but without the drugs and guns. I
loved it, but then I love loitering.
I started out with a female friend from Mexico, a shield against the invitations
of prostitutes. We walked the marble sidewalk of the Paseo del Prado to Central
Park, past hundreds of young women with revealing clothing and hundreds of men
not looking at them. Clearly we weren’t in Mexico, where foreign women
are advised to dress conservatively so as not to “provoke” or “offend
local customs.” Here the young foreign women look like nuns by comparison.
Recently, George W. Bush condemned Cuba as a sexual tourism paradise, while
uncritical Castro defenders swore in response that they see no prostitution.
I can attest that the latter are visually impaired or truth-impaired. At the
same time, I saw no pornography, few underage prostitutes and no children working
in any other endeavor, in stark contrast to the rest of Latin America. I didn’t
see the grotesque, can’t-get-it-without-paying-for-it men that prostitution
zones usually attract. In fact, most of the tourists are Eurohippies, male and
female. Not likely clients.
This is a country where women can ask for rides, where kids can play on the
streets with no fear. It is a country where the paranoid overprotection
of children found in other countries is absent and unnecessary.
When Bush made his prostitution speech, he announced still-more hostile actions
against Cuba—which harm only the Cuban people. I remembered the last time
Bush had professed feminist beliefs, moments before the war against Afghanistan—which
he claimed was launched to free that country’s women from the yoke of
Taliban oppression. So the billboards on the highways that say “No invader
can conquer Cuba” are not paranoid.
Find me someone who’s not a parasite, and I’ll go out and say
a prayer for him.
On the waterfront, lots of people—mostly kids—swam among the rocks
just off the seawall. The water looked clean—it was blue, as
it is in the Caribbean—and the kids looked like they were having fun.
I was hot, and I wanted to jump in, but I was skeptical, knowing the sewage-dumping
habits of other countries.
A man approached us to talk. He thought I was Italian as, fortunately, most
did. He spoke of his friends in Mexico, his work, and was about to give us some
tips when a cop summoned him. Men and women approached us occasionally, always
with the same questions: “Where are you from?” “Where are
you staying?” “Who are you traveling with?” “Can you
bring women to your room?” “How many Cuban women have you been with?”
“How long are you staying here?” and “When are you coming
back?”—but never, contrary to popular belief, “will you take
me out of the country with you?”
occasional police interception of contact between foreigners and Cubans has
created some side industries: Cuban men always offer to talk, but in a bar,
where the police don’t harass. Women offer to talk, and more, but in a
“private home,” rooms that rent by the hour, night, or week, where
Cubans can get past the reception area, unlike in most hotels.
Crime is low in Cuba because this segment of the population is not living by
Oscar Wilde’s second commandment, expressed in his essay “The Soul
of Man Under Socialism,” “It is easier to beg than to take, but
it is finer to take than to beg.”
Why so much police action? Right-wingers will say it is to prevent the Cuban
populace from being contaminated with democratic ideas; the government will
say it is to protect tourists from harassment—and sometimes it is harassment, though
never really threatening, and some tourists appreciate the intervention. In
spite of the apparent heavy vigilance of social life, it’s legal to drink
anywhere, anytime, and there is a 24-hour party atmosphere in central Havana.
The police actions have increased since 1991 and the fall of Cuba’s principal
trading partner, the Soviet Union. The years since, called “the special
period,” are blamed for everything, just as in the United States everything
is the fault of drugs, terrorism and liberalism.
Cubans are far better educated than most Latin Americans, although that seems
to have diminished during the special period. I didn’t see the spelling
errors on public signs and announcements that I always see in Mexico, nor did
the store clerks have difficulty calculating change. But I rarely saw anyone
reading or even carrying reading material. Before the special period, someone
told me, there were good, cheap books. Also, Cuban television isn’t as
idiotizing as that of other countries.
Consulado, the street where we stayed, we found people with whom we could talk
openly and intelligently. One man, the only openly gay person I met, wanted
to talk about the golden age of Mexican cinema and finally about politics. He
asked how the people of Miami could have elected the right-wing Cuban extremist
Ileana Ros Lehtinen to the U.S. Congress. According to him, she is the daughter
of a known Batista-era assassin.
When I mentioned that I hadn’t seen a newspaper since I arrived, he and
a co-worker dug up two old copies of Granma, one of two official newspapers.
Each runs about 12 pages a day and half of the content is historical essays,
sports, etc. There was a funny piece about Michael Moore, who is apparently
under attack by the Miami Cuban mafia. Every day there were pieces about the
referendum in Venezuela and the “five heroes,” Cuban men imprisoned
in the United States for spying on exiles.
The Cuban government says, plausibly, that the spying was to prevent more of
the terrorist attacks on Cuba that have been continuous since at least 1960.
About Venezuela, what can I say? The United States attacks Cuba for not holding
elections and attacks Venezuela for ... what? Having too many elections? Not
A moment later, we met another articulate person, this time a pharmacy supervisor.
This pharmacy—state-run, of course and for neighborhood people—had
a large stock of natural and herbal medicines. She spoke well of the revolution,
said everyone has educational opportunity and free health care, that there are
no homeless people, no children working and no rape.
and others said that education is obligatory and universal through at least
junior high school, but I met people who either said or demonstrated that they’d
left after elementary school. (People leave school early all over Latin America.
But do we expect more from Cuba? Should we?) The pharmacist spoke freely about
sex and sex education; there is lots of HIV/AIDS prevention material, but none
of it mentions homosexuality.
On two occasions, in two families’ homes, we witnessed frank talks by
mothers or grandmothers about sex and protection, something that we felt would
never happen in Mexico or the United States at least not premised on the
obvious: that your children will have sex. Yuridia, the pharmacist, admitted
that machismo still exists in Cuba, but as an example she cited the imbalance
of responsibility in housework, a problem obviously not limited to Cuba.
The pharmacist’s apartment was modest by U.S. standards—four people
in two bedrooms, and you have to walk through someone else’s bedroom to
get to the other parts of the house. But it is on the waterfront, with a direct
view of the ocean. Of four apartments that I entered in the center of the city,
hers was the only one with running water. Her state worker’s salary
of less than six dollars a month is slightly higher than average in this society
of little income disparity. Like many Latin Americans, she depends on money
sent from relatives—in this case, her father—in the United States.
The Bush administration’s new laws eliminate this, devastating the economy
of Cuba as it would that of Mexico or any Central American country.
have a notebook that gives them the right to receive, free or for pesos, certain
rations of basic foods. What they acquire beyond that is in pesos or dollars.
Certain foods and drinks are only available in dollars. These dollars come from
tourism work or from black market activity, mostly prostitution, begging, and
taxi gouging. There is far less drug sale and use than in any other country
you’ll ever see.
A dual economy has been first condoned and now made official. A friend from
Minnesota recommended that I buy and use some Cuban pesos, something the tourist
industry recommends against. For me this was a bonanza, as the dual economy
consists of businesses that sell expensive in dollars and those that sell cheap
in pesos. You can eat all day for 26 pesos (one dollar) if you’re willing
to limit your diet to pizza, juice, coffee, and little sandwiches with chorizo
or ham and, if you’re lucky, a little bit of cabbage.
Let’s talk about sex a little bit more, and then get back to the revolution.
On Monday night walking along the Paseo del Prado, a woman cut in front
of me and asked me the litany of questions I mentioned above. After a moment,
she said: Are you from Minnesota?
“How do you know?” I asked.
“I met you yesterday,” she said.
I remembered—I was in a hurry and cut her off, and later thought I’d
been rude. This time she asked if I had time to talk on the park bench for a
while. I said yes. She was one of the few people in the summer heat who wore
a bra and blouse with sleeves. We talked until she said the police were looking
and invited me to a bar. There, she spoke of her experience as a sex worker.
She said she lives with her parents, who know her profession, and that she is
also a dental assistant and law student. Most of the women here are between
18 and 26, she said, and added that she was one of the 10 percent or so who
don’t have a pimp. She said most prostitutes are students or have sick
relatives to care for, and that she was buying medicine for her mother.
This woman was one of the few Cubans whose Spanish I could understand easily
and one of the few—outside of those I met at a literary event—who
displayed a wide vocabulary. I believe what she said was true, though I believe
many other street workers lied to me.
told her that I had seen some apparently underage sex workers. She said yes,
there are some, and when the government finds out who induced them, the punishment
is harsh, sometimes death.
“Are you saying that the women who enter the profession after having turned
18 entered voluntarily?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I’ve never been detained by the police,
but it happens, and sometimes the girls they grab disappear for a year.”
This enforcement, obviously random and selective, seems analogous to U.S. enforcement
of immigration laws against Mexicans; sporadic but harsh, trying to appear to
be doing something to dam the tide without permitting the economic and social
consequences of really stopping the phenomenon.
I asked about the attitude of the people in the center of the city who work
the informal economy toward the government and the U.S. threats. “It’s
an attitude of neutrality,” she said. “They can function with Castro,
they could function with a different government.”
“And if the U.S. invaded?” I asked.
“A lot would remain neutral, a lot would defend Cuban sovereignty, and
a certain segment would collaborate with the invaders,” she said.
We went looking for culture, to the Palacio de Bellas Artes for an event called
“Literature: A look at the 60s.” It was a talk by the poet Roberto
Fernandez Retamar, who is about 74 years old and seemed to be important, though
I had never heard of him. He read a poem called “Epitafio de
un invasor” (Epitaph of an invader), which he wrote in the style
of “Spoon River Anthology” author Edgar Lee Masters. He was proud
of having written “an anti-Yankee poem in which I also pay tribute to
a great Yankee poet, and thus show an appreciation of one of the most positive
aspects of that country’s culture, its poetry,” he said.
My friend commented that the public at this event seemed to believe
the notion that Cuba’s is a classless society, as the crowd was almost
all white and did not appear poor, in contrast to what we saw in the surrounding
In the question-and-answer period, I spotted a guy with long hair and a
“Nobody knows I’m a Lesbian” T-shirt. I asked him
later where he got the shirt, and he said London. He didn’t want to hang
around and chat, so I don’t know how he got to England, but I imagined that
he was an artist. Same story in every city, my friend said: go to a literary
event and it’s the same hundred people every time. If a cultural event
involves music, and is free, the crowd is exponentially larger, of course.
visited one elementary school whose door was open. The principal, a teacher
and a cleaning person were on hand. The principal told me that class size is
around 20, and that everyone walks to school. (In Mexico, average class size
is 40.) There were three other primary schools within a few blocks. I hope to
go back to this school, maybe around Christmas, when I’m on vacation
and the classes are open.
At the Museum of the Revolution I learned of some of the roots of the Cuban
attitude towards the United States, a mixture of hatred of the government and
affection for the people. Cubans, including supporters of the revolution, are
much less critical of average U.S. citizens than most Mexicans, French or British
I have met.
It turns out that in 1958, when the revolutionary forces were in the hills in the
eastern part of the country, the Batista government began to bomb villages to
root out the rebels. (Yes, Batista was “bombing his own people,”
as Bush once said in a different context.) Castro discovered that the bomber
planes had stopped at Guantanamo—then, as now, a U.S. naval base—to
refuel. He ordered that the 30-40 U.S. citizens in the region be rounded up
and placed in these villages. He announced that any further bombings would endanger
The U.S. expressed outrage, denied complicity in the bombings, but finally relented.
Many of the “hostages” later expressed support for the action of
the rebels and contempt for U.S. policy. The rebels had arrived from their exile
in Mexico on a boat, the Granma, paid for by a U.S. dilettante.
I went to Cuba because I felt an urgency to see Cuba before Castro dies; I thought
he personally held everything together and Miami, Inc. would move in upon his
demise. I now think that was naive, and Castro’s death will bring no great
change, unless the U.S. government takes advantage of the moment and imposes
its own regime.
But don’t take my word for anything. Go see for yourself. Besides, illegal
vacations are more fun. ||
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